Commentary on Galatians, 4:20-31

Galatians 4:20-31

“20 How I wish to be present with you now, and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.”

Paul was bewildered by the Galatian’s drift from the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. They had such a wonderful beginning. Christ changed their lives, they had experienced the joy of salvation, God had worked miracles among them. This was all a result of receiving the truth, as preached by Paul. However, during Paul’s absence, the Judaizers had come in with their false gospel, and the Galatian Christians were were drawn away to this “distorted” or “perverted” message. It was a Jewish-Christian, faith plus law type of gospel they were now believing. Thus Paul’s tone was very serious, with a sense of real concern for where they were at spiritually. As he said in verse 11, he feared that his “labor had been in vain.” Paul so wanted to be there to talk to them face to face to lead them back to the truth, and perhaps even to confront those who were leading them astray.

“21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?

In other words, “are you really hearing what the law says?” “Are you really getting the message?” “Do you truly understand what it says?” I think Paul is saying, “you want to be under the law, yet you don’t even have a proper understanding of it, you don’t know what it really teaches.”

“22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman, and one by the free woman.
23 The son by the slave woman is born according to the flesh, but the son by the free woman is born through promise.”

So now Paul proceeds to tell them what the law really teaches, and how it relates to their salvation.

Abraham’s first two sons were Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was birthed by Hagar, who was an Egyptian slave, and Isaac was birthed by Sarah, Abraham’s wife. God promised them a son (Isaac), with whom He would make an “everlasting covenant” (Ge 15:1-6; Ge 17:15-19). However, during the long wait for the fulfillment of that promise, being weakened in their faith, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to have a son through her (Ge 16:1-4). Thus Ishmael was born as a result of sin, outside the will of God. Furthermore, he was born into slavery. On the other hand, Isaac was born according to the promise of God, and into freedom.

“24 Which things are symbolic: For these women are two covenants: one from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery, which is Hagar.
25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and is like the present Jerusalem, for she is in bondage with her children.
26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother.”

“Hagar is Mount Sinai”

“Hagar stands for Mount Sinai”


In order to help the Galatians understand the true nature of salvation, he’s going to explain what both Hagar and Sarah represent.

The law of Moses was given on Mount Sinai (Ex 19 & 20), thus Hagar represents the Old Covenant of law, and therefore, slavery. Sarah represents the New Covenant of grace through Jesus Christ, as this was promised through Isaac. Hagar and Ishmael are a picture of slavery, while Sarah and Isaac are a picture of freedom. The law enslaves, but Christ frees.

Paul likens Hagar to the “present Jerusalem.” Meaning, that Hagar (and her son) represents the city of Jerusalem, which is the seat of Judaism for all of Israel. That truth is a blow to the Jews, for they prided themselves on being “sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” However, the true sons of Abraham are not according to human lineage, but according to faith in Christ, the “faith of Abraham” (Ro 4:13-17; Gal 3:7-9). Even though the people of Israel are actually through the line of Isaac, Paul puts them in the line of Ishmael to make the point that Israel, under the law, are slaves to the law (“in bondage”), just as much as Ishmael himself was a slave. In other words, the people of Israel are not regarded by God as true Israel, but true Israel are those who come through the line of Isaac by faith. 

Sarah (and her son), on the other hand, represents the “Jerusalem that is above” (New Jerusalem), a direct reference to the Church (Rev 3:12, Rev 19:7; Rev 21:2), which consists of those who are in Christ through faith in Him, both Jew and Gentile. It’s Christ who sets us free from the “bondage” of sin and of the law.

I would like to add, that I think Paul’s comparison of the “present Jerusalem” with the “Jerusalem that is above” (New Jerusalem, Heavenly Jerusalem), indicates that God no longer has a separate plan for the nation of Israel, especially when you consider what Paul says about it in verse 30, which we will address when we get to it.

“27 For it is written, “Rejoice, you barren who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in labor. For more are the children of the desolate than of her who has a husband.
28 Now, brethren, as Isaac was, so are we children of promise.”

This is a quote from Is 54:1. I will give you the quote within the context:

1 Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith Jehovah.2 Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not: lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes. 3 For thou shalt spread aboard on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall possess the nations, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited. 4 Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth; and the reproach of thy widowhood shalt thou remember no more. 5 For thy Maker is thy husband; Jehovah of hosts is his name: and the Holy One of Israel is thy Redeemer; the God of the whole earth shall he be called. 6 For Jehovah hath called thee as a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, even a wife of youth, when she is cast off, saith thy God. 7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. 8 In overflowing wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting lovingkindness will I have mercy on thee, saith Jehovah thy Redeemer.” ASV (Is 54:1-8) 
Chapter 53, of course, is the chapter about Christ and His crucifixion, which leads right into this passage. Thus the salvation of the world is the context in which Is 54:1-8 is given. I encourage you to read all of chapter 53 and 54 of Isaiah to get the full import of what Paul is saying here in Gal 4:27.
While Israel was in Assyrian and Babylonian captivity, Israel was barren and desolate. They were not flourishing like other countries, which can be likened to a “married wife,” who was being cared for by her husband. Because Israel had forsaken God, and had declined into such great wickedness, God “forsook” them and “hid His face” from them, and brought their enemies upon them. 
However, it would not always be that way. Looking to the future, verse one says:
1 Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith Jehovah.”
This is the verse that Paul quotes here in Galatians. While Israel was at one time “barren” and “desolate,” she would one day flourish with many children of faith, and would have more children than any other. The children these passages are referring to, and what Paul is talking about, are those who become true sons of Abraham through faith in Christ, both Jew and Gentile. People from all over the world would become a part of true Israel through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. These are all “children of promise.” These are all a part of the “Jerusalem that is above,” those who are “free.”
No longer is the Jerusalem of this world the focal point of God’s plans. They’re still “barren” and “desolate.”  Jesus confirms this:
“37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets, and stones them that are sent to her! how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not!38 Behold, your house is left to you desolate.”  (Matt 23:37,38)

Jesus was obviously referring to their coming destruction in A.D. 70, but He was also referring to their spiritual desolation. It was their spiritual desolation that led to the other. 

The Jerusalem of this world remains desolate. When the Bible refers to Jerusalem in such a manner, it refers to all of Israel. Jerusalem is representative of Israel. Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, and the seat of their religion. To talk about Jerusalem is to talk about Israel. 
Likewise, when the Bible refers to the New Jerusalem, it’s referring to all of God’s people. It’s this Jerusalem that’s now the focal point of God’s plans.

“29 But as then, he who was born after the flesh persecuted him who was born after the Spirit, so also it is now.”

As Ishmael mocked Isaac (Ge 21:8,9), so now do the Jews persecute (“mock”) Christians, who are “born after the Spirit (“children of promise”), speaking of those who are born-again (John 1:12,13; John 3:3-7). It’s slaves persecuting those who are free. Paul’s point is, there is no sense to the Galatians following a belief system that opposes their faith in Christ. If there was no difference, then there would be no persecution. The Jews rejected Christ as their Messiah, thus they persecute those who belong to Him.

“30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out both the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with the son of the free woman.”

This is a continuation from the quote in verse 29 (Ge 21:10). 

The “son of the slave woman” is Ishmael, plus those who are in his line, which is ethnic Israel, of which the people are in slavery to the law. 

The “son of the free woman” is Isaac, plus those who are in his line, which are believing Jews and Gentiles (the Church), who have been set free in Christ.

Jews are transferred from ethnic Israel to true Israel upon their faith in Christ. Jews are not true sons of Abraham and Isaac until they are born into their line by faith. It’s not the physical birth through human lineage that matters, it’s the spiritual birth that makes one a son of Abraham.  

Coupled with what Paul says in verses 25 and 26, I regard this as one of the most important statements in the Bible about the relationship between Israel and the Church. I believe this most certainly symbolizes the “casting out” (by God) of ethnic Israel, and the election of the spiritual children (the Church) of the “free woman,” (which reveals that God’s election of His people is corporate). Paul confirms this by plainly stating that the children of the slave woman (ethnic Israel) “will not share the inheritance with the son of the free woman,” referring to Isaac and to all those who are born spiritually into his line by faith in Christ, making them the true sons of Abraham.  

I don’t know how Paul could have said it any clearer than that. Israel will not share the eternal inheritance with the children of the “free woman.” Those who insist that the nation of Israel still has a place in the plan of God, must also believe that God chooses individuals unconditionally, as Calvinism teaches. Reason being, those who believe that Israel still has a future in God’s plan, also believe that they will all come to faith in Christ (as a fulfillment of end time prophecy), which supports Calvinism. The only way that all the people of Israel can come to faith in Christ, is if God has selectively chosen them for it. 

The idea that the Church has replaced Israel, isn’t taught in the Word of God. On the contrary, this whole passage of Scripture that we’ve been dealing with here (verses 22-31), clearly reveals that the Church is actually the continuation of Israel, not a replacement for it. All the promises relating to Israel are fulfilled in Christ, who is the Head of the Church.

That’s what Paul wants the Galatians to understand. He wants them to see that what they are now believing in, makes them a part of a people and a religious system that has been “cast out” by God, and has nothing to do with their salvation.

I want to make it clear that this “casting out” is not simply the casting out of Judaism (the law), but also of ethnic Israel, as a comparison of this verse and verse 25 reveals. Paul says that Hagar is “like the present Jerusalem,” and that Hagar is to be cast out. Hagar represents Israel, of which Jerusalem is the capital, and seat of Judaism. That city has been cast out forever, that is, they no longer have a special place in the plan of God. The only city that is in view now is the New Jerusalem. 

The idea that God is going to save all the people of Israel, and set up a 1000 year kingdom, and build a new temple, and go back to animal sacrifices, with the current city of Jerusalem as it’s capital, is completely out of harmony with what Paul is teaching in this section, and also in many other places. 

Furthermore, if God still has a plan for the nation of Israel, then that would give us two Israels, which wouldn’t make any sense. As I already mentioned, the Church is the continuation of Israel. It’s gone through a transformation. Its been transformed from a physical Israel to a spiritual Israel. It’s in its glorified state, in the form of the Church, that has Abraham as our father, and Christ as the Head. As Jesus said, the house (of Israel) has been left desolate (Matt 23:37,28). The Greek word for “desolate,” has the idea of being “deserted.” Thus, physical Israel has been deserted to become spiritual Israel. The nation of Israel simply isn’t in view any more. 

Casting out Jerusalem is exactly what God did in A.D. 70. Paul may have had this coming destruction in mind even as he was writing these words. As we already discussed, Jesus spoke of it in the gospels (Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). In addition to what we’ve already discussed, that this casting out is forever, is confirmed by what the writer of Hebrews says: 

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” ESV (He 12:22-24)

That was written before the destruction of Jerusalem. Yet, this earthly Jerusalem is completely overlooked. Its glory and significance is in the past. It’s now the “heavenly Jerusalem” that radiates the glory of God.

In the same passage the writer of Hebrews adds this:

“Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” ESV (He 12:28)

The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians, and undoubtedly written by a Jewish Christian. If anyone would have understood what the Kingdom of Christ is about, it would have been them at that time in history. Yet, you will not find a single indication that they were looking forward to an earthly kingdom. On the contrary, what the writer focused on was our eternal kingdom. If the nation of Israel had an earthly kingdom to look forward to, it seems reasonable there would be a reference to it in this book. Instead what we find are references to the “heavenly Jerusalem.” In fact, in the last chapter of Hebrews, the writer says:

“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” ESV (He 13:14)

For the Jew, their great hope is a coming earthly kingdom that will have their Messiah as King. Yet, here the writer of Hebrews says that what they seek, is “the city to come,” because “here we have no lasting city.” It’s reasonable to conclude that the Jewish Christian writer of this book, and the Jewish Christians he was writing to, understood the kingdom of Christ to be an eternal kingdom (in the new heaven and new earth – Rev 21:1,2), and not a kingdom of this world.

“Therefore, brethren, we are not children of a slave woman, but of a free woman.”

Paul concludes this discussion by telling the Galatians that we (in Christ) are not children of slavery that comes through the law, but that we are children of freedom that comes through promise, which had Christ in view. Paul wants them to realize that we’ve been set free from the law through faith in Christ, and thus, there is no sense in returning to what He has set us free from.