Online Bible Commentary
Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar-- 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children-- 26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. 27 For it is written: "Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband." (NKJV)
The Apostle Paul is writing to believers in southern Galatia likely from his home city of Antioch, Syria in 49 A.D, prior to attending the Jerusalem Council meeting which occurred that same year. Paul has just completed his first missionary journey in which he and Barnabas planted churches in southern Galatia at Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. This letter is the first of Paul’s letters.
The new believers in Galatia, influenced by Judaizers, have already turned from Paul’s Gospel to a false gospel of a mix of works and grace instead of grace alone. Judaizers claimed that Christians must also follow the Old Testament law, including circumcision. So Paul is writing to the Galatian believers to direct them back to the true Gospel of salvation by grace and not a combination of grace and works.
In this passage, Paul gives differences between grace and works. He refers to works as “the law” (v. 21a). He writes to those “who desire to be under the law”, those who believe in salvation by works (v. 21b). He asks if they really understand “the law” (v. 21c).
In order to help them understand the law Paul gives an illustration of grace versus the law. He refers to Abraham and his two sons Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was born of “a bondwoman”, the slave girl Hagar, while Isaac was born of “a freewoman”, Abraham’s wife Sarah (v. 22).
Ishmael was born of “flesh”, meaning the sin of Abraham and Sarah when they did not wait for God and took matters into their own hands by having a son born of Hagar, their slave (v. 23a). Later, Isaac was born “through promise”, the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah (v. 23b).
Paul then uses this example as a symbol of “two covenants” (v. 24a). The first covenant was the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai which gave “birth to bondage”, represented by the slave girl Hagar (v. 24b). Those who choose to be under the law are in bondage to the over 600 commandments in the law, the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah. This “corresponds to Jerusalem”, which “is in bondage with her children” meaning the Jewish people who choose to live in bondage to the law (v. 25).
The Jews of the earthly Jerusalem put themselves in bondage while “the Jerusalem above (the New Jerusalem of Heaven) is free” because they have put themselves under grace instead of the law (v. 26a). The Jerusalem above “is the mother of us all”, all believers both Jew and Gentile (v. 26b).
So while the first covenant was the law, represented by Hagar, the second covenant was grace, represented by Sarah. Paul illustrates this by quoting Isaiah 54:1. Sarah had been “barren”, she could “not bear” children (v. 27a). Through God’s grace she did have a child, Isaac, and she should “break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband” (v. 27b). The children of the barren Sarah who abide under grace are much more than the children of Hagar who abide under the law, even though Hagar took Abraham as her “husband” through his seed (v. 27c).
The two covenants could not be more different. The law places us in bondage while grace gives us freedom. The Gospel teaches that salvation is by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Those who choose to believe that salvation comes by doing good works place themselves in bondage to the law. Why place ourselves in bondage when God has given us freedom?