Even though commentators and bible scholars disagree as to the exact circumstance surrounding the need for Paul's epistle to the Galatians, all agree that it was written in response to an ominous crisis; hence it being regarded as arguably his strongest defence of himself, his calling and the gospel which he preached. It is regarded as one of his capital epistles, his authorship of which there is hardly dispute. The occasion and reason for writing this epistle when he did, was to counter or refute attacks on his apostleship- both as a teacher and preacher of a gospel which appeared hugely unpopular at the time and setting of his writing- and the actual gospel which he taught.
During the time of this writing, the only scripture available was the Old Testament, from which the teachings of the Law were derived. As Paul founded churches among the Gentiles and taught his gospel of justification by faith rather than works or the law- the core theme of his gospel as captured in his epistle to the Galatians, certain people followed in his trail, who did all they could to counter Paul's teachings and convince the Gentile converts to reject them. This group of people were known as the 'Judaizers', a term proffered by certain scholars to refer to the agitators or opponents of Paul to whom his defence in the Galatian epistle was centred.
These agitators- whether Jewish Christians or converted Gentiles- challenged Paul's apostolic authority and right to teach, and their 'gospel' combined the gospel of Christ with the keeping of the law of Moses- including circumcision, argument concerning which seems pretty rife during the time that Paul wrote this epistle. The Judaizers tried to add certain 'works' to the gospel to make salvation complete, in opposition to Paul who taught about 'justification by faith', not by works or the law. It is in response to these issues that Paul wrote.
It therefore was pertinent that Paul revisit the things he taught in his Galatian epistle to remind the Christians in Galatia of his authority as well as the right doctrines of his gospel in order that they be restored to the faith which had been distorted by the agitators, hence the fervour with which he writes. The epistle opens with a sharp introduction of himself- found in no other epistle- 'Paul, an apostle- sent not from men nor by man, but by Christ Jesus and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead...' The first chapter goes further to distinguish his gospel from the 'other gospel' which is in fact no gospel, as propagated by the agitators (Judaizers), and the condemnation that befalls they that preach such a perverted gospel. Paul sharply chastens the Galatians and their deceived state in the third chapter, where he begins to mention the non-saving futility of the law, and being justified by faith. He mentions the curse that comes from observing the law, and the fact that no one is justified before God by the Law but by faith- the central theme of the Martin Luther reformation in later years. It is interesting how Paul at the end of the third chapter stresses that the law came into existence, given by God via Moses, 430 years after Abraham, with whom God had a covenant by faith, not to put away Abraham's covenant, but to point towards and in effect 'bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith'.
Backdrop: Paul's reasoning-
The heat of this discourse is turned on in chapter 4, where Paul begins to draw a number of analogies to elucidate the transmutation from a child-heir, who having no right to exhibit any more authority than a slave of the same household, goes through a period of being answerable to guardians and trustees, and grows into the full right of sonship where as an heir, assumes authority over the slaves and guardians under whose custody he once was. This alludes that it is only for a temporal and pre-assigned season that the son or heir is subject to the Law of slavery, after which he is emancipated by the full rights of sonship and no longer at par with a slave nor bound by the same Law that govern slaves.
This then brings us to the part of the text that deals with the subject of this discourse: verses 21- 31 of the fourth chapter of Galatians, where Paul reins in on his argument concerning the Law and grace through faith, using a powerful analogy- that of Hagar's son Ishmael, and Sarah's son Isaac; both sons of Abram/Abraham under varying circumstances..
Genesis 16 chronicles the story of the birth of Ishmael to Abram. God had in the preceding chapters established a covenant with Abram, who had obeyed the call of God to depart from his kindred to a land which God would show him. In his old age an heir (son) is promised him with the only emphasis made at the time being the fact that it would be 'a son coming from his own body', a difficult promise to assimilate seeing he was advanced in years, well over seventy-five years old.
Upon the insistence and pressure of his wife, Sarai, Abram accepts and has relations with her Egyptian slave handmaiden Hagar, as a result of which Ishmael is born to Abram at Eighty-six years of age. During the pregnancy however, Hagar turns against her mistress Sarai and treats her with contempt, thereby making Sarai to mistreat her in such a way that she is forced to flee. However upon an encounter with the angel of the Lord in the desert, she returns, submits to her mistress, and bears the son unto Abram, who named him Ishmael.
Thirteen years later, God appears again to Abram, renews his covenant with him (Genesis 17:1-14), changes his name and that of his wife to Abraham and Sarah respectively, and gives a clearer perspective to his promise of an heir, with emphasis now made in verse 19 to Sarah as the one through whom the son of promise would be born.
One year later, Isaac is born- the son of the covenant. As soon as he is weaned, it is obvious that the son of the slave-handmaiden is out of favour with Sarah, and as God endorses it (Genesis 21:12-13), Hagar and Ishmael are sent out of Abraham's household, paving way for Isaac to step into the fullness of his right as legitimate son and heir of Abraham.
The analogy begins-
In Paul's reference to this account in his Galatian epistle, he likens Hagar the slave-handmaiden figuratively to a covenant- the old covenant, from Mount Sinai (which some scholars understand to be called Agar in Arabic). Hagar is seen in his analogy as a type of the Law. Sarah on the other hand is also figuratively likened here to a covenant- the new covenant, from Jerusalem, a type of the dispensation of grace which Paul now preached. He stressed however that Mouth Sinai- the Law, was in slavery to earthly (corporate) Jerusalem, regarded as the bastion of both Judaism and Christianity at the time; the quintessence of the enforcement of ceremonial and moral Law that governed the people. Could it be that Paul was referring in this context to two Jerusalems, one that was bound, and one that was free? This could expressly be acquiesced, because Paul goes on to mention that the Jerusalem that is our mother is from above and is free. One may therefore conclude that just as Hagar- from Mount Sinai and in bondage to the earthly Jerusalem (which was also in bondage) was a slave, so also are all who are under the Law- bound and not able to appropriate the right of sonship, hence cannot lay claim to the covenant of Abraham for themselves. However, all who subscribe to the new covenant, as typified by Sarah and the 'Jerusalem which is from above (for she is our mother), are free, possessing the full right of sonship by adoption via God's Spirit.
Let us look at this closely: culturally speaking, the Jews- and by extension or conversion, Gentiles- had been governed by the Law- the old covenant. It had made them set in their ways, their 'works', which was the cause that the Judaizers strived to uphold. Paul's argument therefore was that seeing Hagar was of the Law which led only to bondage, the gospel that the Judaizers preached- the Law, only held the people who accepted it in captivity. At this point it is imperative to note that the new covenant was before the Law, and the Law did not nullify it. This is interesting when viewed in the light of Paul's assertion in the preceding chapter that the Law was give to 'lead us or bring us to Christ'. The Law could not be kept completely; it only highlighted man's imperfections- the more man tried to abide by it, the more imperfect man became, the more in bondage man was, and the more the need for Christ's redemption by grace through faith. This view strengthens Pauls' argument with reference to Hagar's son being born of the 'human will: according to the flesh' (Gal 4:23) - referring in that context to the human schemes and circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of Ishmael outside the promise of God.
It appears on the face of this analogy that accepting the justification by grace through faith in Christ alone- not with the works of the Law- was the only way to be free from the bondage of the slave, and make us heirs of the promise, like Isaac was. This advocates that being saved by grace and having the right to appropriate the covenant of promise which God cut with Abraham- that which existed even before the Law was given- has nothing to do with being physical Jews or descendants of Abraham. In the words of the commentator Matthew Henry:
We Christians, who have accepted Christ, and rely upon Him, and look for justification and salvation in Him alone, as hereby we become the spiritual, though we are not the natural, seed of Abraham, so we are entitled to the promised inheritance and interested in the blessings of it.
Reasoning that Paul countered-
Considering the analogy within the context of the issues in response to which he wrote to the Galatians, it appears that Paul was against the reasoning of the Judaizers who sought to re-enslave the Christians who already believed in Paul's gospel and consequently were in the new covenant. For how could a people who are free, allow themselves again to be bound to that from which they had been freed?
The perverted gospel of the Judaizers was influenced by a strong mentality of the Law- slavery, but how could what is conceived outside of the promise possess the ability to justify us and make us heirs of the said promise? This is the reasoning that Paul appositely counters by his use of the Sarah-Hagar analogy we have considered in this discourse.
- Brand, C., C. Draper & A. England, Holman Illustrated study Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman bible Publishers, 2003)
- Brown, J., An exposition of the Epistle of Paul ... to the Galatians (Oxford: Oxford University, 1853, Digitized 21 Aug 2006)
- Cole, R.A., The epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Leicester: IVP, Revised Edition 1989)
- Esler, P.F., Galatians: Illustrated Edition (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998)
- Fung, R.Y., The epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994)
- Hayford, J.W., New Spirit filled Life Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Bibles, 2002)
- Henry, M., Matthew Henry's Commentary on the whole Bible (USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Seventeenth edition, 2007)
- Kuiper, B.K., The Church in History (Grand Rapids, MI: CSI Publications, 1964
- Luther, M., Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1987)
- Matera, F.J., Harrington, D.J., Galatians (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)
- Rainbow Studies International, the NIV Rainbow Study Bible, (El Reno, OK: Rainbow Studies International, 1996)
- Sproul, R.C., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2005)
- Tarazi, P.N., Galatians: a commentary (Crestwood, NY: Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995)
- Tenney, M.C., Galatians: The Charter of Christian Liberty (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989)
- Zondervan, The Parallel Bible: King James Version and Amplified Version (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1987)
- J. Brown, An exposition of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Oxford: Oxford University, 1853, Digitized 21 Aug 2006), 6.Capital E for Exposition. I don't understand 'Digitized' and where is the publisher from 1853.
- F.J. Matera &, D.J. Harrington, Galatians (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 6-7.
- Rainbow Studies International, the NIV Rainbow Study Bible, (El Reno, OK: Rainbow Studies International, 1996), 1298. Capital for The
- B.K. Kuiper, The Church in History (Grand Rapids, MI: CSI Publications, 1964 Close brackets and page and if the next ref. Is for the same point, you should have cf. for compare
- Luther, M., Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1987),163.
- J.W. Hayford, New Spirit filled Life Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Bibles, 2002), Gal 3:24, 1443. Capital F
- P.N. Tarazi, Galatians: a commentary (Crestwood, NY: Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995),196 Commentary with a capital
- Note that when Ishmael was born, his father's name was 'Abram'; shortly after that his name was changed to 'Abraham' after God's covenant with him is renewed, then Isaac is born.
- Gen 12:1, Rainbow, Rainbow Study Bible, NIV, 16.
- Gen 15:4, Rainbow, Rainbow Study Bible, NIV, 18.
- Brown, Galatians, 234.
- M. Luther, Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1987), 282. Already cited, so should be shortened
- C. Brand et al, Holman Illustrated study Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman bible Publishers, 2003), 1706. Capital B for Bible and S for study
- Gal: 4: 4-7, Rainbow Study Bible, 1301.
- Brown, Galatians, 234.
- M. Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the whole Bible (USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Seventeenth edition, 2007), 2301. Capital for W, but rather avoid this commentary.