The Gospel in Galatians
 by E.H.  “Jack” Sequeira 

10 – The Two Covenants

Galatians 4:21-31:

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.  His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.  These things are being taken figuratively:  The women represent two covenants.  One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves:  This is Hagar.  Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.  But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.  For it is written:  “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”  Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise.  At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit.  It is the same now.  But what does Scripture say?  “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

This study is based on Galatians 4:21-31, which is considered by many as the most difficult passage in Galatians.  The reason for this is threefold.

  1. It presupposes a knowledge of the Old Testament which few Christians possess today.

  2. Paul’s argument is somewhat technical in this passage, familiar to the rabbinical school of his day but not to 20th century Christians.

  3. Finally, this passage is difficult because its truths contradict the teachings of many who limit the term Old Covenant and the term New Covenant only to time.  They say the Old Covenant refers to the period of history from Moses to Christ and the New Covenant refers to the period from Christ on earth to the end of time.

According to the New Testament, especially Paul, the term Old and New Covenant has two applications.  It has an historic application and second, it has a theological application.

  1. Historically, the term Old Covenant, and the term New Covenant, has to do with time, that is true.  When God gave the law through Moses, sinful humanity came legally under the law and its curse until Christ came and redeemed mankind some 1,500 years later at the cross.

    Galatians 3:23-25 dealt with this Old and New Covenant terminology which we have already covered.  But the terms Old and New Covenant also have a theological meaning.

  2. Theologically, when these terms are used, the term Old Covenant refers to salvation by works of the law.  In contrast, the New Covenant refers to salvation by grace.  When we use these terms theologically, they are timeless.

    For example, if we, today, were to promise God to be good in order to be saved, we are really entering into an Old Covenant agreement with God.  It is in this theological sense, it is in this second sense that Paul is dealing with the two terms Old and New Covenant in Galatians 4:21-31.

With this foundation, let us now look at the arguments of this passage.  We will discover that Paul’s arguments here fall into three steps.  The first ones are verses 21 and 23.  Here Paul gives us the historical background of his argument, that is, Abraham had two sons.  One was Ishmael, the other Isaac.  Then, in verses 24-27, Paul uses these two sons as types or symbols of the two methods of salvation.

  1. Salvation by keeping the law or salvation by works which is identified with the Old Covenant, a religion that brings a person into bondage.

  2. Salvation by grace which is the New Covenant, a religion of freedom, a religion of joy, peace, and hope.

Then, finally, in verses 28 to 31, Paul makes a personal application to his readers, in this case the Galatians and, of course, this applies to us today since the Bible is God’s Word to all men at all times.  Judaism is a religion of bondage, says Paul, since the law condemns sinners.  But true Christianity is a religion of freedom since Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law.  We have covered this as we dealt with chapter 3 of Galatians.

Let’s read Galatians 4:21-31.  We will look at the three steps that Paul discusses.

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.  His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.  These things are being taken figuratively:  The women represent two covenants.  One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves:  This is Hagar [that is, the mother of Ishmael].  Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.  But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.  For it is written:  “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”  Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise.  At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit.  It is the same now.  But what does Scripture say?  “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

This passage is full of significance even for us today.  Let’s now look at it in detail.  First, let us examine the statement Paul makes in verse 21:

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?

What does that term “under the law” mean?  First of all, it does not mean “under curse.”  Yes, if you are a sinner under the law, the result is under curse, but “under law” simply means to be ruled by the law, to live under the dominion of the law.  When that happens, you have to justify yourself before God on the basis of your performance, on the basis of your righteousness.  Therefore, Paul is saying to the Galatians, “Tell me, you who desire to be saved, you who desire to earn your salvation through the keeping of the law, don’t you hear what the law says?”

The word “law” here refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the books of Moses often referred to as the Pentateuch.  What does this book of the law tell us?  Paul takes out of the book of the law, a history of Abraham and his two sons.  If we read the book of Genesis, we will find the history or the story of Abraham.  Abraham had two sons.  The first one was Ishmael, which he produced through Hagar, and the second one was Isaac, which God gave him through a special miracle.

Galatians 4:23 tells us:

His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

To understand the application of this historical truth, we need to understand what Paul is saying.  If we are not familiar with this Old Testament history, then the application becomes meaningless.  We will spend a few moments to explain what Paul is describing here, because Paul assumes the believer understands and is familiar with the history of Abraham.  Remember, in Paul’s day, the Bible was only the Old Testament.  Today the Bible is both the Old and New Testament.  Too many Christians ignore the Old Testament, which is unfortunate, because the Old and the New Testament are a unit.  The Old is the promise, the New is the reality.

But now, we will review what Paul is referring to.  God came to Abraham when he was about 75 years old.  (Genesis 12) God said to Abraham, “I want you to leave your home, neighbors, and your family (because, of course, they were all idol worshipers).  I want you to go to the land that I will give you (which we know today is the land of Israel) and I will make you a great nation.”  Now, when God gave that promise, Abraham was 75 years old, his wife was 10 years younger.  They had no children.  So, God promised him a son and Abraham believed God and was counted righteous.

One year went by.  Two years went by.  Three years went by.  In fact, eight years went by and there was no child!  Abraham began to doubt God’s promise.  So God came to him and said to Abraham, “Why are you fearful?  Why have you begun to doubt My promise?” Abraham’s response was, “God, it takes nine months for human beings to produce a child.  How long does it take You?  This is eight years now.  Look at this boy in my home, the son of my slave Eleazer.  Is this the promised son or am I to look for another son?” This is paraphrasing Genesis 15.

God said to Abraham, “Come, Abraham, let’s go for a walk.”  Remember, Israel doesn’t have much rain.  The sky was clear.  God said to Abraham, “Count the stars.”  Abraham responded, “Impossible.  There are too many of them.”  And God said to Abraham, “This is how many children you will have.  The son I have promised is not the son of a slave.  The son that I have promised will come from your own loins.  He will be your child, not somebody else’s.”  In Genesis 15:6, we have those famous words that Paul loves to quote:

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Abraham is now 83 years old, his faith is restored.  Then God waited not one or two years but He waited 13 or 14 more years until Sarah, Abraham’s wife had passed the age of child-bearing.  She had reached the age when it was physically, scientifically, humanly impossible for Sarah to have a child.  God said, “Now do you believe that I can give you a child?”

Before we find the answer, let’s go to Genesis 16 where something else took place two years after Genesis 15.  Two years after God restored Abraham’s faith, Sarah comes to Abraham who is now about 85 and she is ten years younger.  She says to him, “I don’t think it is possible for God to give you a child through me.  He said “your loins” but He mentioned nothing about me.  And so Abraham, I feel you need to help God to keep His promise.  Why don’t you take my slave girl, Hagar, as your surrogate wife and produce a child and help God to keep His promise?” Abraham listened to Sarah, went to Hagar and produced Ishmael.

Now, 13 or 14 years later, Sarah had passed the age of child-bearing and God came to Abraham and said, “Do you believe I can give you a child?” In Romans 4:17, and onwards Paul tells us that against hope, against all scientific evidence, against human rationale, Abraham believed God.  Abraham took God at His word.  One year later, Sarah bore a little baby boy to Abraham and they named him Isaac, which is laughter, or rejoicing.  Romans 4:16-25:

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all.  As it is written:  “I have made you a father of many nations.”  He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed — the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.  Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead — since he was about a hundred years old — and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.  Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.  This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”  The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness — for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

Remember, Ishmael was already approximately 13 years old when Isaac was born.  One day, Sarah heard Ishmael scoffing at Isaac.  She went to Abraham and said, “Abraham, I want you to get rid of this woman and her son because this son of hers will not share the inheritance that my son, Isaac, is going to have.”

Sarah, who was responsible for the birth of Ishmael now turns against this boy.  But Abraham is deeply concerned.  Why?  Because, while Ishmael was not Sarah’s child, he was Abraham’s child.  Abraham is very disturbed at this request.  But, as a good Christian, he goes to God for advice and this time God says to Abraham, “Abraham, you have to listen to Sarah.  You have to get rid of this surrogate mother and her son, Ishmael, because the promise that I made to you, ‘All peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ [Genesis 12:3] will have to be through Isaac.  And Ishmael will have no part of it.”  This is the Old Testament history.  Genesis 21:8-13:

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.  But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.  But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman.  Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.  I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

Paul uses this as a symbol of the two covenants, the symbol of the two methods of salvation:  salvation by works (keeping of the law) and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, God’s promise.

With this in mind, let us turn to our passage.  Paul, after giving the story of the two sons, explains in Galatians 4:24:

These things are being taken figuratively:  The women represent two covenants.  One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves:  This is Hagar.

These two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, are symbolic.  They represent the two covenants.  One is from Mount Sinai, that is, the law which gives birth to bondage.  The law doesn’t save us.  It simply brings the curse.  It brings us into the bondage of the fear of death.  This, the Old Covenant, is represented by Hagar.

Then, in verse 25, he tells us that Hagar, which is representing Mount Sinai, corresponds with Jerusalem, not the heavenly Jerusalem, but the literal Jerusalem, which is in Bondage even to this day:

Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.

The Jews were still under Roman bondage when Paul wrote this letter.  The apostle Paul is telling the Galatians, the Judaism of his day was still in bondage to legalism, which is Jerusalem, that is, the capital city of Israel.

But, in verse 26, Paul explains, that the Jerusalem from above, that is, the heavenly Jerusalem, is free, which is the mother of us all:

But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.

The “us” implied in “our mother” refers to the believers, born-again Christians.  Then, he makes the statement, quoting from Isaiah 54:1, in verse 27:

For it is written:  “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”

We human beings are sinners.  We are incapable of producing any righteousness.  We are barren when it comes to salvation by works.  But, he tells us, quoting Isaiah 54, “Let us rejoice because we who were desolate have now had more children than those who have a husband.”  The gospel brings rejoicing and hope.  Having said this, he applies this wonderful gift of salvation which is represented by Isaac, saying in verse 28:

Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise.

If we try to go to heaven by our own performance, we belong to Ishmael.  If we go to heaven by faith in Jesus Christ, which is a gift which comes from God as a promise, then we are children of Isaac.  Now let’s go one step further.  God gave Israel three fathers:  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The mistake the Jews made was, if we were the physical, literal descendants of these three men, then we belonged to God’s covenant people and salvation was ours.  This is a mistake.  It is perverting what God intended when He gave Israel three fathers.  Paul corrects this in Romans 9.  He makes it clear that not every one who is a child of Abraham belongs to Israel.  Not everyone who refers to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a true Jew.

These three fathers symbolize three basic, fundamental elements that make up genuine Christianity, genuine children of God:

  1. Abraham stands for faith.  To be a child of God we must have the faith of Abraham.  To be a seed of Abraham we must have the faith of our father, Abraham.

  2. Like Isaac, we must be born of God.  Jesus reminded Nicodemus, “Nicodemus, you are trying to go to heaven by your performance.  You might as well give up.  Only when you are born of God, then only, you become a child of God and heir of salvation.”  So, Isaac represents those who are born from above.

  3. Thirdly, Paul doesn’t deal with Jacob in Galatians or in Romans 9.  Based on a logical conclusion, Jacob represents those whose faith endures unto the end.  The word Jacob means “schemer.”  After we have accepted Christ, the devil may convince us, as he did the Galatian Christians, that salvation is partly by grace and partly by performance.  Then we begin to try to earn our salvation after we accept Christ and we fall into the trap of the Galatians, a subtle form of legalism.  But Paul is telling us, “No.”  We must have the faith of Jacob that endured unto the end.  Yes, Jacob was a schemer.  He tried to get the birthright back with all kinds of schemes but, at the end, when he wrestled with the Angel, he would not give up his hold on God.  It was at that time Jacob’s name was changed from Jacob, the “schemer,” to Israel, “he who has prevailed with God.”

Now, let us look at the application of these two symbols Paul has used in this passage that we have just studied.  In verse 30a, he asks us:

But what does Scripture say?

This question is based on the statement he made in verses 28-29:

Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise.  At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit.  It is the same now.

Paul is saying in verse 29, just as Ishmael made life miserable for Isaac, so also Satan will make life miserable for we who are standing under the grace of God.  To become a Christian, means to face persecution.  Why?  As already mentioned, a Christian belongs to the kingdom of Heaven, to the kingdom of God, but is still living in enemy territory.  The enemy will make sure that life is miserable for us, hoping that we will give up our faith in Christ.  But, in this case, the issue is legalism.  Paul is advising his hearers in verses 30-31:

But what does Scripture say?  “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

Salvation by works of the law and salvation by grace are mutually exclusive.  We can’t join them together.  We can’t marry them.  There can be no synthesis.  It’s either one or the other.  And we who believe in Jesus Christ, we who are justified by faith, must cast out any legalism or legalistic tendency that we may inherit or we may cling to because of our upbringing.

As Paul says in Philippians 3, we must take all our self-righteousness, count it but dung or garbage that we may win Christ and salvation through faith in Him alone.  Philippians 3:7-9:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Let this become very clear.  We cannot be justified by faith plus something else, for the moment we add anything to our salvation by grace, Paul tells us in Galatians 5:4, that we have fallen from grace and Christ has become of no effect to us:

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

It is my prayer that this study, based on Galatians 4:21-31, will convince you beyond every shadow of a doubt that you must cling to your salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ.  It is my prayer that you will reject anything in you that leans towards legalism, that you will remind yourself daily that you are one hundred percent sinner saved by faith in Jesus Christ and His righteousness.

May you know this truth, may you cling to this truth, may you endure unto the end, upholding this truth.


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