A Tale of Two Cities

Text: Galatians 4:21-31

Date: 19 Aug 2018


I can’t deny that in this sermon we come to some complicated thoughts. In the previous sermon we looked at the most personal section of the Letter where Paul demonstrated his love as a Pastor for the Galatians and thanked them for accepting him just as he was despite his ongoing health issues.

It’s true to say that in those few verses Paul still seemed to be perplexed by the changed attitudes and behaviour of the Galatians and that may be why he turned to a softer, gentler approach.

Whilst those verses 4:12-20 were deeply personal we now move on to 4:21-31, verses which are very heavy theologically. I’m not altogether sure that the Galatians would have immediately understood Paul’s arguments or comments and I’m equally sure that on first reading we will all have problems understanding what Paul is getting at. As I think about it I suspect that only very switched on people, and I don’t mean that as an insult, or students at Bible College will be able to begin to understand what Paul is saying. I say that because I remember Rev Dr Steve Brady saying on my first day at the Moorlands College Induction Week that as theology students we were all now experts!

What Paul has to say in this final section of Galatians 4 is undoubtedly heavy and theological and concerns the difference between Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Paul uses them and their heritage as a picture of Jerusalem as it existed, and possibly still exists today, and the new Jerusalem that John talks of in Revelation 21. Paul talks of “the Jerusalem that is above” (4:26) which is the new Jerusalem that John talks of much later. To me this demonstrates God at work through His Holy Spirit since there is no way that Paul would have seen or read or heard of John’s amazing Revelation. The thoughts that Paul was trying to share here were very obviously given to him by God Himself.

Just to remind you, Paul’s constant argument throughout this Letter has been that obedience to the Law couldn’t bring salvation; only faith in the risen Jesus Christ could do that. However, by following the teaching of the Judaisers the Galatians were being led to believe that that wasn’t the case and that they could receive salvation by becoming Jews with all that that entailed. Paul argued the opposite and in this passage is trying to explain that if they continued to follow the Judaisers they would only end up as slaves.

Two Sons

Many people at that time believed that anyone descended from Abraham would be almost guaranteed salvation. This was obviously a misguided thought as Jesus pointed out when the Jews to whom He was talking told Him in John 8:33 “We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.” Jesus had been trying to convince them to know the truth and thus be free and He replied to them, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36).

We know from Scripture that Abraham had two sons: one, Ishmael, borne by Hagar the servant girl, and one, Isaac, borne by his wife Sarah. Although God had promised that Abraham would be the father of nations he was old whilst his wife Sarah was way past child bearing age and despite acknowledging God’s promise it is always possible that they didn’t truly believe that it would ever happen. With that in mind, the birth of Ishmael was “engineered” by Sarah and Abraham in order to fulfil God’s promise. As I hope is obvious, that was totally the wrong way to go about it. We should always leave the decision making to God since He never gets it wrong whilst on this occasion Sarah and Abraham did get it wrong. Isaac was the son born as a result of God’s promise; remember that God always keeps His promises and never lets us down. We know from Genesis 17:1, 17 that Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 90 when God promised Isaac’s birth, way past the age of being new parents as we understand it..

The prevailing culture determined the status of a child based on the status of the mother. We learn from Genesis 16:1-2 that Hagar was an Egyptian slave and so would have been regarded as a “slave wife”, something that meant any children she had would always be regarded as slave children. It is also interesting to see from later in Genesis 16 that an angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar as she prepared to run away from Sarah. The angel told her that she would have numerous descendants and that the child she was carrying would “be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility towards all his brothers." (Genesis 16:12). That description of the yet to be born Ishmael also describes what we are like without the freedom and grace that faith in Christ brings into our lives.

On the other hand Isaac was born to Abraham’s wife Sarah and so was a child “born by the power of the Spirit” (4:29); he was born to fulfil a promise given by God. A few verses earlier in 4:23b Paul had confirmed that when he said that Abraham’s “son by the free woman was born as a result of a divine promise”, consequently Sarah’s son would be regarded as a free child. Although Ishmael was older than Isaac, God promised in Genesis 17:21 that He would establish His covenant with Isaac the son whom He had promised to Abraham.

It is interesting to note that from the same father came two distinct races: the Ishmaelites who went on to become Muslims, and the Jews. You may remember that there are regular references today to the “Abrahamic” faiths: namely Islam, Judaism and Christianity.


In 4:24-26 Paul uses the situation regarding the two women as an illustration of two different types of Jerusalem and in doing so he links them to the old Covenant and the new Covenant.

Firstly, Paul sees Hagar representing the “present city of Jerusalem” (4:25) simply because “she is in slavery with her children” (4:25). Hagar was the “slave wife” and Paul saw the Jerusalem that he knew as being a city that was in slavery. He talks of the Covenant that came from Mount Sinai, and we know from Exodus 19 & 20 that Mount Sinai was where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God; the Commandments that gave us the Law. Paul believed that because the people of Jerusalem followed the Law to the absolute letter they were in bondage to it and so were slaves to the Law. Paul regarded the Jerusalem that he knew at the time as being a city in slavery to both the Romans and to the Law. It was after all the leading city of Judaism and even now is accepted as the capital city of Israel; at least by the USA! Paul made it clear that “she is in slavery with her children” (4:25b); the children being all those like-minded people who believed that the Law would set them free when in fact it trapped them in slavery.

Secondly, Paul sees Sarah as representing the “Jerusalem that is above”, a Jerusalem that is “free” (4:26). As a free woman, Sarah represents the new Covenant that came into being with the birth of Isaac and eventually Jesus. John wrote about this Jerusalem in Revelation 21:2 when he told us, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Later in Revelation 21:10-11 John gives us another picture of this new Jerusalem when he says, “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” That is the new and free Jerusalem to which all believers in Jesus Christ will go at some point in the future. This is the freedom that Paul was talking about and it is the freedom that he wanted the Galatians to have rather than them being slaves to the Law. Paul believed that “the Jerusalem that is above is free” (4:26) and it is free because the gospel of Jesus Christ sets us free. I very much doubt that Paul meant that the entry fee was free although it may be to those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour simply because He paid the price of admission on the cross of Calvary.

When you think about that for a while you may begin to understand why Paul was so perplexed at the change of attitude by the Galatians and their seeming desire to follow the Judaisers into bondage and slavery.

The Galatians

As I’ve tried to show throughout this series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul cared for them a great deal and didn’t want any of them to be led astray by the Judaisers with their “non-gospel”. It is safe to assume then from the way that he opens 4:28 that Paul is talking to the wavering Galatian believers and here in these next few verses we see him trying to remind them of who they are and what awaits them.

Paul points out to his “brothers and sisters” that they were just like Isaac in that they were children born of God’s promise. In Genesis 12:2-3 God had promised Abraham that he would make him the father of nations and that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him. Later God made a Covenant with Isaac the son born of God’s promise to Abraham. On the other hand Ishmael was born “from faithless connivance” (4:28 The Message). Paul also reminds us that Ishmael persecuted Isaac when they were children. It’s interesting to note though that the relevant verses in Genesis 21:8-9 simply say, “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”. Now that may not be very nice but it is hardly persecution as we know it today. Paul may however have exaggerated things simply to make a point about how wrong it would be to follow the Ishmael line. He saw the Judaisers treating Galatian believers in exactly the same way which is why he goes on to mention that Sarah asked Abraham to get rid of Hagar and the child, thereby implying that the Galatians should get rid of the Judaisers and return to believing in and following Jesus Christ. Paul makes it very clear why the Galatians should do that when he tells them, “the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son” (4:30).

The reason for this is quite simple and made easier to understand by the reading of The Message which describes Ishmael as being the child of “faithless connivance” whilst Isaac was the child of “the faithful promise”. Just remember that when we read Matthew 1:2-16 we see the genealogy of Jesus and although it doesn’t mention Ishmael it does mention Isaac (Matthew 1:2). Consequently Paul closes this passage by pointing out that as descendants of Abraham’s seed we and the Galatians as believers in Jesus Christ are children of the free woman, Sarah, and not the slave woman, Hagar.


After a delightful passage that articulated his personal feelings, Paul now goes back in this passage to what one might call, heavy mode! This passage is undoubtedly very heavy in theological terms as Paul goes deep into the meaning of the births of Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. He is at pains to remind us that Ishmael was born as a result of an orchestrated liaison between Abraham and the Egyptian servant girl, Hagar. Isaac, on the other hand, was born as the result of love and a promise from God. Given that in the prevailing culture a child took their rank or status from their mother, it may be easy to see why Ishmael was regarded as a slave child whilst Isaac was regarded as a free child.

The choice appeared to be for the Galatians to be between following the route of the slave child or following the route of the free child. They could choose to be in almost permanent slavery to the Law or to be in guaranteed freedom with Christ. For Paul this was a simple choice which is why he was so perplexed and worried about the way that the Galatians appear to have been misled by the Judaisers.

The choice for us is also simple. We can choose to be slaves to the ways of the modern world or we can choose to accept the freedom that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour brings together with the prospect of being with Him in the new Jerusalem. The choice is yours; I urge you to choose freedom.

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