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Gal. 4:21-31: Learning to Listen to the Law Print E-mail
Sunday, 28 May 2006

One of the difficulties we face in studying the New Testament is dealing with how the writers interpret the Old Testament.  In other words, we have to wrestle with the question: can I interpret the Old Testament in the same way that Matthew and Paul do?  At times it seems as if they did not learn how to interpret the Old Testament in the same way that I was taught at school.

One example of this is Galatians 4:21-31.  After reminding us of the story of Hagar and Sarah from Genesis, Paul tells us, Now this may be interpreted allegorically (v. 24).  Yet, in this interpretation that he offers us is Paul holding to the authors intended meaning?  How much liberty can we take with our interpretations of the Old Testament?  To begin, I should say that many see Paul simply taking what the Judaizers were apparently arguing and turning it against them.  They saw the Gentiles as sons of Hagar and thus expected them to become Jews by submitting themselves to circumcision and following the Law.  This is possibly what is taking place here.  But even so, it does not dismiss the way he interprets it.  So, what do we do with such a text and how does it teach us to interpret the Old Testament, or listen to the law (v. 21)?

The driving question behind the whole passage is found in verse 21.  Look at that with me.  Paul is continuing to show the Galatians why it is foolish for them to place themselves under the Law.  Basically, by asking this question he is saying to the Galatians: Even the Law itself does not teach you to do what you are doing.  To demonstrate this to the Galatians, Paul then turns to the story of Hagar and Sarah in verses 22-31.  For our purposes this morning, I would like for us to begin by walking through the text and simply looking at what Paul is arguing and how he argues it.  Then, I want us to come back and ask: how should this influence how we interpret the Old Testament.  Thus, letís begin with Paulís argument.

The Continued Lesson of the Law

As he did in 3:19-29, Paul is continuing his argument that the Law itself does not call for the Galatians to be under it.  He begins here by simply identifying the content of the Hagar and Sarah story, or what is actually written of them.  Look at verses 22-23.  Paul tells us of the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac.  He reminds us that Ishmael was born to Hagar, the slave, and Isaac was born to Sarah, the free woman.  He also tells us that Ishmael was born according to flesh and Isaac was born through promise, meaning that Ishmael birth was natural while Isaacís birth was supernatural due to his parentsí age.  All of this is historical and factual.  If we look at the book of Genesis we will read this very story and if we lived at the time of Abraham we would agree with this account.

Paul then moves to his allegorical interpretation.  Look at verses 24a with me.  Allegory refers to the idea of something smaller representing something larger.  Many of the parables are allegorical, especially the ones that teach us about the Kingdom in Matthew 13.  Jesus uses the idea of sowing seed, the smaller, to teach us about the Kingdom, the larger.  In our passage, Paul tells us that the two women represent the larger idea of two covenants.  Hagar represents the Old Covenant under the Law.  Look how Paul describes it in verses 24b-25.  Paul speaks of the slavery of Hagar and her children.  This represents Israelís slavery under the Law, thus, she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, or practice of Judaism.  Sarah, however, represents the New Covenant under Christ.  Paul goes on to describe this in verses 26-27.  Look at those with me.  Paul calls Sarah the Jerusalem above, referring to the true Jerusalem of those who have faith in Christ.  Those in Christ are free, an idea he will continue to flesh out in chapter 5.  Paul quotes a passage from Isaiah 54 that speaks of the restoration of Israel under the New Covenant.  Thus, Hagar represents the Old Covenant and Sarah represents the New.  This is Paulís allegorical interpretation.

Paul then applies the text in verses 28-31.  Look at those with me.  Paul tells the Galatians that through faith in Christ they are sons of the free woman with Isaac.  Again, pulling from what happened in Genesis 21, Paul tells the Galatians that they will continue to be persecuted by the sons of the slave women just as Isaac was persecuted by Ishmael.  Thus, Paul identifies what the Judaizers are doing as persecution from those under slavery.  If he is turning their own argument against them, then he is doing a fierce job of it, for he is referring to the Judaizers as sons of the slave woman.  Quoting one last time from Genesis 21, Paul tells the Galatians that they should cast out these sons, or the Judaizers, just as Sarah told Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.  He concludes by reminding them that they are sons of the free woman.

As Paul has argued before, he is calling the Galatians to recognize that they are justified before God and free through their faith in Christ.  They need to cast out any idea of returning to slavery by placing themselves under the Law.  Rather, they need to live by faith in Christ, who has set them free.  He states this conclusion clearly in 5:1, which we will look at more next week.  Thus, Paul uses the story of Hagar and Sarah to continue to argue against the Galatians being under the Law and for them remaining free in Christ.  Paul is constantly reminding us in the book of Galatians that we are free from the Law through faith in Christ.  May we continue to marvel at such glorious truth.

The Lesson of Interpreting and Applying Old Testament Scripture

Yet, if we step back a bit and view Paulís writing here as instruction for reading and applying the Old Testament, what can we learn?  We are not the apostle Paul, so can we do what he does with the Hagar and Sarah story?  Consider what he does in this passage once again.

First, Paul simply identifies the content and what the story says.  Paul knows the story of Abraham well.  He knows how it fits in to the larger story of the book of Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament.  Thus, he begins by simply trying to understand the story in its original context.  This is a must for us in our study of the Old Testament.  We must labor to know what the Old Testament stories mean and how they fit in with the larger story of Israel.  Thus, we need to learn to simply begin with what is written as Paul does here in verses 22-23.

Second, Paul interprets the passage allegorically.  Here is where the difficulty comes in for us.  Can we interpret the stories of the Old Testament allegorically?  Let me make a couple of comments.  First, we must be humble and remember that we are not the apostle Paul, who was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, we must use great caution as we interpret any portion of the Bible, be it Old Testament or New.  Second, when the New Testament writers give us specific examples of this, then we can trust their interpretation.  We should have no problem with Paulís allegorical interpretation of Sarah and Hagar.  Third, we should labor to see Christ and the New Covenant throughout the pages of the Old Testament.  Many people may struggle with this idea and even reject it, but we must read our Bibles as Christians.  We must read the specific parts of Godís revelation in light of the entire revelation.  Thus, allegory, and especially typology, will play a role in how we interpret the Old Testament.  For clarityís sake, I should offer a word of caution.  If we are not careful, we can take all of this too far.  Every mention of wood in the Old Testament is not a reference to the cross.  Yet, as Jesus taught the men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, we want to see Christ in all of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.  Thus, in this somewhat limited sense, we can interpret the Old Testament with Paul.

Finally, Paul applied the text to his own particular situation.  He knew what was going on in the Galatian churches and he used this passage to call them to cast out the temptation to put themselves under the Law.  As with the first point, we must labor to apply the text to our own lives by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  The text speaks to us and we need to hear it and heed it.  It will change us and break us and convict us and call us and conform us more and more into the image of Christ.  Thus, like Paul, may we be faithful to always apply the text to our lives.

Speaking of application, let me conclude with two final points of application for us today:

First, as we just said, read your Bibles in light of Christ.  Paul was a great Old Testament scholar.  He knew the stories and he knew how to apply them.  Also, Paul recognized the centrality of Christ in all of the Scriptures.  Tell me, do you search for Christ in the pages of the Old Testament?  Does reading the Law in Exodus and Deuteronomy make you grateful for Christís perfect obedience?  When you read of the Israelites being rescued out of Egypt, do you shout with joy over the fact that Christ has rescued us from our sins?  Does Davidís victory over Goliath remind you of Christís victory over sin, Satan, and death?  Does the prophetís call to repent bring you to your knees in thankfulness for the opportunity to repent of our sins and believe in Christ?  I pray that we will read the Bible in such a way.

Second, hold fast to justification by faith, even when dealing with difficult persecution.  As sons of Sarah this morning through faith in Christ, we will still face persecution by those who want to claim that there is no way that simple faith in Christ will save us.  Whatever it is that they add to faith, we must stand firm in our freedom.  Indeed, may we cast out any gospel that preaches anything other than faith in Christ to be justified.  For we know that it is only through faith in Christ that we will receive the promised inheritance.  May we hold fast to such truth until that promise is fulfilled.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 08 June 2006 )

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