Lesson Text: Galatians 4:21—5:15
Supplemental Text: Isaiah 54:1-3; Romans 7:1-6; 9:6-21; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8
Aim: Choose to live free instead of shackled to a system of law-keeping.
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By Mark Scott
On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” New Hampshire license plates say, “Live Free or Die.” Patriots cherish freedom—so do Christians. In fact, if it binds, it probably is not the gospel.
As he wrote Galatians, Paul continued to unpack the true gospel that liberates. He concluded chapter 4 with his final argument about being saved by faith in Christ (as opposed to works of law). He spoke about the covenant under which one lives and highlighted dramatic contrasts.
Women and the Covenant
The closing argument in chapters 3–4 about being saved by faith is intriguing to say the least. Who would have thought while reading the Abraham narrative (Genesis 11–25) that embedded in the story of his two wives were two different covenants? Probably no one—until Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, connected those dots. Paul used the narrative about Sarah sending her handmaiden (Hagar) away as an allegory, nuancing the difference between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant in Christ.
Paul particularly directed his appeal to you who want to be under the law. Paul’s opponents wanted Jesus plus the law. But they did not listen to what the law (Old Testament) said. Abraham “had many sons,” but he also had two wives. The contrast between them is sharp. Hagar was a slave woman. She could bear the child only according to the flesh (Ishmael). Sarah was Abraham’s free wife. She would bear the child of divine promise (Isaac). This promise was recorded in Genesis 15:4; 18:1-15.
Paul spoke of these two women figuratively (allegorically, emblematically, or representatively) and in terms of covenants. Hagar represented the Mosaic covenant given on Mount Sinai and continuing in the physical city of Jerusalem. Sarah represented the Christian covenant in the Jerusalem that is above. Paul connected a prophecy from Isaiah 54:1 with these women and their respective covenants. Sarah was the barren woman. She seemed destined not to bear a child, never to be in labor, and to forever be desolate. But with the coming of Christ (consider that Isaiah 54 follows the great suffering song of the Messiah in Isaiah 52:14—53:12), the seeming barren woman would give birth to thousands (spiritually speaking).
When Isaac was weaned, Ishmael was “laughing at” (teasing or making fun of) him (Genesis 21:8-14). Paul found something like that Old Testament narrative happening in his day. The people committed to being saved by works were persecuting the people committed to being saved by faith in Christ. Just as Sarah forced Hagar to leave, so also Paul forced (called for) God’s people to leave the slavery of the law and embrace freedom in Christ.
Circumcision and the Covenant
Once again, we have an unfortunate chapter division. Even though Paul was moving into more practical aspects of being saved by faith in Christ, much of the thought about covenant continues in chapter 5. The first verse stands as a strong theme verse of the whole Epistle. Since Christ has set us free, we should not turn back to a yoke of slavery.
Circumcision was the seal (sign) of the covenant (Genesis 17). If you were circumcised (and women were to be, as with all of Israel, circumcised in their hearts), then you were bound to obey the whole law because that put you in the covenant family. The problem is that no one can obey the whole law (Romans 3:19-20). There must be a new way to be right with God. In fact, people who are bent on being justified by law actually have fallen away from grace (evidently falling from grace is possible, though the Greek word implies that one can recover from this fall). The Holy Spirit’s help and faith expressing itself through love give evidence that we are not trying to be saved by works of law.
Paul used three metaphors to drive home his point: a race, some yeast, and a knife. If they were running the race, they should not let anyone “cut them off.” It does not take much yeast to work through a whole batch of dough. So be careful of what gets added to the dough. The knife is the most aggressive metaphor. If circumcision is the key to being saved, then be careful of letting the knife slip. More might get taken off than desired.
Paul added one disclaimer before getting into the practical applications of the Epistle. Being free in Christ does not give license to the flesh. Love is the finest expression of someone saved by faith in Christ. Love fulfills the law. So, believers should not bite and devour one another in arguing for being saved the right way.