Last month we heard a sermon on Galatians 4:21-31 in which Paul the Apostle uses the example of Sarah and Hagar found in Genesis 16 as an allegory for how Christians are set free from slavery in sin. The allegory of Hagar and Sarah is written to persuade us (along with the Galatians) not to follow the Judaizers into slavery with Hagar and Ishmael, but to follow Sarah and Isaac into freedom. Theologian John Piper has written an extensive article explaining what ‘freedom’ means in this context. But many sceptics dismiss Christianity as a burdensome set of rules, perhaps only be a lesser degree to Islam. In this blog post, we will be analysing the passage to explore how Christians really are set free in Christ.

In verse 21, Paul is referring to the the five first books of the Old Testament which is the source of the law. He then introduces the example of Abraham’s wife Sarah (the free woman) and Sarah’s maid Hagar (the slave woman) in verse 22. We learn from this narrative that Abraham had two sons: Ishmael by the slave woman Hagar, and Isaac by the free woman Sarah. Paul explains in verse 23 that the birth of Ishmael was simply the result of ordinary natural process, whereas the birth of Isaac needed supernatural help and resulted from God’s promise being fulfilled. He indicates in verse 24 that this historic narrative is also prophetic as Hagar and Sarah symbolise two covenants: the law which came through Moses and; the promise which culminated in Jesus Christ.

In verse 25, Paul suggests that the the Jews were under spiritual slavery because of the way the law of Moses bound them. Hagar symbolises the covenant God gave through Moses and the spiritual enslavement suffered under the law. It was thought that the earthly city of Jerusalem would be liberated and rise to world dominance. Paul however interprets this differently in verse 26-27. There is a new Jerusalem —not an earthly city, but a ‘Jerusalem which is above’, a heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-23 Revelation 3:12). Paul compares Christians to Isaac in verses 28-29. We are to follow the covenant of promise. Abraham had learned his lesson – the only acceptable response to God’s merciful promise is to trust in that promise. Ishmael (the child of the flesh) mocked Isaac, the son of the free woman (Genesis 21:9), just like Christians are persecuted today.

Finally in verses 30-31, Paul reminds us that Sarah was unhappy about Hagar and seeing Ishmael mocking them so she asked Abraham to cast them out. (Genesis 21:9-14). He reinforces how, as Christians, we are children of the free woman Sarah. If you have only experienced natural birth, you are by nature enslaved to sin. But if you have experienced supernatural re-birth, then you are set free. As John Piper says, “Ishmael-types are not free because they lack the freedom of desire to rest in God’s sovereign grace; and therefore, they lack the freedom of ability to understand God’s will; and finally, they lack the freedom of eternal joy, because the life they have chosen leads to destruction.”

In conclusion, people are enslaved to sin from natural birth but this is contrasted with freedom from supernatural birth. It’s not a freedom to commit sin, but a freedom from slavery in sin – and consequently freedom from the wages of sin. A lack of faith in Jesus leads to disobedience and excludes us from the inheritance – it leads to eternal death. The freedom from sin is only possible as a result of a supernatural re-birth i.e. being born again as Jesus said in John 3:3. Those who are born-again will have the freedom to love and obey God and inherit His Kingdom with everlasting life. If you want to know how one may be born again, consider the Gospel message – that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

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