Exegesis on Galatians 4:26-29
26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written: “Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you have no labour pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” 28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.
Galatians is an epistle written by Paul to some group resident in the Province of Galatia which was an area stretching right across the middle of Asia Minor. The time is not certain but it may have followed almost immediately after a visit to the area. The Galatians had a history of pagan worship and after converting to Christianity, they were bothered by Judaizers who were troubling these Gentile churches in Galatia with their insistence that to be a good Christian, one first had to become a good Jew. They believed circumcision and law keeping were necessary to salvation. This was a denial of the gospel preached by Paul that salvation was by faith in Christ alone, and not by faith in Christ and obedience to the law. Paul had previously shown that to win salvation by keeping the law was to enter into a hopeless and fruitless bondage. As long as they looked on law as a possible means of salvation, such slavery was inevitable. The key therefore to Paul’s thought in Galatians is his doctrine of inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles.
Paul argues this doctrine through the use of rabbinic argument. He had a long and thorough training in Jewish tradition and rabbinic argument was natural to him. This style of thought may have been used because the Galatians were interested in Rabbinic exegesis of the law. In these verses, Paul does not choose an obscure passage to make his point, but one with a familiar background and sometimes he used his opponent’s terms and even adopted their position to show that it was untenable.
To support his argument, Paul uses an Old Testament story from the life of Abraham. This is significant because the Legalists all claimed to be sons of Abraham and all Jews traced their ancestry to Abraham, who was the founder of the Jewish nation. Previous to this passage, Paul reminded the Galatians that Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac was born of Sarah, the free woman, and Ishmael was born of Hagar, the slave woman. Ishmael was born in the ordinary way, requiring no miracle and no promise of God. Isaac, on the other hand, was the result of a promise from God that Sarah, who was beyond the age of childbearing would bring life out of the deadness of Sarah’s womb.
In verse 26, Paul says Sarah stands for the Jerusalem above, representing freedom from all physical and fleshly constraint which is the divine reality proposed by God. This heavenly city, which one day will come to earth (Rev. 21:2) is now the “city of the living God’ (Heb. 12:22). This was in comparison to the present city of Jerusalem (Jerusalem below) in slavery to elementary forces. This freedom is something already experienced by Christians who have learnt they need be under neither elemental forces nor law.
“For it is written” is a usual technique in constructing a theological argument. Paul proceeds to quote from Isaiah 54:1-4:27 which was appropriate although there was no direct evidence it applied to Sarah. In the passage, Yahweh comforts the exiled Judeans by reassuring Israel that Yahweh would take her again to wife (Isa. 1:4-8). There was the prospect of a new beginning like that following the flood and this was a powerful image of the hoped for new age. Paul applied this passage to Sarah, who though previously barren, was later blessed with a child and would ultimately have more children than Hagar.
After an exposition on the significance of the two women, Paul returns to the principal subject. “You, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise”. Like Isaac was a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, their birth into freedom was the effect of divine grace; like Isaac, they belonged to the children of promise. The Jewish tradition understood that the covenant promise ran through Sarah, not Hagar; through Isaac, not Ishmael. As children of promise, Christians are in a distinct category and should not live as children of bondage.
Why was it then that if this could be shown so clearly from the Torah did their Jewish “brethren” persecute them so. Paul’s answer to this was drawn from a traditional rabbinic exegesis of Gen. 21:8,9 “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”. Ishmael was mocking Isaac. This was also the attitude of Judaism to the church. Paul compared Ishmael’s persecution of Isaac to the false teachers’ opposition to believers.
This concluding passage in Galatians 4 is crucial to 20th century Christians because we face the same problem the Galatian saints did in the first century. How does the New Testament believer apply the Old Testament which was written principally to the Jews. A principle is found in Paul’s use of an Old Testament passage which should guide every Christian in their use of Scriptures: to interpret the passage literally, in the light of context, background, culture, grammar and Biblical theology; to determine the principles which the interpretation reveals; then to seek to apply the principle as you consider the parallels between the Biblical passage and your own situation.
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