Fourth Sunday In Lent: Slavery Vs Freedom
Almost all the commentators and theologians agree that the passage of scriptures in today's lesson is the hardest in the book of Galatians. It’s not easy to understand on a quick reading exactly what Paul means to say. Or perhaps more accurately, we know in general terms what he is trying to say; it’s how he says it that trips us up. For that reason, many people skip right over these verses so they can get to the “good stuff” in chapter 5, especially the part about the fruit of the Spirit in 5:22-23.
And I must admit that this passage does sound very strange to our ears. Paul’s form of argument is very Jewish, even Rabbinical, which means that his first-century readers probably had no problems following him, but that same style can seem rather cold and clinical to 21st-century readers. So with that in mind, I am going to read the lesson from a 21st century translation, with the desire to help us comprehend and understand more of what Saint Paul was was trying to communicate.
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.
23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.
24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.
25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.
26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
27 For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.”
28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.
29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.
30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.”
31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
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. So I want to begin with a definition of freedom that I think is implied here. Then we will look at the allegory and learn from it how to have freedom.
Full freedom is what you have when no lack of opportunity, no lack of ability, and no lack of desire prevents you from doing what will make you happiest in a thousand years.
In order to be free in the fullest sense you have to have opportunity, ability, and desire to do what will make you happy in a thousand years.
Another way to say it would be that there are four kinds of freedom, or better, four stages of freedom on the way to the full freedom all of us long for: the freedom of opportunity to do what we can, the freedom of ability to do what we desire, and the freedom of desire to do what will bring us unending joy.
Let's take sky-jumping, for example. Suppose you are on your way to the airport to go up for your first real jump, but your car hits a pothole on the road, you have a blowout, and run into a telephone pole. You are no longer free to jump whether you have the ability or not, because the opportunity passes while you wait for the tow truck. You lack the freedom of opportunity.
Or suppose you do make it to the airport, but you have no ability at all—you have never studied sky-jumping and never learned the first thing about how a parachute works. The opportunity is there, but you don't have the freedom of ability—you are in bondage to your own lack of know-how.
But suppose that you make it to the airport, you've been to school and been trained and have all the abilities needed, and you take off for your first jump. But as soon as you look down, all your desire vanishes and in its place comes a tremendous fear. The opportunity is there, the ability and know-how are there, but you don't have the freedom of desire. The interesting thing about the freedom of desire is that you might be able to go ahead and jump without it, but it won't be a free act. For example, you might feel so humiliated in front of your instructor (or girlfriend) that the desire not to be humiliated overcomes the desire not to jump. So you jump. But the emotional experience is not what we call freedom. You are acting under very uncomfortable external constraints. You are like Herod when his step-daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist.
He didn't want to kill John, but he wanted even less to be shamed before his guests. So he acted, but not with the freedom of desire. You have the freedom of desire when you do what you love to do.
That's the way a lot of professing Catholics try to keep the commandments of Christ. They don't really delight to do them, but they feel some uncomfortable constraints like social pressures or fear of hell or desire to impress someone. So they go through outward motions of obedience, but the desire of their hearts is fixed somewhere else. They do not enjoy the freedom of desire which Christ gives when he is being formed in the heart as Galatians 4:19 says.
But there is one last requirement for full freedom. Suppose you get to the airport with no obstacle; you have all the know-how necessary; you look out the door at the tiny clusters of silos and barns and farmhouses and just can't wait to jump. You have freedom of opportunity, freedom of ability, and freedom of desire. So you jump. And as you free fall, unbeknown to you, your parachute malfunctions and will not open. Are you free? In three senses, yes. But in that critical fourth sense, no. What you are doing so happily, so freely, is going to kill you. Whether you know it or not, you are in bondage to destruction. It would be a mockery to exult in the freedom of an exhilarating free fall if you knew it was leading to destruction. In order to be fully free, it is not enough to have opportunity, ability, and desire to act. The acts you desire and perform have to lead to life, indeed, eternal life not destruction.
This is why it is naïve for a Christian young person to envy the so-called freedom of those who pitch themselves out the window of sin and exult for a season in the exhilaration of free fall sex or free fall greed, or free fall drugs or free fall luxury.
The world passeth away, and the concupiscence, the lust, the desire, thereof: but he that doth the will of God, abideth for ever. (1 John 2:17). True freedom is not just the opportunity and ability to do what you desire to do. It is the opportunity, ability, and desire to do what will make you happy in a thousand years.
Therefore, true Christians are the freest people in the world. And Paul is fighting with all his might in Galatians to expose the teaching of the Judaizers for what it really is: slavery. For Paul, the experience of freedom is not icing on the cake of Christianity. Freedom in Christ is Christianity. It is a matter of eternity. That's the first point of the allegory. So let's see if we can understand it and strengthen our stand in freedom.
Verses 22-23: For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, and the other by a free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman, was born according to the flesh: but he of the free woman, was by promise.
In Genesis 15:1–6 Abraham is discouraged because he and Sarah have no children, no heir to fulfill the promises of becoming a great nation (12:2). There is only Eliezer the slave. But God says in verse 4, "This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir." God's intention was to give Abraham a son and an heir when it looked humanly impossible so that Abraham would have to rely solely on God.
But in Genesis 16 Abraham and Sarah weaken in their faith for a time and devise a plan by which they will use their own resources to help God fulfill his promise. Sarah gives Hagar, her handmaid, to Abraham so she can bear him a son (16:2). And in Genesis 16:15 it says, "Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son whom Hagar bore to him Ishmael."
So when Paul says in Galatians 4:23 that Ishmael was born "according to the flesh," it means that he was the product of self-reliance. Abraham ceased to rely on God's power to fulfill his word and instead relied on his own power and ingenuity to get a son.
Then, 14 years later, in Genesis 17:16 God says to Abraham that his wife, Sarah, will have a son. God intends to fulfill his promise in a way that removes all ground for boasting. In verses 17–19 it says, "Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, 'Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?' And Abraham said to God, 'O, that Ishmael might live in thy sight!' God said, 'No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.'" God rejects what Abraham was able to produce on his own and promises again that in spite of Abraham's age, he will have a son by his own wife. So in Genesis 21:1 it says, "The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised." Isaac was not born according to the flesh because his birth was the result of God's supernatural intervention in fulfillment of his own promise. Abraham had learned his lesson:
The only acceptable response to God's merciful promise is trust in that promise, not works of the flesh that try to bring down God's blessing with our efforts.
So Galatians 4:23 sums up the story: "He who was of the bondwoman, was born according to the flesh: but he of the free woman, was by promise."
According to verse 24, Hagar and Sarah represent two covenants. First, he focuses on Hagar and says, "One (covenant) is from Mt. Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mt. Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children."
The key question here is: how is Hagar and her affair with Abraham and their son Ishmael like the covenant of Mt. Sinai—the giving of the law through Moses?
There are two similarities, at least. Hagar's giving birth to Ishmael is done "according to the flesh" (v. 23); Abraham and Hagar tried to get God's promised blessing by their own strength without relying on God's supernatural ennoblement. That is just what happened when the law was given at Mt. Sinai. Instead of humbling themselves and trusting God for help to obey his commands, Israel says confidently, "All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do" (Exodus 24:3; Deuteronomy 5:27). But they did not have hearts inclined to trust in God, “the word of hearing did not profit them, not being mixed with faith of those things they heard.” (Hebrews 4:2). Not only did they not have hearts inclined to trust God, they did not truly depend on him. Deuteronomy 5:29 describes it this way, “Oh that they had such a heart, to fear me, and to keep all my commandments at all times, that it may be well with them and with their children for ever!”
And so like Hagar and Abraham they depended on their own resources. And just as Ishmael was born according to the flesh, so the law offered was not received because (as Romans 8:3 says) the law was "weakened by the flesh." All that Abraham and Hagar produced on their own was a son who would not be the heir. All that Israel produced when they tried to keep the law on their own was a legalism which would inherit nothing.
Which leads to the second similarity between Hagar and Mt. Sinai—both of them bear children for slavery. Verse 24 says that the covenant Hagar represents is from Mt. Sinai "bearing children for slavery." Since Ishmael was not accepted as an heir, he was no better than his mother, a slave.
And when the Israelites take the law upon themselves without trusting God for grace that would give them the desire and power to do what God wanted them to do”, they become slaves because they have no freedom to do the law from the heart, and because their unbelief locks them into disobedience and excludes them from the inheritance.
Then in verse 26 Paul turns his attention to the other half of the allegory—Sarah and her child, Isaac. "But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother." He contrasts the present Jerusalem in verse 25 with the "Jerusalem above" in verse 26. What he means by the Jerusalem above can be seen in Revelation 19:7, "Let us be glad and rejoice, and give glory to him; for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath prepared herself. ". and in Revelation 21:2, “And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
The Jerusalem above represents the Church, Christ Body, Christ Bride who are joined together as one flesh. Our life and our freedom flow down from Christ and His Church, and our lives exists both in heaven and on Earth through the communion of saints. Sarah represents that city because she gave birth to Isaac not by reliance on herself but by an act of God from above in fulfillment of his promise. In the same way Mary represent that city because she gave birth to Jesus not by reliance on herself but by an act of God from above in fulfillment of his promise.
Therefore, spiritually speaking, Mary is the mother of all Christians—of people whose lives are not merely the product of human resources but of God's supernatural work in their heart. So Paul says in verse 28, "Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise."
Our real life is not, like Ishmael's, simply owing to the work of man. Our real life is owing to the work of God in us through the Church and through Mary, fulfilling his promise to make for himself a people (Genesis 12:1–3) and to put his Spirit within them (Ezekiel 36:27) and write his law on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).
Which brings us back to our definition of freedom. Freedom is what you have when there is opportunity, ability, and desire to do what will make you happy in a thousand years. Surely everyone here wants this full freedom—to have occasion and ability to do what you love to do with the result that you live in perfect joy forever. If that's what you want, then this text is crucial for you, because Paul says the Ishmael-types don't have this freedom but the Isaac-types do.
Why aren't the Ishmael-types free? They are not free because they lack the desire to rest in God's promises. They lack the desire to show their own resourcefulness. It's not that they desire to reject God. They simply want him on their own terms. Abraham and Hagar wanted God's blessing, but not on his terms. The Judaizers want God's blessing, but not on his terms. Ishmael-types in every age rely on human resources and don't desire to feel like children in need of a father, or like a patient in need of a doctor. Therefore, when it comes to saving faith, Ishmael-types do not have the freedom of desire. They do not want it. Therefore, they also lack the freedom of eternal life, because no one who prefers to live in his own strength rather than trusting God will be saved and go to heaven. And what's more, the hardness of heart that spurns childlike dependence on God will also darken the understanding. Every one of us knows that the most common use of the mind is to justify our desires. Therefore, deeply wrong desires will deeply mislead the mind until it is not able to understand what is right.
So 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.
But we like Isaac, are children of promise (Galatians 4:28). We have been born of the Holy Spirit. The essence of Christianity is the miracle of new birth. The hallmark of the Isaac-types is that we have been converted, changed, transformed at the center of our lives, so that we desire to rest in God's sovereign grace. We desire to become as little children and receive the power and wisdom and holiness from our all-sufficient Father. We hate the remaining tendencies in us to be proud and to trust in ourselves or other people instead of God. Our delight is in the law of the Lord, and our choicest food is to do his will in reliance on his power. This is what it means to be born according to the Spirit. This is what it means to say I no longer live but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). His passion becomes our passion.
Therefore, Isaac-types have the freedom of desire. We don't labor slavishly under the burden of having to do what we don't want to do. We are free to do what we love to do and to do it forever in perfect joy. For God has caused us to be born again by the Spirit of his Son, and is shaping our desires according to his will.
"So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free: by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free. Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not held again under the yoke of bondage." (Galatians 4:31-5:1)