COMMENTARY ON GALATIANS
LESSON NUMBER 41
FOR THOSE WHO DESIRE TO BE UNDER THE LAW
Gal 4:21 “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? 22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.”(Gal 4:21-23)
In his reasoning with the Galatians, Paul does not condescend to speaking in their language, but insists on speaking in Scriptural language and by Scriptural example. He will refer to their choice differently than they do, calling it precisely what it is, even though they did not think of it in the same way in which he speaks of it. There is something to be learned from this that is quite different from much of the religious emphasis and methodologies of our day. Rather than speaking in language that appears relevant to the departing ones, Paul uses language with which the Holy Spirit can work. Because of misplaced emphases, this approach is virtually unknown in our day. Nevertheless, it is essential that we learn this point. Paul stated the case succinctly when he referred to his own communications. “which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” NASB (1 Cor 2:13). Peter said essentially the same thing when he wrote, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet 4:11), The NIV reads, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.” This is not simply a technicality, or a law to which men are to adhere. There is holy rationale behind this requirement. It is the Word of God that works effectually in those who believe (1 Thess 2:13), not the word of man. It is the Word of God that is living and active, and discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb 4:12), not the word of man. Man lives by every Word of God (Lk 4:4), not every word of man. The only appointed “seed” that brings about a true spiritual harvest, is the Word of God (Lk 8:11). As simplistic as this may appear, throughout the centuries there has been repeated departures from the centrality of the Word of God. We are living in the midst of such a departure. Unlike the Galatians, the average Christian of this time knows very little about the factual events that are recorded in Scripture, and even less about the things portrayed and introduced by them. It will be good to see how Paul develops his case, citing an “allegory” as a doctrinal tool. This confirms the hand of God is throughout history.
TELL ME, YE THAT DESIRE TO BE UNDER THE LAW
Gal 4:21 “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?”
In dealing with the Galatians, Paul will reason in strict accord with the truth of God, not the challenges of the circumstance at hand. Technically speaking, he is not resolving a problem, but overshadowing it with the truth. This is a most critical distinction. Neither Jesus nor His apostles ever became embroiled in the private affairs of people. When they brought relief to people, it was always in order that they might appropriate higher things. The resolution of temporal disorders and circumstances was never an end of itself. Thus Jesus told a multitude whom He had miraculously fed, “Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed” (John 6:27).
TELL ME. Other versions read, “Say,” BBE “tell me something,” GWN “Listen to me,” LIVING “won’t you listen,” IE and “Let me ask those of you.” GNB The rest of the versions read, “Tell me.” Technically, the word “tell” means “to speak . . . to say by direct discourse,” or to state one’s view of a thing. THAYER
Paul is not content to simply let the people go on thinking as they do. He calls upon them to explain matters that bear upon this subject. Having been diverted from the truth, they have not thought in an acceptable manner. Thus, Paul will guide their thinking, soliciting their view of things revealed. He does not ask them to reason upon what the false teachers have taught them, but on the Word of the living God.
You may recall that when the USA was attacked on 9/11/2001, an interest in learning more of the Muslim religion was expressed in many churches. Classes were held on the Korah, in hopes of better understanding the enemies of our country. This was a foolish gesture, and would be like Paul holding classes on the various nuances of the doctrine promulgated by the Jewish teachers. He does not initiate a dialog about such things, but points them to the Scriptures.
YE THAT DESIRE TO BE UNDER THE LAW. Other versions read, “who want to be under law,” NASB “who desire to be subject to the law,” NIV “who want to be in subjection to the system,” CJB “want to be controlled by Moses’ laws,” GWN “are so eager to be subject to the Law,” NJB “are willing to be under law,” YLT and “who are bent on being under the Law.” AMPLIFIED
For those who see the need of being pleasing to God, there are two systems by which to set out to accomplish that desire. One is by the system of Law, and the other is by the experience of grace. The system of Law deals mostly with restraining inclinations, and majors on outward things. It primarily has to do with refraining from this or that, and doing things by routine, procedure, or a given program. Grace has to do with receiving something that does not need to be restrained, and making the person free to gladly do it. Law brings no power, but grace does. Law does not allow for ultimate achievement, but grace does. Law brings no inner satisfaction and confidence, but grace does.
Now, when Paul asks for an answer from those who are willing to live under law, he is interpreting their preference. I do not think any of the Galatians would have said they preferred Law to Jesus, or wanted nothing to do with grace. In actuality, however, that is what they were doing. Anyone who chooses to be guided by laws has, by that very choice, rejected the Lord’s Christ. They have chosen a system to the Good Shepherd, and a routine rather than the Redeemer. They may not choose to say it this way, but that is the way it really is. No one can live by grace and by law simultaneous. A choice must be made to prefer one over the other. The Jewish teachers had, by skillful words and zeal without knowledge, convinced the Galatians to think a manner that contradicted faith, and it had led to their departure from the Lord.
DO YE NOT HEAR THE LAW? Other versions read, “listen to the law,” NASB “aware of what the law says,” NIV “Why don't you find out what those laws really mean?,” LIVING and “will you listen to what the Law [really] says?” AMPLIFIED The Law cannot be properly understood academically, or simply by familiarizing oneself with what is written. There is a message contained in the Law that is hidden from natural understanding. It is something that requires special ears – “ears to hear” (Matt 13:9). Elsewhere this is called “the hearing ear” (Prov 20:12). Jesus said to some of His confused listeners, “Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word” (John 8:43). Moses told Israel that God had not given them “ears to hear” (Deut 29:4). Paul said of the unbelieving Jews, “God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear unto this day” (Rom 11:8).
In their conversion, the Galatians had been rescued from that condition. Now, however, they had lapsed into a condition of spiritual deafness. Paul will test their hearing ability. He will go to a common text, and see if they can hear the tone of it – a tone that is in another dimension, the realm of the Spirit. There is both a message and a certain power that is resident in every portion of Scripture. If a person is able to pick up on the message being delivered, the power of it will come with its understanding. Blessed is the person who perceives this.
ABRAHAM HAD TWO SONS
4:22 “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.”
Paul will now go to what appears to be an historical text – not one of doctrine or insight, but merely as recitation of what took place. However, what takes place in revealed history is to be viewed through the template of God’s “eternal purpose.” When the relationship of the text to that purpose is comprehended, it has been understood as the Lord intends.
IT IS WRITTEN. In the sight of God, when a matter relating to His working is written, it has been, so to speak, embalmed in print. The writing of it has made it more secure to humanity, even though much of the human race views the writing of truth as a point of vulnerability, when what God has said has been placed into the hands of men, who can change it. However, this is not how the writing of Scripture is viewed in the inspired record. The words “it is written” occur seventeen times from Joshua through Daniel, and sixty-three times from Matthew through First Peter. It is never represented as showing some kind of weakness, or vulnerability to the corruptions of men. It is never suggested that what is written requires updating or some kind of change. Whenever such things are attempted, the writings are no longer Scripture. When anyone attempts to unite the tradition of men with the Word of God, they are “making the Word of God of none effect” (Mk 7:13), and a powerless word does not have God in it – i.e. God does not, and will not, work through it. Such a word is not to be considered as “the Word of God.”
ABRAHAM HAD TWO SONS. The worldly scholar would say this is not correct – that Abraham really had eight sons: Ishmael,
Isaac, Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah – the latter six being through Keturah, who Abraham married after Sarah’s death (Gen 25:1-2). Yet, here it is stated that “Abraham had two sons.” This is viewing the matter from the standpoint of the purpose of God, and the things more immediately related to it. From an even closer view, God referred to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son” (Gen 22:2,12,16). The academic man would say that was a contradiction: two sons, eight sons, and an only son. However, they are from three different, yet valid, points of view. Paul will now develop one the of those views.
THE ONE BY A BONDMAID. This is the son Abraham had through Hagar, who was the “handmaid,” or woman servant, of Sarah (Gen 16:1). Even though Abraham had received a promise that he would have a “seed” (Gen 12:7; 13:15; 15:5), yet, after living in Canaan for “ten years” (Gen 16:3), he had begotten no children. Knowing of the promise, Sarah concluded that “seed” would come from someone other than herself, for she remained barren. She must have known that God promised Abraham the offspring would be begotten by him personally (Gen 15:4). In those days, a woman could obtain children through her handmaid. Thus Rachel, who herself was also barren, said to Jacob, “ Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (Gen 30:3). That this was a legitimate way of thinking is confirmed by the fact that the two sons Bilhah bore (Dan and Naphtali), headed up two of the legitimate tribes of Israel (Gen 30:4-8).
The son born by the handmaid Hagar was Ishmael. Abraham was eighty years old at the time (Gen 16:15-16). Contrary to some of the opinions of men, this child was not the result of lust, or the desire of Abraham for a younger woman. At the time Sarah made her decision, God had not yet revealed the promised child would come through her personally. In addition to this, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham “to be his wife” (Gen 16:33), not to have a fleshly fling.
THE OTHER BY A FREEWOMAN. The “freewoman” was Sarah, Abraham’s initial wife. When speaking of the promised seed, God eventually told Abraham, “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed” (Gen 17:16,19). That promise was given when Abraham was ninety-nine years old (Gen 17:1) – 29 years after the original promise of a seed.
He does not say “a freed woman,” but a “free woman.” Such a woman was not made free after being a slave, but was born free, or a non-slave. Her parents were not slaves. Thus, some versions read, “the freeborn woman.” NAB “his freeborn wife.” NLT
Sarah gave birth to Isaac when she was ninety (Gen 17:17). At the time God verified she would have Isaac, Abraham was ninety-nine. God said “about this time next year” Sarah would bear the promised son. That means she had not yet conceived the child. Abraham, reckoning upon the promise, referred to himself as becoming the father when he was “an hundred years old,” and Sarah “ninety.” Sarah was barren from the day she married Abraham, which was at least thirty years before the birth of Isaac (Gen 11:29-30; 12:4) – probably a few more, from the time Abraham took Sarah to wife, until the year Terah, his father, died (Gen 11:29-32).
Thus Paul has extracted a portion of Scripture that appeared to be nothing more than an historical account, and he will reason upon it. He will appeal to the purpose that drove the writing of Scripture, and the Divine nature that was revealed in the account. In this passage, Paul will allege that the ways of God were being revealed, and that the conduct of the churches in Galatia contradicted those ways. They had conducted themselves in violation of the promise of God.
AFTER THE FLESH AND AFTER THE PROMISE
4:23 "But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.”
Paul now reasons with basic spiritual principles in mind – principles that are woven throughout the fabric of Scripture. By “principles” I mean pillars of thought that precisely reflect the purpose of God. There is no legitimate domain of thought in which these principles can be ignored. Like the law of gravity penetrates the entire terrestrial realm, so these principles are found in every area of sanctified thought.
BORN AFTER THE FLESH. Other versions read, “born according to the flesh,” NKJV “in the ordinary way,” NIV “after the flesh,” BBE according to the flesh and had an ordinary birth.” AMPLIFIED
Defining “the flesh.” What does the expression “after the flesh” mean? On the surface, it appears that the term could be applied to Sarah giving birth to Isaac. After all, that was a fleshly birth, and it was produced by a fleshly union. However, it was not “after the flesh.”
This phrase speaks of the origin of a thing – the ultimate reason for its existence. It is to a happening what a fountain is to the water that comes from it. The birth of Isaac was not the result of a human idea or plan. No man made it happen, even though Abraham appeared to have done precisely that. However, he was at an age where he could not beget a child, and it was never possible for Sarah to bear a child, as time confirmed.
Something that is “after the flesh” is traced back to Adam, who was “the first man” (1 Cor 15:45,47). It is not traced back to Adam in the Garden, for he had no offspring when there. When it comes to the purpose of God, and profitable participation in it, “the flesh profiteth nothing” (Rom 6:63). No lasting benefit can come from it, and it can contribute nothing of eternal worth. In fact, in the flesh, “dwelleth no good thing” (Rom 7:18). There is nothing valuable that is inherent in the flesh. Nothing resident in it can be made better or acceptable to God. In fact, “they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8).
Associating this meaning with our text, Isaac could never have been born through Hagar – of any woman other than Sarah. It would have made no difference how polished and apparently good Hagar may have appeared, she could not give birth to Isaac. She was a younger woman, and one capable of giving birth to a child – even a male child – but she could not bring forth the son that was promised to Abraham. Ishmael may have looked like Isaac, but he was not Isaac. By nature, he was a slave, and the promised seed had to be free born.
Why would any truly knowledgeable person expect the promised seed to be born of Hagar, and consequently born a slave? It is just as unreasonable to imagine that anything related to the redemption that is in Christ Jesus could come from the wisdom and works of men.
BORN BY PROMISE. Other versions read, “through promise,” NKJV “the result of a promise,” NIV “through the undertaking of God,” BBE “in fulfillment of the promise.” AMPLIFIED Ultimately, the reason for the birth of Isaac was not the union of Abraham and Sarah. It was the promise of God. That means there is a certain power in the promise that guarantees its fulfillment. God cannot make a vain or pointless promise – but man can. That is why it is so wrong for men to concoct their own plans, then ask God to bless them. No person will become more like God by having their own will fulfilled, regardless of how holy and pure it may appear. It is “by” the “exceeding great and precious promises” that we become “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). Many souls have promised God that if He would fulfill their desires, whether it had to do with a crisis or some other matter considered very serious, they would serve God – which He has required of them whatever their state may be. In other words, people sometimes tend to think that a great deliverance, or meeting a need in crisis, or overthrowing the devices of the wicked, will make them stronger, more like the Lord, and a person with stronger faith. But the Israelites experienced a mighty deliverance, were miraculously sustained, and witnessed the overthrow of their enemies. Yet, they were made one whit better because of it. When they did not have bread and water, they did not trust in the Lord for their supplies. When they came to the border of the promised land, they did not view it as a promised land.
Spiritual growth, like the birth of Isaac, comes from trusting in the promises of God. That can take place on the field of battle with David, in a furnace of fire with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or in a lion’s den with Daniel.
When Jesus told the disciples to wait, ir was “for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). When Peter told the people of the benefits being offered, he spoke of “the promise” (Acts 2:39). Paul revealed that the coming of Christ was “according to His promise” (Acts 13:23,32). It is in the power of God’s promises that we can cleanse ourselves of all filthiness of flesh and spirit, and perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor 7:1). Paul refers to the promise of God ten times in the letter to the Galatian churches (3:14,16,17,18,19,21,22,29; 4:23,28). God’s promises must shape the way we think, and determine the things that we want. Law makes no such requirement, because it has nothing whatsoever to do with faith.