Jean’s Gospel: Allegory of the Barren Church
“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” (Gal 4:22-26)
To briefly summarize the major points in this opening passage from Paul’s elegant allegory, Paul is describing two groups of people:
(1) Children who are born of natural means, such as Hagar’s son, Ishmael, are born under the Law. Life under the Law is slavery to sin, death and the devil. Slaves receive no inheritance in the Kingdom of God; and
(2) Children who are born by the power of God’s word of promise (i.e., Gospel), like Sarah’s son, Isaac, who are born apart from the Law. Life apart from the Law is freedom from slavery to sin, the sting of death and the power of the devil. Free children receive an inheritance in the Kingdom of their heavenly Father.
The other important point Paul makes in this opening passage is the new locus for God’s presence and saving activity in the world. God has left the earthly Jerusalem and the temple and has abolished the sacrifices and Aaronic priesthood. God’s new locus is in the midst of His Church, where His Word is rightly preached and His Sacraments are administered. Christ rules His bride, the Church, by grace and there, through water and the Word, the Holy Spirit gives birth to free baby Christians. Paul refers to the Church as the “Jerusalem above.”
“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.’” (Gal 4:27)
Hagar, who has the Law for a husband, always appears to be overflowing with fertility. Just look around and see how well legalistic religions grow and seem to prosper. Even many churches, who superficially confess Christ, actually have taken the Law as their paramour.
By contrast, the Jerusalem above appears barren. Christ serves His bride with gifts of absolution, freedom and life by means of preaching the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Sinners are set free by grace through faith in Christ alone.
But grace through faith appears barren to the carnal eye. With grace through faith, there is no two-way exchange between God and man. Christ does all the giving, and Christians do all the receiving. But the carnal eye wants proof that God is actually present and active: a charismatic preacher; moving testimonies; spiritual mentors; spiritual disciplines; entertaining messages; emotional music; manifestations of the Holy Spirit; maybe even a Bible inspired diet plan. Many of these things are done or talked about “in Christ’s name”, but in name only. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem above appears barren. Walking by faith and not by sight appears barren. Christ nailed to a cross appears barren.
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Tim 4:3-4) Have you seen this?
Ironically, however, it is only the Jerusalem above who is birthing free baby Christians and filling up heaven with a great multitude of saints. On the other hand, the descendants of Hagar, who appear as numerous as the stars in the sky are actually living in spiritual death and if not saved will be confirmed dead for eternity. Christ does not share His bride with another husband, whether the Law or your works. If you want Christ, it must be “the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
“Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 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. (Gal 4:28-29)
Legalists always persecute the Jerusalem from above, because they don’t trust freedom in Christ and they don’t trust faith itself. They would like to bind the Christian conscience with some Law to ensure piety. Then they attack the Christian by attempting to divert him from trusting in Christ’s gifts to relying on other people or themselves for their spiritual formation. But the free Christian is “sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6)
“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.’” (Gal 4:30)
Paul ends the allegory by exhorting the Galatians to cast out the legalists and their works of the Law. Christ and the Law cannot co-exist in a man’s conscience. A man is either justified freely by faith alone in Christ alone, or he will stand condemned before God, because no one can justify himself under the Law.
Paul also describes in this allegory the spiritual warfare that all Christians face. On the one hand, we are all Hagar’s children by natural descent; so in this respect we are slaves to sin. But on the other hand, by grace through faith in Christ we are re-birthed as free children of Sarah. As children of Hagar, we have no inheritance and are condemned under the Law, whereas as children of Sarah, we have an eternal inheritance free from the Law.
Therefore, Christians endure an internal spiritual battle between the identity of their natural descent (which they see when they look in the mirror) and their new adopted sonship in Christ. This is the battle Paul describes vividly in Romans Chapter 7 where he concludes:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Rom 7:24-25)
As children of Hagar (to extend the allegory), we will always be slaves to sin in our flesh. But as free children of Sarah, we are reckoned righteous by God for Christ’s sake apart from the Law. Therefore, Christians can describe themselves as simultaneously sinners and saints.
Therefore, when Paul writes to “cast out the slave woman and her son”, we should also take this as an exhortation to us to daily repent of our sin and turn to Christ who is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18) Amen.