We have been going through Galatians in the Sunday Bible study. Galatians is one of those books of the Bible where it is immediately evident that there is a lot one could write about, and the first trouble is deciding where to start, where to stop, and what to write about. My initial thought had been to write about “The Idolatry of Authority” (or some such title). It is common to view Galatians as a polemic about justification by faith, not works–and rightly it is. But Galatians contains much more than that theological nugget, and while conservative Christian circles will loudly acclaim their allegiance to this truth, I see a pervasive failure to understand the implications and truly apply what Paul teaches about being “led by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:18).
That was what I wanted to write about. But as I considered Galatians I began to feel that, while my subject matter was worthy, adequately expressing the truth I was trying to convey would require more extensive handling of the text. Oh, I could grab a passage or two from Galatians and quickly grind my particular ax on them, but I decided that wouldn’t be satisfactory . . . and I wasn’t sure I had the available time to launch into that lengthy handling. I’m still not sure.
What I’m writing about today is a portion of Galatians that leaped out at me as a helpful addition on two subjects I’ve already written about. The passage is Galatians 4:21-4:31 and in it are both interpretation of the Old Testament (as I discussed in The Shepherd of Zechariah 13) and also an exposition on the nature of Israel (as I discussed in Interpreting Ezekiel).
Implicit in the book of Galatians is the question, “What constitutes the people of God?” Some Judaizers had come to the Galatians and were trying to compel them to be circumcised. To be one of God’s people, they said, you had to be circumcised. And, as Paul pointed out, that was in essence a requirement to take up the entire Law instituted at Sinai. The Judaizers looked back to that order and said the people of God were defined by that relationship and thus it was required of all who would be God’s people. Paul resoundingly and completely refutes this argument in Galatians chapter 3. The promise which formed the foundation for the people of God came before the Law and was not based upon the Law, Paul says. The Law came later and was only until until the Seed (this is, Christ) to whom the promise referred, had come. Now that Christ has come the order instituted by the Law is finished.
Who are the people of God? The raging controversy over circumcision has faded in our present day, but the issue over what defines the people of God has not. If you pass through Christian circles today and ask, “To whom do the promises of God pertain?” or some similar question, many Christians will point you to the Jewish people. The general attitude is demonstrable in the widespread support of the nation of Israel among certain Christian circles as the Christians in those circles look forward to an exaltation of that earthly nation of Israel. So the very problem facing the Galatian church is still facing us today–that is, the theology which places the earthly nation of Israel as the fulfillment of God’s promise.
But how does this opinion stand up in the face of Scripture itself? Is the earthly nation of Israel the focal point of God’s promise? Paul says,
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Jews and Greeks, Paul says, are all heirs according to the promise. But he goes on to elucidate even further.
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written:
“Be glad, O barren woman,
who bears no children;
break forth and cry aloud,
you who have no labor pains;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband.”
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 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. But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Now we’re getting to the meat of today’s topic–scriptural interpretation and the nature of Israel. What Paul has said would be stunning for a Jew of his day, and apparently, for many Christians today. Have you seriously considered what Paul has said here? Have you worked out the implications? It seems a lot of Christians have not because their espoused theology clashes on a fundamental level with what Paul is teaching here.
If you went into many (most?) of today’s churches and said, “The present city of Jerusalem is in slavery with her children and God has said, ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’ son will never share in the inheritance'” you would be run out of the church. If you articulated what Paul says here in Galatians you would cause great offense in many churches because it runs counter to the accepted orthodoxy of an eschatology with an exalted earthly, physical nation of Israel under an earthly rule of Christ.
But what does Paul say? Something radical. It is radical, it strikes to the very core, shattering presumption and perception. People shy away from the radical. But Paul is stating something with forceful clarity here that we ought to come to terms with. He lays out the irrevocable break between the Jerusalem that is below and the Jerusalem that is above. The earthly Jerusalem is in slavery, the spiritual Jerusalem is free. The earthly Israel is in bondage, separate from God. The spiritual Israel is free, God’s delivered people.
What Paul says is radical, but it is pretty clear if you will stop and consider. I have talked previously about the spiritual application of the Old Testament and the figures and types of the Old Testament pointing to the fullness of the reality in the New Testament . . . well, here Paul gives it to us–Scriptural Interpretation and Application 101. Pay attention because the approach Paul applies here has implications to how we understand and approach all of the Old Testament scripture.
We have what seems reasonable to men turned on its head. Sarah was the mother of the earthly nation of Israel which would inherit the earthly promised land. Hagar was the mother of those who would not inherit. The Jews were proud of their parentage and looked down on Hagar and her descendants. Now Paul, as it were, turns this on its head. Spiritually, he says, the nation of Israel is Hagar and her descendants. The city of Jerusalem, which the Jews so revered, is Hagar, a slave woman in slavery? Horror. But true, and with far reaching implications for understanding the promises of God.
It is not those born the ordinary way who are of the lineage of God’s people, but those born of promise. We, from every tribe and nation, are children of promise (Isn’t that a thought of such great encouragement? We are children of God’s promise.) The true people of God are sundered from any link to ordinary physical descent, being of spiritual descent by the work of God’s Spirit.
People miss the full force and implication of what Paul is teaching when they go on to espouse a doctrine where in the last days Jesus will return to rule the earthly nation of Israel in earthly Jerusalem. What is not clear in the statement, “Get rid of the slave woman and her children“? This earthly Jerusalem and the fleshly nation of Israel are the slave woman and her children. Is Christ going to come and exalt and rule over those he has commanded to be cast out?
Those who look for the earthly rule of Christ over the fleshly nation of Israel will appeal to interpretations of passages in the book of Revelation and passages in the Old Testament speaking about the future blessing of Israel. But I say, wait, wait just one minute. Right here in the portion of Galatians we are looking at Paul interprets one of those very Old Testament passages about the future blessing of Israel–and how does he interpret? That blessing, he says, applies to the spiritual Israel and her spiritual descendants, not to the fleshly Israel. This is not an accident, an anomaly in Old Testament thought and application which is to be swept under the rug because it doesn’t fit with our larger view. No. Paul is presenting an interpretive framework and understanding for the Old Testament and shouldn’t that inform how we handle it? If Paul teaches that the future blessing of Israel speaks to the spiritual Israel, shouldn’t we accept it?
How does Paul’s teaching inform your understanding of the Old Testament? Given what Paul has said, and how he has used the Old Testament, how do you understand the future blessing of Israel?