Galatians 4:21-31 — Hagar and Sarah – Bible study notes

Galatians 4:21: Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?

  • “You who want to be under the law” — Paul is asking these Galatians if they actually listen to the law or just to what these Judaizers are promoting as law
    • The Judaizers who are pushing that we obtain righteousness by keeping the Law don’t know what they are saying.
    • 1 Timothy 1:7: wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.
      •  You can’t just keep part of the Law and live the rest of the time by grace
      • You have to keep every precept of the Law perfectly or else you’ve broken the whole thing
  • The Jews from Judea were telling the Galatians that they could believe in Jesus and use laws, rules and religious regulations of the Old Covenant to make themselves better Christians.
  • So Paul goes back to the story of Hagar and Sarah, which most likely was used by the false teachers, who told the Galatians: You are not really children of Abraham unless you obey all the law of Moses
    • Paul is saying “Since you are so intrigued by the law, please understand its prophetic message: The law records the fact that Abraham had two sons: one by a slave girl, the other by a free woman. There is a parallel meaning in the story of the two sons: they represent two systems, works and grace.”
    • Paul brought them back once again to the Abrahamic Covenant and again showed them the difference between law and grace.
      • He does this by contrasting two wives (Sarah and Hagar) and the births of their two sons (Isaac and Ishmael), he was really contrasting two systems of belief (grace and law) and two types of birth (spiritual and physical).

verse 22-23: For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.

  • “it is written,” refers to a summary of Genesis 16-17 and 21.
    • This is the story of Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael.
    • Ishmael was born of a slave woman (Hagar), while Isaac was born to a free woman (Sarah)
    • Paul is telling these Galatians that there are two ways of being related to Abraham: one right way and one wrong way.

Quick recap of the Genesis story….

  • God promised Abraham a son.. an heir. A child of promise
  • Sarah was barren, so she suggested that Abraham have a child with Hagar
    • Sarah would then raise the child as her own (Genesis 16:2).
    • This was a common practice of their day.
  • Abraham did as Sarah wished, and Hagar had a child named Ishmael (Genesis 16:4 and 11).
  • However, God made it clear that this was not the child He had promised to Abraham through whom He would fulfill His promise (Genesis 17:20-21).
    • So, approximately fourteen years after the birth of Ishmael, Abraham and Sarah had a child supernaturally, who was named Isaac (Genesis 21:1-3).
  • Ishmael, the son of Hagar, persecuted Isaac, the son of Sarah, to the degree that Sarah told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away (Genesis 21:9-10).
    • Abraham did not want to do this, but God spoke to him and told him to do as Sarah had said (Genesis 21:11-12).
  • The Old Covenant of Law, like Ishmael, was to be cast out or done away with (2 Corinthians 3:7).
  • The New Covenant is like Isaac, who received the blessing and inheritance.
    • Ishmael was a product of self-effort
    •  In contrast, Isaac was supernatural.
    • Likewise, salvation by grace is supernatural, not through self-effort.
  • The legalistic Jews had been blinded to these simple truths of the Gospel in the Old Testament.
    • As a result of their blindness, they had misinterpreted the purpose of the Old Covenant Law and were wrongly teaching that conformity to the Law was necessary for salvation and for living their lives after accepting Christ

verse 24-26: This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. (25) Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (26) But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.

  • Here Paul is using an allegory
    • An allegory is a type of interpretation common among the rabbis.
    •  It interprets scriptural events or persons as foreshadowing a deeper spiritual truth.
    • Persons and actions represent hidden meanings, so that the narrative can be read on two levels: the literal and the symbolic.
  • Paul’s use of Genesis in this section does not give us license to find “hidden meanings” in all the events of the Old Testament.
    •  If we take that approach to the Bible, we can make it mean almost anything we please.
    • This is the way many false teachings arise.
    • We must always interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, and where the New Testament gives us permission, we may search for hidden meanings.
  • So, in this passage, two women represent two covenants, and the two children represent a work of the flesh and a work of the Spirit.
    • Hagar represents Mount Sinai (where Moses received the Law) and the city of Jerusalem in Paul’s time, which was enslaved to Rome as well as to the Law.
      • Hagar’s children being slaves corresponds to the Jews’ bondage of being under the Law, or as the Living Bible states, “The center of that system of trying to please Godby trying to obey the Commandments
    • In contrast, those who receive salvation by faith in what Christ did for them, instead of what they do for God through the Law, are all citizens of this heavenly Jerusalem.


  • This is a quotation from Isaiah 54:1 from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament).
  • The “barren” in this verse refers to Sarah.
    • She was told of the Lord to break forth into singing and rejoicing before she became pregnant.
    • The barren Sarah rejoiced at the promise of God through faith (Hebrews 11:11), and through the promised seed (Galatians 3:16 told us that promised Seed is Christ), she had infinitely more children (all believers) than her slave Hagar
  • The allegory is that those who have relationship with the Lord supernaturally by faith in what Jesus did for them are more blessed and fruitful than those who trust in the natural (i.e., what they do for the Lord instead of what the Lord has done for them).

v 28 — And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.

  • Isaac was the first 100% full-blood Jew.
    • Paul tells the Galatians, likewise, you who are true Christians are true 100% Jews
  • The basic point of the false teachers was: Yes, it is good that you believe in Christ, but you will have to obey the whole law before you can be considered the children of Abraham…. Jewish
    • Paul’s basic point is: The moment you believed in Christ, you were the children of Abraham, the heirs of all the promises of God!
    • And the moment you start thinking you have to obey the whole law, you are not the children of Abraham at all!
      • Romans 2:28-29 — For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. (29) But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
  • Paul is assuring the Galatians that just as Isaac was conceived supernaturally, so they had became children of promise not through their own efforts but through a supernatural work of God

Though the false teachers proudly consider themselves related to Abraham by Sarah and Isaac, Paul says that really they are spiritually descended from the slave woman, the Gentile, the outcast.

v. 29 — But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.

  • In the same way that Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 21:9), the same thing is happening to the Galatians
    • Paul is telling them that just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the Jerusalem Jews in their Christian disguise are seeking to harass them
  • The same thing happens today
    • Those who rely on the works/flesh (i.e. the Law) persecute those who live by faith orgrace alone… Christ plus nothing
  • Ishmael was cast out because the child of promise (Isaac) cannot coexist with the child of the flesh (Ishmael).
    • grace and law cannot co-exist or be mixed together… they don’t balance each other
    • there is no such thing as a grace based law or a law balanced grace
  • Law will always stand in contrast or opposition to grace
    • Because no amount of human standards, religious codes, or commands, no matter how sincere, can change the nature of our flesh or make us spiritual people (Galatians 2:21; 3:21). There is no law strong enough to change, control, regulate, or govern our flesh
    • But grace teaches us to say no to sin and trains us in righteousness and godly living.
      • It transforms us into the image of the Son
  • It’s one or the other — you have to choose



  • In this verse, Paul takes the Galatians back to Genesis 21:9-14.
    • Which says Therefore she (Sarah) said to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.”
  • The point was that just as Hagar and Ishmael would not have any part in the inheritance of Isaac, so those of the covenant of Law with its legalism will not inherit the promise of justification that comes by faith
    • Just as they were cast out, we are to cast out or rid your minds radically from the slave law mentality.

verse 31: So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.

  • Paul was saying realize whose children we are: we are not children of the slave-mother, the law, but children of the free mother
  • we are begotten of grace!

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