NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XLVI)
The great reformer Martin Luther sees verse twenty-nine from his perspective at the beginning of the European Renaissance. For him, what Paul says here is a cheering thought. We who are born of the Gospel, and live in union with the Anointed One, and rejoice in our inheritance, count Ishmael as our enemy. The children of the Law will always persecute the children of the Gospel. This is our daily experience. Our opponents tell us that everything was at peace before the Gospel arrived was revived by us. As a result, the whole world is now upset. People blame us and the Gospel for everything, for the disobedience of subjects to their rulers, for wars, plagues, and famines, for revolutions, and every other evil thing that can be imagined. No wonder our opponents think they are doing God a favor by hating and persecuting us.
Luther goes on to say that there were even some who point to the destruction of Jerusalem shortly after the Gospel started being preached by the Apostles. They also believe that the overthrow of the Roman Empire was the result of Christianity’s rise to a world religion. And did not Paul cause unrest and upheaval in the areas where he preached the gospel. But Luther counters by saying: “We do not say that the Gospel instigated these upheavals. The iniquity of man did it.” It is obvious that Luther was responding to the undeserved persecution of Protestants by the Jews and the Roman Catholic Church. Later on, Luther toned down his criticism of the Jews, but never gave up hope of reforming the Roman Church.
To this, Calvin adds his own admonition, which is appropriate to our situation in the world today. He reminds us that not only ought we be filled with repulsion at physical persecutions when the enemies of salvation by grace slay us with fire and sword; when they banish, imprison, torture, or scourge those who stand up for their faith. However, when they attempt, by their irreverence, to weaken our confidence, which rests on the promises of God; when they ridicule our salvation when they openly scorn the full Gospel with laughter; nothing should offend our conscience more deeply than contempt for God and casting reproach upon His grace.
At the same time, says Calvin, there is no type of persecution more deadly than when the salvation of the soul is assaulted. We who escaped from the tyranny of such religious bias are not called to go against such wicked people with swords. But how blind must we be, if we are not affected by that spiritual persecution, in which they strive, by every method, to extinguish that doctrine, from which we draw the breath of life! – when they attack our faith by their false doctrines and cause those, who are less informed to struggle and fall. Calvin also moderated his anger but never gave in to what the other side was demanding. He never put Jesus back on the cross but left it empty as a sign of His resurrection and power to save.
Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke (1760-1832) gives us his summation of what Paul is saying here to the Galatians. In his mind, the Apostle Paul is using the Jew’s own Scriptures to explained by their own oral teachings to prove that it is only by Jesus the Anointed One that they can receive redemption. And yet, because they did not believe in Him as they awaited Messiah, therefore, they continue struggling in bondage to the Law and sin. That means now, they open themselves to punishment from God, leading to long and grievous captivity, trying to work for their salvation instead of receiving it by faith as a gift of grace.
No doubt, the Apostle Paul made reference to those things often foretold by the prophets and confirmed by Jesus the Messiah Himself, and this was the strongest argument he produced to show the Galatians their folly and their danger in submitting again to the bondage from which they escaped. Little did they know that they were exposing themselves to one of the most dreadful calamities of an earthly kind, as well as to the final ruin of their souls. Since they desired to be under the Law, then they must accept all the consequences which the Apostle makes vividly clear to them.
Baptist minister and theologian August H. Strong (1837-1899) mentions that the Apostles quoted the First Covenant as being the Word of God. The Apostles also quoted the First Covenant as the utterance of God. So, Paul’s insistence upon the validity of even a single word, and his use of the First Covenant for purposes of allegory, as in verses twenty-one to thirty-one, show that in his view the First Covenant text was sacred. However, to Philo of Alexandria – a Greek Jewish Philosopher who used philosophical allegory to harmonize Jewish Scriptures, mainly the Torah, and Jewish historian Flavius Josephus did the same with the Jewish Talmud, in their interpretations of the First Covenant. And even though they considered the text as being sacred, Strong says they continually fell into a “narrow and unhappy literalism,” instead of understanding these allegories as “figures of speech or parables.” Unfortunately, the identical problem is the case today.
This same view is also expressed by English theologian William Sanday (1843-1920), Professor of Exegesis on Holy Scripture, by noting that any interpreter of the Final Covenant does not escape from using the same Rabbinical methods of literalism. But even where these are most prominent, they seem to be what is remembered instead of revealing the spiritual truth to be found therein. And through the temporary and local parable, the writer constantly penetrates to the very heart of the First Covenant teaching.
A more current theologian, Robert Gundry, points to the use of “nevertheless” in verse thirty as being an introduction to the scripture he quoted, which served as a command for the Galatians to reject the distorters of the Gospel by dismissing them from the Galatian congregations. He goes on to say: Since the slave girl herself stands for the Sinai covenant of the Law, the command to throw her out as well as her son indicates that the Galatians should reject that covenant as well as those who spread it. Paul stresses that those who trust at all in their observance of the Law will be excluded from the inheritance of eternal life in God’s kingdom, represented by the promised land. So, Paul’s conclusion from all that he said up to this point is that true believers are not children of the slave girl – rather the free woman. As such, the Galatians are free from enslavement to the Law. But they must recognize themselves as such and act on it so they will not lose out on the inheritance that was promised to the son of the free woman Sarah, not the slave girl Hagar.
Messianic Jewish writer Lancaster wants everyone to know that both Ishmael and Isaac were benei Avraham, which means “sons of Abraham.” Therefore, the emphasis on women can be misleading since both sons claimed Abraham as their father. He points out that when a non-Jew converts to Judaism, they take the last name ben Avraham, to indicate they are now Jewish and will abide by Jewish laws. This then makes them part of the legal family of Abraham. As far as the women are concerned, for Lancaster, Hagar represents the covenant at Sinai while Sarah represents the covenant with Abraham, which is older and cannot be replaced by a covenant made 430 years later. For Lancaster, this totally changes the conventional, replacement theology interpretation of the passage. Therefore, the Final Covenant that the Anointed One made at the Last Supper is not involved here in this interpretation.
For Lancaster, Hagar represents the covenant of those who claim identity with Abraham and God’s promise to him, but they do not keep the Torah, whereas Sarah represents the covenant of those who claim identity with Abraham and God’s promise to him who do keep the Torah. So, in the congregations in Galatia, those who claimed to be believers but did not keep the Torah were the children of Hagar, while those who did obey the Torah were children of Sarah.
So, Lancaster sums it up this way: For him, this passage contrasts two types of converts, the legal convert, and the spiritual convert. The one becomes part of Abraham’s family by conventional conversion, the other through faith in the Messiah, the promised seed of Abraham, in whom all nations find blessing. The passage here does not place the First Covenant against the Final Covenant. It does not equate Judaism and the Torah with slavery, nor does it place Christians against Jews.
All of this interpretation seems to clearly show that Lancaster did not understand Paul’s question that began this whole allegory about Hagar and Sarah because Paul asks: “I’d like to ask those of you who want to go back and live your life under Mosaic Law, do you understand what Mosaic Law is really saying?” This is what flavors the whole discussion in which those who are believers who want to remain under the Law as children of Hagar, while those whom the Son sets free are the children of Sarah. Yes, both are children of Abraham, but the free children are the ones of the promise, while the enslaved ones are those of the Torah.
So there is little doubt that these legalistic teachers that Paul confronted in this letter were somewhat upset when they were compared to Ishmael and his tactics, in trying to get these true believers to follow them in their deadly games which might also end up in leading them into idolatry, immorality, and spiritual death. But left alone to continue misguiding and corrupting the faith of the Galatian believers would undoubtedly end up stopping the era of the church before it spread throughout the world. So it is with us. We need not overly concern ourselves with apostasy and heresy in other areas of the nation or world when it is growing like mold among our own congregants. Speak out at home, and like these great Reformers, it will be heard around the world.
Mark D. Nanos makes a valid point here related to Paul’s allegory of Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac. When providing reliable information apart from spiritual interpretation, it is vital that the reality of what is being said is known to those hearing the story. Apparently, every parable that Jesus told involved people, places, and things that the people hearing him knew about as part of life. Without this, it is hard to expect them then to understand the moral of the story. The same can be said of Æsop’s Fables. The fact that the Jews, especially, knew who Sarah and Hagar were and their place in Jewish history allowed Paul’s spiritual interpretation to be more effective. This goes for anything ministers, and teachers may choose today as illustrations of spiritual truths.
END OF CHAPTER FOUR
 See Acts 17:6-7
 Martin Luther: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.
 John Calvin, op. cit., loc. cit.
 Adam Clarke, op. cit., loc. cit.
 Ephesians 4:8
 Galatians 3:16
 August H. Strong: Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Part 3, Ch. 3, Proof of Inspiration, pp.366-367
 William Sanday: The Bampton Lectures, op. cit., The Historic Cannon, Estimate of the Old Testament in the First Century of the Christian Era, Lecture II., p. 87
 Robert H. Gundry, op. cit, loc. cit
 D. Thomas Lancaster: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit., pp. 219-228
 Galatians 4:21
 Mark. D. Nanos