A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 4:22-23. Stage one: The historical background.
Verse 22: *It is written that Abraham had two sons.* One of the Jews’ loudest and proudest boasts was that they were descended from Abraham, the father and founder of their race. After centuries of confusion following the fall of man, it was to Abraham at last that God plainly revealed himself. He promised to give to Abraham both the land of Canaan and a posterity as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Because of this divine covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the Jews believed themselves to be safe – eternally, inviolably safe.
So John the Baptist needed to say to his Jewish contemporaries: ‘do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’ (Mt.3:9). Similarly, when Jesus told the Jews that if they continued in His word, they would truly be His disciples and would know the truth which would set them free, they replied, ‘”We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?”…Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children” (that is, spiritually as well as physically), “you would do what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me…; this is not what Abraham did.”…They said to him, “…we have one Father, even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me…You are of your father the devil”’ (Jn.8:31-44).
The apostle Paul now elaborates what John the Baptist implied and what Jesus explicitly taught. True descent from Abraham is not physical but spiritual. Abraham’s true children are not those with an impeccable Jewish genealogy, but those who believe as Abraham believed and obey as Abraham obeyed. This was the argument of Galatians 3, namely that the blessing promised to Abraham comes not upon Jews as such, the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh, but upon believers, whether Jews or Gentiles (cf. Gal.3:14). Again, ‘if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise’ (Gal.3:29); cf. Rom.4:16). We cannot claim to belong to Abraham unless we belong to Christ.
This double descent from Abraham, the false and the true, the false being literal and physical, the true being figurative and spiritual, Paul sees illustrated in Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Both had Abraham as their father, but there were two important differences between them.
The first difference is that they were born of different mothers. Verse 22: *Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman*. Ishmael’s mother Hagar was a slave woman, Abraham’s servant. Isaac’s mother Sarah was a free woman, Abraham’s wife. And each boy took after his mother. So Ishmael was born into slavery, but Isaac into freedom.
The second difference is that they were born in different ways. Not, of course, that the biological process of conception and birth were different, but that different circumstances gave rise to their birth. Verse 23: *the son of the slave was born according to the flesh (or ‘in the course of nature’, NEB), the son of the free woman through promise*. Isaac was not born according to nature, but rather against nature. His father was a hundred years old and his mother, who had been barren, was over ninety. This is how it is put in Hebrews 11:11: ‘By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.’ Notice the word ‘promised’. Ishmael was born according to nature, but Isaac against nature, supernaturally, through an exceptional promise of God.
These two differences between Abraham’s sons, that Ishmael was born a slave according to nature, while Isaac was born free according to promise, Paul recognizes as ‘an allegory’. Everyone is a slave by nature, until in the fulfilment of God’s promise he is set free. So everyone is either an Ishmael or an Isaac, either still what he is by nature, a slave, or by the grace of God set free.
Tomorrow: Galatians 4:24-27. Stage two: The allegorical argument.