A Commentary by John Stott
Although they are historical events, the circumstances of the births of Ishmael and Isaac also stand for a deeply spiritual truth. Verse 24 (NEB): ‘the two women stand for two covenants.’
An understanding of the Bible is impossible without an understanding of the two covenants. After all, our Bibles are divided in half, into the Old and New Testaments, meaning the Old and New ‘Covenants’. A covenant is a solemn agreement between God and men, by which he makes them his people and promises to be their God. God established the old covenant through Moses and the new covenant through Christ, whose blood ratified it. The old (Mosaic) covenant was based on law; but the new (Christian) covenant, foreshadowed through Abraham and foretold through Jeremiah, is based on promises. In the law God laid the responsibility on men and said ‘thou shalt…, thou shalt not…’; but in the promise God keeps the responsibility Himself and says ‘I will…, I will…’.
In this passage there are not only two covenants mentioned, but two Jerusalems also. Jerusalem, of course, was the capital city which God chose for the land that He gave to His people. It was natural, therefore, that the word ‘Jerusalem’ should stand for God’s people, just as ‘Moscow’ stands for the Russian people, ‘Tokyo’ for the Japanese, ‘Washington’ for the Americans and ‘London’ for the English.
But who are the people of God? God’s people under the old covenant were the Jews, but His people under the new covenant are Christians, believers. Both are ‘Jerusalem’, but the old covenant people of God, the Jews, are ‘the present Jerusalem’, the earthly city, whereas the new covenant people of God, the Christian church, are ‘the Jerusalem above’, the heavenly. Thus, the two women, Hagar and Sarah, the mothers of Abraham’s two sons, stand for the two covenants, the old and the new, and the two Jerusalems, the earthly and the heavenly.
Before considering in greater detail what the apostle writes about these two women, it may be helpful to read the New English Bible version of verses 24 to 27: ‘This is an allegory. The two women stand for two covenants. The one bearing children into slavery is the covenant that comes from Mount Sinai: that is Hagar. Sinai is a mountain in Arabia and it represents the Jerusalem of today, for she and her children are in slavery. But the heavenly Jerusalem is the free woman; she is our mother. For Scripture says, “Rejoice, O barren woman who never bore child; break into a shout of joy, you who never knew a mother’s pangs; for the deserted wife shall have more children than she who lives with the husband.”’
Take Hagar first. As the mother who bore children into slavery, she stands for the covenant from Mount Sinai, the Mosaic law. This is clear, Paul adds in a parenthesis, because ‘Sinai is a mountain in Arabia’, and the Arabians were known as ‘the sons of Hagar’. It is even more clear from the fact that the children of the law, just like Hagar’s children, are slaves. So Hagar stands for the covenant of law. She also ‘corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children’ (verse 25).
But Sarah was different. Verse 26 (NEB): ‘But the heavenly Jerusalem is the free woman; she is our mother.’ That is, if Hagar, Ishmael’s mother the slave woman, stands for the earthly Jerusalem or Judaism, then Sarah, Isaac’s mother, being a free woman, stands for the heavenly Jerusalem or the Christian church. And, Paul adds, ‘she is our mother’. As Christians we are citizens of ‘the Jerusalem above’. We are bound to the living God by a new covenant, and this citizenship is not bondage, but freedom.
Paul goes on (in verse 27) to quote Isaiah 54:1. Its reference to two women, one barren and the other with children, is not to Hagar and Sarah, but to the Jews. The prophet is addressing the exiles in Babylonian captivity. He likens their state in exile, under divine judgment, to that of a barren woman finally deserted by her husband, and their future state after the restoration to that of a fruitful woman with more children than ever. In other words, God promises that His people will be more numerous after their return than they were before. This promise received a literal but partial fulfilment in the restoration of the Jews to the promised land. But its true, spiritual fulfilment, Paul says, is in the growth of the Christian church, since Christian people are the seed of Abraham.
This, then, is the allegory. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, born of two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, who represent two covenants and two Jerusalems. Hagar the slave stands for the old covenant, and her son Ishmael symbolizes the church of the earthly Jerusalem. Sarah the free woman stands for the new covenant, and her son Isaac symbolizes the church of the heavenly Jerusalem. Although superficially similar, because both were sons of Abraham, the two boys were fundamentally different. In the same way, Paul is arguing, it is not enough to claim Abraham as our father. The crucial question concerns who our mother is. If it is Hagar, we are like Ishmael, but if it is Sarah, we are like Isaac.