A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 4:21-31. Isaac and Ishmael.
Many people regard this as the most difficult passage in the Epistle to the Galatians. For one thing, it presupposes a knowledge of the Old Testament which few people possess today; there are references in it to Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Mount Sinai and Jerusalem. For another, the argument of Paul is a somewhat technical one; it is the kind which would have been familiar in the Jewish rabbinical schools. It is allegorical, although not arbitrary. Nevertheless, the message in these verses is right up to date and is specially relevant to religious people. According to verse 21 it is addressed to those *who desire to be under law*. There are many such today. They are not, of course, the Jews or judaisers to whom Paul was writing, but people whose religion is legalistic, who imagine that the way to God is by the observance of certain rules. There are even professing Christians who turn the gospel into law. They suppose that their relationship to God depends on a strict adherence to regulations, traditions and ceremonies. They are in bondage to them.
To such people Paul says: *You who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?* (verse 21). With these Judaizers he uses an *argumentum ad hominem*. That is, he meets them and refutes them on their own ground. He exposes the inconsistency, the illogicality of their position. ‘You want to be under the law?’ he asks. ‘Then just listen to the law! For the very law, whose servant you want to be, will be your judge and condemn you.’
There are three stages in the argument of this paragraph. The first is historical, the second allegorical and the third personal. In the historical verses (22, 23) Paul reminds his readers that Abraham had two sons, Ishmael the son of the slave and Isaac the son of a free woman. In the allegorical verses (24-27) he argues that these two sons with their mothers represent two religions, a religion of bondage which is Judaism, and a religion of freedom which is Christianity. In the personal verses (28-31) he applies his allegory to us. If we are Christians, we are not like Ishmael (slaves), but like Isaac (free). Finally, he shows us what to expect if we take after Isaac.
Tomorrow: Galatians 4:22-23. Stage one: The historical background.