Freedom or Slavery (4:21-5:1)

Bible Passage: Galatians 4:21-5:1

In this passage Paul continues on with the main theme that he has been teaching on in Galatians – that there is no need for Christian believers to submit themselves to the law of Moses. Through the letter he has made the point in a number of different ways, and this time he does so by using an allegory from the Old Testament. Whilst this kind of reading of an Old Testament text might be different to how we are taught to interpret Scripture, the fact that it is inspired by the Spirit should challenge the methodology that we can sometimes insist on too firmly. The allegory centres on two sons of Abraham: Ishmael (born to Hagar) and Isaac (born to Sarah).

A Different Origin (21-27): The first contrast that Paul highlights between these two children is the circumstances of their birth. Ishmael was born to a woman who was a slave. He came about because Abraham and Sarah wanted to force God’s hand when he did not seem to be coming good on his promise, so they came up with the scheme of Abraham sleeping with a servant. This was very much an effort based on the flesh and leading to a child of slavery. In the allegory, this symbolises the law. Just like Ishmael’s birth, the law is something that is about human works and that leads to slavery. In the other hand, Isaac was the child given according to God’s promise and he was born free. He symbolises the new covenant, and those who have received the gospel have been brought into God’s people on the basis of the promise and have found freedom.

This is a great moment to emphasise the simple truth that we can place our trust in God’s promises rather than in our human endeavour. It is an easy thing for a Christian to slip back into something that resembles the law. A couple of great question to ask of our Christian lives and how much they are based on the effort of our flesh, and whether they lead to slavery or to freedom.

A Different Destiny (28-30): As well as the two sons coming from different circumstances, they also had different destinies. Two stages in this are highlighted. The first is persecution. The child born of the flesh opposed the child born of the Spirit, and this corresponds to what the Galatian Christians were going through. If they wanted to stand firm in the gospel according to God’s promise, they had to face pressure and opposition for those who insisted they keep the law. The second stage comes after the pressure has been resisted. The child of the slave will not share in the inheritance of the child of promise. Legalism (whether through the Jewish law or any other kind) does not lead to God’s eternal reward. Only the gospel does that.

The idea of inheritance and reward is one that we do not talk about as much as we could. There is a great heavenly hope for believers, that as co-heirs with Christ is entirely ours. This is a truth to hold onto and hope in during tough times, and particular when there is an earthly pressure to compromise on the gospel.

Live Out Your Freedom (4:31-5:1): Having laid before the Galatians the case for standing firm in the gospel, Paul then turns to application and encourages the Galatians to live out the freedom they have in Christ. This passage contains the famous verse “For freedom Christ has set us free.” He is highlighting through the words the links between the gospel we have received and the way we live our lives. In the gospel we are free from the yokes of sin, the law and this world. The right way to reflect this is not to return to slavery to any of those things but to let the new freedom that we have be the basis of how we live.

There are lots of ways that contemporary Christians submit themselves to yokes, whether that is the legalism being discussed here, sinful patterns of life, addictive behaviour, controlling relationships, religious communities with dominant leadership or many other things. You could share some examples of this and give space for people to reflect on what yokes they may be inclined to submit themselves to.

Potential Applications:

  • Invite people to examine their lives and consider which of the two sons used in this allegory they most closely see in themselves?
  • Turn people’s eyes to the glorious inheritance that is prepared for us in the heavenly places, and invite people to hope anew, especially when they are feeling under pressure for their faith.
  • Challenge people to think about what potential yokes they might be likely to submit themselves to, and how the freedom they have in Christ can prevent them from doing so.