Henry Knox personifies the perennial American virtues of dependability and ingenuity.[1] He was George Washington’s chief artillery commander during much of the Revolutionary War. Knox was nobody’s version of a dashing soldier. A 1784 portrait shows a chubby, round-faced man with at least two chins. His shoulders slope downward as if he’s slouching for the portrait—one can just imagine the belly that must be there, despite being over six feet tall.

Knox had no formal military training. He was a bookseller who liked to read, and devoured tomes on military history and eventually artillery. Washington promoted him to the post over the head of an older, much more experienced professional soldier. He must have seen something in the guy.

One of Knox’s greatest feats was to seize 55 artillery pieces from captured Fort Ticonderoga, at the southern end of Lake Champlain, and transport them to Cambridge, MA to participate in the siege of Boston. This is a distance of approximately 220 miles on modern roads, and Knox’s achievement was “one of the most impressive examples of perseverance and ingenuity in the war.”[2]

Artillery pieces in that day were extraordinarily heavy—Knox’s 55 guns weighted over 60 tons. He and his team successfully hauled this captured artillery across waterways, over hills and down into valleys and lost not a one.

Knox later served in Washington’s first administration as Secretary of War. This is an extraordinary, self-made man—a guy who taught himself his own profession and helped win the Revolutionary War. He was a guy who “made it happen,” and his successful capture and transport of 60 tons of artillery pieces to the outskirts of Boston one cold winter is exhibit no. 1.

In that brief description, I took a historical figure and made him represent something bigger, something beyond himself. Does Henry Knox really embody dependability and ingenuity to the nth degree? Perhaps nobody really can, but that one incident surely illustrates the point.

This article is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 4:21 – 5:12. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:7-14, and Galatians 3:15-22, and Galatians 3:23 – 4:7, and Galatians 4:12-20.

Paul does something similar, in Galatians 4:21 – 5:12. He grabs a historical incident and says, “this is a great illustration for something deeper—something important.” He hopes this will make an impression on the Christians in Galatia, because it’s important they get this. He explains …

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?

Galatians 4:21

Now, in a tone of exasperation—like that of a frustrated person to a particularly dense friend—Paul asks if they’re really aware of what it means to put oneself under a system of works righteousness. This echoes what he’s mentioned earlier, in Galatians 3:7-14. “You really want to go that way?” he asks. “I’m not sure you understand what you’re doing!”

Anytime you add something to Jesus’ “repent and believe” (Mk 1:15), you destroy the Gospel. False teachers are claiming the equation is “Jesus + obey the Mosaic law = salvation.” This is why some of these “foolish Galatians” (Gal 3:1) want to “be under the law.” They’ve been fooled to believe in that false equation.

“Do you not listen to the law?” Paul asks.[3] He explains what he means …

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

Galatians 4:22-23

“This is what I mean,” Paul says,[4] and then lays it out. He grabs an incident from the book of Genesis (ch. 16) to make his point. He uses allegory, which basically means one thing is really a symbol for some hidden other thing.[5] This means the point he’s about to make doesn’t come right from Genesis, but he uses the incident from Genesis 16 as an illustration for something else. It’s a capstone to the same long argument he’s been making since Galatians 3.

For as painting is an ornament to set forth and garnish an house already builded, so is an allegory the light of a matter which is already otherwise proved and confirmed.[6]

You’ll have to read Genesis 16 to understand what Paul’s about to say—why don’t you do it right now?

There are two children from Abraham: Ishmael and Isaac. One was born to a slave woman, Hagar—whose mistress was Abraham’s wife Sarah. The other was Sarah’s child, whom they named Isaac.

Ishmael was born because Abraham and Sarah tried to fix things their own way. God had promised them more offspring than could ever be counted—that Abraham would be the genesis of all God’s people. Well, the years passed, and no child came. We gotta do something, they figured. Gotta take matters into our own hands. So, Sarah declared, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her,” (Gen 16:2). Abraham was only too happy to oblige and slept with Hagar. Thus Ishmael was conceived.

Isaac, on the other hand, was born according to God’s promise. Sarah conceived a child in her old age, and they had a new baby boy of their own.  

This contrast—going your own way vs. going God’s way—is what Paul highlights throughout the example. Hagar represents “going your own way,” when Abraham and Sarah decided to solve the problem “according to the flesh.” Sarah represents “going God’s way,” and so she is a “free woman.”

This “according to the flesh” (Ishmael) vs. “as a result of a divine promise” (Isaac) suggests two very different paths:[7]

Children of the flesh → Ishmael → focus on human effort → unbeliever

Children of the divine promise → Isaac → focus on God’s grace → believer

Paul continues …

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.

Galatians 4:24-26

These two women and the two very different paths they represent stand for two covenants. These are the Old and New Covenants,[8] symbolized by two cities, and two women, and two very different “children.”

Old Covenant from the Old Jerusalem → Hagar → slave children

New Covenant from the New Jerusalem → Sarah → free children

Paul’s language is a bit shocking—he compares the Old Covenant to slavery! Did Jesus think that way? Did the man who wrote Psalm 119 think that way (“Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors,” (Ps 119:24))?

They didn’t.

So, in what way are the “children” from the present Jerusalem “in slavery”? Paul must again be referring to the wrong interpretation of the Old Covenant that he’s been arguing against all along. That’s the best explanation.[9] The Mosaic law isn’t oppressive or evil (“Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight,” (Ps 119:35)). It is not a tool for slavery—“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts,” (Ps 119:45)). Nor is it a vehicle for salvation—it has nothing to do with that.

This suggests it can only be compared to slavery if it’s twisted into something it’s not meant to be. The Mosaic law can become a form of “slavery” if you twist it into a means of salvation. “For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die!” (Gal 2:21, NLT).

You have a choice of two “mothers,” each corresponding to a particular path:

Go your own way → Hagar as “mother” → slavery

Go God’s way → Sarah as “mother” → freedom

Paul now quotes a passage from Isaiah to strengthen his point:

For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”

Galatians 4:27 (quoting from Isa 54:1-3)

In Isaiah’s book, this follows right on the heels of the great prophecy about the Lord’s suffering servant (Isa 52:13 – 53:12). In that passage, God promised that His servant would justify many people, and would see His “offspring,” who are the true believers whom He’ll rescue. After that assurance, Isaiah then says the bit which Paul quotes here in our text—the “barren woman” who has been longing to bear “children” will have her wish, but not in the normal fashion. She won’t bear the children or ever suffer labor pains, nonetheless this “desolate woman” will have multitudes of them.

This is poetry, metaphor—it hints about something deeper. God often refers to his community as a woman (Isa 61:10; Isa 62:4-5; Jer 3:14; Eph 5:25-27)—sometimes an unfaithful woman (see Ezek 16, Hos 1-3). So, this woman to whom God speaks is likely Israel—His covenant family. She is “barren” because the glittering promise from Mt. Sinai (“… you will be my treasured possession … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Ex 19:5-6)) seems to be nothing but a pipe dream when compared to the crucible of reality—a fantasy.

Children are a sign of God’s blessing—but where are her “children”? Well, God promises that she’ll have them. God’s community will one day be complete, made whole, elevated to that splendor she never really achieved. Isaiah looks forward to the new covenant, when Jesus will make all those promises to Abraham come true.

Why does Paul quote this passage? He connects the “good mother” with Sarah, who waited upon God even through apparent barrenness. Sarah will have more children than the “other woman,” Hagar.[10] The Galatian Christians are children of the free woman, symbolized by the new Jerusalem (“she is our mother,” Gal 4:26)—they’re Israel’s “children.” Anyone who shares Abraham’s faith is a child of Abraham, and an heir in God’s family (Rom 4:16-17; Gal 3:26-29). Every new believer is a precious “child” given to that barren woman, Israel, who once thought she’d blown it and would never have offspring.

Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.

Galatians 4:28-29

Christians who trust Jesus, through the simple Good News He preached, belong to Sarah and are “children of promise.” What happened between Isaac and Ishmael? Ishmael harassed his younger stepbrother (Gen 21:9). “It is the same now,” in that the other “children” (those who belong to the slave woman—the Old Jerusalem) harass the true children who are free.

Children of promise → free → true believers

Children of the flesh → slaves → false believers

These “slave children” are the false teachers and all who believe in the equation “Jesus + something else = salvation.” Some bible teachers believe they are the Jews and the Old Covenant, but this is wrong—the Old Covenant (properly interpreted) isn’t evil and doesn’t produce slavery. Instead, Paul has been arguing against the “works righteousness” crowd and he continues that here.

But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”

Galatians 4:30

When Ishmael harassed Isaac, Sarah told her husband to send Hagar away. “She has no part in any of this!” What’s the connection to the situation in Galatia? Well, just as Sarah (the “mother” of freedom in this analogy) sent away Hagar (the “mother” of slavery), so too should the Christians in Galatia “get rid of” these false teachers and everyone else who believes in that fraudulent salvation equation. They have no share in Abraham’s inheritance. They aren’t children of the free woman—they belong to someone else entirely. Send them packing, and don’t fall for their tricks!  

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

Galatians 4:31

And there it is.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1

By accepting Christ, the Galatian Christians escaped from slavery. They were in bondage to the “elemental spiritual forces” of works righteousness (Gal 4:3, 8-10), but that’s all in the past. Paul spoke of Sarah and “freedom.” Well, it was for freedom that Christ has set us free. So, don’t go back to prison!     

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.

Galatians 5:2-3

If they decide to go down the “Jesus + Mosaic law = salvation” road, then they’re spitting in Christ’s face. We can’t be perfect, and so that’s why Christ came. But if, knowing that, you still want to try to obey the Mosaic law as if it were a way of salvation then Christ is worthless to you. If you want to go that way, then you’d better be willing to be perfect and obey the entire law.

Good luck with that.

Again, Paul is arguing against the common misunderstanding of the Mosaic law that the false teachers are peddling—the same confusion that Jesus dealt with. The Mosaic law was never intended as a vehicle for salvation—it was simply a code for holy living while God’s people waited for the Messiah. Centuries of tradition had crusted over top of the Old Covenant and turned it into a burdensome thing—a yoke of bondage.

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

Galatians 5:4

The word which the NIV renders as “have been alienated from Christ” means to be “parted from” or to “abolish.”[11] This is a moment of cosmic significance. If you choose that false equation of “Jesus + something else = salvation,” then you’ve chosen a false message. That means you’ve been parted from Christ, separated from Him. The union that once was is severed, abolished.

The people don’t do the severing—God does it. The text (and the Greek words behind it) don’t read “you’ve alienated yourselves from Christ.” It reads “you’ve been alienated/parted from Christ.” Why has this happened? Why has God cut them loose from Christ? Because they “have fallen from grace.”[12]

Some Christians today might interrupt and ask, “is Paul saying they’ve lost their salvation?” The answer is that Paul’s not addressing that question here, and we shouldn’t pretend he did—even in the interests of theological tidiness.[13] He’s issuing a frustrated warning. In real life we know we must balance one statement with another. Say your husband tells your child, “I’ve had it with you and your phone. All you do is stare at it. You don’t do anything else all day!” Should you then wonder, “Does my husband hate telephones? Will he sell his phone? Will I have to buy him a retro pager, instead?” The truth is that your husband isn’t really talking about telephones at all. He just thinks your son spends too much time staring at it. He’s worried about him and spoke harshly to get his point across.

Paul is doing something similar—he isn’t addressing salvation, he’s just issuing a harsh warning. If you choose that wrong route, you’ve fallen from grace and God will sever you from relationship with Jesus—because that’s the choice you made. This is very dangerous. Stop it now and come to your senses! He says all this to make them reflect, to think about what they’re doing (see v. 10).

For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Galatians 5:5-6

This passage should probably begin with “but” (see the New Living Translation here) because it’s expressing a contrast—you can either choose works righteousness and thus fall from grace, or you can eagerly await final righteousness through the Spirit. Y’all can do that, but we will do this (etc.).

Jesus is all that matters. Not circumcision. Not tithing. Not your job. Not your automobiles. Not your family pedigree. Not your education. Not how smart you are. In union with Christ, all of that is now useless (see Ecc 1-2)—all that really matters is faith proven by love (see 1 Cor 13). “If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing,” (1 Cor 13:2, NLT).

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.

Galatians 5:7-8

What happened to you all? You used to understand. You used to get it. You used to know the truth. Where did you go wrong? This teaching didn’t come from Jesus—it came from someone else.  

“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view.

Galatians 5:9-10

Paul quotes a line from one of his letters to the church in Corinth (1 Cor 5:6). Just a little yeast will make the entire loaf of bread rise. In the same way, just a little bit of falsehood will ruin the entire Christian message. But, he says, I’m confident that you’ll correct your course, come to your senses, and tell those troublemakers to, “Hit the road, Jack—and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more …”[14]

The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty.

Galatians 5:10

Paul reminds us that troublemakers will pay, in the end. “The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion,” (Ps 11:5).

Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.

Galatians 5:11

Verse 11 is difficult. The best explanation seems to be that these false teachers are spreading lies about Paul, suggesting he really preaches “Jesus + Mosaic law = salvation” elsewhere, but has abridged his message to them for sinister reasons.[15] This doesn’t make any sense, Paul says, because he’s hated and persecuted everywhere by these same people! If he preached the false message, the Judaizers would have much less of a problem. Christianity’s great offense is that it requires people to admit, “I’ve been wrong about everything, and nothing I do myself can ever fix my relationship with God!”

There’s a reason why Jesus’ death makes people so angry—because it means we’re criminals and that Jesus was executed in our place. Our salvation hinges on us admitting this to God and choosing to love Him rather than ourselves. It asks us to admit that we’re no good, but that Jesus was voluntarily indicted and executed in our place, for our crimes, as our substitute. That’s what the Christian story says as soon as someone looks at the cross and asks, “why did that have to happen?” It makes us humble ourselves and exalt Him. That offends us, and so the cross makes people angry. We don’t naturally want this, and that’s why in order for anyone to respond to the truth, God must first remove that dark veil so the Gospel light can shine in (2 Cor 4).    

As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves.

Galatians 5:12

These people are so obsessed with circumcision, why don’t they just cut their penises off? “What could be more fitting?” Paul chortles. Prove the depth of your commitment to God—off with the penis! Nobody can suggest Paul lacked a sense of humor.

In the next part of the letter to the Christians in Galatia, he explains how to properly use this “freedom” from legalism.

[1] The account which follows is largely from John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York, OUP, 2007), pp. 101-104. 

[2] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, revised ed., in Oxford History of the United States (New York: OUP, 2005; Kindle ed.), p. 314.   

[3] This is literally what he asks in Greek; the NIV tries to smooth it out. 

[4] The conjunction is explanatory, and need not be a formal “for,” like the NIV renders it. 

[5] “The use of symbols in a story, picture, etc., to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one; symbolic representation,” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “allegory,” noun, no. 1. OED Online. March 2023. https://bit.ly/402jNkx (accessed April 14, 2023)).

[6] Luther, Galatians, p. 416. 

[7] Hendriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, pp. 180-181. In a similar vein, Martin Luther wrote, “Therefore the children of the flesh (saith he) are not the children of God, but the children of the promise, &c. And by this argument he mightily stoppeth the mouths of the proud Jews, which gloried that they were the seed and children of Abraham: as also Christ doth in the third of Matthew, and in the eighth of John,” (Commentary on Galatians (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), p. 415).

[8] It could well be the Old Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant, but the latter is the well-spring from which the New Covenant springs. I prefer Old and New Covenants, but I don’t see how it really matters, one way or the other. It’s not worth arguing about. 

[9] Ronald Fung explains that Hagar and the present Jerusalem “stands by metonymy for Judaism, with its trust in physical descent from Abraham and reliance on legal observance as the way of salvation,” (Galatians, in NICNT, KL 2571-2572).

John Calvin notes, “What, then, is the gendering to bondage, which forms the subject of the present dispute? It denotes those who make a wicked abuse of the law, by finding in it nothing but what tends to slavery. Not so the pious fathers, who lived under the Old Testament; for their slavish birth by the law did not hinder them from having Jerusalem for their mother in spirit,” (Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Bellingham: Logos, 2010), p. 138).

[10]  Paul’s analogy breaks down when you try to connect too many dots (Hagar was not married), but his point stands. It’s an imperfect allegory to make a point, and we should take the point and not quibble over tidiness.

[11] See (1) LSJ, s.v. “καταργέω,” no. II, p. 908, (2) Louw-Nida, Lexicon,s.v. 13.100, and (3) Abbott-Smith, Manual Greek Lexicon, s.v. “καταργέω,” p. 238.

[12] This particular phrase is epexegetical, meaning it explains a statement just made. “You have been severed from Christ, you all who want to be justified by the law—you have fallen from grace!” (κατηργήθητε ἀπὸ Χριστοῦ, οἵτινες ἐν νόμῳ δικαιοῦσθε τῆς χάριτος ἐξεπέσατε).

[13] “We should not try to diminish the force of these words, in the interest, perhaps, of this or that theological presupposition,” (Hendriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, p. 196). 

[14] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSiHqxgE2d0

[15] See Richard Longenecker, Galatians, in WBC (Nashville: Word, 1990), pp. 232-233. 

3 thoughts on “On Two Ladies and Their Two Jerusalems

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