A Tale of Two Women: Are You a Child of Promise?

Galatians 4:21-31

July 22, 2001 | Ray Pritchard

Almost all the commentators agree that this is the hardest passage in the book of Galatians. It’s not easy to understand on a quick reading exactly what Paul means to say. Or perhaps more accurately, we know in general terms what he is trying to say; it’s how he says it that trips us up. For that reason, many people skip right over these verses so they can get to the “good stuff” in chapter 5, especially the part about the fruit of the Spirit in 5:22-23.

And I must admit that this passage does sound very strange to our ears. Paul’s form of argument is very Jewish, even Rabbinical, which means that his first-century readers probably had no problems following him, but that same style can seem rather cold and clinical to 21st-century readers. To make matters more challenging, there are parts of this passage that we understand and parts that seem to make no sense at all. Most of us know something about Abraham and Sarah and we probably know something about Hagar and Ishmael as well. But what are we to make of a verse like this? “Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children” (Galatians 4:25). It’s not quite clear how Paul gets from Hagar to Mount Sinai to Jerusalem to a woman enslaved with her children. You don’t hear very many sermons on that verse. I’ve never known anyone to choose Galatians 4:25 as his life text. Yet it’s in the Bible, so it must be true and there must be a message that we need to hear.

They Wanted a Hybrid Religion

The key to the whole passage can be found in verse 21: “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” Paul is arguing with those who want to go back to Judaism and take Jesus with them. He is addressing people who want a hybrid religion that is part Jewish and part Christian. They intend to believe in Jesus plus they want to live under the law as a means of pleasing God and winning his favor. Everything in this passage is aimed at these confused believers who were sorely tempted to go back to the Law of Moses. His point is, Have you considered the implications of what you are about to do?

Seen from that background, this passage slowly comes into focus. He is arguing (from an Old Testament point of view) with people who want to take Jesus with them and go back to an Old Testament way of life. But you can’t do that. You can have the law as a way of life or you can have Jesus, but you can’t have both. In order to press the point home, he reminds them of a familiar story (verses 22-23), then he draws an allegory from the story (verses 24-27), then he applies the allegory to the contemporary situation (verses 28-31).

I. An Old Testament Story 21-23

“Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 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 in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise” (Galatians 4:21-23).

The history behind this story is found in the book of Genesis. It basically goes like this. Abraham was a prosperous pagan businessman in Ur of the Chaldees when God appeared to him and told him to take his wife Sarah, leave that land, and go to a land that God would later show him. God also promised to give him descendants who would become a great nation. That was all well and good except that Abraham was 75, Sarah was 65, and they had no children. In the course of time they arrived in Canaan, the land God promised them. Ten years passed and still no son had been born. Since the biological clock was ticking away, Sarah suggested that Abraham marry Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. After some hesitation, Abraham agreed and in due course Hagar became pregnant and a son named Ishmael was born. It should be noted that Sarah’s motives—on one level at least—were noble. She concluded that since she was 75 years old, there was no way she would ever have a baby. That was a perfectly reasonable, perfectly “human” conclusion. So she and Abraham decided to take matters in their own hands and “help God out.” But, of course, God doesn’t need our “help,” and whenever we try to “help” God (instead of waiting for God to reveal his plan in his own way in his own time), things get worse, not better.

That’s exactly what happened. Genesis 16 says that animosity arose between Sarah and Hagar. That figures. You’ve got two women sharing one man. That’s never going to work out right. So young Ishmael grows up in an unhappy home situation. Fourteen years pass. Abraham is now 99, Sarah 89. His body is “as good as dead.” Her womb seems shut tight. There is no chance, none whatsoever, that they will ever have a child together. But at precisely that point, God announces that Sarah will conceive and bear a son within a year. God revived the bodies of Abraham and Sarah and 12 months later Isaac was born. As Paul puts it, Ishmael was born the ordinary way and Isaac was born as the result of God’s promise. Ishmael is born a slave because his mother was a slave; Isaac is born free because his mother was a free woman.

Looking for Father Abraham

That much of the biblical story is familiar to most of us. It’s clear why Paul uses this example. The Jews revered Abraham as their spiritual father. As far as they were concerned, if you were a physical descendant of Abraham, then you were in good standing with the Lord. As long as you could find Father Abraham somewhere in your family tree, then you didn’t really need anything else. It was a matter of lineage, of heritage, of tracing your family tree. If you could find Abraham back there somewhere, you were in God’s family. Paul is saying, “Not so!” God’s family is made up of those who have a relationship with him by faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of faith, not your family tree.

This is a crucial point to consider because millions of people today think that being right with God is merely a matter of spiritual pedigree. They say things like, “I’m Catholic so I must be okay.” Or “I was baptized Presbyterian so I know I’m going to heaven.” Or “My father was a Baptist minister and that puts me in good with God.” Or they trust in their Lutheran heritage or their Episcopal connections or their Methodist church membership or their Charismatic leanings. Joe Moakley, the recently-deceased Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, liked to joke that when a child is born into an Irish family in Boston, three things automatically happen. He is baptized into the Catholic Church, registered with the Democratic Party, and given a union card. Down South where I come from almost everyone was Baptist, and many folks trusted in their baptism by a Baptist pastor as their assurance of eternal life. Others think that because they are the children of a missionary or of a pastor, they must be in good standing with God. But it is not true. You don’t go to heaven because you get credit for what your mother or father believed. That may help you on earth; it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference in eternity.

The problem in Galatia was this: The Judaizers taught that you either had to be a Jew or you had to act like a Jew in order to be saved. That meant being circumcised and keeping the outward trappings of the Law of Moses.

The Judaizers said, “Who’s your father?” Paul said, “I’ve got another question. Who’s your mother?”

A Dysfunctional Soap Opera

And that brings us back to the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael. The tricky part is that both times Abraham and Sarah believed God. When he took Hagar as his wife, he (and Sarah) believed what God had said but they also thought God needed some help. The second time he and Sarah believed God alone and had Isaac as a result. The difference is this: Will you believe God alone or do you think you need to do something to help him out?

Here are the facts of the story put in simple terms. We have …

– One Father

– Two Mothers

– Two Sons

– One son born the ordinary way

– One son born by God’s intervention

– One son born by spiritual compromise

– One son born according to God’s promise

– Ishmael born according to works—trying to solve the problem by human effort

– Isaac born because Abraham and Sarah believed God’s promise

The whole family is like a dysfunctional soap opera because self-effort and faith in God cannot live in harmony.

What will Paul do with all this?

II. A New Testament Allegory 24-27

“These things may be taken figuratively, for 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. For it is written: ‘Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband’” (Galatians 4:24-27).

The easiest way to sort this is out is to start where Paul starts—with two women and two sons—all of them literal people who actually lived on the earth and whose stories are told in the book of Genesis. What happens next is that Paul looks back at these historical persons and draws certain conclusions from them. In essence, he sees a huge difference between Sarah and Hagar. Sarah represents Grace and Hagar represents Law. Sarah stands for trusting God alone and Hagar stands for trying to please God through your own efforts. And the sons born to them represent the way of faith (Isaac) versus the way of works (Ishmael). Thus you have real people who nevertheless stand for (or point to or represent) certain spiritual truths. When you boil it down, Paul is saying that Sarah is the line of faith and Hagar is the line of works. And all humanity is either in one line or the other. There is no “third line” you can choose. Those who follow Hagar are the people who believe that religion and good works and self-effort will be enough to gain forgiveness, salvation, and a place in heaven. Those who follow Sarah are the people who have rejected self-effort and have chosen to believe what God said even if it seems to fly in the face of what everyone else says and does.

The reference to Mount Sinai points us back to the giving of the law to Moses. The “earthly Jerusalem” is the Jerusalem of the first century, which was the world headquarters of Judaism with its dependence on the law as a means of salvation. But since no one can be saved by keeping the law, the people who live in Jerusalem are enslaved by the law. They are trapped by demands they can never meet. The slave woman (Hagar) produces a slave son (Ishmael) who stands for everyone who is enslaved by the tyranny of law keeping as a means of salvation. Slavery comes from slavery, bondage from bondage.

Sarah Stands for the Gospel

By contrast Sarah stands for the promise of God found in the gospel, which reveals to us the Good News that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. The salvation he offers is free to anyone who will take it by faith. This salvation offers true and lasting freedom. The free woman produces a free child. Freedom comes from freedom.

Finally, verses 26 and 27 are a quotation from Isaiah 54:1. They point to a coming day when the barren woman (Sarah) will rejoice because she has far more children than the woman with a husband (Hagar). The law cannot produce life but grace produces life abundant.

We can sum up the allegory this way:

§ One man had two sons by two mothers.

§ The two mothers represent two covenants—law and grace.

§ One comes from earth, the other from heaven.

§ Law produces bondage; grace produces freedom.

§ This is the difference between religion and Christianity.

Hagar and Ishmael stand for all those who want to help God out by doing good works to earn salvation. Sarah and Isaac stand for all those who believe God’s promise and are saved by faith alone.

Two Streams of Humanity

Picture Abraham as the father of two vast streams of humanity. What starts as a purely personal family problem comes to signify the great division of humanity into two groups—those who trust in God alone for salvation and those who trust in their works to help them earn salvation.

From one man the two lines of humanity come forth:

The line of works and self-effort looks like this:




Mt. Sinai

The Law

Earthly Jerusalem



The line of faith looks like this:




Mt. Zion

The Gospel


Faith in Christ

Freedom, forgiveness, salvation


Note that Abraham stands at the head of both lines. That’s why it’s not enough to be Abraham’s son. You must also be a son or daughter of Sarah if you want to go to heaven.

So the question is not, “Who’s your father?” The real question is, “Who’s your mother?”

III. A Contemporary Application 28-31

“Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the 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.’ Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman” (Galatians 4:28-31).

In the last few verses of our text, Paul draws four contemporary applications.

A. We are children of promise, not of works.

He says this twice—in verses 28 and 31. We who believe in Jesus are descendants of Abraham through Isaac. We are not the sons of Ishmael. We have believed God’s promise by faith and on that basis alone, we are going to heaven.

B. We should expect persecution from those who practice the religion of works.

Paul’s point comes from Genesis 21 where we learn that Ishmael mocked young Isaac, deriding him and trying to humiliate him. Religious people do the same thing today. John Stott points out that our chief opposition almost always comes from religionists, not from true pagans. No one hates God’s grace like the man who is trying to save himself by his own good works. Nominal Christians hate true Christians because they can’t understand them and feel rebuked by them. Your greatest opposition normally comes not from drug dealers but from religionists who hate what you stand for. It was religious Jews who hated Jesus the most—not the indifferent Romans. And Paul’s greatest enemies were not the pagan philosophers of Athens but the fanatical Jewish religionists. The descendants of Hagar are always threatened by the descendants of Sarah because Sarah’s children live by faith, Hagar’s by works. They hate Sarah’s children because faith always threatens those who think they can do something to earn their salvation. Even when they go to church, they go out of compulsion, not out of love. That’s why so many religious people are lost. They are enslaved by the “law” that demands they keep on working, trying, doing, always trying to do enough to please God. The end result is always failure, inner bondage, frustration, and spiritual death.

Our greatest opposition comes from those who claim to practice religion but do it in the name of tolerance, diversity and pluralism. They hate us because we stand for the truth that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and he is the only way to heaven. Think about abortion and gay rights: Those sins could not spread in America were it not for the compromise within the mainline denominations. And the people who hate us the most are not the atheists and agnostics who generally ignore us and don’t take us seriously. Ditto for evolution. It spreads by virtue of the collaboration of religionists who have rejected the truth of God’s Word. They hate us because we won’t join in their compromise. Paul’s point is clear: Don’t be surprised by the persecution of religious people. It started with Ishmael and continues to this day.

C. We must not compromise with those who do not accept the truth of God’s Word.

It was Sarah who told Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out of the house. On one level, it seems cruel and unfair. But on a deeper level, Sarah knew what she was doing. The promise of God must be preserved at all costs. If Hagar and Ishmael stayed in the family, there would be unending strife. Someone had to go. If you let Ishmael live with Isaac, there will be nothing but trouble.

In the church there can be no compromise on the core doctrines of our faith, such as the Bible as the Word of God, Jesus as the Son of God, the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, salvation only through Christ, universal sinfulness, the truth of the book of Genesis, the sanctity of all human life, God’s design for marriage as one man with one woman for life, moral purity in all things, the literal resurrection of Christ, the blood atonement of Christ, the miracles of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, and the second coming of Christ. We must stand for these truths even if it costs us popularity and personal advancement.

D. We who are persecuted also inherit all the promises of God.

This is the flip side of persecution. Though we may be despised and rejected by men, we are accepted by God in heaven. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (II Corinthians 4:8-9). In II Corinthians 6:8-10 Paul describes Christians as “genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Here is the paradox of the Christian life. We are hated and yet loved. Poor yet rich. Misunderstood and yet understood. Abandoned and never forsaken. We may be counted losers by the world yet we are part of God’s family. We live by faith and are mocked by those who live by self-effort. We reject the world and are rejected by the world, yet the world wants what we have even while it derides us for having what it (secretly) wants. So it goes that the followers of Sarah will never be understood by the followers of Hagar. Ishmael still hates Isaac even while he envies him and wishes that he too could be a child of the promise.

Christians have no reason to envy anyone else. No one is as free as we are. Others may excel in business and rise to the top of the entertainment world. Not many of us will be super-rich and often we will be poorer than our friends who do not know God. How should we feel about that? Sometimes the temptation to envy the wicked is almost overwhelming. Other people may seem to have a lot more fun and a lot more friends. But why should we envy them?

Ishmael got the world; Isaac got the Lord. Who got the better deal? I say Isaac did. He lived and died by faith.

Those who don’t know Jesus are enslaved to sin and by sin. They are no better off then their slave mother, Hagar. Riches and worldly pleasure is all they get, and with it comes a gnawing emptiness that nothing in the world can satisfy. And when they die, things get worse, not better. Don’t envy the wicked, not even for a moment. Their happiness is only temporary. Our joy is eternal.

Those who know Jesus have something that cannot be seen or measured but is nonetheless very real. We are forgiven, redeemed, justified, accepted, given a new name and a new life, adopted, reconciled, empowered, filled, called, gifted, and commissioned. We are numbered with the saints and protected by the angels. And after we die, we go to heaven. Such a deal.

So if you have been whining and complaining lately, get over it. If you’ve been moaning about your lot in life, stop it. If you’ve been casting an eye at unbelievers who seem to have more than you, remember that eye has not seen and ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man what God has prepared for those who love him.

Let me wrap up this message with a simple but profound question: Who is your mother? Hagar or Sarah? Are you born of the flesh only or are you also born of the Spirit? Do you still think there is some way you can help God out by the things you do? If you think you can somehow be good enough to merit salvation or if you think that salvation is partly what God does and partly what you do, you are a child of slavery. You are still in chains.

The Ishmaels of this world trust in themselves. The Isaacs of this world trust in God alone for salvation.

There are two streams of humanity and only two. Despite all the superficial differences of skin color, culture, language, place of birth, and so on, in God’s eyes the whole human race is divided into two groups—the Ishmaels and the Isaacs, the children of Hagar and the children of Sarah. Everyone in the world is descended spiritually from one of those two women. You are either a slave to works or you have been set free by God’s grace.

Who is your mother? Make sure you know the answer to that question. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?