These small group studies of Galatians 4:21-31 contain outlines, cross-references, Bible study discussion questions, and applications. Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.
Galatians 4:21-31 Bible Study Guide – Free or Slave?
I. Example of Hagar and Sarah (21-27)
II. Children of the free woman (28-31)
I. Example of Hagar and Sarah (21-27)
• Why does Paul ask this rhetorical question?
• What allegory does Paul use?
• What is an allegory? Are there are actually allegories in the Bible?
• Why does Paul use this allegory?
• In Paul’s allegory, what do Mt. Sinai, Hagar, Sarah, Jerusalem, and Isaac represent? Is that the meaning in the original text? Then why does Paul bring it in here?
• What does verse 26 mean that the Jerusalem above is free? What is the Jerusalem above?
• What is the meaning of verse 27?
Isaiah 61:1 – The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners
John 8:36 – So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Isaiah 54:1 (Galatians 4:27 is quoted from here) – “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,”
says the Lord.
Genesis 26:3 – For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham.
Ephesians 1:3 – Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Genesis 21:8-9 – The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking.
Verse by Verse Commentary
Intro: How does this passage fit in with the overall theme? We have been learning in the last several chapters that works and rules-based salvation is impossible. Circumcision cannot save us, nor can trying to follow the Old Testament law. Salvation is by grace through faith. Nothing else. There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved except for the name of Jesus.
Here, Paul uses yet another way to tell the Galatians that the law can’t save them. He delves into the Old Testament and uses the lives of Sarah and Hagar and their children as an allegory to bring his point home. He will show us that God’s blessings only come by divine decree. You can never force God’s hand. You can never obtain His promises through your own efforts.
Suggested Reading: Read Genesis 16 to gain a deeper understanding of the background of this passage.
1. Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? – We have seen in this letter that the Galatians were gravitating toward the law. False teachers had been telling them that circumcision was necessary for salvation. And while circumcision was the most outward example of obeying the law, they were also required to follow the rest of it.
Paul had used many arguments to show them the folly of this behavior. In this chapter, he uses a new one. He says, “do you not listen to the law?” Paul incorporates an argument from the Old Testament to teach them that it has always been impossible to obtain God’s favor through one’s own efforts.
2. It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and one by the free woman – The slave woman refers to Hagar, while the free woman refers to Sarah. God had promised that Abraham and Sarah would have a son who was to be the child of promise. The covenant would pass from Abraham to his heir, the child of promise. But Sarah was advanced in years, and her womb was barren. Although they waited for a while, nothing happened. Therefore, Abraham and Sarah decided to “help” God. Sarah’s maid, Hagar, was given to Abraham as a concubine, and Abraham went in to her to make her pregnant. Then Hagar gave birth to Ishmael.
But God did not pass the covenant on to Ishmael. Abraham and Sarah had sinned. Yet God had mercy on them. Finally, Sarah did conceive and gave birth to Isaac.
3. Contrast “born according to the flesh” and “the son…through the promise.” – This phrase captures the essence of the account of Abraham/Sarah/Hagar/Ishmael. God promised to Abraham that he would have a child. Abraham waited many years for this promise to be fulfilled and still nothing happened. He and Sarah became impatient. Before, Abraham had offered to make one of his servants his heir to “help” God, but God declined.
So, the next time Abraham and Sarah didn’t mention their plan to God at all. They decided to try to aid God in fulfilling His promise. This plan was not conceived through faith. There is no evidence that they prayed about it. They certainly did not ask God’s opinion on it. Sarah suggested it, and Abraham just did it. Thus, it was according to the flesh. It was man’s idea, not God’s. It was a result of their own effort, their own wisdom, and their own understanding.
Abraham and Sarah attempted to obtain God’s favor and blessings through their own means, by the flesh. But they could not. God was not pleased. He did not accept their attempts, nor did He offer His blessings for what they had done. In their fleshly endeavors to obtain God’s promise, they came up far short, highlighting the fact that God’s favor can never be achieved through works.
By contrast, Isaac was the son of promise. He was a miracle child. It was beyond human imagination that Abraham and Sarah could have a child at their advanced age. Both Abraham and Sarah laughed at the idea at various times. But God had promised it. What He promises, He fulfills. God came up with the plan, and He miraculously accomplished it by His power. The promise was not fulfilled quickly, but it was fulfilled at just the right time.
We will see that Paul uses this example to teach about salvation. The attempt with Hagar represents people’s attempts to obtain God’s favor by following the law. But in their flesh, people can never reach God’s standard and can never be saved. In contrast, the miracle of Isaac reveals that salvation is a gift from God. It is not earned, and it cannot be achieved through hard work or cunning manipulation. It is not deserved. It is grace. Grace is when God extends us favor that is undeserved.
When the Galatians went back to the law, they were following the failed model of Abraham and Sarah, who tried to get God’s promise on their own.
Application: What do we learn from the Genesis 16 account? Here are a few practical lessons:
• Trust in God’s promises completely.
• Wait for God’s proper timing.
• Do not rely on our own understanding.
• Do not make plans or decisions without praying/seeking counsel.
• The means and the end are both important. Do not try sneaky or sinful methods to get what we want. Do things God’s way, even if it is more difficult.
• Do not blindly follow the culture around us.
• Most importantly, we cannot earn grace. It is free; salvation is God’s free gift. Say “thank you” and respond in love, but don’t ever think that you deserve it.
4. Allegories and the Bible – An allegory is a type of literature in which the “real” meaning is hidden. The real purpose is a mystery. Some people have followed an allegorical interpretation of the Bible. For example, they might say Judas’ suicide means we should free ourselves from all restraints. Or they might say that Jesus’ death is representative of the modern-day plight of the common person being downtrodden by an oppressive government. Or they might say that the inn in the Parable of the Good Samaritan represents the church.
Basically, an allegory allows for any type of interpretation. The real meaning is a mystery, completely unknown. We should not follow the allegorical interpretation method of the Bible. Cults and heresies are started this way.
So then, why does Paul offer an allegorical interpretation to the historical account of Abraham and Hagar?
Paul is not actually interpreting this passage. He is not saying that the meaning he is assigning was intended originally. Paul makes this very clear in verse 24 when he says, “Now this may be interpreted allegorically.” He tells his readers clearly that he is using this story as a parable.
Paul, like Jesus so often did, is using a parable to teach a point. Only, he is using actual historical characters for his parable/allegory. Keep in mind that Paul’s overarching theme of this book is to convince the Galatians that they are justified by faith alone and not the works of the law. He uses argument after argument, anything which may help to convince the Galatians. In this example, Paul incorporates characters they are familiar with to advance his arguments and put what he is saying into a context they can understand.
Application: Be careful how you interpret the Bible. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul could use this historical account as a type of parable to advance his argument. But this is not a green light for us to do the same. It may be easy for us to get off track. We should remember the rule: one interpretation, many applications. When studying a passage, never start with the question, “What does this mean to me?” Instead, start with the question, “What did this mean to the original audience?”
5. Two covenants – Paul compares Hagar to Mt. Sinai. In other words, she is analogous to the old covenant (it was given at Mt. Sinai) in this allegory. Hagar was a slave, and those who put themselves under the law to try to earn salvation are slaves. Hagar was a man-made attempt to gain God’s promise. Those who, in the new covenant period, put themselves under the law are also making a man-made attempt to gain God’s favor. Both are bound to failure. In short, Paul is saying that those under the law are slaves.
Those under the old covenant are slaves. They are slaves to the rituals and rules of the law, with no hope of being good enough to be saved. They try so hard to fulfill the law but will ultimately fail. The sad part is that it is needless for them to be slaves anymore. Jesus came to set them free, but they missed it.
6. Two Jerusalems – Paul says in verse 25 that Hagar “corresponds to the present Jerusalem.” In this context, Jerusalem can represent the nation. Often on the news, you may hear the reporters use a capital interchangeably with a nation itself. The Jewish nation, as a whole, rejected Christ and were therefore in bondage. They still followed the sacrificial system and were bound to the rules of the Old Testament law.
The Jerusalem above is free – What is the Jerusalem above? It refers to God’s kingdom, namely heaven (Hebrews 12:18, 22). Heaven is a free kingdom for people who are free from sin because their sins have been washed away by Christ. Citizens of the kingdom of heaven are free indeed. The freedom we have in Christ is not a freedom to sin but a freedom from sin.
II. Children of the free woman (28-31)
• Where did the Galatians fit into this allegory?
• Who was the one born according to the flesh? How about the one born according to the Spirit?
• What point is Paul making in verse 30?
• What is his conclusion in verse 31?
John 15:19-20 – If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. You brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise –
• In what way are we children of promise?
• What promises did God fulfill when He saved us?
• What lessons can we learn from that?
Our salvation is the result of God’s fulfilled promises to us throughout the Old Testament. Some of those promises are seen in Isaiah 53, 49:6, and 42:6, among other places. These promises were made hundreds or thousands of years ahead of time.
It is first alluded to in Genesis 3:15 and later emphasized to Abraham in Genesis 12:3.
Genesis 12:3 – I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
From the very beginning of the Old Testament, God promised to save us from our sin. He promised to send a savior. And God fulfilled them all. It is a privilege to be a child of promise, it means:
• We are not an accident. God had a plan for us, and He fulfilled it.
• God is sovereign. Nothing can stop God from accomplishing His plans for us.
• We are loved. We are wanted.
• We have a heavenly Father who will watch over us. He will continue the work He began in us.
Application: Think back on your life. Write down 5 promises from Scripture that you have experienced God fulfilling in your life. Spend some time in prayer to thank Him for each of these and for all the promises He has kept on your behalf.
2. The one born of flesh persecutes the one born of the Spirit – Paul takes the illustration further. Ishmael persecuted Isaac (Genesis 21:9) in the form of mocking. And Jews who relied on the law persecuted believers. Throughout Acts we see that they pursued Paul from city to city in order to persecute him, his team, and the newly established churches.
3. Cast out the bondwoman and her son – In like manner, we should cast out false teachers who teach a works-based salvation. They and their teachings should be put out of the church.
Application (verse 31): Are you children of the slave woman or of the free? So, since you are free, what should you do? Write down at least one practical way you can obey what you have learned in this passage in the coming week.
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