Paul is painfully aware of the greater effectiveness of one’s presence, but he must deal with the problem at Galatia through a letter, until he is free to return to them (Galatians 4:20). The Galatian letter, as I said in a previous blog, was written just after the Jerusalem council. Paul and Barnabas were busy undoing the work of the “men from James” at Antioch, Cilicia and Syria—areas where Paul labored in the name of Christ. It wasn’t until after this work was done that Paul was able to return to the Galatian churches.
Paul gives a picture of his concern, expressing himself as a mother in labor for her child (Galatians 4:19). In this case Paul was laboring to call out the evidence of Christ’s presence within the Galatian believers. He offers them a picture of their present behavior by recalling the life of Abraham. Abraham was promised a child from his own body. However, because nothing seemed to be occurring, even after years of waiting on the Lord, Sarah gave her nurse, Hagar, to Abraham so a child could be borne by proxy through her. This is an expression of human effort, seeking to fulfill the will of God. The result was Ishmael. Abraham loved Ishmael, but he was a child of human effort and not a fulfillment of God’s promise.
Paul claimed Ishmael and Isaac can be used as allegories (Galatians 4:24), showing the religious labor of the law (Hagar/Ishmael/Jerusalem) and the religious labor of faith (Sarah/Isaac/heavenly Jerusalem). The allegory of Hagar expresses human effort and leads to bondage—i.e. instead of serving God, one in reality serves the law (Galatians 4:25), obeying rules rather than expressing one’s heart (Galatians 4:26). Paul shows that which was true in the lives of these two children was borne out in the interaction between the Jews and those who believed in Jesus (Messianic Jews or Christian gentiles). Ishmael belittled Isaac and abused him (Genesis 21:9), and the Jews acted in the same manner towards those of the faith, i.e. those who believed in Jesus (Galatians 4:29).
Referring to the time when the Jews were cast out of the land and went into captivity, Paul calls to mind what appeared to be a hopeless state for the Jews. Jerusalem was seen as the widow of the King of Judah (Lamentations 1:1), but all the kings’ sons were either killed or made eunuchs in Babylon. Solomon’s line literally ended with Jeconiah. So, how could God’s promise to David be kept? The prophet says: “Rejoice, you who are barren…” (Galatians 4:27; cp. Isaiah 54:1-5), referring to Jerusalem, the widow, whose sons are no more. She will have more children through the fulfillment of the promise of God than she had when her husband, the King of Judah, was alive.
The curse of Jeconiah was healed in the virgin birth of Jesus. He has become the “husband” of the heavenly Jerusalem, answering to the promise of God. Through this “Jerusalem” not only Jews are born to God but also gentile believers. She, the heavenly Jerusalem—the church of God and bride of Christ—is the mother of us all (Galatians 4:26).
Paul’s argument, therefore, is that it is unfathomable for the Galatians to desire to align themselves with the Jews of the circumcision, because by doing so they entered with them into bondage, just as they went to Babylon and were cast out of the land of promise (cp. Galatians 4:30). On the other hand, it makes perfect sense, according to the Scriptures, for the Galatians to yield themselves to God as the children of promise by reason of faith—allowing Christ to live through their lives. Their yielding to the presence of Christ in them expresses Christ in their walk before mankind, so Paul labored, as a mother with birth pains, expressed in his epistle to them, hoping to cause his brethren to once more express Christ in their outward walk, rather than express their obedience to the Law of Moses. For the one, they are seen as children of bondage, but through the other they are freeborn.