28 August 2012

Galatians 4:21 - 5:1

"So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (vv. 4:31 - 5:1)


In this rather complicated passage, Paul uses the story of Hagar and Sarah from the Old Testament (Genesis 16) to illustrate the different choices people can make in their relationship with God. Paul is writing to the Christian community in Galatia around AD 50. They had been visited by Jewish-Christian missionaries who claimed that Paul's gospel was incomplete and that in order to be true Christians they must first become Jewish and submit themselves to the Jewish Law. So Paul is writing to reassert his authority and set the record straight.

Here, when Paul talks about "law", he's referring to the behavioural rules and religious observances that Jews were obligated to fulfil as part of their relationship with God. The Galatian Christians were trying to figure out whether this law was still binding for them now they counted themselves among Christ's followers.

So Paul draws an analogy with Abraham, Sarah and Hagar to set out the new boundaries for a Christian relationship with God. Hagar was Sarah's servant. God had already promised Abraham that his wife Sarah would bear him a child, but Abraham lost sight of that promise and slept with Hagar in order to produce an heir. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael and later Sarah bore Isaac.

Here, Paul is inviting the Galatian Christians to see themselves as the child of freedom (and thus, the child of Sarah), no longer enslaved to Jewish law (as the child of Hagar was born into slavery). They do not need to conform to the law in order to fit in as part of God's family, because through Christ they have already been adopted and nothing they do or say could possibly change that.

To Ponder

  • How do we interpret Paul's call to "drive out the slave and her child" (v. 30)? Who do you think he is talking about? The Jewish people? The law? Or simply those things that enslave us?
  • What enslaves us today?

Bible notes author

Anna Drew

Anna Drew is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Canterbury. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Daily Service and Prayer for the Day and a freelance writer on faith issues.