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The Allegory

INTRODUCTION: The Holy Bible uses many figures of speech and literary devices, but the only place where an allegory is specifically designated as such, and the Greek term allegoreo is used, is in Paul's letter to the Galatians. The American Heritage Dictionary provides this definition: "allegory n., pl. -ries. 1. a A literary, dramatic, or pictorial device in which each literal character, object, and event represents a symbol illustrating an idea or moral or religious principle." In the passage for this study (Galatians 4:19-5:1), Paul referred to the literal and historical account of Abraham's wives Sarah and Hagar, and the sons they bore, as an allegory to epitomize his comparisons between saving faith and the law. The Lord had made distinction between these literal women, so Paul had an authentic base for his allegory.

Galatia was a region in central Asia Minor under foreign rule as a Roman province, not a single city, and the inhabitants were from various cultures and lands. The churches were comprised of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul had been born in Tarsus of Cilicia, which was in the southern part of Asia Minor, and he returned to Tarsus when he had to flee from Jerusalem after his conversion. Since Paul was himself a Roman citizen, he would have been familiar with the mixed cultural influences of Syria, Cilicia, and Galatia.

Paul begins immediately in his letter to present what Christ had done for us. Galatians 1 "3 Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father:"

After establishing that Christ gave himself for our sins, Paul then asserts his authority to speak as an apostle, chosen by and taught by God. Galatians 1 "11 But I certify you, brothers, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. 12 For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ." Paul then reminds the Galatians that the true gospel is by faith in God's grace, not observance of the law. Galatians 2 "16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified."

And since we cannot perform the whole law to be saved, we must accept by faith (be crucified with Christ) the substitutionary death of Christ in our behalf; because his death satisfied the law for us because we could not do it: and if his sacrifice was not sufficient, he died in vain. Galatians 2 "20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. 21 I do not frustrate the grace of God: or if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain."

Paul then begins to use the two lines of Abraham's descendents to illustrate the essential element of faith that came before circumcision, and before the commandments were given to the nation after the exodus from Egypt. Genesis 15 "5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if you be able to number them: and he said to him, So shall your seed be. 6 And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness." And that Genesis passage was Paul's reference as he wrote to the Galatians. Galatians 3 "6 Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. 7 Know you therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel to Abraham, saying, In you shall all nations be blessed. 9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham."

Christ performed for us, redemption from the condemnation of the law, and we must receive that redemption by faith. Galatians 3 "13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." This promise from God is more secure than any agreement made between mere men, and the law that followed cannot cancel the promise. Galatians 3 "16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He said not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to your seed, which is Christ. 17 And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot cancel, that it should make the promise of none effect." So, this promise through Christ is available to Jew and Gentile alike. Galatians 3 "26 For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you be Christ's, then are you Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."

From the following statement of Paul, it seems he is writing to a particular congregation where he had very personal relationships, and they apparently believed they were very blessed by his gospel. Galatians 4 "15 Where is then the blessedness you spoke of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me. 16 Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?"

NOTE: All Bible text in this study is taken from the American King James Version.

A - Paul desired to be with the Galatians

Galatians 4 "19 My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, 20 I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you."

COMMENTS: Paul had seen the Lord bless in the development of churches in this region where he had traveled during two missionary journeys that covered a span of years. From his form of address calling them "my little children," we see that he felt affection for the people to whom he wrote, and this only intensified his appeal to them to be reminded of the foundation for their faith. It is very appropriate that he use the metaphor of travailing in birth, because those who believed that faith in Christ is the only way to heaven are thereby "born again" to eternal life. Paul even entreats them with the phrase "until Christ be formed in you," indicating that God performs a transformation from within us.

He will go on to use the allegory to further stress the difference between a "normal" birth and one that is brought about only through the promise of the Lord. Though he would prefer to be with them personally, in his absence he must communicate with them by letter to express what he thought had been clear to them when he had been ministering among them. His letter stands for us with the same warning because attempting to be justified by the law and the traditions of men is a peril for every church body in every time period. Paul made a similar warning to the believers at Colosse.
Colossians 2 "8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."

According to Hebrews, the failure of Israel was that they had not combined faith with practice: which is the perpetual failing of those who remain in their sin through unbelief in the gospel of grace through faith.
Hebrews 4 "2 For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it."

B - Better to be born by promise

Galatians 4 "21 Tell me, you that desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? 22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a female slave, the other by a free woman. 23 But he who was of the female slave was born after the flesh; but he of the free woman was by promise."

COMMENTS: Paul wants his readers to have a firm grasp on the complete futility of the law as a way to become sons of God and heirs to his kingdom. And his reference here comes from that first book of Moses called Genesis, not the other books of the law. The Lord made it clear to Abraham that Ishmael was of value, but Isaac was the son of promise through whom God's blessing would come. Genesis 17 "18 And Abraham said to God, O that Ishmael might live before you! 19 And God said, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son indeed; and you shall call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. 21 But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear to you at this set time in the next year. 22 And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham." The Lord made his firm statement to Abraham that Sarah's son Isaac would indeed receive the covenant just as he had promised, and then that conversation was concluded. The matter was settled so the Lord went up from Abraham.

C - An allegory for two covenants

Galatians 4 "24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which engenders to bondage, which is Agar.

COMMENTS: The "which things" could be rendered "who", and the subjects are Hagar and Sarah. Paul expresses that the two women are representative of two covenants: requiring knowledge and acceptance of Old Testament passages in order to understand his parallel comparison. The early church began with Jews who had the Old Testament, and the church continually expanded to an ever increasing number of Gentiles. However, many Jewish Christians were reverting to the law and tradition as the means for their righteousness before God, and thereby abandoning the revelation of Jesus the Messiah who embodied grace for Jew and Gentile alike.

Hagar's son was a biological descendant of Abraham, but his birth did not fulfill the promise of God. Isaac was that son of promise conceived in Sarah. Paul says that mount Sinai engenders, that is to say brings into existence or conceives, bondage. That bondage is to sin because no one is justified by the law, which instead condemns since no one is able to keep the whole law. Mount Sinai was the memorable place in the wilderness where the nation of Israel had received God's law after they were brought out, as on eagle's wings, from Egypt by the Lord. Another apostle made this brief statement in his gospel account, indicating the superiority of grace over the law.
John 1 "17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ."


Galatians 4 "25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answers to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. 26 But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. 27 For it is written, Rejoice, you barren that bore not; break forth and cry, you that travail not: for the desolate has many more children than she which has an husband.

COMMENTS: So Hagar represents the "natural" vessel for birth whereby Sarah and Abraham thought the heir could be accomplished. But Hagar's son was not the one of promise to fulfill the Lord's plan. Paul compares Agar (Hagar in Hebrew) to the earthly Jerusalem that is still in bondage to sin under the law devoid of grace, because her son came from the plans of Abraham and Sarah to bring about a descendant only through physical means. Isaac represents the fulfillment of God's promise of blessing, by his grace while the faith of Abraham and Sarah was very weak. The Jerusalem from above is truly of God's making, and all Jews and Gentiles alike who are part of the blessing of that city of God must come into it by faith in God's promise. God's grace, as exemplified in that promised birth believed by Abraham, is so special because we can treasure how it parallels our new birth to eternal life by believing the promise of God, made to us in Christ.

p>Isaiah spoke of the sacrifice for sin that Christ would make for us. Isaiah 53 "10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief: when you shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he has poured out his soul to death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

This leads then into the passage quoted by Paul in Galatians,
Isaiah 54 "1 Sing, O barren, you that did not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you that did not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, said the LORD."
The children by faith will be greater in number because they will never taste of the second death, but those who remain under the curse of the law through unbelief will perish eternally.


Galatians 4 "28 Now we, brothers, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. 29 But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. 30 Nevertheless what said the scripture? Cast out the female slave and her son: for the son of the female slave shall not be heir with the son of the free woman. 31 So then, brothers, we are not children of the female slave, but of the free.

COMMENTS: Paul is speaking to both Jewish and Gentile Christians when he says , "Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise." Gentiles are not of Abraham's seed in the flesh, but they are children in the spirit through faith, and those who are Jews through the flesh are not heirs to God's kingdom if they are not also children by faith. . There should be no surprise when the true heirs of God's kingdom are persecuted by those who believe they are heirs because of their works of religious law. Such was the case between Isaac and Ishmael, and such was the case between unregenerate Jews and the Christians in Paul's time.

Paul could make these statements about slavery and freedom with confidence because the Lord Jesus had made such declarations about the way to be truly free from the bondage of sin.
John 8 "31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed; 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. 33 They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how say you, You shall be made free? 34 Jesus answered them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Whoever commits sin is the servant of sin. 35 And the servant stays not in the house for ever: but the Son stays ever. 36 If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed."
Those who are enslaved can become bitter and violent, but those who have been made free should display the fruits of the spirit.

F - Stand fast in liberty

Galatians 5 "1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage."

COMMENTS: We must hold fast to the knowledge that our natural birth cannot lead to eternal life no matter how many aspects of the law we might try to fulfill. We will remain in bondage to sin under the law until we are set free by faith in the Son of God. The spiritual birth promised by the Lord is the only way to become sons and heirs to the kingdom of God, and thereby to have eternal life. Once we have been made free from the bondage of sin through that new birth, we must continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and not to fall back into dependence on our own effort for righteousness.
Paul gave this advice to the Ephesians to place their full dependence on the Lord so that they might stand fast.
Ephesians 6 "11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil."

--- Reflections in prayer ---

Thank you Lord for the allegory of Sarah and Hagar, with their sons Isaac and Ishmael as a reminder to me of your promise of freedom through faith, and keep me from wandering back to becoming a son of slavery. How many times Lord have I used my own reasoning to try to follow the path I thought would be within your will, only to be off course and not patient enough for your perfect plan. And sometimes the result of that errant course has then become part of the resistance to the path you had set me on in your grace and patience. Lord, help me to read and study your word more diligently so that I will be more aware of kingdom conduct. then Lord, continue to supply your grace that I might stand in the liberty of being free-born as an heir to your Kingdom. All praise to the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen and amen.

Published 18 September 2006 revisions 31 Jan 2017