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Galatians 4:21–5:1 contains an allegory concerning the two covenants, old and new. Even verse 26 belongs to that allegory.
Galatians 4:26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (RSV)
As you can see, that verse talks about the heavenly Jerusalem. But for some reason, some say that it refers to a church. – Let us take a closer look at that passage and matter.
A note: The article nca080.htm has more on the covenants-part in Paul’s allegory.
Some churches have described themselves as “the mother of all saints”, and in some cases even as “the kingdom of God in embryo”. Sometimes, their writers have quoted Galatians 4:26 in connection with such things. But again, that verse talks about the heavenly Jerusalem and says nothing about churches. So, really what does it mean and refer to?
Here, it is good to keep in mind that the various dogmas about some church being “the mother of all saints”, are simply copies of old Catholic teachings. There, a church is made to be a “mother” and also a “life-giver” – in place of Jesus who is the true source of life. People are caused to think that in order to be saved, they must belong to some church and follow some pontiff or preacher. But the facts are, of course, that salvation does not come from any church or religious entity or organisation. Salvation can only come from God and his son Jesus.
As was noted above, Galatians 4:26 is a part of a covenant-related allegory. In that allegory, the Old Covenant is symbolised by Abraham’s slave-woman wife Hagar and her offspring, Mount Sinai in Arabia, and the earthly Jerusalem, while the New Covenant is symbolised by his freewoman wife (Sarah) and her offspring, and the heavenly Jerusalem.
Here is the first part of that allegory, with some notes.
Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under law, [a] do you not hear the law? [a] 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave [b] was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. 24 Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (RSV, note signs added)
a Verse 21, “the law” – this is one of Paul’s many word-plays: In the first part of that verse, the phrase “the law” refers to the Old Covenant with its rules, but in its last part it refers instead to the Old Testament section which is called “the Law” (the five books of Moses). Perhaps you can see Paul’s word-play in that passage – “Tell me, you who wish to be under the Law” [the Old Covenant], “why don’t you listen to the Law” [the books of Moses], after which he cited those books, parts of Genesis 21. (There is more on this, below.)
b Verse 23, “slave” – some older translations have “bondwoman” instead of “slave” or “slavewoman”, and in verse 24 and 25 “bondage” instead of “slavery”. Here, the words “the son of the slave” refer to Ishmael, the son of Hagar who was Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid.
Verse 24, “this is an allegory; these women are two covenants” – as you can see, the apostle was not talking about churches. He was making an allegory concerning the two covenants, old and new. He mentioned Abraham’s slavewoman wife (Hagar), and his freewoman wife (that is, Sarah). Verse 26 talks about the heavenly Jerusalem as the saints’ [c] symbolic “mother”.
c Here, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in biblical times, first century CE or earlier.
In that allegory, Abraham’s wives Sarah and her offspring and Hagar with her offspring represent two covenants, two cities, and slavery and freedom. This way:
The apostle Paul built that allegory on the fates of Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of the freewoman Sarah and the slavewoman Hagar. The Lord had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, see Genesis 17:8. The right to that promised land was then inherited by Isaac (and later by Isaac’s descendants through his son Jacob whose other name was Israel).
Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael did not inherit any right to that particular land. Galatians 4:30 records the words “cast out the slave and her son; for the son of the slave shall not inherit with the son of the free woman” (RSV). That is a quote of Sarah, as recorded in the book of Genesis. We read:
Genesis 21:10 Therefore she said to Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.” 11 And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called. 13 “Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.” (NKJV)
Certain things in the preceding chapter give us some of the background. The apostle was reprimanding some people in Galatia, because of something they had done.
Galatians 3:1 You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? 2 I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so much for nothing—if in fact it was for nothing? 5 So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? (HCSB)
Obviously, the reason why the apostle Paul wrote the allegoric comparison between the old and new covenants, Galatians 4:21–5:1, was that some people in Galatia had begun to observe some old-covenantal rules and rituals, see Galatians 3:1–5 (above), and also 4:9–11.
As you can see, Paul was not talking about churches but about the matter of the two covenants, old and new.
The article nca080.htm has more on the covenants-part in Galatians 3 and 4.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by “added law”. → nca080.htm
What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga081.htm
What does the Bible say about Heaven? Were the saints to go there? What about others? What does it look like, in Heaven? → nba040.htm
Articles on the matter of the two covenants, old and new. → Look under the heading “Covenants” of the page key12.htm.
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