One of the greatest difficulties we meet in correctly understanding the Scriptures is
that of distinguishing between literal and figurative language. This difficulty is evident
in the fact that the Great Teacher answered the question of His disciples as to why He
taught in parables by saying that it was to hide the secrets of the kingdom then spoken
thus from Israel at large and at the same time reveal them to the disciples for whom they
were intended; for even they did not understand His figurative language until He
interpreted the parables to them privately.
The difficulty is further manifest in such incidents as that in which He alluded to the
doctrine of the Pharisees and the Sadducees as "leaven" and the disciples
thought they should have brought their own bread with them to that place.
One value of figurative language is that so much can be revealed in so few words; but
the brevity is the reason of the difficulty in understanding the figure. Many
interpretations of parables, all divergent, have been made by authors of volume after
volume on the subject.
Picture-writing and the art of painting show more yet than figurative language in
condensed space, and such expression of thought is still more difficult to understand than
such literary forms as parable and allegory, but a clay tablet, a mountain-side or a piece
of canvas is not as expensive as the present cost of print.
The Great Teacher was the greatest adept ever to use figurative language but His
apostle to us is not far behind Him. Paul uses figures in most of his epistles. In Romans
(7) he uses a very difficult figure of bondage under law, illustrating it by a combined
figure of wedlock and of slavery. In the Corinthian epistles he uses such difficult ones
as combined farming and house-building (1 Cor.3) and the seed sown in the soil to
illustrate resurrection (chap.15), which raises the question, "Is there life in the
wheat-germ when it is buried?" In 2 Cor.5 he uses a combined figure for a tent used
for clothing. In Gal.4 he uses the allegory we study. In Ephesians the believer is an
armor-clad soldier. In Philippians we are garrisoned about with God's peace that fights
all worries away. In Colossians we are assured that we are delivered from the realm of the
king named "Darkness" and naturalized into the dominion of God's dear Son. He
told the Thessalonians that they were no longer "children" of that
night-Darkness, but children of the day, and therefore they were never to be figuratively
asleep, but always watching for the Lord to come. Timothy, Titus and Onesimus were his
Such a wealth of figurative language is enticing. It challenges the wits to wrestle
with the cryptic language and intrigues the spiritual appetite to feast on hidden manna
that will make the spiritual man strong in the Lord for His service.
So we set ourselves to unravel the allegory in Gal.4:19-5:4.
SLAVERY AND SONSHIP
Inspiration designates the story about Hagar and Sarah an "allegory." An
allegory is distinguished from a parable by being more complete in the significance of
every item of the story than a parable is. An allegory is generally fictitious, such as
Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" but this one is an interpretation of real
life-occurrences. A fable is not only fictitious, but unreal, as Jotham's story of the
trees choosing a king (Judges 9:8). A type is an adumbration, or shadowy outline, of
something future, corresponding only in prominent features to the real event.
In the broadest sense of the term, parable (Heb. mashal, Gr. parabole)
includes all these figurative forms, for the word parabole means cast beside
and so denotes any literary construction (or even any action) set beside a thought in an
illustrative way, and is so used in Scripture, as any reader can see for himself by
consulting a concordance or lexicon of the original languages.
Some of the marvels of inspiration may be seen in the use of seemingly trivial
incidents to foreshadow events of tremendous importance, such as Abraham's slaves staying
behind at the foot of Mount Moriah at the offering of Isaac, and thus prefiguring the
three disciples in Gethsemane. And Ishmael's mocking baby Isaac portrays in this allegory
the persecution and martyrdom of Paul and his associates by those represented by Ishmael.
We shall comment on that in this study, but the case of Abraham's slaves must wait its
In studying this allegory we should first of all understand that it is but a section of
the argument to which the whole epistle is devoted--justification, that is, righteousness
(5:6). Were the believers justified by works, or by grace through faith?
Does God choose people for salvation because they previously earned it, or because He
loves them first, and they lovingly work because of that? Are we saved because we have
worked, or do we work because He has saved us?
Paul calls the Galatians his "children" (4:19), as he also implied that he
was the begetting father of the Corinthians (1 Cor.4:15) and of Timothy, Titus and
Onesimus. There is a great truth in that, pertaining to the comparative rank of an
evangelist in the ecclesia as compared with other officials.
Here in 4:19, however, he boldly uses an arresting figure, implying he was the
spiritual mother of these Galatian believers, just as a mother-to-be anxiously
watches for the first sign of independent life in her unborn child, to show his solicitude
that these Galatian saints should manifest their quickening out of their old deadness in
sin into spiritual life in Christ by developing in grace, instead of trying to make
themselves grow by their own foetal works under law. Knowing their double-mindedness, he
said, "I stand in doubt of you," and wished he could be present with them and
speak in different fashion from what he had when he first gave them the good news of
justification in grace without any "and" after it, or any mixture of their own
works with it. But, being absent, he did the next best thing, and wrote this epistle to
Consider his shrewdness as a teacher. In verse 21 he says, in effect, "Since you
want to be under law, let's make believe you are, and see how you come out." He
proceeds by the allegory to show them that they will come out "at the small end of
the horn," as we say, by losing their heritage as sons, comparable to Isaac, and be
cast out of the inheritance, comparable to Ishmael. This is the main point in the
allegory. We shall notice it in its place.
In this shrewdness he imitated the Great Teacher, who assumed with the Pharisees that
they, the ninety-nine sheep, were where the song puts them, "safely in the shelter of
the fold." The author of that hymn (mis-)interprets the parable to teach that it
applies to the church, though the Teacher "left the ninety-nine in the wilderness,"
and went to seek the only sheep in His audience that wanted to be saved. The others,
thinking themselves safe in the fold, drove the Shepherd away and killed Him, so they
could stay where they were. And human beings call animals "dumb!"
The Father showed His wisdom, too, in giving Israel the king they wanted, to teach them
how people come out when they love folly. It was probably the only way they could (I was
going to say "would") learn. There is nothing like husks to teach a runaway boy
the way back to the Father, as the companion parable showed.
So Paul took the Galatians to the law they yearned for, by citing the law in Genesis 21
and showing them things in it they had never seen. Probably none of us could have seen it
if it were not shown to us. And we think we know so much!
People who want to put us under the fourth commandment say that "under the
law" in Rom.6:14, "you are not under the law, but under grace," does not
mean under the law, but under the condemnation and penalty of it by
disobeying it. They might "get away with it" there, but what about here? Who
would "desire to be under the law" in that sense, and be stoned to death? Worse
yet, who would want to put our Saviour "under the law" (verse 4) in that sense?
How then could we have any Saviour at all? If we want to add to the inspired words, let us
add the true idea, under (the jurisdiction of) the law. That is the evident sense,
for immediately after Paul speaks of these saints being under the law, he asks why they do
not "hear the law," for the law does have a right to claim heed to what it says
from those under its jurisdiction. And here, in Genesis 21, there was no ten- commandment
law, but our God was plotting out an allegory of what was to be.
In studying figures it is the wisest course first of all to see if there is an inspired
interpretation, for if we trust our own ability we can easily wander astray, since
parables and other figures are difficult to understand. One half of the reason why the Son
spoke the parables in Matt.13, was to hide the secrets from Israel at large, the other
half of the reason being to reveal them to the disciples to whom they belonged, by
We do have Paul's inspired interpretation of this allegory. It begins by saying that
these two women (Hagar and Sarah) are two covenants, then he continues by explaining eight
of the ten items of the allegory. We will list them in parallel columns, placing the items
of the allegory in the left-hand column and the items of the interpretation at the right,
with item corresponding to item, with asterisks before the items Paul interprets, to show
that we are not using guess-work on them. These eight interpreted items will thus furnish
a safe guide to interpret the other two, Abraham representing God, and the promises about
Ishmael made to Hagar in the wilderness of Beer-sheba representing the future destiny of
Israel. We have divine authority for placing Abraham in the allegory to represent God
(Rom.4:17), but the last item is but the author's suggestion and may be taken for
whatever, if anything, it is worth.
If we were together in class, I would ask you to say which of the two women we should
list first in the allegory, but since we cannot do that in print (since you can
"peek" at the list even now, before you read down to it), I will just assert
that even though we might reason from the pre-eminence of Sarah in the family and the fact
that she was Abraham's wife before Hagar became physically united to him at Sarah's
suggestion, and say that Sarah should therefore be listed first, it is not safe to reason
in the face of revelation that calls merely for faith; for Paul says "The first,
which is Hagar." So she comes in the list immediately after Abraham.
The reason for this is because God (represented by Abraham) had a relation to Israel
under the law covenant (represented by Hagar) before He will yet have a relation to her
(whom He wedded, nationally, at Sinai) when He brings her to Himself under another
covenant represented by Sarah. And as Abraham was married to Sarah (a barren wife) before
he had any children by her, so God made this other covenant with Israel (Gen.12) before it
produced results of justification of the nation, so they first had to try the experiment,
of works under the later Hagar-covenant, to learn the folly of trying to help God out of a
supposed difficulty as Sarah did. Christendom is still trying to help Him out of "the
problem of evil" by needless apologies and apologetics instead of accepting in simple
faith what He says about His relation to evil.
The interpretation of the allegory not only places Hagar as representing the law
covenant, but also as being (figuratively) "Jerusalem that now (in Paul's time)
is," for Jerusalem was the city of authority in apostolic times. It was the leaders
there who remonstrated to Peter about preaching to Cornelius. And when certain men
"from Judea" followed Paul to Antioch and told the believers from among the
nations that they must be circumcised and keep the law or they could not be saved
(Act.15:1,24), it was at Jerusalem that the controversy was decided.
That controversy, as here in this Galatian epistle (5:2,6), centered on circumcision,
merely because that was the badge of subjection to the law, the slave-brand, so to speak.
In our time it is sabbath-keeping.
The only way Israel and mankind in general can learn the futility of self-salvation by
works is by failure in the attempt by experience, so Hagar must have her fling at helping
God before Abraham and Sarah produced Isaac in faith. And even then God had to wait till
Abraham was ninety-nine years old and therefore as helpless as barren Sarah, before He
quickened the bodies of them both to be parents, bringing Isaac into the world out of
their deadness of parenthood as a representation of bringing the Greater Isaac from the
dead because of our justifying (Rom.4:25). So only when we become "without
strength" (Rom.5:6) can the blood be applied. A person full of good blood of his own
Since Hagar represented old Jerusalem as well as the old covenant, we write
"Jerusalem" in parenthesis after her name. We do the same with Sarah, since she
also represented another covenant and Jerusalem, the one "which is above." If
you do not "peek" at the itemized list below before we get to it, you might be
thinking that the Jerusalem that is "above" is the new Jerusalem that is to
"come down from God out of heaven." Take a hint by the fact that, as the two
women are two Jerusalems corresponding to two covenants, the one Jerusalem is above the
other in the same sense that Sarah (illustrating the superior covenant) was above Hagar,
though she may not have been taller or lived upstairs. A tent has no upstairs.
Was Ishmael a slave or a son? He was both. He was Abraham's son by begettal, but
socially he was a slave too. The allegory contemplates him only as a slave. In the days of
the old south if a plantation owner had children by a "mammy," the law made them
slaves. Ishmael was a slave because his mother was. When the prodigal returned home
in humiliation he renounced his sonship and begged to be only a hired man.
Abraham grieved when he had to choose between Sarah and Hagar in the case of Ishmael.
God settled the dilemma by telling the good old patriarchal husband to obey his wife; but
don't get "uppish," Sisters, for this is the only such case in all the Book, and
it was so because God was writing out the plot of this allegory in the matter.
God is Your Father: who is your mother? Don't feel too humiliated if you can't answer.
I couldn't till last summer, and worse yet, I thought all the time another covenant was my
mother. If you don't know your mother it's about time for the introduction. We'll get to
This whole controversy was a conflict between tradition and new truth. Tradition may be
true, since it means only what is handed down. In this case it was the error of
self-righteousness. Peter's faith was strained to the breaking-point when his heart was
enlarged enough to love Cornelius, the foreigner, and it took a direct divine revelation
to make the enlargement. It was the same when the eleven took him to task about it. What
would we probably have done if a new teacher should come among us and say "I know
your Scriptures say so-and-so, but I say unto you..."? Even His miracles did not
convince those too blind to see their significance and too stubborn to admit His
The slavery implied in the allegory is sin. Our Saviour spoke of it in this sense (John
8:31-36). So did Paul, extensively (Rom.6 to 8). The aptness of the figure consists in the
fact that slavery exists only by force, especially by the authority of law, and
that the motive that holds a slave in subjection is fear, as shown by the fact that
slaves ran away (1 Sam.25:10) when hope of escape was stronger than fear of the increased
hardship in punishment if they were caught. The fear that held slaves in law-slavery in
this allegory was, in its extreme form, that of being stoned to death.
Paul's description of the inward struggle of those who would do good but found no way
to perform it (Rom.7) is very striking in its slave-concept, for the person who would do
otherwise, if he could, is a slave to a force greater than his will. He calls that power
"sin that dwells in me." Wherever the law had jurisdiction, there was sin
perforce, because nobody ever did or can fulfill the divine law but One. So He said,
"Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keeps the law?" Paul also
proved both Jew and Gentile to be under sin (Rom.3:9). There are people yet who think they
can fulfill the law perfectly and that they are doing it. When they say that, they prove
their boast false, for boasting itself is prohibited by the Scriptures, and that they are
sinning when they so speak by even the law itself, for instance, Deut.8:7-17. To say
"We do not boast" is to boast. We do not boast. Therefore we do not say,
"We do not boast."
As long as a person does not express what may be a truth by voicing it in the minor
premise, it remains true and all is well, but the instant he opens his mouth and speaks
that truth it becomes an untruth and the syllogism wrecks itself.
So all those under law are inevitably slaves, as certainly so as the fact that every
negro born in the old south on the plantation was a slave, and as certainly as the fact
that Sarah's effort to help God produce the promised son could never result otherwise than
that the child to be born must be a slave from his first breath. This shows how impossible
it is to become just and righteous by self-effort, whether that effort be to keep the
divine law or personal resolutions or having "confidence in yourself" or any
other of the fond prescriptions offered by philosophers, theologians, reformers or any
other fleshly-wise hopers.
Another fact about slavery should be clearly understood. That is that the slave had no
heritage whatever in the master's property (Gal.4:3-7). All that Hagar carried away when
she and Ishmael left was enough bread and water to last a few hours.
The converse fact is that sons are heirs, as this sixth verse declares, also Rom.8:17
and Gal.3:26-29. Paul shrewdly sets these two facts before the Galatians, as much as to
say "Now you see how you come out by making believe we are under the law."
Have you ever been disturbed when somebody told you that if you do not keep the seventh
day you cannot be saved? Why not say with Paul, "With me it is a very small thing
that I should be judged of you," and so as he instructs (Col.2:16,17) and refuse to
let them judge us about sabbaths and other such matters.
At the council in Jerusalem, called to consider the controversy involved in this
allegory, Peter asked the believers from among the Pharisees why they wanted to fasten a
yoke on the necks of the new disciples that neither present Israel nor their fathers were
able to bear. Rather, Paul appeals to the believers to stand fast in their freedom as sons
and refuse to become burdened with the "yoke of slavery." To say nothing of the
impossible burden of trying to fulfill perfectly a perfect law, even such ceremonial
requirements as sabbath-keeping do place a heavy burden on those who work among others who
do not observe the seventh day. When the neighbors want to join together in some work in
which all must share, the sabbath-keepers cannot conscientiously help.
Now as to discovering our mother: She is revealed to us in verses 26 and 31, and
identified as the covenant represented by Sarah, for she was the "free woman"
cited in verse 31, called "Jerusalem" in verse 26. For as Hagar corresponded to
Jerusalem of Paul's time, so Sarah must correspond to some contrasted Jerusalem. So she
represented the "Jerusalem (covenant) which is above." Therefore, in whatever
sense Sarah was "above," Hagar would be lower in the sense in which our
mother-covenant is above the law. It is easy to see how Sarah was above Hagar--in
authority. Thus our mother-covenant has greater authority and power than law. Law condemns
(2 Cor.3:9). Anyone can condemn, but to transform into uprightness is much greater. So our
mother must do the opposite, that is, justify. That fits the whole allegory, for the
subject of it is justification. Then we must find the covenant that justifies us and put
it in its place in the right- hand column opposite "Sarah (Jerusalem above)"
which we put in the left-hand column.
Our mother is not difficult to find. She is right close in the context of the allegory
(Gal.3:8), where justification by faith is said to be the blessing contained in the
covenant with Abraham in Gen.12. It is called a "covenant" in Acts 3:25,26,
where Peter's inspired interpretation of the blessing, instead of being called
justification, is expressed in corresponding words of being turned away from iniquities.
So we have now found our mother. This blessing of justification is the "promise
referred to in verse 28, where our mother is implied by saying we are
"children." Since we are children of promise and children of a covenant which
promised the blessing of justification, this promise of justification is evidently the
"promise" referred to in this 28th verse. We find it previously in 3:29, where
we are told that if we are Abraham's seed because we are in Christ who is Abraham's Seed,
we are heirs of the promise, because children are heirs.
Literally, justification cannot be called a covenant, because a covenant is an
agreement between parties by which each assures to the other the performance of something
called a "consideration." In justification nothing is done, or can be done by
the one justified to bring about his justification. It is "not of works," as
would be implied by calling it a covenant. So it is a covenant only in the figurative
sense that such events as the rainbow was, that is, a one-sided covenant, a promise in
which God binds Himself to its fulfillment in the strongest way possible, to assure those
to whom He makes promises that He will perform them.
In this allegory of the justifying covenant Paul quotes Isa. 54 as pertaining to it.
For just as Sarah (representing the justifying covenant) was "desolate" (barren)
of children (Israel as a nation) a long time while married to Abraham, even though Hagar
had a son meanwhile, so this justifying covenant, represented by Sarah, was first barren,
it had no national Israel justified till long after the nation was under law, represented
Now you see why we could not say the "Jerusalem which is above" is the New
Jerusalem that is necessarily "above" since it comes down from God out of
heaven, for she is "the Lambkin's wife" and therefore not our mother. It does
not do to mix figures. What may be true in one may be false in another. Our Lord is both a
"Lamb" and a "Lion" under different conditions. And again,
"seed" in the parable of sowing is the Word, while in the next parable, the
tares, it is "the children of the kingdom."
Likewise, we can see why it would not have done to say the "new covenant" is
our mother, which would seem very plausible, for the new covenant is to be nationally with
Israel, not the Body, though we get (individually) what Israel will get nationally, that
is, pardon (Eph.1:7; Col.1:14), as we are told that Paul ministered "a" new
covenant of pardon, to us (2 Cor.3:6), though not "the" New Covenant.
Since we are children of a covenant made 430 Years before the law covenant, we are not
related to Hagar, since she was not related to Sarah. Let us disown her for all time.
Let it be emphasized with all possible force that we receive real righteousness through
justification, not a sham of simply calling us righteous by divine declaration without any
expectation that the reckoned is ever to become real. Our righteousness is a perfect one,
and is infinitely superior to self-righteousness. We are to live soberly, righteously and
devoutly "in this present era," not wait for it "beyond the veil."
Paul tells Titus to instruct believers to be careful to maintain good works. lt is in the
"mortal body" that sin is not to reign (Rom.6:12).
|Hagar (Jerusalem "then")
||*Covenant at Sinai
||*"Her (Jerusalem's) children" (Israel)
||*Rejected from grace
|Good future promised Ishmael
||Israel yet to be saved
||*We not slaves under law
|Isaac heir of Abraham
||*We heirs of God
ISAAC was raised from death figuratively (Heb.11:19), and there is evidently a
representation in this figure in the twenty-second chapter of Genesis showing our Lord's
sacrificial death and glorious resurrection (Heb.11:17-19).
The Greek word for "figure" in the A.V. here is parabolee, which is
elsewhere translated "parable" as here in the C.V. This shows, that parables
generically include actions performed, as well as words spoken, to illustrate truth by a casting
beside, which is the literal meaning of parabolee; for the offering of Isaac
consisted mostly of dramatic action, with very little being said during the performance.
The same significance of parabolee may be seen in Heb.9:9, where the whole
dramatic symbolism of the tabernacle-service is designated a parabolee in the Greek
(C.V. "parable"), for there also all was action, without any words to form the
We write out this dramatic parabolism about Isaac in the double-column form, as
||*The crucifixion of Christ
||Christ's 3 days in the tomb
||"Watch and pray"
|"The lad and I"
||Jesus praying to the Father
||His threefold prayer in Gethsemane
|"Will come again to you"
||He found them asleep
|Wood laid on Isaac
||He carrying His cross
|"Lay not thy hand"
||*Resurrection of Christ
As before, the asterisk signifies the inspired interpretation of the
figure, and the remainder is merely the author's.
The first asterisk is put in parenthesis because the death of Isaac representing our
Lord's crucifixion is not so interpreted by inspiration, but only implied by Isaac's
resurrection "in a parable" since there could be no literal resurrection without
a previous death.
If the other listed items are correct, as manifestly evident and necessary
accompaniments of the figure, they form a remarkable pre-picture of Gethsemane and
Golgotha, and this record in Genesis would be part of "all the Scriptures" in
which the risen Christ showed His sufferings to the amazed disciples on the way to Emmaus.
There are two aberrations in the light of truth coming through this figure: two slaves
to represent three disciples, and Isaac carrying the wood during the three days when he
was figuratively dead, for our Saviour carried His cross before His three days in death.
However, in a dim foreshadowing such as this, such aberrations are no more serious than
imperfect refraction in physical phenomena and it is remarkable that the events in
Gethsemane should have been foreshown in seemingly trivial incidents two thousand years
before they occurred.
Then, too, there was a three-day period at the end of our Saviour's life, just before
His crucifixion (Luke 13:32-34) and at the close of it He did, like Isaac, carry the wood
for His sacrifice. Nevertheless, Isaac carried the wood during the three days while he was
figuratively dead, as shown by the fact that his figurative resurrection occurred when the
messenger said to Abraham, "Lay not thine hand upon the lad," which would
require Isaac's figurative death at the first verse, when the words "offer him"
How heavy must have been the heart of that father in those three days, not only with
paternal grief, but with the worse assault on his faith; for how could the blessing of the
world through the promised Seed come if the line of descent should end with Isaac dead in
sacrifice? When a saint is brought face to face with a seeming failure of God's Word, all
seems to fall away from beneath the feet.
The father of the faithful saw two alternatives as ways out of his trial, both of which
would resolve his doubt: God would either supply an animal for sacrifice (Gen.22:8,13), or
else immediately restore Isaac to life (Heb.11:19). Both alternatives came true, though
not both in fact, for only the first was true in fact and the second in figure.
The prophecies which reveal the restoration of Israel to the land and blessing under
the rule of Messiah deal with many events, covering a considerable period of time in great
detail. As the coming of Christ consisted of many events, as His birth, His flight to
Egypt, His life in Nazareth, His ministry, His "triumphal" entry, His suffering,
crucifixion, death and resurrection, all foretold beforehand, so the various phases of the
nation's return to Jehovah is not one single event, the coming of Christ, but a long
series, which must be kept distinct, if we wish to avoid being deceived by those that are
now taking place.
Through this resurrection of the Coming One figured in the person of his son, Abraham
saw that Coming One by faith (John 8: 56). He received the benefit of the Saviour's death
and resurrection by viewing it prospectively, as we do retrospectively. The benefit was
worth all the painful price it cost. Praise God, it always is. It was so with Job, with
the shame of the Samaritan woman at the well, with the man born blind, and with Lazarus
and his distressed sisters. It will be so with the church and with the whole groaning
creation. As Abraham descended from mount Moriah, how much stronger must he have been, not
only in faith, but also in spiritual understanding through experience!
When, in telling the patriarch to slay his son, God reminded Abraham of his love for
Isaac, He was not unfeelingly harrowing the old saint's emotions and making the trial as
difficult as possible. He was but building this figure to show how "God so loved the
One great truth emerges grandly into view in all such Scriptures as this one: Christ is
so fully in them that "His name is called The Word of God." The Father was
hanging His Son's portrait on all the walls along the passage-ways of time, not only that
the elect might not miss "the Way," but that the mouths of the non-elect may not
open in a syllable of boasting complaint at the great white throne, but become utterly
subject to God's wonderful and sovereign grace.
How marvelous are His ways!
Most people think the reason the gospel must be preached "for a witness"
(testimony) is that God may be vindicated and say, "You had your fair opportunity and
refused it, so now take what is coming to you." If our Father were only a just judge
nobody could be saved, yet that is the conception of Him manifest in much of Christendom's
The goal of condemnation through law is grace, first to stop boasting (Rom.3:19,20),
thus to lead to grace (5:20,21). In Eden it led from shame to coats of skins, when the
whole race was thus reckonedly justified in Adam's loins. From Sinai it will lead to the
reformation and remarriage of the adulterous Israel-wife. And for the sinful world it will
be the future jubilee.
THIS ILLUSTRATIVE figure is perplexing and difficult to understand, because it starts
by implying that the Roman saints, as the woman in the illustration, became free from the
law-husband by widowhood through his death, but ends with her freedom being secured by her
own death (Rom.7:1-6). The figure is complex, in combining slavery with wedlock in the
sixth verse, in speaking of those represented by the widow as "slaving," thus
suggesting both slavery and wedlock as the combined condition from which it was desirable
for the woman to be freed. Slavery (to sin) is discussed at length in the context both
before and after the section comprising this figure.
The Master-Teacher also used this figure of divorce and remarriage to illustrate the
same truth of the relation of His disciples to the law (Luke 16:16-18), as Paul, His
apostle to us, does. In the Master's case the Pharisees were endeavoring to justify
themselves in claiming ownership of property, according to the law, instead of being only
stewards over it, as He had just taught in His parable of the Dishonest Steward. When the
Pharisees ridiculed Him for teaching His disciples that they were faithful stewards over
property, He gave His critics this short parable on divorce and remarriage, showing them
that now, since He had come, the law-husband had no more jurisdiction over them and they
were therefore free to unite themselves to His teaching on this subject. So He implied in
this parable that the law's jurisdiction over disciples ended with the proclamation of the
kingdom by John the Baptist (Luke 16:16).
But the Pharisees, as the woman in the parable, did not know their law-husband was
dead, and would not believe it when He told them. The widow was still trying to obey a
corpse! However, she was glad to continue taking orders from the grave-yard, for the voice
she thought she heard from there told her, he had left her all his property to spend for
the enjoyment of the flesh as she pleased, with no thoughtful concern for the wounded man
whom the priest and the Levite passed by at a safe distance, out of earshot from his
In the seventh of Romans Paul starts by showing his shrewdness as a teacher by asking
those who turn back to the law why they do not heed what it says, about the jurisdiction
("dominion" verse 1) of the law itself, under guise of the duration of the law
of wedlock terminating at the death of a husband. Then he turns from this well-known legal
fact to his favorite teaching, justification, which is so prominent in the whole first
part of this epistle. If any of the Roman believers are being enticed into salvation by
works, will they not listen to what the law says on divorce, death of a husband and
freedom of the widow to re-marry? Then he starts the figure.
In the case of such cryptograms we should first examine them to see if there is an
inspired interpretation, as there usually is. We find it so here. We shall get to it soon.
First let me give you two keys I have found helpful in understanding figures and parables
like this one:
1. Frequently, at the end of such a one, when there is an explanation, there are
transition words between the figure and the interpretation. In the Great Teacher's
parables we find most frequently such words as "So likewise" or merely
"Likewise." In this figure we are studying, it comes with verse three, by the
words, "married to another man." At the beginning of verse four, we have the
transition-word "Wherefore," followed by the interpretation that makes the Roman
saints the widow in the figure. I call these transition-phrases "bridge-words,"
because they connect the figure-side of truth with the interpretation-side, as a bridge
connects two shores or river banks. Yet, in the case of these figures, they make a
separation between the two, being valuable in calling our attention to the inspired
interpretation, for, by heeding and understanding that, we are kept from error.
2. A still greater aid is available to us in noticing what may properly be called
"keywords," that is, words used in a figure and again in the inspired
interpretation. For example, "one" is a keyword in the parable of The Lost Sheep
Found (Luke 15:3-7). There it is one "sheep;" in the interpretation, one
"sinner." So the lost sheep represented the publicans and sinners then present,
who drew nearer because their interest in pardon and salvation was aroused. Such keywords
show the meaning of the symbolism with certainty, thus keeping us from making our own
interpretations which may be erroneous, especially because parables and other figures are
sometimes difficult to understand. But this is in accord with the purpose of the Great
Teacher's parables in Matt.13. This principle alone, if heeded, would have saved the
publication of many books on this subject, and much injurious error in conclusions about
figurative teaching in the Scriptures.
In the figure of wedlock which we are studying, we have the keywords, "married to
another." In the figure it is "married to another man." In the
interpretation it is "married to...Him who is raised from the dead," that is,
That identifies the widow ("ye," the Roman saints) and the new Husband. It
also proves that her first husband is dead, else she could not lawfully be united to
Christ. Let us be sure about the former husband. Who was he? We do not need to guess, for
he is identified for us in verse four as "the law." When did he die? Luke 16:16
answers, "The law and the prophets are as far as John: thenceforth the evangel of the
kingdom of God is preached." The husband died when John began to preach repentance,
calling his disciples to follow the King, who said, "You have heard that it has been
said [in the law]...but I say..."
Since the law was the husband, these to whom Paul writes in this figure were from
Israel, for the gentiles did not have the law (2:14). In His epistles he did at times
address Jews (2:17) as well as gentiles (11:13). Here in this figure in chapter 7 he
naturally and properly addressed believers from Israel, for Jewish teachers were the only
ones with whom he continually had this controversy over the law, since the whole system of
it was foreign to gentiles. This is proved not only in 2:14, but also by the fact that
these Jewish (nominal) Christians constantly urged circumcision upon gentile converts. The
latter would not have needed circumcision if they had always been under the jurisdiction
of the law, for then they would already have been circumcised or killed for lack of it
(Gen.17:14; Ex.4:24; 12:44,48; John 7:22, 23). If the contention of modern advocates of
law-keeping is true, there would have been no adult gentiles to become law-keepers. None
of them (including even those advocates) would have survived an infancy of eight days!
But we meet a difficulty in the interpretation: In the figure the husband dies, but in
the interpretation it is the widow who dies ("Ye are dead to the law" verse 4)
and then, stranger yet, she is married to the new Husband after she dies! It is not
surprising that the Corinthian rhetoricians and logicians ridiculed Paul's language, and
the Athenians called him a "babbler" (AV) or rook, at the Areopagus.
However, this very difficulty only serves as a foil to display the wonders of divine
truth; for since people will not marry in the resurrection when they have spiritual bodies
(Luke 20:36), and marriage is a union of bodies of "flesh" (Gen.2:24;
Matt.19:5,6), the only possible way in which this widow (who is free from her husband by
his death) can marry the spiritual One who is risen from the dead, is by herself dying (to
sin, chapter 6) and arising into present, spiritual life in a figurative resurrection out
of sin into righteousness, which is just what he has been teaching in the previous
Paul confirms this thought by saying that the believers (who are figuratively the
widow) were formerly "in the flesh" (verse 5), thus implying that they are now
"in the spirit" (8:9). The risen widow may now therefore be united to the risen
One. Any other union would not only be unequal, but impossible.
The same idea is necessitated in the figure of grafting wild olive branches into the
tame olive tree (chapter 11), for unless the wild branches die after being detached, and
are then quickened by being infused with tame olive-life they will continue to bear no
fruit but "the works of the flesh," which are sin. Hence Paul says this grafting
is "contrary to nature. "For the natural way of grafting is to put tame grafts
into wild trees, and then destroy all the wild growth by pruning.
But in grace, reformed, transformed sinners bear fruit of the spirit. Wonderful
So Paul was no more an ignorant horticulturist than a bundling rhetorician or logician,
but was revealing miracles of grace that so far transcend natural phenomena as to make the
wisdom of the learned Greeks only foolishness before our God.
The scholarly rhetoricians would not have permitted Paul to use a "mixed
figure" by combining slavery with wedlock, as he does by speaking of us
"slaving" (verse 6). However, many wives, and a few husbands, even in modern
times, could rebuke the critics by testifying out of their certain knowledge that marriage
is slavery also.
The interpretation of the figure of slavery follows the same pattern as the figure of
wedlock. The slave corresponds to the wife, the master to the husband. The slave is doubly
freed by the death of both the slave-master (the law) and the slave herself, who becomes
free from her master by passing through figurative crucifixion with Christ in death to sin
and rising also with Him into righteousness.
The law made those under it slaves by forcing obedience to it through fear of being
stoned to death, for slavery exists usually by such force and fear.
Notwithstanding that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one
that believes" (Rom.10:4) Paul also says "We know that the law is good if a man
use it lawfully" (1 Tim.1:8). He therefore quotes the fifth commandment to Ephesian
children (6:1-3). But he never enjoins circumcision, animal sacrifices, sabbaths or any
other ceremonial command of the law on believers, for all these were fulfilled at the
The law is good as a teacher, but not as a slave-driver. If you say I "must"
keep the law to be saved you make yourself a slave. However, even after the law ended as a
ruler, it was still good as a teacher. But commands are incompatible with love, which
needs only understanding of what is ideal. The "royal law" of love is not
iron-clad, like commandments, but is flexible, suiting circumstances. For example, eating
may be injurious at times and in certain circumstances, and so be wrong, but right
otherwise; so that either to forbid or enjoin eating without provisos would not be ideal.
Using narcotics indiscriminately is evil, destroying life, but in cases that call for
anaesthesia, the narcotic is a blessing. Many other like illustrations could be given.
Thus the flexible "law" (only so-called) of love in the sense of giving and
serving is the only ideal principle to measure or determine ideal conduct.
We should use our spiritually enlightened sense of discrimination and see that it was
the jurisdiction of the law, and not its unfulfilled part or aspect that ended with the
appearing of John. The enlargements, modifications and reversals of the law in the sermon
on the mount and in Matt.19:3-9 on divorce were spoken to the disciples, not to Israel at
large. The least letter or pointing of the law and the prophets could not pass away
"till all be fulfilled." But after fulfillment it was different. Circumcision,
animal sacrifices and sabbaths, being shadows of the cross, ended at His crucifixion. They
were not "done away" but they ceased. Now they are a "dead letter"
though still in the law-book, like the laws on slavery and prohibition in the U. S.
federal constitution. Jews would keep on sacrificing animals if they still had their
temple, and they think till today they must practice circumcision and keep the sabbaths.
And some Christian gentiles conscientiously think they must take the sabbath day of Israel
on themselves. They are wiser when they read the federal constitution and the divine
teaching about other shadows, and discriminate between laws that have died and those still
alive. They are not so foolhardy as to try now to enslave negroes; though Peter still
thought he must not eat with gentiles such as Cornelius.
The law never did have jurisdiction over us gentiles (Rom.2: 14). Why should U. S.
citizens try to obey the laws of England, for example, and drive our autos on the left
side of the highway? Or obey New York state laws if they live in California? Even when U.
S. citizens do not steal, they are not obeying English laws against theft, or doing the
same in respect to California law if they live in New York. So when we believers do not
steal we are not obeying the eighth commandment, but are heeding the control that
"works no ill to his neighbor" and are following Eph.4:28 (if we need
instruction on behavior). That is, we are acting thus if we are not still terrorized by
hell or the lake of fire. At least we are not honest for fear of being summarily stoned to
But though the jurisdiction of the law over the disciples ended with John the
Baptist, some of the law itself did not end by fulfillment then. The shadows of the Son's
sacrifice continued up to the cross, and some of the prophecies are not yet fulfilled. It
was their authority as a system of teaching that ended with John when he and his Followers
began to announce the kingdom of the heavens as a new order calling on men to repent in
view of its presence. The law and the prophets prophesied until John (Matt. 11:13).
That is, they taught. And the spirit of the law, the righteousness it contained, continues
yet in everything excepting the shadows of Golgotha. The spirit of the fourth commandment
is cessation of the works of the flesh by resting in a work that was finished on the
cross. Sabbaths stopped work. Christ did that when He died. Thus He fulfilled all sabbath
shadows. We should stop all works of the flesh when we enter into Him and also stop the
seventh day shadow if we have been following it, and rest every day and all the time in
Him while He works in us.
While the jurisdiction of the law and the prophets as a system of teaching ended at the
advent of John, the shadows of the cross in both had jurisdiction over Him until He bowed
His head and said "It is fulfilled." The last unfulfilled requirement of the law
and the prophets before His death (the vinegar to drink) was then accomplished.
So law can end for some and not for others. When a woman is freed from a tyrant of a
husband by his death, the other women in the neighborhood do not all leave their husbands
and marry other men who can afford to buy mechanical dishwashers because the widow does
Let it also be realized that we do not fulfill the righteousness of the law, but it is
"fulfilled in us" (Rom.8:4). We are not active, but passive. We have died with
Him, and He lives and acts in us as we rest in Him, not only one day in seven, but always.
Are you saved and justified only one-seventh of the time, or once for all?
The "fruit" ("children" in the figure of wedlock, "works"
in the figure of slavery) are "unto death" (verse 5). That is, every child born
in wedlock to the law-husband was still-born. That is to say, stated literally, every act
by a person in response to law is a sin. It misses the mark of sinlessness. For, if it be
disobedience, it is the sin of transgression; and if it be obedience, it is
self-righteousness of pride and boasting, and thus misses the mark of ideal conduct. The
only way out of the dilemma is by the figure of remarriage-union with the indwelling One
who lives and works in us.
Under the parallel figure of slavery the same truth is that the law could force nothing
but "sin unto death" (6:16) from those under its jurisdiction. The sin was
either that of direct disobedience or the indirect, more subtle, more difficult sin to
eradicate, that of self-righteousness. Even if all the babies had not been still-born, the
ogre of a husband stood ready to kill them immediately, just because they could not rise
right up and walk perfectly, as he commanded. For the law could give neither righteousness
(8:3) nor life (Gal.3:21). All who think they are law-keepers are boasters. Test them with
this question: Are you keeping the law? If the answer is No, they condemn themselves to be
without hope of salvation, according to their own claim that nobody can be saved without
keeping all the ten commandments. If the answer is Yes, they boast, and thus prove
themselves sinners by that proud boasting. The only way out is to renounce all slavery of
self- effort and say "He lives and works in me while I rest and look up to Him."
If the question, "Do you not boast, too?" be put to us, our answer is, Yes,
we boast as we are instructed to do (1 Cor.1:31). Our boast is this, that the sinless One
brings perfect righteousness into us, and He cannot sin in us (1 John 3:9), so that if in
any particular there be sin in us, He is not dispensing it, but we are making ourselves
the transgressors (Gal.2:18) by rebuilding the old humanity, the "body of sin"
that was reckonedly destroyed in crucifixion with Him.
Another effective question is, "Are you perfectly keeping the law which is
declared to be perfect?" If the answer be No, the advocates of law-keeping condemn
themselves to the same hopeless destiny as that to which they consign us. But if the
answer be Yes, then they are sinless by works, and in that case what need have they for
Christ as their righteousness (Jer.23:6; Gal.2:21; 5:4)?
When a citizen of one country becomes naturalized in another, though the law of his
former country still has jurisdiction over those who remain in it, it becomes a "dead
letter" to him, by both, so to say, dying to each other thus. It has no more power
over him, and he comes under the jurisdiction of his adopted country. But the law of his
former country does not end, it merely ends its authority over the emigrant and still
rules those who stay at home.
So the authority and jurisdiction of the law that said, "Do not forswear
yourself," "An eye for an eye" and "Hate your enemy" ceased to be
operative over the conduct of those who became disciples of Him who said "Swear not
at all," "Resist not evil" and "Love your enemies." But the forty
Jews who swore with a self-imposed curse to kill Paul did not violate their law in
swearing, for they never renounced Moses nor followed Jesus though they did sin in not
starving themselves to death as they swore they would. And if they had kept their oath
they would have mistakenly executed a man for blasphemy who was innocent.
We finish this contemplation by listing the items of the figure and the corresponding
items of Paul's interpretation with asterisks before them, finishing the list with the
author's suggested interpretation of the other items without asterisks.
|The Husband (or Master)
|The Wife (or Slave)
||*"Ye" (the Roman Believers)
|The Children ("fruit unto death" or Works)
||*"the deeds of the law" (3:20)
|The Husband's (or Master's) Death
||*End of the "dominion" of the Law
|Widowhood (or Freedom from Slavery)
||Justification by Faith in Grace
|Remarriage (or New, Voluntary Slavery)
||"Roused with Christ"
|Children ("Fruit unto God," verse 5)
||"The fruit of the spirit"
|"Oldness of the letter"
||The Written Law
|"Newness of spirit"
||Love in Control