[Note: The following is the text of a prepared Bible Study for a get-together over Mother’s Day weekend at the Oregon Coast with some close friends of mine.]
In Galatians 4:21-31, we are presented with a complicated and difficult Pauline statement that involves an allegory between two conceptions of Jerusalem as a mother. Let us turn to that passage and read it today. Galatians 4:21-31 reads: “ Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.” Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.”
In this notoriously complicated passage, Paul looks quotes Isaiah 54:1 and Genesis 21:10 to make a sharp distinction between the earthly Jerusalem and the Jerusalem that is above, the New Jerusalem which we fervently hope to see, which Paul calls the mother of us all. Those of us who have traveled to the earthly Jerusalem have often been disappointed by it. When I traveled to Israel and Jordan for the Feast of Tabernacles in 2007, for example, early on a Sunday morning our group hiked up to the Temple Mount and there in the quiet of the morning we were accosted by an Arab gentleman trying to sell us postcards while we looked at the area before we politely declined and went down into the Old City for further explorations. Even during Paul’s time, the Jerusalem below was a place of moral corruption, something which the Bible talks about on at least a few occasions. Let us look at a few of the areas that discuss what sort of slavery the Jerusalem below was subject to at this time.
The Bondage Of Jerusalem Below
In Acts 22:1-5, we read Paul’s own attempt at defense before a lynch mob in Jerusalem, where he attempts to calm down a crowd that desires to put him to death on false charges. Paul says here in Acts 22:1-5: ““Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.” And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent. Then he said: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.” Here we see that part of the slavery that Jerusalem below was under was to a corrupt priestly establishment that wished to silence the truths of God.
We see further evidence of this corrupt priestly establishment in the next chapter, in Acts 23:1-5, where Paul is defending himself before the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin. Here we read: “Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?” And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” Here we see Paul having to deal with the biblical demands of showing honor and respect to human leaders who were not worthy of that honor through their own corrupt conduct, such as striking an innocent person without cause. In Paul’s time, just as in our own, it was common for people to be placed in positions of authority to enforce God’s law, who received the benefits of respect thanks to God’s laws, but who were not obedient to the law themselves in their own conduct and behavior.
Nor does this exhaust the sort of corruption and slavery that Jerusalem was subject to, nor the corruption of its leaders. John 2:13-22, for example, tells us about the corruption that was going on in the temple of Jerusalem at the time, and this passage also contrasts two different visions of Jerusalem: “Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” Then His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.” So the Jews answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.” Here we see that the temple in Jerusalem had been turned into a den of thieves, where corrupt priests exploited ordinary believers by cheating them on prices and currency exchange. Likewise, we see that Jesus Christ was pointing to Himself as a replacement of the corrupt systems by which believers were enslaved.
Yet the Jews of Jesus’ time did not see themselves as being enslaved or in bondage as was pointed out by Paul and Jesus over the corruption of the time. We can see this, for example, in John 8:31-36, which is the key to the puzzle of the passage we began with in Galatians 4. John 8:31-36 reads: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”” So why was the Jerusalem below enslaved and in bondage? Because it did not believe the truth and because it was in bondage to Satan through sin. Merely being the descendant of Abraham does not make one free. Abraham, after all, is the father of the faithful, and those who are free are his children in faith. Because of their disobedience and corruption, the people of Jesus’ time and Paul’s time in Jerusalem were in bondage to sin, and were not free. Only those who had repented of their sins and received the sacrifice of Jesus Christ were free, and citizens of the Jerusalem that is above.
Citizenship In Jerusalem Above
Having looked at the negative side of the picture first, what does it mean that the Jerusalem above is the mother of us all? Do we have other areas in the scripture where this maternal relationship is spoken of in a good way? As it happens, we do have this in several places, and let us now turn to these passages to see what sort of citizenship in this Jerusalem that is above have been promised to believers in scripture. One of my own personal favorite scriptures, because it is relatively obscure, can be found in Psalm 87. We sing this psalm to some ironically nationalistic music in our own hymnals as “Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken .” Psalm 87 reads: “A Psalm of the sons of Korah. A Song. His foundation is in the holy mountains. The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God! Selah. “I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to those who know Me; behold, O Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia: ‘This one was born there.’” And of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her; and the Most High Himself shall establish her.” The Lord will record, when He registers the peoples: “This one was born there.” Selah. Both the singers and the players on instruments say, “All my springs are in you.””
This is an odd and lovely psalm, and its relevance for our point ought to be clear. The glorious things spoken of by the Sons of Korah in this particular psalm are that believers of all different backgrounds are counted equally as citizens of Jerusalem. By virtue of our faith in God, we are counted as if we were native-born citizens of Jerusalem. For believers, even believers during Old Testament times, Jerusalem was the mother of us all. It always has been, and it always will be. This psalm, therefore, contains within itself a refutation of any view that certain people are to be privileged as a result of their background or ancestry. As Paul noted in Galatians 4 and as Jesus commented in John 8, those who are mere physical descendants of the faithful are not counted as spiritual descendants. True children are not only born in flesh and blood, but of spirit as well. And so the Bible continually contrasts those who are born of the flesh from those who are born of the Spirit and the Promise. God is looking to build up a family of believing children, and we who belong to God are His children through His Spirit, and through that same Spirit and brethren with other believers.
Not surprisingly, we see that Paul makes precisely this same point in Galatians 3:26-29:. This passage reads: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Here again, as we have seen before, being counted as belonging to Christ is being connected to being Abraham’s seed, and it is connected to faith and baptism. What Paul is saying here is the same message in a different dialect that the Sons of Korah had sang about centuries before. When we come to a belief in God, we cast off our previous identities and take up a new identity as His children, an identity that grants us equality before God with all other believers. Paul’s statement of the equality of believers here can still strike readers with some force. The issues of identity that divide people here and now: issues of ethnicity, class, and gender among them, are shown to be swallowed up here by our common identity as the children of God. Those who repent of their sins and come before God in worship and praise are counted as Abraham’s children and as citizens in Jerusalem regardless of their prior background.
Paul himself speaks of this citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven in Philippians 3:17-21. Let us look at how this passage too deals with the contrast of citizenship in Jerusalem above as opposed to Jerusalem below: “ Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” Here again we see the same message that belief in God requires a citizenship to another realm above, and that we must overcome the pull of what is below. The city of Philippi itself was a colony of Rome, and its people (like Paul) understood the importance of citizenship in the capital city more than many people today. We take our citizenship for granted, as all who are born in American soil or to American parents are counted as native-born citizens, regardless of their background. This was not so in the ancient world. To be a citizen in Rome, for example, required considerable effort or good fortune. For example, Paul was born a citizen of Rome in Tarsus likely because one of his ancestors had won Roman citizenship through some sort of meritorious action that benefited Rome. Others became citizens through being adopted by Roman citizens, or by serving for decades in the Roman army, or by purchasing citizenship through large bribes. That such effort was considered worthwhile shows just how important Paul’s audience understood citizenship to be. Even in our contemporary world, there are people willing to deal with all kinds of corrupt people and the danger of illegal immigration simply to give birth to an anchor baby here in the United States. Those people, too, understand the worth and value of citizenship .
So, too, the author of Hebrews understood the importance of contrasting our earthly citizenship with our heavenly citizenship, and wrote about it in Hebrews 11:13-16. Hebrews 11:13-16 reads: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” Here too, as has been the case previously, the faith of Abraham leads into a discussion of our own situation as being between two potential identities as citizen. Do we follow the pull of idolatry and wickedness within our physical country, or do we confess that we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth and hold to our heavenly citizenship? The choice was not only something that Abraham had to make, but that same pull has been present for believers in all ages, the knowledge that this earth below does not live according to the ways of God above, and that we must choose our loyalty between the two sides. Is our citizenship in the Jerusalem above as important to us as citizenship in privileged earthly nations has been for people throughout history and even today?
The Obligations Of Citizenship
Our citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, and our claim that we are children of the Jerusalem that is above needs to be important, because that citizenship comes with obligations. It is common for us to think of the rights and privileges that come from being a citizen, even of the United States, but how often do we think of the duties and obligations that come from citizenship? As long as God has worked with peoples and institutions, that sense of obligation has been present. The same obligations that were put on ancient Israel as a result of their citizenship among God’s people are present nowadays for believers. Let us now turn to how this is so, so that we have an idea of what expectations God has for us as a result of having given us the privileges of membership in His family and of citizenship in His Kingdom through adoption.
We see the obligations of citizenship being placed on Israel in Exodus 19:5-7. It should be noted that this passage comes right before the law is given at Sinai, where Israel was inaugurated into what we call the Mosaic covenant. Exodus 19:5-7 reads: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the Lord commanded him. Then all the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” So Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord.” We see here that God promised Israel citizenship, to be His people and holy nation, and offices of authority as His kings and priests. But there were obligations here, namely the duty to obey what God commanded. In exchange for following the terms of the covenant, Israel was to have a new identity that involved service to God instead of slavery to the carnal kingdoms of unconverted and corrupt heathen monarchs.
This obligation was further pointed out in Deuteronomy 4:5-9. Deuteronomy 4:5-9 tells us: ““Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ “For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day? Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren.” Here we see that Israel was intended to be a model nation showing how obedience to God’s laws would lead to blessings, and this model was to provoke other nations to seek after God and to obey His ways.
We know that Israel failed in this responsibility. Even at the time Israel agreed to the terms of the covenant, God knew that they would fail. As it is written in Deuteronomy 5:28-30: “ “Then the Lord heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.”” God knew that Israel lacked the heart within them to honor God and obey Him and keep the terms of His covenant with them. It was the hardness and wickedness of the hearts that led them to be corrupt throughout biblical history and that led Jesus and Paul to consider them as being enslaved and in bondage to Satan through their wickedness. Their freedom depended on their repentance, and they refused to humble their hearts and confess their sins and turn from their wicked ways.
This same duty and responsibility is placed on believers today. For one, we are given the same status as kings and priests and a holy nation as believers, and for another, we are given the same obligations to obey God’s laws and live as righteous examples in a corrupt world. Let us turn, for example, to the familiar passage in 1 Peter 2:4-17. 1 Peter 2:4-17 reads: “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, “Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.” Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” Here we see the promise of a new identity as believers as His holy nation and His kings and priests, and here too we see the obligation to be obedient to God’s ways and be a model of godly conduct before the heathen peoples around us. Our freedom does not mean that we can live according to our lusts, for that is what has enslaved humanity from the very beginning, but rather our freedom is a freedom to serve God as his ambassadors in this rebellious province of His kingdom, and to be models of His ways, to provoke the world to reflection and repentance in His time.
And God too, has given us a promise that will overcome the problem that bedeviled ancient Israel. This problem is diagnosed and its solution is given in Hebrews 8:7-12. Hebrews 8:7-12 reads: “ For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”” Here God promises that His people will receive a new heart and a new mind where God’s laws are written and where His people know Him. It was not the laws that were wrong, but the heart of Israel that led them to be in bondage. The law showed them where they fell short, and instead of repenting in that self-knowledge and in reflection of their ungodly ways, they were arrogant and proud in their identity as the physical children of Abraham. Instead of being children of faith, they became mere children of flesh, and God disregarded them in their unbelief. Those whom God has called and who have accepted that call have within them hearts upon which God’s laws and ways are written, and they will walk according to His ways.
A Closing Mystery
Let us end where we began in Galatians 4. Let us focus this time on verses 25 through 27. Galatians 4:25-27 reads: “For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.”” We may now appreciate this meaning if we can understand the contrast between those who are descended from the flesh and those who are born in Spirit. If we look only at physical descent, this passage is paradoxical, since by physical descent only those who are born of the flesh count for anything. Yet if we look at the way that our example and our honoring and loving God and others through obedience to His ways can spread far beyond our own families to the greater world around us, we can better appreciate the quote that Paul takes here from Isaiah 54. If we have been given citizenship in the kingdom of heaven above, if our mother is the Jerusalem above, we will live in ways that please Him and that model His way of life for those around us, and that world cannot help but be blessed by the example we give. Let us on this Mother’s Day remember whose children we are, and live accordingly.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: