childless woman

Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia was written to congregations which were wrestling with a deep cultural divide. Namely, in each, there were significant numbers of both Jews and Gentiles. And the result was that there was an ongoing struggle to define what it meant to be a Christian. For the Jews, being a follower of God certainly meant obeying a long list of rules and regulations. For the Gentiles, though, these rules and regulations were almost entirely foreign. For the moment, the Jews seemed to have the advantage, demanding that their Gentile brothers and sisters conform. But Paul had a few things to say about that, and so the New Testament book of Galatians was born. Through it, Paul explores how to balance the rites, rules, and regulations with the freedom that we have in Christ. And to illustrate his point, he provides in chapter four, the image of Sarai and Hagar.

Of course, to the Jews who were reading the letter, Sarai and Hagar were immediately familiar. In the book of Genesis, Sarai was the wife of Abram, the father of the Jews. And Hagar was her slave girl. That is, until Sarai grew tired of waiting to have kids. It was then, as she grew old and realized that there was really no longer any chance she would naturally bear children that Sarai offered Hagar to Abram in the hopes that she would bear him a child. The plan worked, and Ishmael was born. But God had bigger and better plans for Sarai, and several years after Ishmael was born, Sarai finally bore Isaac after she was already into her 90’s.

Setting aside for the moment how miserable it would be to raise an infant at 90+ years of age, chase a toddler at 95, etc., Paul wanted to illustrate the difference between the way things were under the Old Covenant, the one the Jews were clinging to with their endless rules and rituals, and the way things were under the New Covenant founded in the grace God provided through Jesus. To do that, the apostle provided these two women and then declared in Galatians 4:27, “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia” – i.e., the place where the Jews received their Law – “and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.”

Talk about a rude awakening.

The Jews of Paul’s day (and any day) went to tremendous lengths to distinguish themselves from the peoples around them. They were supposed to have a unique lifestyle because they were uniquely blessed through a unique relationship with God. They were most certainly not slave children! And for Paul to suggest otherwise was an extremely offensive proposition. Except that Paul himself was a Jew. In fact, elsewhere, he had called himself a Jew of Jews, a claim which his impressive credentials bore. And so, as stinging as it was for him to suggest that the Old Covenant and the Law were represented by the slave girl and her child, they were compelled to recognize it as true. And with that recognition came the reality that the rites, rules, and regulations to which they had been clinging were merely vestiges of that slavery. And there had to be something better.

Enter verse 27, where Paul reminded the Galatians and us, “For it is written: Rejoice, childless woman, who does not give birth. Burst into song and shout, you who are not in labor, for the children of the desolate are many, more numerous than those of the woman who has a husband.”

The “childless woman,” of course, was a reference to Sarai. And the implication was that the New Covenant under Jesus was dramatically different than the old laws to which they were accustomed.

As I’ve seen before in my study of joy, rules and regulations have a tenuous relationship with joy. On the one hand, obedience can result in joy. But on the other, when these things become our primary focus, rules and regulations begin to rob us of joy.

It’s important to note here that Paul was not saying that I should disregard all rules. In fact, he talked at length about the balance between our Christian freedom and the Law in the book of Romans. But his point was that the rules were no longer the important thing. Grace was. Grace still is.

I need to focus on the New Covenant, which revolves around grace, in order to maximize joy. May I never forget that!

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