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How to Learn From the Law (Galatians 4:21-31)


Harold Bussell has written a very excellent book entitled, Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians. He gives many examples of the ways in which evangelical churches contribute to attitudes and expectations which predispose individuals toward the cults. As I was studying our passage, I realized that Bussell failed to include one crucial matter in his book. If I could add a chapter it would be entitled, “The Hermeneutics of Heresy.” (Hermeneutics is the method by which the Bible is interpreted.) The sloppy “spiritualizing” of many evangelical preachers has paved the way for the “esoteric” interpretations of the cultist. Both the sloppy evangelical and the cultist use the same method of interpreting the Bible. Thus, the gullible Christian is inclined to accept cultists’ message, especially if he has not been taught to think and to study for himself.

Satan has very successfully blindsided evangelical Christians by exclusively focusing our attention on the issues of the inerrancy and the authority of the Scriptures. Of course these are very important matters, but it is of little value to hold to the accuracy (inerrancy) and authority of the Bible if we obscure or distort its meaning by our sloppy interpretation. Discomforting though it may be, we need to recognize that some distorted forms of Christianity, along with many cults, claim to cling to the inerrancy and authority of the Bible just as dogmatically as we who are evangelical Christians. They differ with our interpretation of the authoritative word of God. J. I. Packer makes this point in his book, Beyond the Battle for the Bible. Packer writes,

The major differences between historic Protestants and Roman Catholics—papal authority, the presence and sacrifice of Christ in the mass, the form and credentials of the ordained ministry, the way of salvation by grace through faith—are rooted in differences of interpretation; so are the major cleavages between Christians of all persuasions and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with their anti-Trinitarianism, their anticipations of Armageddon, and their legalistic doctrine of salvation; yet both Roman Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses have historically maintained the inerrancy of Scripture … and have claimed that all their distinctives are Bible-based. You see, then, how important the issue of interpretation is.80

Because of the intensity of the debate over the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures, we have tended to overlook the critical importance of accurately interpreting and applying the Scriptures we so vigorously defend as inerrant and authoritative. Many unbelievers have become skeptical of biblical exposition, concluding that the Bible has no clear word from God to them. This should be no surprise since they have observed that people holding opposite points of view have claimed the teaching of the Bible in support of their views. They believe that Christians are able to make the Bible say whatever they want. Unfortunately, there is a good measure of truth in their accusations.

Our passage in Galatians 4 is of great import to this matter of accurate biblical interpretation, both in terms of what it does not teach, as well as what it does teach. Many tell us that this text sanctions the allegorical method of interpretation, which seeks a “deeper” spiritual meaning below the “shallow” surface of the literal. They believe that Paul has utilized the allegorical method in this passage to outdo his opponents. I do not believe that this is the case, as our exposition will show.

This concluding passage in Galatians 4 is crucial to the 20th century Christians because we face precisely the same problem the Galatian saints did in the 1st century: How does the New Testament saint interpret and apply the Old Testament, which was written principally to the Jews? I believe that Paul strikes at the heart of the problem of the Judaizers—their hermeneutics, their method of interpreting Scripture. In our study we will focus first on the meaning of Paul’s message to the Galatians, and then consider the difference Paul’s method employs from those of the Judaizers. Let us prayerfully consider our text, not only to understand Paul’s message, but to learn his method of handling the Scriptures.

The Problem

21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?

Up to this point Paul has been refuting the message of the Judaizers. Now in verse 21 Paul throws down the gauntlet, exposing the methods of the Judaizers. Paul is operating on the premise that bad methods produce bad messages. Let those who desire to be under the Law consider the way in which they must learn from the Law.

This is by no means a problem unique to the Galatian churches, Paul, and the Judaizers. It is the same problem which those who desire to know and to obey the truth face in dealing with those who wish to distort the truth. Peter wrote that false teachers were distorting the Scriptures which Paul had written (2 Pet. 3:16). Our Lord’s basic difference with the scribes and Pharisees concerned their method of interpreting the Scriptures. Jesus sought to expose the sloppy way in which His adversaries handled the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. Matt. 22:29-31; 23:24). The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) was our Lord’s explanation of the difference between His hermeneutics and those of the scribes and Pharisees.

If you stop to think about it for a moment you will realize that the first New Testament Scripture which the Galatians read would have likely been the book addressed to them. The vast majority of Scripture available to them at that time would have been the Old Testament. Thus they were challenged with the problem of how a Gentile Christian was to interpret and apply the Old Testament Scriptures, which were written to the Jews. It appears to me that the answer of the Judaizers was quite simple, even if wrong. They taught that a Gentile should become a Jew, and then interpret and apply everything literally and directly to himself. This method fails, however, to take into account the change in God’s dealing with the Jews, before and after the coming of Christ. Paul’s challenge in verse 21 surfaces this most basic issue of hermeneutics, for different methods result in different messages.

The Passage

22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.

Verses 22 and 23 outline the passage and its essential facts. Paul includes the Book of Genesis under a broader use of the term “law.” The “law” includes more than just the Commandments given to Moses, and must be interpreted in light of the larger context.

Notice how differently the biblical writers referred to their text. Sometimes they simply introduced Scripture with an expression such as, “it is written.” In other instances they would identify the book from which the text was taken. In Luke’s gospel our Lord referred to a text in Exodus by the designation, “the bush” (Luke 20:37). You see, they did not have the chapters and paragraphs designated, nor passage divided into verse as we do. Consequently, the way texts were cited may sound strange to us.

The events to which Paul refers in this passage are found in Genesis 16-21. It is thus a rather large portion of Scripture, not a mere handful of verses. Paul outlines the text according to his purposes. Abraham had two wives, each of which bore a son. The slave woman, Hagar, bore a son who was the result of mere fleshly effort, while the free woman, Sarah, bore a son who was the product of God’s promise and His power. From this account in Genesis, identified by these facts, Paul draws out some significant details in the following verses.

The Parallels

24 This is allegorically speaking: for these women are two covenants, one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear; Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor; For more are the children of the desolate Than of the one who has a husband.”

The first expression in verse 24, “This contains an allegory” (NASB), is a puzzling construction to many of the commentators,81 resulting in a number of alternative renderings. I believe that the translators of the NASB have wisely handled the difficulties, stressing that Paul uses the passage allegorically, without interpreting it allegorically.

Before we attempt to draw any conclusions about Paul’s method of interpreting the events surrounding the two sons of Abraham, let us concentrate on the message which Paul wishes us to grasp. In verses 24-27 Paul calls the Galatian readers’ attention to a similarity between their circumstances and those of Abraham’s two wives and their sons. Abraham’s two wives were a kind of personification of the two covenants (the Abrahamic and the Mosaic) which Paul has been comparing and contrasting.

Hagar personifies the Mosaic Covenant, and her slave son is symbolic of all the sons of the Mosaic Covenant. Paul likens this bondwoman to that covenant which proceeded from Mt. Sinai in Arabia. The children of the Covenant are called slaves (v. 24). Having clearly identified Hagar with the Mosaic Covenant, Paul presses on to identify this woman with the present earthly Jerusalem (v. 25). This was the capital, as it were, of unbelieving Judaism which was enslaved by its religious system that rejected liberty in Christ (v. 25).

Paul contrasts Hagar and her bondage with Sarah and her son, who was not only free but Abraham’s heir (vv. 26-27). Sarah represents the heavenly Jerusalem, whose sons are free (v. 26). Paul cites Isaiah 54:1 to establish the relationship of Sarah to the heavenly Jerusalem. The connection between the two is not a figment of Paul’s fanciful imagination, as the allegorizers would have us believe. The context of this passage from Isaiah reveals God’s promise to restore Zion after her captivity. It is not accidental that it follows immediately on the heels of the promise of Messiah in chapters 52 and 53. The bounty and blessing of the restored Jerusalem is described in terms of a barren woman, who once bore the reproach of her barrenness but will afterward be blessed with more sons than the married woman. Paul takes up the figure of “sons” from this text and applies it to the restored Jerusalem. What may appear to us to be a spiritualization of this passage is actually the result of Paul’s more careful handling, based on his greater insight into this text.82

The Point of the Passage

28 And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.

The parallels between Abraham’s two wives and the Galatian problem become razor sharp in verses 28-31. These verses serve as not only the conclusion of this passage, but also for the entire section of chapters 3 and 4. Notice the relevance of Paul’s “allegory” to the situation in Galatia.

(1) Those who live by faith are the heirs of Abraham, not those who live by law-works. The scribes and the Pharisees, along with the Judaizers of the Galatians, had prided themselves on being spiritually superior because they were the “sons of Abraham.” Paul’s reference to Sarah and Hagar conveyed an amazing reality: the Judaizers were the sons of Abraham, but they were not the sons of Sarah. They had the right father, but the wrong mother. Only those who have come to God through faith in Christ are the sons of Abraham through Sarah. Men who approach God through their own righteousness (of law-works) are really sons of Hagar, under bondage. Once again in graphic terms Paul has pressed the point of the superiority of faith over works, of grace over law, of the promises made to Abraham over the temporary restraints of the law.

(2) The Judaizers were persecuting the Gentile Christians by insisting that keeping the Old Testament Law is a priority and a privilege. Abraham seemed to be aloof to the persecution of Isaac by Ishmael, but it was apparent to Sarah. Ishmael’s treatment of Isaac was paralleled by the treatment of the Gentiles by the Judaizers. Just as the flesh wars with the Spirit (5:17), so Ishmael, a child of the flesh, was at odds with Isaac, a child of the promise, born according to the Spirit (4:29). The Gentiles were not only bewitched (3:1) by these false teachers, they were actually being mistreated. It was time for them to wake up. They were not to be flattered by the zealous pursuit of the Judaizers (4:14) but to recognize their zealousness for what it was—persecution.

(3) The Galatian saints were instructed by this event in the life of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, concerning how they should respond to the Judaizers. Abraham loved Ishmael (cf. Gen. 17:18) and was reluctant to expel him and his mother (Gen. 21:11). It was only due to Sarah’s hard-line stand and God’s directive to do what his wife demanded that Ishmael was sent away.

Admittedly I have always felt that Sarah was a grouch. Frankly, I still do. Grouch or not, Sarah was right, and Abraham was wrong. He wanted to try to conciliate his two sons and their mothers, but Sarah would have none of this. Sarah had much more sensitivity to the hostility between these two sons and the danger of “peaceful coexistence.” She knew that the two sons were incompatible and must be separated. Furthermore, from God’s words of instruction to Abraham we can conclude that she was right. The Scripture tells us what must be done: “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman” (Gen. 21:10; Gal. 4:30).

Isaac’s mother Sarah was correct in insisting that Hagar and Ishmael must go. I do not think that it is mere coincidence that in the immediately preceding context (4:19) Paul used the imagery of a mother’s love for her child. You see, Paul, like Sarah, saw the only proper course of action clearly, and like her, he made the next step painfully pointed. Paul was saying through the mouth of Sarah, “Throw out those Judaizers, for they are not compatible with salvation by faith!”

The argument of chapters 3 and 4 has been aptly summarized by this “allegory.” The Galatian Christians are the sons of Abraham and thus heirs of the blessings God promised him and provided in Christ. To go back under the law is to seek an inferior status, to which even the Jews dare not return. The pursuit of the Judaizers and their teaching was really persecution. Let the Gentile churches deal appropriately with the Judaizers by casting them out, just as Abraham had done with Hagar and her son.

Paul’s Methodology

The message of these verses is clear and concise. The remaining question is, “What is Paul’s method of dealing with the Old Testament Scriptures, and is it a pattern for Christians today?” In particular, the issue revolves around the term “allegory” which we find in verse 24, along with the way in which Paul makes use of the story of Abraham’s two wives and their sons. I am especially concerned about the sense in which Paul is using the term “allegory” and what this teaches us about interpreting Scripture. Let us consider both aspects of this question as we seek to apply Paul’s message and his method to our lives.

I believe that much of the problem in this passage is lodged in an imprecise definition of the term “allegory.” I will begin by differentiating three ways in which “allegory” has been understood and practiced, and then attempt to identify which of these senses fits Paul’s methodology.

(1) There is the allegorical method of interpretation. The allegorical method of interpretation views the literal meaning of the text as elementary and secondary to the “spiritual” interpretation. Those who are immature or uninitiated into the “deeper things” are able to grasp only the literal meaning. The primary problem with the allegorical method is that the “spiritual” interpretation is highly subjective, and often has little correspondence to the text being interpreted. A couple of examples of allegorical interpretation may help to give a feel for this approach to interpretation. In the examples below, observe how the literal meaning of the text is set aside, and replaced with a much more subjective meaning, which is not tied to the text by careful analysis.

For example, Abraham’s trek to Palestine is really the story of a Stoic philosopher who leaves Chaldea (sensual understanding) and stops at Haran, which means “holes,” and signifies the emptiness of knowing things by the holes, that is the senses. When he becomes Abraham he becomes a truly enlightened philosopher. To marry Sarah is to marry abstract wisdom.83

The following is Swedenborg’s “interpretation” of Matthew 24:29-31:

Those who understand these words according to the sense of the letter have no other belief than that during that closing period, which is called the final judgment, all these things are to occur as they are described in the literal sense. … Such is the belief of most men in the church at the present day.

But those who so believe are ignorant of the arcana that lie hid in every particular of the Word. For in every particular of the Word there is an internal sense which treats of things spiritual and heavenly, not of things natural and worldly which are treated of in the sense of the letter. And this is true not only of the general meaning of many expressions, it is true of every single expression. …

It is according to that sense that what the Lord says in the words quoted above respecting His coming in the clouds of heaven must be understood. The “sun” there that is to be darkened signifies the Lord in respect to love; the “moon” the Lord in respect to faith; “stars” knowledges of good and truth, or of love and faith; “the sign of the Son of man in heaven” the manifestation of Divine truth; “the tribes of the earth” that shall mourn, all things relating to truth and good or to faith and love; “the coming of the Lord in the clouds of heaven with power and glory” His presence in the Word, and revelation, “clouds” signifying the sense of the letter of the Word, and “glory” the internal sense of the Word; “the angels with a trumpet and a great sound” signify heaven as a source of Divine truth. From the meaning of these words of the Lord it is evident that at the end of the church, when there is no longer any love, and consequently no faith, the Lord will open the internal meaning of the Word and reveal arcana of heaven. …84

The ancient Greeks resorted to an allegorical method of interpreting their religion when it failed to square with the more modern findings in the scientific fields. The absurdities of Greek mythology, with its pantheon of gods, which were grotesque, absurd, or immoral,85 were accommodated to Greek science and philosophy by allegorizing them. The Alexandrian Jews adopted this methodology in their attempt to make the Old Testament compatible with Greek literature and philosophy.86 Eventually, the allegorical method found its way into the church:

Here is one of the strange fates of history. The allegorical method arose to save the reputation of ancient Greek religious poets. This method of interpretation was adopted by the Alexandrian Greeks.…Then it was bequeathed to the Christian Church. “By a singular concurrence of circumstances,” continues Farrar, “the Homeric studies of pagan philosophers suggested first to the Jews and then, through them, to Christians, a method of Scriptural interpretation before unheard of which remained unshaken for more than fifteen hundred years.”87

In more recent times, the allegorical method of interpretation has been utilized to accommodate the alleged “errors” of the Bible to the supposedly more reliable facts of philosophy or science. The solution was to “demythologize” the Bible, separating the literal errors from the spiritual kernel of truth, which could be determined by interpreting the text allegorically.

The common view of the commentaries on our text is that Paul has employed the allegorical method of interpretation. Even the finest scholars see Paul using the allegorical method of interpretation in the events of the life of Abraham regarding his two sons. Foremost among such scholars is Burton who concludes,

The apostle is then speaking not of what the passage meant as uttered by the original writer, but of the meaning conveyed by the passage as it stands. In common with Philo before him, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews and Origen after him, he conceived of the scriptures as speaking in his own day; and since Paul elsewhere in this epistle and in Romans speaks without qualification of Abraham as a historical character, it is apparent that in this passage at least he ascribes to the scripture as now speaking a meaning distinct from that which it bore as originally written, regarding the latter as representing historic truth, the latter [sic.] as conveying spiritual truth. The only question can be whether in this case he regarded the spiritual truth as really conveyed and vouched for by scripture, or only for the purposes of appeal to the Galatians adopted a current method of using scripture.88

I believe that the allegorical method of interpretation is invalid, and that it is never employed by the biblical writers. There are several reasons for coming to this conclusion. First, allegorical interpretation is totally subjective and has no controls which keep interpretation clear of the bias of the interpreter. Second, if the method of allegorical interpretation is subjective, the motive is even more questionable. In each of the cases mentioned above where the allegorical method of interpretation was employed, it was used in order to accommodate religious dogma or “revelation” to other systems of truth which were considered more accurate and authoritative. The allegorical method is employed when the literal method is unacceptable. The Scriptures would only need to be interpreted allegorically if (a) the scholar could not discern the literal meaning or, (b) the scholar could not accept the literal meaning. Neither reason is biblically valid.

Third, it is inconceivable that Paul would employ a method which he himself condemns. From a number of passages Paul has written concerning the “false teaching” which plagued the church of his day, we can conclude that a large part of this doctrine was speculative in nature (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3-11; 4:6-7; 2 Tim. 2:23-26; Titus 1:14). Paul is here condemning the method as well as the message of the false teacher. I cannot therefore believe that Paul would employ a method which he did not approve, even if it would have been impressive to his reader. Paul was as meticulous about his methodology as he was his message (1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1,4; 2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2; cf. 10:10).

Finally, the allegorical method of interpretation does not square with the use of allegory in the Bible, which is our next point.

(2) While the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture is unacceptable, the use of allegory as a teaching method is frequently found in the Bible. Allegorical interpretation seeks to minimize and to modify the literal meaning of a passage. The goal of the allegorical method of teaching is to maximize the literal meaning of a passage or principle. This is achieved when the essence of the truth is clarified and communicated by likening it to something more quickly or graphically comprehended. Education is based upon analogy. The moon, we teach, is round, with a rough surface, like an orange. The kingdom of God, our Lord taught, was like a mustard seed, or leaven, or a sower sowing seed (cf. Mark 4; Matt. 13).89

As I presently understand biblical allegory, we may think of the subject in terms of two categories. The first is what might be called “fictional allegory.” In this instance, a story is made up which, by analogy, illustrates a biblical truth in a more graphic or effective way. The parables of our Lord fall into this category of allegory. The parables did not need to be historical events; they were stories which accurately communicated a lesson, a truth, or a principle. The parable of the prodigal son served (among other things) to unmask the hypocrisy and pride of the scribes and Pharisees, who were jealous of the grace of God shown to “sinners.” Nathan’s “parable” of the rich man who stole the poor man’s lone lamb forcefully portrayed the evil of David’s actions in taking the life and the wife of Uriah. In the secular world, Aesop’s fables are a kind of allegory. C. S. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia series, has effectively employed allegory to convey spiritual truths.

A second and rarer form of allegory is that which Paul employs in Galatians 4. Here the analogy or allegory is based upon an actual historical account, where the details of that account are related to the present circumstances of the listener or reader. The account of Sarah and Hagar is not considered fiction by Paul, but fact. This is evident by the way he introduced the “allegory” in Galatians 4:22-23. The translators of the NASB have very nicely handled this by rendering Paul’s words, “This contains an allegory” (Gal. 4:24), which allows for an allegory to be drawn out of an historical account.

When biblical allegory is employed, it is done in a way that is very different from that of non-biblical writers. Below are some of the characteristics of biblical allegory which are evident in Paul’s handling of the Hagar and Sarah event.

When the allegorical method of teaching is employed, it is always evident. In verse 24, Paul indicates to his readers that he is using the events outlined in verses 22 and 23 in an allegorical way. When our Lord spoke in parables, the literary form was such that no one considered it anything but allegory. The use of allegory will always be indicated, either in style or by statement. Those who handle other Scriptures allegorically have failed to observe the meticulous way in which the Scripture itself dictates its interpretation.

No doubt is left in the reader’s mind concerning the historicity of the events interpreted allegorically. Paul clearly identifies the events surrounding the incident between Hagar and Sarah as historical, not fiction (cf. Gal. 4:21-23). In the parables of our Lord, literary form is such that the hearer or reader did not think in terms of a historical event. Jesus referred to historical events very differently. The allegorical school of interpretation takes accounts which profess to be history and pronounces them to be myth.

In the Bible, allegory is always based upon truth which is founded on sound exegesis, literal interpretation, and consistency with biblical theology. Some scholars fail to make the very elementary observation that this passage is at the end of the major section including chapters 2 and 3 of Galatians, and it serves as its conclusion. The purpose of this passage is not to develop the argument of this section, but to drive it home. The major points which Paul seeks to emphasize are those which he has previously developed in the epistle. No new matter is presented in this concluding passage. What Paul wants his reader to experience is seeing the same truth in a new light, and then acting on it. The allegory of Galatians 4 is based upon the exegesis and theology of the previous sections. Those who must resort to allegory in order to establish their point should be immediately suspect. Those who have a point clearly and concisely established on the basis of exegesis and sound theology may freely use allegory to express it.

When the basis of the allegory is a historical event, drawn from a biblical text (as in Galatians 4), the parallels are very precisely drawn to correspond to the text. When you compare the fanciful allegorical interpretations cited above with that of Paul in our text, there is a vast difference. Fanciful allegorical interpretation barely draws parallels between the passage and its “spiritual interpretation.” Such interpretor cannot convincingly demonstrate the correlation of the text and its meaning. On the other hand, since the interpretation is so speculative, one can hardly challenge the interpretation either. (Remember, only the very spiritual and enlightened have the ability to grasp such “deep” truth.) Paul’s parallels very precisely establish the correspondence between the historical event, the literal interpretation of it, and the circumstances which are compared by analogy.90 Let those who would allegorize be as precise as Paul.

The principle goal of allegory is the apprehension and application of a given truth. The allegory or parable is employed when an abstract truth needs to be understood and applied in concrete terms. In good teaching, abstract truth is taught by analogy (allegory, if you please) in very clear, concrete terms. The value of the method of allegory is that it makes clear by comparison what would otherwise have been confusing. This was certainly true in Galatians 4. Paul has dealt with a very complex and confusing matter which has taken nearly four chapters to convey. With one brief illustration, he drives home the essence of the matter: (1) The Judaizers are in bondage and would have the Galatians bound also. (2) The Judaizers are actually persecuting the Galatians. (3) The Galatians should throw out the Judaizers. The purpose of biblical allegory is precisely opposite to the improper method of allegorical interpretation. The Bible seeks to make truth clear and relevant; the allegorizers try to set aside what is clear by focusing on the abstract. This is an ingenious way to avoid truth that is too pointed. The biblical communicator seeks to apply God’s truth; others seek to avoid it.


Let us move from the abstract to the concrete. A principle is found in Paul’s use of this Old Testament passage which should guide every Christian in their use of the Scriptures: INTERPRET THE SCRIPTURE LITERALLY AND APPLY IT BY ANALOGY. The process is not quite as simple, but it can be outlined in this way. (1) Interpret the passage literally, in the light of the context, background, culture, grammar, and biblical theology. (2) Determine the principle or principles which the interpretation reveals. (3) Seek to apply the principle as you consider the points of parallel between the biblical passage and your own particular situation.

My understanding of Paul’s methods and message in our text is that allegory is not a method of interpretation, but of communication and application. The problem facing the Galatians was how they as Gentiles were to interpret and apply the Old Testament. The Judaizers were wrong in teaching that the solution was to become Jewish and then apply the Old Testament directly. Paul’s solution was to interpret the passage literally, determine the underlying principles, and then find the parallels with the present circumstances.

The fact is that all of us must use this method of biblical interpretation and application, for there is seldom, if ever, an instance in which our circumstances will precisely parallel those of a person in Scripture. You and I will never be a son of Jacob, sold into Egyptian slavery by brothers, wrongly accused and imprisoned, and so on as Joseph was. The key to understanding and applying the Scriptures describing the trials and testings of Joseph is to interpret the text literally and accurately, so that we learn the principles which governed Joseph’s attitudes and actions; we then find situations in our lives where these same principles relate, not directly, but by analogy.

This has always been the way God intended Christians to learn. Consider Abraham, for example. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, in obedience to God’s command. “He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type” (Heb. 11:19).

As far as the Bible informs us and this passage in Hebrews implies, God never directly told Abraham that He would raise Isaac from the dead. Abraham inferred this. If you will, Abraham came to this conclusion by analogy.

Let me attempt to recreate, to some degree, the process. In Romans 4, Paul wrote of Abraham’s faith in regard to God’s promise of a son:

In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform (Rom. 4:18-21).

Abraham had been promised a son by God, the child of both he and Sarah. Abraham knew that as far as child-bearing was concerned they were both “as good as dead.” However, over the course of his life he had learned God’s dealing in His life and knew that God always is faithful to keep His promises. Therefore, since this was yet another promise, he believed that God somehow would produce a son through them. Years later when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham had previous evidence on which to base his faith and obedience. Since God had promised to bless Abraham through Isaac, Isaac must live. If he killed Isaac, God would somehow raise him from the dead. Since the birth of Isaac was virtually the gift of life to and through those who were dead, God was able to fulfill His promise, even to raise Isaac from the dead.

Abraham did not need a direct word from God. Abraham’s faith was exercised much more by seeing the parallels between his present circumstances and those of his past. I must maintain that Abraham learned by analogy.91

The same principle enables us to understand how Paul and other New Testament writers could refer to the correspondence of current events to the Old Testament Scriptures. Scholars ponder how Paul could apply the command not to muzzle an ox to the payment of preachers. I believe the process is very evident. Paul interpreted that Old Testament passage literally. He concluded that the reason why oxen should not be muzzled is because God wanted to teach men that labor should be rewarded. As Paul indicates to us, God’s primary concern was not oxen, but men (1 Cor. 9:9-10). When establishing a biblical basis for his right to be paid for his ministry as an apostle, Paul could point to this passage, for the principle was clear and the analogy was easy to demonstrate.

Herein lies the difference between the way our Lord and His apostles handled the Old Testament Scriptures (particularly the Law) and the method used by the scribes, Pharisees and, in our passage, the Judaizers. The legalist comes to the Law in terms of the letter. He wants the Law to dictate life in every detail. In the Sermon on the Mount our Lord sought to point to the principle underlying the passage and its broader application.

Too many Christians today try to use the Scriptures just as the legalists did then. They want God to speak directly to them through His Word. They do not seek to learn in principle, but rather in particular. Thus, they close their eyes, turn to a text, and seek direct guidance. J. I. Packer gives us one illustration of such seeking:

Half a century ago a theological student, who later became a close and valued friend, had committed himself to start his ministry in a church in the North of England when he received a very attractive invitation to join instead a teaching institution in South Wales. He did not feel able to withdraw from his commitment, but one day he read in Isaiah 43:6 (KJV) the words, ‘I will say to the north, Give up,’ and concluded that this was God telling him that he would be providentially released from his promise and so set free to accept the second invitation. No such thing happened, however, so he went north after all, wondering what had gone wrong. Then he reread Isaiah 43:6, and noticed that it continued, “… and to the south, Keep not back”! At this point it dawned on him that he had been finding in the text meaning that was never really there, but had been reflected back on to it by the concerns which he brought to his reading of it.92

This example, and countless others equally as foolish should remind us that we need not ask God for a specific announcement of His will when He has provided us with an analogy for discerning it.

In conclusion, let me leave you with several principles from the passage which should guide and govern our lives:

(1) Hermeneutics, the science of interpreting Scripture, plays a crucial role in our Christian lives, individually and corporately. Bad methods result in bad messages. Much of the error of the Judaizers can be traced to an improper method of handling the Old Testament. In contrast, the message of the apostle is the outgrowth of his method of interpretation. There are other factors as well, but spiritualizing the Scriptures allows us to impose our own twisted thinking upon the inspired Word of God. Since the Judaizers and cults hold to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, their heretical interpretations are all the more dangerous, for they attribute their teachings to God. Packer puts it well when he writes,

Scripture can only rule us so far as it is understood, and it is only understood so far as it is properly interpreted. A misinterpreted Bible is a misunderstood Bible, which will lead us out of God’s way rather than in it. Interpretation must be right if biblical authority is to be real in our lives and in our churches.93

One of the quickest ways to detect a cultist is to scrutinize his hermeneutical methodology. The only way to prove falsehood from the Word of God is to twist it by using bad hermeneutics. The most recent error which has come into our church body is the result of inexcusably sloppy handling of the Word of God. Every Christian needs to develop a biblical hermeneutic for his own study and for the detection of error in others. There are no better teachers of hermeneutics than our Lord (e.g. the sermon on the mount) and his apostles. Let us learn from Paul a method, as well as a message.

(2) Preaching plays a vital role in the church because it communicates both a message and a method. When I preach, it is my sincere desire to communicate the message of a particular text or group of texts. It is also my intention to communicate a method of interpreting and applying the Scriptures. Frankly, I believe the method is just as important as the message, for if you learn the method, you will be able to utilize it yourself to gain many more insights from God’s Word.

I am dismayed at the sloppy, haphazard preaching that goes on today in the name of biblical exposition. In some cases it is because preachers are ill-equipped to teach and preach. In others it is because the preacher is simply too lazy to expend the effort required for exposition. In all too many cases, it is because churches overburden the preacher so that he has too little time and energy left to prepare for preaching. Instead of 15-20 hours of preparation time, most eek by with two or three hours. In one recent study, sermon preparation came tenth on the list of priorities of the responding pastors. Each Sunday’s sermon sounds strangely like that of the weeks before, only with a different text and title. Because the ideas presented are orthodox and supportable from some text (usually not the one expounded), shallow sermons are tolerated, because they are orthodox and delivered with sincerity and zeal.

Sound exposition is critically needed today so that God’s message and His method of interpreting and applying the Word may be modeled from the pulpit. We need to insist on it and to settle for nothing less, whether we stand behind the pulpit or sit in the pew. In all too many instances, there is no difference in the methodology of the fundamentalist preacher and the cultist.94 The only difference is that while the fundamentalist misuses the text and comes up with an orthodox message, the liberal or cultist misuses the text to teach heresy. When we evangelicals condition people to expect (and even praise as “deep”) spiritualized interpretation, we should not wonder why people in our churches turn to follow false teachers who use the same methods.

(3) Spiritualizing (allegorical) hermeneutics are either the result or the cause of failure to discern dispensational distinctions. I do not totally agree with all that is taught or practiced in the name of dispensationalism, nor do I fully disagree with what is taught by those who oppose it (e.g. amillennialism). I would submit for your consideration, however, that there was a distinct intertwining of the method (hermeneutics) and the message of the Judaizers. Those who fail to see the Law as inferior to grace (as Paul has taught in Galatians), will inevitably seek to directly relate the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g. contemporary adherence to the Mosaic Laws), or will resort to spiritualizing the Law to make it relevant. Discerning the difference between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic is the basis for Paul’s hermeneutic of interpreting the Old Testament literally and then applying it by analogy.

The error of attempting to apply all Scripture directly is all too easy to illustrate in evangelical Christianity, dispensational or not. We try to make Proverbs into promises. We believe that our giving guarantees material blessing (cf. Prov. 3:9-10). We assure godly parents that they will have godly children (Prov. 22:6). We directly relate the curses and blessings of Deuteronomy to Christians today. We quote 2 Chronicles 7:14 as though it was a promise of God to America. We look for America in prophecy. All of this is an effort to have Scripture apply to us directly, as opposed to application by analogy.

(4) God’s method of interpreting and applying Scripture requires both study and thought. I doubt any would deny that studying the Scriptures is necessary, but there is a recent error current in some circles which condemns analysis. It is put this way: “Don’t analyze it, walk it!” The inference is that applying the truth not only does not require analysis, but that it is opposed to it. I must remind you that Paul uses the word “contemplated” (Rom. 4:19) and the writer to the Hebrews uses “considered” (Heb 11:19) with regard to Abraham’s faith and obedience. In both instances, Abraham acted after he had analyzed. Both God’s works and His words invite analysis first, and then action. The reason why we fail to comprehend and apply God’s Word as we should is that we fail to pay the price of careful study (whether preachers or congregations).

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness (2 Tim. 2:15-16).

May God grant to us the determination to seek biblical methods as well as biblical messages, and may He give us the grace to do what He says.

80 J. I. Packer, Beyond the Battle for the Bible (Westchester, Illinois: Cornerstone Books, 1980), pp. 20-21.

81 Burton, in his classic commentary on Galatians, spends several pages exploring the possible renderings of this expression. For those who would care to probe into the technical options, I recommend consulting his work. Earnest De Witt Burton, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1971 [reprint]), pp. 253-257.

82 Ridderbos does an excellent job of explaining the application of the text in Isaiah to the “allegory” of Galatians 4. Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), p. 179.

83 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston: W. A. Wilde Company, 1966), p. 28.

84 Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, No. 1 (1758) (New York: The Swedenborg Foundation, 1956), pp. 1-2, as cited by James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), pp. 111-112. I cannot recommend Sire’s book too highly. Not only does it help us to understand the hermeneutics of the cultist, but it also instructs us to be better (students) readers of God’s Word.

85 Ramm, p. 25.

86 Ibid., pp. 25-26.

87 Ramm, p. 26, citing F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation, p. 34.

88 Burton, p. 256.

89 The genius of the parables of our Lord is that they achieved two purposes. For those who had accepted our Lord and His teaching in principle, the parables helped to clarify His teaching and ministry in the particulars. The parables were, as I have previously indicated, a teaching tool designed to communicate truth. On the other hand, they were also designed to obscure the truth from those who had rejected Jesus as the Messiah (cf. Mark 3:20-30; 4:10-13). The scribes and Pharisees were looking for direct statements which would provide them with the evidence needed to put Him to death. Analogies were not direct enough, and thus the parables were to some degree evasive (at least so far as the scribes and Pharisees were concerned). Thus the parables clarified the truth for some and concealed it from others.

90 Even when the event is not historical (as in the parables), the effectiveness of the allegory is dependent upon the preciseness with which the details of the allegory correspond to the circumstances to which they are compared. The only good allegory or parable is one that is true to the truth being taught and the circumstances to which it is applied.

91 We should take note that the writer to the Hebrews intended for the analogy of these events to apply to the reader. In verse 19 he wrote, “… from which he also received him back as a type.” I understand the writer to be saying that not only should Abraham have seen by analogy that God was able to raise the dead, but that we should see the application to us. First, the raising of Isaac was a prototype of the raising of our Lord from the dead. Second, by analogy this is also an assurance of our resurrection from the dead. The writer thus wanted us to see how Abraham understood the analogy of the past, and for us to then see the analogy to our lives as well. The whole of Hebrews 11 urges us to see the analogy of the faith of men and women in the past to our own struggles and temptations.

92 Packer, p. 22.

93 Ibid., pp. 19-20.

94 I will further point out that Christians are sloppy not only in interpreting the Bible, but in interpreting non-biblical material so that it conforms to the Bible. Why is it that we feel compelled to interpret movies like “Star Wars” and “E. T.” allegorically, so that they somehow are viewed to be preaching Christ? This is simply an effort to accomodate error to truth.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Law