In Galatians 4:24 Paul uses a phrase that occurs only here in the entire Bible: “two covenants.”
All scholars agree that our passage for this lesson is a seminal presentation on the old and new covenants. By his specific and unique reference here to “the two covenants,” Paul alerts us to his intention to explain his understanding of the essential nature of the old and new covenants. In his typical manner, he presents the two covenants by a series of contrasting characterizations.
Is Paul conceiving of “the two covenants” here as historical covenants—the old covenant being the Sinai covenant, the new covenant being the covenant after Jesus came in history? Or is he thinking of “the two covenants” in experiential terms, with the old covenant referring to an old-covenant experience and the new covenant designating a new-covenant experience?
What terms or phrases might lead us to conclude that he has in mind an exclusively historical perspective—the Sinai covenant on the one hand, and on the other, the updated new covenant when Jesus came? Well, verse 25 mentions “Mount Sinai” flat out, does it not? It also mentions “present . . . Jerusalem” (Gal. 4:25, NIV), which isn’t an exact match with the Sinai covenant but bears a logical association. However, several other historical references help us better understand his reference to Sinai, namely, his references to Abraham, Hagar (the “bondwoman”), Sarah (the “freewoman”), and Abraham’s sons by Hagar and Sarah (4:23, 25, 28, 30). What makes this reference to Abraham so significant is that scholars do not believe Abraham has any historical association whatever with the old (Sinai) covenant. In fact, Abraham is considered by scholars as a prototype of the historical new covenant in that he was declared righteous on the basis of his faith (Gen. 15:6), whereas the view of some covenant theologians is that the Sinai covenant required righteousness by works (Deut. 6:24, 25; but compare 1 John 3:7, where John uses similar language about New Testament believers). To characterize the Sinai covenant as promoting works-righteousness, one must ignore the emphasis on faith throughout the Old Testament. Jesus Himself affirmed that “faith” was one of “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23, NKJV)! When Paul wrote elsewhere that “the law is not of faith” (Gal. 3:12, NKJV), he was not contradicting Jesus but confessing that the law, not as God intended it, but as he and many of his colleagues had related to it legalistically (Phil. 3:1–6), was not of faith.
But in Galatians 4:22 Abraham is used as an example of both the old covenant and the new covenant! How so? Did Abraham and the Sinai community share anything in common that might inform us? Indeed! Abraham’s experience with Hagar exhibited an old-covenant-experience response to God’s covenant promise concerning Abraham siring a son, and his subsequent experience with Sarah exhibited a new-covenant-experience response (Rom. 4:16–22). At the giving of the law at Sinai, Israel confidently responded, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exod. 19:8), and then summarily erected a golden calf and praised it for delivering the people from Egypt!—classic old-covenant-experience responses. Furthermore, Paul admitted that he was using Hagar “symbolic[ally]” (NKJV), (“allegorically” most translations, from Greek allegoreo) as a reference to Sinai (Gal. 4:24). It appears that Paul used his historical references in this passage as symbols, allegories, examples of an experiential point he was making.
In the inTerpret section we will consider evidence that Paul may be using this presentation on “the two covenants” to highlight their experiential dimensions.