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"Children of Promise."

MESSAGE FOR September 9, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 4:21-31

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          This week, we conclude chapter four of Paul’s letter to the Galatians as we look at a section that has been called “one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament.”[1]  Paul continues to admonish these Galatian Gentiles for their willingness to listen to and be influenced by false teachers.  The Judaizers had taught them that as Gentiles, they could not be Christian unless they, in addition to believing in Jesus, were also circumcised and followed the Old Covenant law.  As part of their deception, the false teachers evidently used the Genesis story we just read (Gen 16:1-15; 17:15-21) to help make their case.  Why else would Paul employ what we will see is a complicated, allegorical rendering of an Old Testament story to Gentiles who are not steeped in the Old Testament?  It seems clear that Paul uses this story in response to how the Judaizers distorted it to argue that these Galatian Gentiles needed to be circumcised. When we read Paul’s inspired text, we will understand it more easily if we can get at least a general understanding of how the Jewish false teachers were misusing it to make their case. 

  Most scholars think the Judaizers were teaching this text something like this: 

“Galatians, if you are in doubt about whether our call for to you to be circumcised is from God and true to the Scriptures, let me prove it by citing a story you have probably heard.  It’s about the father of God’s people—Abraham and his two sons.  You’ll recall that God had promised Abraham a son in his old age.  But before God gave Abraham that son, Isaac, his elderly wife Sarah became impatient.  Rather than trust God to fulfill his promise--in his time and in his way, Sarah, in her unbelief, suggested that Abraham produce an heir through her slave woman, Hagar--a Gentile who was not part of our first Jewish family.  Abraham foolishly agreed to this and Ishmael was conceived by Hagar.  In spite of this, God remained faithful to Abraham, and Sarah conceived the son God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, the child of promise.  Isaac was born to Sarah in her old age and was brought into God’s covenant through circumcision while the Gentiles Hagar and Ishmael were cast out. 

The implication for you Gentiles from this story couldn’t be more clear.  The true sons of Abraham are Jews like Isaac the child of promise, not Gentiles like Ishmael who did not receive the spiritual inheritance of Abraham.  Dear Galatians, we come to you as God’s people, sons of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac—heirs to the promise.  As God’s people we are faithful to keep the law of God.  We are from Jerusalem, the city of God and the birthplace of the church—the mother church.  If you Gentiles want to be included in this New Covenant in Christ, if you want to receive the promise of Abraham and be a true son of Abraham like Isaac, you must believe on Christ and be brought in through circumcision, following the law of God.  If you don’t become part of the people of God through circumcision, you--like those Gentiles before you, Hagar and Ishmael, will be cast out.”  We know from what Paul writes that this is the gist of how the Judaizers were using this story to make their point—those major elements were almost certainly included.  That is—Abraham and his son, Ishmael the Gentile and his Gentile mother Hagar.  Also, there is Isaac, the true son of Abraham.  We can also infer from Paul’s argument that the Judaizers somehow used their connection to Jerusalem to try to bolster their credibility.  We know from chapter two that they had denigrated Paul because he didn’t have the right connections to Jerusalem, the “mother church.”  As we have noted before, notice how plausible this argument would have sounded to these Gentile Galatians.  It’s Biblical and internally consistent.  The problem is--they completely misapplied this Genesis story to teach something it was never intended to teach.  This morning, we see how Paul correctly uses this same story to prove his point that the true sons of Abraham are not those who are circumcised, but are those who receive his inheritance by an act of God through faith alone apart from works of the law.

          Let’s read Paul’s argument here from this story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.  23But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.  24Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.  25Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.  26But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.  27For it is written,

"Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband." 28Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.  29But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.  30But what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman."  31So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”   

          As you can imagine, Paul takes the Judaizers’ teaching on how this text applied to these Gentiles and stands it on its head.  When we saw the presumed Judaizers’ take on this story, their apparent emphasis was on Jew vs. Gentile—God’s people, Abraham, Sarah and Isaac vs. the Gentile outcasts, Hagar and Ishmael.  That was the self-serving lens through which they looked because they wanted the Galatians to believe that being an uncircumcised Gentile meant being an outcast like Hagar and Ishmael.  Circumcision meant inclusion in God’s people whose line was traced back to Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. 

The lens through which Paul looks at this story—which is consistent with the Genesis account, is not Jew versus Gentile.  He relates the story of a child, Isaac, miraculously born to an elderly barren woman in fulfillment of a promise from God and received by faith alone.  This story isn’t about Jewish ethnicity—this was about a child, Isaac, conceived through a miracle of God through faith, versus a child, Ishmael, conceived by natural, fleshly means in a purely man-made attempt to try to accomplish what only God could do.  You can hear the gospel in that can’t you?  This is what he is getting at with verse 23.  But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.”  It took no faith for the birth of Ishmael, only human scheming that was exercised in arrogant independence from God, his promise and his plan.  Isaac, on the other hand, was “born through promise.” That is, he was not brought about by purely natural human procreation.  He came along fundamentally because God had promised him to Abraham and Sarah.  To emphasize the power and faithfulness of his promise, God waited 14 years after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael to miraculously enable post-menopausal Sarah to conceive.  The fact that Sarah was barren was irrelevant to the situation.  God had promised, Abraham had believed—it was done--without dependence upon any human works. 

What I mean by that is this--Abraham couldn’t do anything to make his ancient wife bear a child—he and Sarah were hopelessly barren apart from God.  God providentially arranges the circumstances in a way so that Isaac is conceived only as he does a miracle of grace in response to Abraham’s faith in his promise  This story is mainly about something that is God-dependent, faith-requiring and promise-fulfilling.  Paul’s implication is “That’s like the gospel!”  God does the work to make sinful people acceptable him. Our standing before him is not dependent upon anything we can do, but upon what God does through Christ in justifying us by faith alone. 

God promised Abraham that Gentiles would receive the inheritance through him and now through Christ he is fulfilling that promise.  Gentiles are made right with God, not because of anything they could do—like circumcision, but because of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promise to bring Gentiles in through faith.  God has orchestrated our justification in the same, absolutely God-dependent manner.  It’s about God’s work in Christ in response to our faith alone.  By contrast, if God doesn’t pardon you and declare you righteous based on Christ’s righteousness and in response to faith alone, you are as barren of righteousness as Abraham and Sarah were barren of children.  Just as there was nothing they could do but trust in the work of God, so there is nothing for us to do to be made acceptable to God except trust in the work of God through Christ.  It is as hopeless for us to be righteous before God through our own works as it is for a 90 year-old woman to become pregnant. 

The other lens Paul looks through is not Jew vs. Gentile, but free-born Isaac from Sarah vs. the slave-born Ishmael from the slave, Hagar.  Paul hears the Holy Spirit’s resounding gospel theme in this Genesis story-- the freedom of Isaac who came by faith in God’s promise vs. the slavery of Ishmael who came by fallen human effort. This slavery theme dominates this text, but let’s look at the heart of Paul’s argument in verse 24.  There he says, “Now this may be interpreted allegorically:  these women are two covenants.  One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.  Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;…”  Hang with me—this gets a bit thick, but there is a rich reward for diligence here.  Again, we must hear the wildly different perspectives of Paul and the Judaizers.  Both Paul and the Judaizers understand that Mount Sinai was the place where Moses received the law.  But because of what Paul believes about what Jesus did, he has a very different understanding of Mount Sinai than the Judaizers.  Before Christ, Mount Sinai was rightly celebrated as the place where God gave Moses the law.  The law was the perfect expression of the righteousness of God that pointed people to their need for the coming Messiah who would save them from the sin that the law so clearly revealed to them.  But when Christ came and lived a perfect life, fulfilling the requirements of the law and died to pay the penalty for law-breakers, the Old Covenant of Mt. Sinai was done—Christ fulfilled it.  He kept the law perfectly so that we would not have to do that.  Our law-keeping was done by Christ as we are placed in Christ and trust in him and his perfect performance of the law.  Jesus says repeatedly that the law points to him.  After Jesus came and fulfilled the law and paid the penalty for all law-breaking, Mount Sinai (and the law it came to symbolize) took on a very different meaning for Paul. 

After Christ had fulfilled the law of Sinai, Mount Sinai became a symbol of the enslavement the law brings when you wrongly try to be acceptable to God through it.  Why does Paul say in verse 25, ““Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia?  Hagar’s children, the descendents of Ishmael were Arabs who lived in the area surrounding Mount Sinai.  That’s probably why Paul identifies Hagar with the covenant of law given on Mount Sinai.  As Philip Ryken says, “The old covenant came from Hagar’s territory.[2]  Paul identifies Hagar the slave with the slavery that comes from trying to be righteous by keeping the law.  In the second half of verse 25, Paul says something that would have been considered absolutely scandalous by the Jews of his day.  He compares the slavery of Hagar and Mount Sinai with …Jerusalem. “she [Hagar] corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.”  Jerusalem, the holy city, the city where God lived in his holy temple, the city of David, the mother of the church, enslaved? How can this be?

Remember, Jerusalem, from a New Testament perspective is the city that missed its chance to receive Jesus.  This is the city that kills the prophets.  The dwelling place of God was no longer in the Jerusalem temple—Jesus fulfilled all the sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple.  The temple of God is now his church.  Jerusalem in Paul’s view is predominantly the religious center of the Jews who rejected Christ and who are now left to the enslavement that comes to those who seek after righteousness through their performance of the law.  He says of Jerusalem, “She is in slavery with her children.”  He also knows that these Judaizers were from Jerusalem and had used that to bolster their credibility.  That is probably another reason why he brings in this argument.  The scandal here is that Paul compares the Jews who live in Jerusalem with Ishmael, a Gentile!  Jerusalem is filled with Ishmaelites, not Isaacs.  That would not have gone over very well in Jerusalem, but because the Jews were seeking to be acceptable to God by their performance, they had far more in common with the slave, Ishmael, than they did with the free-born Isaac.  Paul says to these Galatians, if you seek to be acceptable to God by the law, then you are like the Ishmaels in Jerusalem, not Isaac, the child of promise.

          Paul contrasts the earthly city of Jerusalem, the mother of slaves, with the heavenly Jerusalem in verse 26. He says, “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.”  There is much we could say about the heavenly Jerusalem, but at the very least the heavenly Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the earthly Jerusalem.  That is, it is where the reign of God is manifest through Christ.  That reign was inaugurated when Jesus died and rose again, and it exists now in heaven.  That’s why Paul can speak of her in present tense—“she is our mother.  All those in Christ are right now citizens of heaven.  His reign will be fully realized when he comes back.  She exists now, but she will also come down from heaven at the return of Christ, as John says, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”[Rev.21:2]  Hebrews 12:22 says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,”   The characteristic of the heavenly Jerusalem Paul highlights is, “the Jerusalem above is free.” 

          The earthly Jerusalem is a slave city, filled with people who are living under the enslavement of the law.  The heavenly city is marked by liberty where people live, not enslaved by the law, but liberated by the Spirit.  Paul says in Second Corinthians 3:17, “where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.”  Believers are called to live in the liberty of the Spirit’s control, not the oppression of the law.  The contrast he draws between the two covenants is the Old Covenant of Law versus the New Covenant of the Spirit.  Paul says in Second Corinthians 3:6 that he has been made a minister of “a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.  For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  Paul will say much more about that in chapter five.  True righteousness is not lived out under the law, but by the Spirit who has written the law of God on our hearts and who gives us the power to fulfill the law.

In verse 27, he quotes Isaiah 54:1.  Listen for how this prophecy applies to both Sarah and the heavenly Jerusalem.  He says, “For it is written, "Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband."  Very quickly, Paul’s uses this prophecy to again draw a contrast between the earthly Jerusalem, who like Sarah was for a time barren, with the New Jerusalem which, like Sarah after God moved upon her, was massively prolific through Isaac and his descendants in Christ.  The new or heavenly Jerusalem continues to grow up to at this moment as people all over the globe, through no work or merit of their own, are trusting in Christ and being welcomed as true sons of Abraham and sons of God.

As Paul concludes this complicated text, he closes with some application.  The implied point of application is in verse 28 where he says, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.  29But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.”  We know from Genesis 21 that when Isaac had his party celebrating his weaning from his mother, Hagar mocked him.  There were probably other forms of persecution Ishmael inflicted upon Isaac not included in the Old Testament.  Paul’s message here is—don’t see the Judaizers deceptive manipulation of Biblical truth as simply an alternate understanding of how to relate to the Old Testament law.  See it for what it is—persecution.  The children of the flesh always persecute the children of the Spirit.

The children of the flesh are those who are trying to be acceptable to God by what they do and that is an inherently prideful endeavor.  If you are seeking to be right with God by what you can do for him, you are filled with pride and have no conception how far you fall short of being like him.  The prideful people, in their enslavement to the law ultimately lash out against those who live in the spiritual liberty of the Holy Spirit.  Prideful, self-righteous, legalistic people can’t stand spiritual liberty and they regularly accuse those who live in freedom of being licentious and lawless.  They try to put them under the enslavement of the law.  This persecution is simply an expression of two spiritual kingdoms that are at war—the kingdom of lies and enslavement and self-righteousness under the law, vs. the kingdom of truth and liberty and the righteousness of Christ by faith.  The sobering truth is that every believer has within him or herself, manifestations of both of these kingdoms. 

We have this fleshly part of us that seeks to be acceptable to God by what we can do independent of him under the law.  That fleshly part of us craves merit.  It wants the smug satisfaction that comes from external expressions of righteousness.  This is the SELF-centered part of us that loves to be under the law that produces the rotten fruit of either self-righteousness or self-condemnation.  The flesh is all about self and it uses the law to make much of self.  If we are in Christ, in addition to this sinful flesh, we also have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit within us moves us to regularly declare bankruptcy on our own efforts to be acceptable to God and cry out, “Abba, Father” in humble dependence upon our Father.  In that humble, Spirit-wrought place, we are empowered to live out a supernatural life—fulfilling the law of God inwardly and outwardly in the liberty of the Holy Spirit.  The result of that kind of life is not self-righteousness or self-condemnation, its God-centeredness that manifests in worship and Christ-exalting “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—against such things there is no law.”

So how do we find victory in this internal fight between the flesh and the Spirit?   Paul tells us in verses 28 and 30. “But what does the Scripture say? “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.”  v.30“Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’  So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”  How you prevail over the fleshly, self-righteous part of you is first, believe who you are in the gospel.  It’s was easy for the Galatians to become confused with the mixed signals they were receiving from the Holy Spirit through Paul and the flesh through the Judaizers.  That’s true for the Galatians who were hearing from the Judaizers and Paul, but every believer has a Judaizer in them through their flesh and every believer has an internal witness to the gospel through the ministry of the Spirit.  So, Paul tells these Galatians who are hearing both testimonies—“You, brothers, like Isaac are children of promise.”

In their willingness to listen to the Judaizers, the Galatians had become confused about their spiritual identity--who they were.  They were children of promise.  They were in Christ as a result of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that they appropriated by faith alone.  When Paul says, you are “children of promise” he is preaching the gospel to them.  That’s what we need to do—we must continually rehearse who we are in Christ through the gospel.  When we are being beaten up by self-condemnation because the law testifies that we aren’t good enough for God, we need to remember that it’s not about our performance, it’s about Christ’s performance.  Second, we must vigorously oppose the pull of the flesh toward a SELF-centered, enslaving religion.  Paul tells these Galatians to “cast out the slave woman and her son.”  He ordered them to get rid of these fleshly Judaizers whose lies were bringing them into spiritual bondage.  We should respond the same way when our enslaving flesh would seek to bring us into the bondage of being under the law.  We should not be timid, here—but very bold.  We should see this pull of the flesh for what it is—a persecuting challenge to our liberty, our joy, our fruitfulness and the glory of God and we should cast it out.  We must cast it out by zealously claiming the promises of the gospel. We must war against the flesh.  You would never allow a slave merchant to put his shackles on you without a fight. Neither should we surrender to the lie that our standing with God is dependent upon how much time we spend in prayer, or how many ministries we perform or whether we had our quiet time this morning.  When the flesh tries to bring us into captivity through self-condemnation because of some sin, we must violently cast those lies out and by faith claim our forgiveness through the gospel. Paul reminds those in Christ that “…we are not children of the slave, but of the free woman.”  That’s who all of us are that are in Christ.  May God give us the grace to believe the gospel, claiming its promises and living it out for his glory and our joy.

[1] Ryken, Philip, Galatians, REC, 2005, p. 180

[2] Ryken, Galatians, 185.


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