A man lived in another country whose laws were such that one could not walk on the sidewalks after 6:00 P.M. Eventually this man moved to the United States. After arriving here he decided to see the sights and so went for a long walk. Suddenly he realized it was getting close to 6:00 P.M. and he was far from where he was staying. In desperation, he stopped a stranger who was getting into an automobile and in halting English said, “Please, sir, help me! It is almost six and I am too far from my hotel to walk back before I will be arrested. Can you give me a ride?”. The stranger at first was confused but then realized that the man was new to the United States and so said to him, “Sir, let me assure you that in the United States we do not arrest people for being out after six.”
This man knew he was in the United States, but he had not cast off his obedience to the laws of his old country and so was still being controlled by what no longer had any jurisdiction over him. He was a free man, needlessly bound to the rules and regulations of his former life.
Do you want to be under the law? Listen to what the law actually says.
21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law?
The law itself will be the undoing of those who insist you rely upon it. Do you really want to be under the law?
This passage is especially relevant today as there are many who want to rely upon the keeping of the law for salvation. There are many who are in bondage thinking the basis of their relationship with God is their law keeping.
The false teachers’s argument was that it’s good to believe in Christ but in order to be considered Abraham’s children you need to keep the law. They made salvation conditional. Many groups today still do this.
They say in order to receive God’s gift of salvation you need to believe but you also must obey him. This makes obedience a condition of salvation which, from a human point of view, doesn’t sound unreasonable. If you were going to give someone an expensive gift having them do something, even if it was just a little something, doesn’t sound all that bad.
But Paul’s argument is the moment you believed in Christ you were the children of Abraham and if you start thinking you have to obey the whole law in order to remain Abraham’s children, you are not the children of Abraham at all!
Paul’s argument has three parts: 1) Historical Background (22-23); 2) Figurative Argument (24-27); Personal Application (28-31)
Historical Background (22-23)
22a For it is written that Abraham had two sons…
Being a descendent of Abraham was a source of pride for the Jews. They thought that because they physically descended from him they were spiritually safe.
But John the Baptist warned the Jews in Matthew 3:9 “And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.”
Jesus warned them too in John 8:31-44. “If you were Abraham’s children” (that is, spiritually as well as physically), “you would do what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me …; this is not what Abraham did.” … They said to him, “… we have one Father, even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me.… You are of your father the devil.”
Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Issac.
22b …one by a slave and the other by a free woman.
Ishmael’s mother was Hagar, a slave. Issac’s mother was Sarah and she was a free woman.
Not only did these two sons have different mothers but the circumstances leading up to their births was different.
23 But the one by the slave was born as a result of the flesh, while the one by the free woman was born through promise.
If you’ll remember God had promised a son to Abraham in his old age from his barren wife Sarah but they got tired of waiting so they decided Abraham would sleep with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar and have a heir through her. That’s what they did and Ishmael was born.
The circumstances leading up to Ishmael’s birth were pretty normal. Hagar was young and fully able to have children so when Abraham slept with her she got pregnant and had a son. But it was different for Sarah. Sarah was old and barren. Hebrews 11:11 puts it this way…
By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the one who had promised was faithful.
Sarah’s conception was miraculous and supernaturally achieved as a result of God’s promise. See, by nature we are are slaves. It takes supernatural intervention to be set free.
So that’s the historical background. Now we move into the details of Paul’s argument itself, and it’s a…
Figurative Argument (24-27)
24a These things are being taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.
The argument is a figurative one. It’s not meant to be taken literally. The Jews weren’t literally descendants of Hagar, but spiritually they were. Paul is using the historically true story as a symbolic illustration of grace and works. In other words, he’s showing the difference between the old and new covenants.
A covenant is a solemn agreement between God and men. The old covenant is based upon keeping the law and the new covenant is based upon a promise. In the old covenant God told man what his responsibility was but in the new covenant he takes the responsibility upon himself. So, Hagar’s son represents seeking salvation by works and Sarah’s son represents trusting in salvation by God’s grace.
24b One is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery—this is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar represents Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.
Hagar stands for the covenant based upon the law. And, she also stands for all the Jews in Jerusalem who remain in spiritual slavery.
Notice all the things that are linked negatively together: Mount Sinai, slavery, Hagar, and even their beloved Jerusalem! These must have been shocking words to those that heard them first. Shocking because physical Jerusalem represented hope for the Jewish people yet Jerusalem is connected with slavery, because the vast majority of people who are in spiritual bondage.
26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
Sarah represents those who are in Christ, those who are a part of the Christian Church. The heavenly Jerusalem is the dwelling of those who are saved. Those who have citizenship in heaven have Sarah as their mother. The heavenly Jerusalem is the Christians so-called “mother-city”.
This new covenant idea isn’t only in the New Testament. It is throughout the whole Bible…
27 For it is written, “Rejoice, childless woman, unable to give birth. Burst into song and shout, you who are not in labor, for the children of the desolate woman will be many, more numerous than those of the woman who has a husband.”
This quote comes from Isaiah 54:1 where Isaiah was encouraging the Jewish exiles in Babylon more than 600 years before Christ. The captives were helpless. They couldn’t even bear children so it was just a matter of time before they ceased to exist.
But God promised to save the world through those that couldn’t have children. He said to them in essence…Now that you are weak and helpless you will see what I am able to do. The strong are off trying to save themselves but real salvation is with the weak and helpless. I’m going to give you even more children than “those of the woman who has a husband.”
Now, if salvation is by works then only the strong are going to achieve it. Only the beautiful, only the ones born into strong families, only the ones who’ve been doing good their whole lives, will be accepted and loved by God. And this is a depressing thought for the rest of us.
But Isaiah wasn’t trying to discourage the Jewish exiles. he was bringing them the gospel.
And if the gospel is true there is hope for all of us. There’s hope for the barren outcast that society has rejected. There’s hope for failures because in Christ, you will be fruitful. You will bear fruit and it will be fruit that lasts eternally.
The gospel isn’t exclusive. The good news is anyone can belong to God through the gospel regardless of their background. Regardless of what you’ve done you can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ.
This is true for the Jews but it’s also true for you. Notice the…
Personal Application (28-31)
28 Now you too, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise.
That’s great news, isn’t it? But be warned, being a child of promise isn’t all roses, expect some thorns, too.
1) Expect Persecution
29 But just as then the child born as a result of the flesh persecuted the one born as a result of the Spirit, so also now.
As a a child of promise you need to know that those seeking salvation though works are never going to like those who have received salvation by grace. The Ishmael’s will always persecute Isaacs.
This is because those that are relying upon works feel nervous about their standing with God and need to make them selves feel superior to others. So when a saved-by-grace person tells them their good deeds are worthless when it comes to salvation they get mad.
Jesus, if you remember, was persecuted the most by his own. The religiously righteous felt threatened by him. The ones relying upon the law were the ones who killed him. We need to be aware that often those closest to us will be responsible for the greatest persecution towards us.
John Stott, who I’ve quoted before, says…
“The persecution of the true church … is not always by the world, who are strangers … but by our half-brothers, religious people, the nominal church. The greatest enemies of evangelical faith today are not unbelievers … but the church, the establishment, the hierarchy. Isaac is always mocked and persecuted by Ishmael.”
So don’t be surprised if someone wants to argue with you about your insistence of grace alone. Don’t be surprised if your half-brother wants to insist upon works being required for salvation, too.
Expect to be persecuted in this way but also…
2) Expect the Inheritance
30 But what does the Scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her son, for the son of the slave will never be a coheir with the son of the free woman.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of a slave but of the free woman.
Resist those that want to deceive you with conditional salvation. Yes, God’s children will produce good works but out salvation is in no way dependent upon our performance. So be confident in your inheritance.
The inheritance is received on the basis of God’s grace. Ishmael was the result of man’s efforts but Issac is the result of what only God can do. The religion of Ishmael is a religion of self-trust but the religion of Isaac is a religion of only trust in Christ. The one who trusts in himself is in slavery and the one who trusts in Christ has freedom.
The believer who seeks to live the Christian life through self-effort is like the man who, in attempting to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, found his boat not moving for days. Finally, frustrated by his lack of progress, he tried to make his stalled boat move by pushing against the mast. Through strenuous efforts, he succeeded in making the boat rock and so created a few small waves on the otherwise smooth sea. Seeing the waves and feeling the rocking of the boat, he assumed that he was making progress and so continued his efforts. Of course, although he exerted himself a great deal, he actually got nowhere.
So it is in the Christian life. The source of the Christian’s strength lies in God’s grace, not in exertions of will-power, or in efforts of discipline, or any other self-effort.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, remember, we are not children of a slave but of the free woman. Trust in Christ, only Christ, for your salvation.