Paul received the one true gospel message when the Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. And Paul preached the one true gospel message to the Galatians whenever he visited them on one of his missionaries journeys. And some who heard him preach the one true gospel message believed and churches were formed. And the one true gospel message which Paul received and preached was the good news that sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. That’s the one true gospel message which Paul received and which he preached to the Galatians.
But after Paul left the region, false teachers came in and they said to the Galatians that faith in Christ will not do. Faith in Christ will not save. They said that everyone has to keep the law in order to be justified. They said that you have to put yourself under the law and under its authority and you have to do what the law requires in order to have eternal life. In other words, instead of relying on Christ, you must rely on the law and on your ability to keep the law and to do what it says.
That’s what the false teachers were saying. And it’s what people still believe today. People still believe that if they live a good enough life, and if they don’t do anything really bad, then God will accept them and let them into heaven. According to this view, we have to climb up to God by our good deeds. When we do something really bad, we slip down the ladder. But if we do enough good things in our life, then we’re able to climb up to God and to eternal life.
That’s what Paul himself thought until he received the one true gospel message from the Lord Jesus and he realised that no one will be justified by observing the law, because all the law does is show us our sin and guilt and our need of a Saviour. All the law can do is show us that we sinners who deserve to be condemned. And that’s why we all need to trust in the Lord Jesus, because he’s the only Saviour and the only one who is able to save us from the condemnation we deserve for failing to keep the law. By faith in Christ, sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — so that, even though they may have done everything wrong, God regards them as if they’ve done everything right. That’s the gospel; and that’s why you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, relying on him alone for salvation and not on yourself.
And in this letter, Paul has been trying to convince the Galatians to give up relying on the law and to rely once again on Christ alone. And in today’s passage, he turns their attention once more to the Old Testament Scriptures to teach them that the law only enslaves and it cannot save.
The passage begins in verse 21 with Paul saying to his readers: ‘Tell me.’ You want to be under the law. You want to put yourself under the authority of the law as the way to receive eternal life. Well, tell me this: Aren’t you aware of what the law says?
Another way of putting his question is this: Do you not listen to the law? Here you are, making much of the law, talking about how important it is to keep the law. But why don’t you actually listen to what the law says?
And in the following verses, Paul goes on to refer to the story of Abraham and his two sons which we find in the book of Genesis. And, you see, the Jews regarded the book of Genesis as being part of the law. So, by turning to the book of Genesis, Paul is turning to the law. And he’s saying in effect: Let me tell you what the law says.
Verses 22 and 23
In verses 22 and 23 Paul draws their attention to the story of Abraham and his two sons. The background to the story is this: God appeared to Abraham and promised to make him into a great nation and to give him and his offspring life in the Promised Land. Indeed, God promised that his offspring would be like the stars in the sky: too many to count. However, years passed. In fact, many years passed; and Abraham’s wife, Sarah, remained childless. However, she had a servant named Hagar. And according to Genesis 16, Sarah suggested to Abram that he should sleep with Hagar, so that Hagar could bear Abraham a son on her behalf. And Abraham agreed with her suggestion; and in due time, Hagar conceived and bore him a son; and her son was given the name Ishmael.
Abraham was 86 years old whenever Ishmael was born. When Abraham was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to him once again and repeated his promise to make Abraham into a great nation and to give them life in the Promised Land. But then he added that Abraham will have a son by Sarah and that Sarah will become the mother of nations. When Abraham heard this, he laughed. After all, he was now 99 years old and Sarah was 90 years old, well beyond the age to have children. It seemed impossible to him. In any case, what about Ishmael? Can’t he inherit the land? But God made clear that Abraham and Sarah would have their own son, who was to be named Isaac. And while the Lord was willing to bless Ishmael, nevertheless God promised Abraham that Abraham’s son by Sarah who be the one who would inherit the promise of life in the Promised Land. And sure enough, in time Sarah conceived and bore a son and they named him Isaac.
Paul refers to Abraham’s two sons in verse 22. One son, Ishmael, was born by the slave woman, Hagar. The other son, Isaac, was born by the free woman, Sarah. So, there were two mothers and there were two sons. And then in verse 23 Paul goes on to say that the son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way. That is, Ishmael was conceived by natural procreation and there was nothing remarkable about the way he was born. However, says Paul, the son of the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
It’s important to state that Isaac was conceived by natural procreation, when Abraham and Sarah slept together. Paul isn’t suggesting that Isaac’s conception was similar to the Lord Jesus, who was conceived without a human father. However, Isaac’s birth was special and extra-ordinary because it the result of God’s promise: Abraham and Sarah were only able to have a child in their old age because God promised it. And later, in verse 29, Paul will say Isaac was born ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’. So, because of his promise to them, God enabled Abraham and Sarah by the power of the Holy Spirit to have a son in their old age.
Ishmael was born in the ordinary way: two people slept together; and produced a child. But Isaac was born in an extra-ordinary way: two people slept together; and God the Holy Spirit enabled them to overcome their old age and barrenness and to produce a child. And so, Isaac was truly a child of a promise, because he was born as a result of God’s promise to them, which was put into effect by the Holy Spirit.
Verses 24 and 25
That’s really only the background to what Paul wants to say to his readers. In verse 24 he tells his readers that this story can be taken figuratively. Some other English translations say that the story can be taken ‘allegorically’. In an allegory, someone stands for something else, or someone symbolises something else. Many of you are familiar with the Narnia Chronicles, which can be enjoyed simply as novels with a good story, but which can also be interpreted allegorically. In that case, Aslan the Lion symbolises the Lord Jesus. Or there’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the pilgrim in the story symbolises the life of the believer and all the challenges believers face on the way to heaven. Those are examples of allegory.
Paul is saying that Hagar and Sarah and Ishmael and Isaac symbolise, or they represent, two covenants. There are many covenants in the Bible, but the two covenants which Paul has already mentioned in his letter to the Galatians are the covenant he made with Abraham when he promised to give Abraham and his offspring life in the Promised Land; and the covenant he made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai when he gave them his law to keep. So, those are the two covenants he’s thinking about here.
And he tells us that Hagar the slave woman represents the covenant which God made with the Israelites at Mount Sinai when he gave them his law to keep. In that case, Sarah must represent the covenant which God made with Abraham and his offspring life in the Promised Land.
Now, it’s important to say at this stage that the covenant God made with his people at Mount Sinai was a gracious covenant. Reformed theologians say that the covenant God made at Sinai was an administration of the covenant of grace. In God’s covenant of grace he promises to deliver his people from their sin and misery by his Son, Jesus Christ, and to give them eternal life. And the covenant at Sinai was an administration of that covenant of grace. It was a version of the covenant of grace, because it spoke to the people of God’s grace and mercy towards sinners and of the coming of Christ the Saviour into the world.
However, it’s clear that the covenant God made at Sinai contains lots of laws. After all, it was at Sinai that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. He also laid down lots of other laws and regulations at that time. Now, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, God gave his people the law at that time to lead them to Christ. The law revealed to them their sinfulness and their need of a Saviour. So, the purpose of the law was to lead the people to Christ.
However, when the law aspect of the Sinai covenant is separated from the rest of the covenant — when it’s separated from God’s promises — it becomes a prison which imprisons us as lawbreakers who deserve to be condemened. And it become a supervisor with the authority to rebuke us for our shortcomings. And it becomes a legal guardian with the authority to order us about. When you separate the law from the rest of the covenant, the law becomes a burden. The law by itself cannot save; it only enslaves.
And that’s how Paul can compare the covenant at Sinai with Hagar the slave woman. Hagar gave birth to a son who was a slave; and the law at Sinai — taken by itself and without regard for God’s promises — produces only slaves. Whoever relies on keeping the law — without regard for God’s promises — is enslaved to the law, which is like a bully who bosses us around and who tells us what to do, but who does not lift a finger to help us.
And Paul continues to say that Hagar corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem. So, not only does Hagar symbolise the covenant made at Mount Sinai, but she also symbolises the earthly city of Jerusalem. And when Paul mentions the earthly city of Jerusalem he’s referring to the Jewish people, who live under the authority of the law and who think that the way to receive eternal life is by doing everything the law requires. The law says ‘Do this’ and they try to do it, the law says ‘Do that’ and they try to do it, because they think that’s the way to get to heaven. They’re slaves to the law.
And, of course, just as Abraham and Hagar relied on themselves to produce a child, those who think that the way to receive eternal life is by doing what the law requires are relying on themselves. They’re relying on themselves and their own ability to do what’s required. Instead of trusting in Christ and what he has done for sinners, they’re relying on themselves and their own good deeds. So, Hagar stands for all those who rely on their own efforts to keep the law and who are enslaved by the law which cannot save: it cannot save, because all the law does is show us that we’re sinners who need a Saviour.
Verses 26 and 27
Verses 26 and 27 are tricky, because Paul seems to be going off in a different direction. After comparing Hagar to the covenant at Sinai and to the earthly Jerusalem, you’d think that Paul would go on to refer to Sarah and to how she represents God’s covenant with Abraham. That’s what we’re expecting. However, instead of doing that, Paul contrasts the earthly Jerusalem with the Jerusalem that is above. Do you see that in verse 26?
What is the Jerusalem that is above? If the earthly Jerusalem represents the Jews who are still enslaved to the law, the Jerusalem that is above represents the church. And Paul can refer to the church as the Jerusalem that is above, because the church exists because of heavenly grace which comes down to us from above; and because heaven above is where the members of the church really belong. As Paul says elsehere, our citizenship is in heaven; it’s our true home; it’s where we really belong; and it’s where we will one day live. And the members of the church are free, because instead of relying on the law for salvation, the members of the church are relying on Christ and on God’s promise of salvation to all who believe in him.
So, the earthly Jerusalem represents the Jews, who are enslaved to the law. The Jerusalem that is above represents the church, all who believe God’s promise of salvation. And in verse 27 Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 54, God compared Jerusalem to a barren and desolate woman, but he promised this barren and desolate woman that she was going to produce, not just one, but many, many children. So, the church will not be barren or desolate, as Sarah once was, but will be filled with men and women and boys and girls; with all those who have trusted in Christ for salvation.
In verse 28 Paul begins to apply all of what he has said to his readers. He says to them: ‘you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.’ Let me try to explain this.
Isaac was the result of God’s promise. God promised to give Abraham and Sarah a son. And God kept his promise, so that Sarah — even though she was barren and desolate — conceived and gave birth to a son.
And God has made another promise. He has promised salvation and eternal life to all who believe in the Lord Jesus. And those who believe in Christ are ‘children of promise’, because by faith in God’s promise of salvation, we become children of God.
Verses 29 to 31
There were two mothers and two sons. Hagar, the slave woman, produced a child by natural means, but her son was only a slave. She therefore stands for all those who rely on their own efforts to keep the law and who are enslaved by the law. And then there was Sarah, the free woman, who was once barren and desolate, but who produced a child according to God’s promise; and her son was free. And she therefore stands for the church: all those who have become children of God by faith in God’s promise of salvation.
In the final verses, Paul reminds his readers of two more points about Abraham and his family. Firstly, he reminds his readers in verse 29 that Ishmael persecuted Isaac. And secondly, he reminds his readers in verse 30 that Hagar and Ishmael were sent away so that they did not share in Isaac’s inheritance.
The background to what Paul is saying is found in Genesis 21, where we read that on the day Isaac was weaned, Abraham held a great feast. But instead of joining the celebrations, we’re told that Ishmael ‘was mocking’. It means he was laughing at what was happening, with a mocking or sarcastic laugh. Now, the text doesn’t say who or what he was mocking, but Sarah’s reaction leaves us in no doubt that it was directed at Isaac, because when Sarah saw him mocking like this, she said to Abraham that he must get rid of Hagar and her son. Abraham was reluctant to do so, but the Lord spoke to him and told him to do what Sarah has asked. And so, Hagar and Ishmael were sent away.
That’s the background. And Paul draws two lessons from this story. Firstly, just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac, so it is today, because an unbelieving world hates and despises the children of God. They will mock us for who we are and for what we believe. Isn’t that the case? Our children and young people in school and college know what it’s like, because no doubt some of them have been mocked for what they believe and despised for standing firm in the faith. But it’s not just the young people who face this pressure, because we all do. And not only are we mocked and despised, but we face that constant pressure from an unbelieving world to give up what we believe and to become like the people around us. We face that constant pressure to give up the privileges we have as children of God and to become like those who do not believe. An unbelieving world hates and despises the children of God. But we must stand firm in the faith, because God has promised all who believe that he will give us everlasting life in the new heavens and earth; and he has promised — hasn’t he? — and that the glory to come far surpasses and outweighs whatever we have to suffer in this life. So, stand firm in the faith.
And then secondly, just as Ishmael did not receive the inheritance which God promised to Abraham and his descendants, so the person who does not believe will not inherit eternal life in the Promised Land to come. They will not inherit it, unless they turn from their unbelief and turn with faith to God, confessing their sin and guilt and asking God to forgive them for the sake of Christ who gave himself for our sins. And so, if you have not yet believed, if you’re still trying to climb your way to heaven by your good deeds, if you’re relying on yourself and on what you do to bring you to God, then I say to you that you will not share in the inheritance no matter how hard you try. You will not share in it, because eternal life in the presence of God is for God’s children only. And God’s children are those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, because by faith we receive God’s pardon and we’re adopted into his family, and receive the Holy Spirit who enables us to call God our Father and who enables us to walk in God’s ways and to do his will.
So, if you have not already done so: turn from your unbelief, and ask God to pardon and accept you for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And all whom God pardons and accepts receive the free gift of eternal life.