Just when you think you’re through the hardest part of Galatians, you get to what someone says is one of the most difficult passages not just in Galatians, but in the New Testament! This is a difficult passage for a lot of reasons:
- It’s sordid.
- Paul’s interpretation raises all kinds of interpretive issues.
- It seems somewhat harsh.
- It’s foreign to us, and it really seems to be far removed from the way we think.
As a result there have been all kinds of studies done on this passage. People read it and get kind of confused. And it’s easy to miss the main point of this passage because we get caught up in all the details, so that we miss the point.
But I want to most of these issues today. What I want to do is this: I want to tell you a story. Then I want to tell you why this story matters to us. And then I want to tell you how this story prepares us for communion this morning, which we’re going to celebrate together right after the sermon.
So first, let me tell you a story.
So here’s the story. But I need to warn you that it is one of the most troubling stories found in the entire Bible. There are worse stories, but this one definitely rates up there somewhere.
God had promised Abram:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
When God made this promise to Abram, Abram was 75 years old, and his wife Sarai was just a little bit younger by about ten years (Genesis 17:17). You don’t start a family when you’re 65 and 75 years old! But God had made this promise. And he repeated it later. In Genesis 15 Abram was starting to doubt this promise. He said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless…” and God answered, “Your very own son shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:2-4). But years went by. Ten years later there were still no children. Picture if I was childless. Picture that I waited another 40 years, and that you talked to me one day. You ask me if I have children, and I say, “No, but any day now I expect that my wife and I are going to start a family.” It’s hard not to see that Abram was beginning to wonder how God’s promise was going to be fulfilled with the clock ticking, and with no discernible progress even though a decade had gone by.
They say that God helps those who help themselves, so at the age of 85, that’s exactly what Abram did. In those days there’s evidence that it was sometimes customary to use a surrogate mother. Abram was 85, but that’s not too old to be a father. So Sarai arranged for her servant Hagar to bear a child on her behalf. Abram basically says, “I’m going to help God out by taking matters into my own hands. I’m going to make my own contribution to God’s promises.” The result, of course, is disaster. Abram married Hagar. Hagar bore him a child. Sarai hated it and treated Hagar harshly, and Hagar ran for her life with her son Ishmael.
Later on – about 15 years later – Sarai does indeed have a child. We read in Genesis 21:
The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. (Genesis 21:1-3)
So you have these two children with a lot in common:
- Both are sons of Abraham. They both had the same biological father.
- Both were circumcised.
- Both grew up in the same home.
But there were some pretty big differences between these two children as well:
- One was the result of human scheming; the other was the result of God fulfilling his promise.
- One was born a slave because his mother was a slave; the other was born free, the heir of a free woman.
You have this really weird story of two sons. It’s a very disturbing story with all kinds of hurt and family dysfunction. It reminds us, by the way, that the Bible is not full of great stories of great people who earned God’s approval because of their greatness. It’s a record of broken people who messed up repeatedly and are recipients of God’s great grace.
So that’s the story. Now I want to ask:
What does this story mean for us?
If you remember, Paul is writing in Galatians about what it means to be accepted by God. Some were teaching that you need Jesus plus your own obedience in order for God to accept you. Paul was arguing that acceptance by God requires Jesus plus nothing else. Every time you add to the gospel, Paul says, you subtract from it. You destroy it.
Why does Paul bring up this ugly story from Abraham’s life? One of the big issues that Paul is dealing with is that some were teaching that you have to keep Old Testament rules and regulations to be accepted by God. Only by keeping God’s law could you be considered one of Abraham’s offspring. So you see this come up over and over again in Galatians. Paul keeps dealing with the question of who is a true child of Abraham. In other words, who is it that is fully accepted by God? In the passage we have before us, he uses a form of argument that would have been used by rabbis in his time. In other words, Paul uses the argument being advanced by his opponents and turns it on his head. In doing so, he shows us that the story of Abraham’s two sons has a much greater meaning for us as well.
What Paul shows us is that there are two ways to relate to God. He’s been telling us about these two ways all the way through Galatians. One is Jesus plus nothing. The other is Jesus plus something else. In this passage he tells us that these two ways can be understood through the story of Ishmael and Isaac. These two sons show us two ways to relate to God, and what happens depending on which we choose.
One way relies on the flesh; one relies on the promise (Galatians 4:23). These two sons are perfect examples of the two ways we relate to God. Both ways have the same end in mind. Both want the blessings that God has promised. One way is to take matters into our own hands. Abraham decided he would help God out by relying on his own efforts to accomplish God’s purpose, and the result was disaster. Paul says that this is a good example of what happens when we rely on our own efforts to win acceptance with God. It’s really no different than when Abraham took Hagar as his wife so that he could create his own heir. It wasn’t what God had in mind, and it didn’t accomplish the purpose that God intended.
On the other hand, Isaac represents the other way to relate to God: to rely on what only God can do; to realize that we have nothing to offer God but our inadequacy. All that Abraham and Sarah had to offer God were old bodies that were far beyond their ability to produce the life that was promised to them. It was impossible. There was nothing in them that was capable of producing life. And that’s exactly the way that God designed it. Ishmael represents what we can do on our own efforts, and it’s a mess; Isaac represents what only God can do by his grace, and it’s amazing.
One way is slavery; the other way is freedom (Galatians 4:25-26). Paul actually says that the two ways of relating to God are also represented by the two sons. Both Ishmael and Isaac had the same father. But Ishmael was born to a woman who was a slave, and so he was born into slavery. Paul says that is exactly what happens when we try to add to what Jesus has done through our own efforts. We become slaves. We take things into our own hands, but what we produce is enslaved because we are enslaved. So we never get the freedom that we long for.
This is the irony of those who try to earn God’s approval through their own efforts. No matter how hard you work, you’re still enslaved. You never know whether you’ve done enough. You’re always left wondering if you’ve obeyed enough or whether you’ve repented enough. You’re never quite sure if you’ve measured up to God’s expectations. You’re enslaved. Whenever you think you need to earn your standing with God, you end up enslaved just like Ishmael. You never taste the freedom that God intends.
But that’s not the way it is with Isaac. Isaac was born into freedom. He was the result of only what God could do. Paul is saying that when we rely on God’s gracious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, we are spiritually born into that same freedom. There’s no going back. It’s much better than Ishmael’s situation. When we receive God’s gracious gift of salvation, we receive a freedom that can’t be taken away.
We also see that there’s hostility between these two ways (Galatians 4:29-30). This is so important. What do we see here? Ishmael couldn’t stand Isaac. He persecuted Isaac because he couldn’t stand that Isaac had freedom when he didn’t. Paul said that this is just like today. People who are trying to earn God’s approval through their own efforts can’t stand all this talk about grace. It makes them angry. That’s what was happening with the Galatians, and it’s happening today. Grace sounds outrageous, and it makes people angry. It especially makes people angry who are adding something to Jesus. They can’t stand people who rely only on Christ and nothing else.
But it goes both ways. Paul says that Ishmael has to be kicked out because Ishmael isn’t compatible with Isaac. Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying that this has to be dealt with. You can’t permit people to stay in a church and teach that you need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God.
But 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.” (Galatians 4:30)
You can’t have a church that teaches both. Isaac and Ishmael are incompatible with each other. You can’t have a church that preaches and denies the gospel at the same time. Grace and legalism are hostile to each other. They’re like oil and water.
Paul is pulling out all of the stops to tell us that there are two ways to relate to God. One is through our own efforts. But this makes a mess of things, and it leaves us enslaved and hating grace. The other way is to realize that we can’t do anything to contribute to what God has promised. We have nothing to offer God but our inability. And God chooses to keep his promises to people like this by fulfilling his promise as a gracious gift. And this way leads to freedom, and there’s nothing like this.
I have three applications for us as we come to the end of this sermon.
First, realize why Paul is saying this. There’s a story that’s been told numerous times of the great Reformer, Martin Luther. In the church that he was pastoring, preached the gospel to his congregation, week after week after week after week. His people wondered why they couldn’t move on. Surely we get the Gospel by now, Pastor! Why do you keep preaching the gospel every week? His answer: “Because every week, you forget it.”
We never move beyond the gospel because the gospel is what saves us. It’s not just the beginning of the Christian life; it’s the middle and the end as well. That’s why Paul keeps circling back and reminding us of the gospel. He uses every tool in his disposal to help us see the gospel and its beauty as opposed to trying to earn our standing with God on our own. All we bring to God is inability; he gives us everything we need as a gift through Jesus Christ.
Second, see the promise of verse 27. Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 in verse 27.
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.”
This is the upside-down nature of the gospel. Those who are barren, like Sarah, those who have nothing but need, receive all that God has promised. Sarah was barren. There was no way that she could produce the child that had been promised to her. But God kept his promise. In Isaiah’s time, Isaiah was prophesying that Israel would return from its barrenness and flourish once again. And now Paul is writing to Gentiles who had nothing to offer, and he’s saying that it’s just like God to give everything to those who have nothing. If you come empty-handed this morning, with nothing to offer to God but your need, then you’re in a good position to receive the blessings of the gospel found in Christ.
Finally, heed the warning of Galatians 5:1. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” This is the whole reason that Paul wrote. Don’t ever go back to trying to earn your acceptance with God through your own effort. Embrace the freedom that is yours in the gospel, and never look back.
We’re not saved by what we do; we’re saved by relying on what only God can do. Anything else is slavery.