Summary: Performance-based religion is a dead-end. We’re faced with a choice: -Slavery or freedom; -Righteousness by keeping the law, or righteousness by faith in God’s promises.
A man asked Jesus how to get to Heaven. In typical Jewish fashion, Jesus answered the question with a question: “What do you think?” The man suggested, “By keeping the law,” and Jesus said (with a smile), “Fine, do that and you’ll make it!” At that point, the man realized the hole he just dug for himself. What we need, and what God offers, is grace. We shouldn’t want our “just desserts”!
Paul confronts his readers, asking if they’ve really taken the time to understand what the Bible says. Do they realize the danger their reasoning is getting them into? The Law itself tells us not to find salvation by keeping the Law; it’s just not possible! “There is no one who does good” (Ps 14:3). If it were a way to perfectly keep the Law, Israel wouldn’t have needed a system of sacrifice for sin. The animals that were offered on the Temple altar took the punishment Israel deserved. So performance-based religion is a dead-end. In verses 21-31 Paul makes his point with Annals, Allegory, and Application…
Annals, verses 22-23:
A history lesson--God promised Abraham and Sarah a son, but then years went by and still no child. In a lapse of faith, Abraham chose to father a child through a substitute, Sarah’s Egyptian servant Hagar (who had no choice in the matter). He was operating on the principle, “God helps those who help themselves.” He didn’t wait for the promise. Abraham chose his way, not God’s way.
Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. She now had an advantage over childless Sarah. Ishmael caused nothing but trouble. He was the first-born, so he became a rival to Isaac. This child of impatience and unbelief was the ancestor of Mohammed and all Arabs.
God’s delays are not God’s denials. Remember that when you’re waiting for a response from God. Abraham and Sarah’s true covenant son Isaac was the result of a miracle, born 25 years after God’s covenant with Abraham, born when Ishmael was 17. Isaac was born because God promised; Ishmael was born because Abraham doubted. The great disaster of Abraham’s life was that he used Hagar to get what he thought God wanted for him.
Allegory, verses 24-27:
Born of different mothers, the two sons inherited different legal status…
-Ishmael, the illegitimate human solution, was born a slave;
-Isaac, the legitimate, miraculous son of Promise, was born free.
Ishmael represents what happens when people seek salvation on their own efforts. Islam reflects this; it is a religion based on self-effort. The word “Islam” means “submission”. It is a slave-religion; obey, or else. The same is true with eastern religions. Karma says: You get what you deserve--no more, no less. But grace says: Jesus got what you deserve.
Isaac represents the miraculous freedom of grace, an eternal inheritance granted in spite of our unworthiness. Anyone who tries to get to Heaven by “do’s and don’ts” is a slave (like Ishmael), in spiritual bondage to performance-based religion. Such a religion puts us in control. We no longer live by faith, trusting God’s mercy; we’re trusting instead in our accomplishments.
We have two mothers--Hagar and Sarah;
With their two sons--Ishmael and Isaac;
and two cities--an earthly Jerusalem and a heavenly one.
These mothers, sons and cities represent two covenants: a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. Remember, a “covenant” is like a contract whereby we are promised Heaven by what God has done for us, not by what we do. God’s covenant is unconditional. We receive it by faith. We are, by faith, citizens of a Heavenly city. To be children of promise is the greatest privilege ever.
Paul urges us to “get rid of the slave and her son.” We’re saved by grace, nothing else; there is no “Plan B.” Paul is also referring to false teachers; cast them out as well! “Legal bondage and gospel freedom cannot coexist” (F.F. Bruce).
Application, verses 28-31:
Today’s Arab-Israeli conflict is the result of Abraham failing to trust God, the unintended consequence that has complicated peace in the Middle East for ages.
Paul cautions in verse 29, “You are being persecuted by those who want you to keep the Law, just as Ishmael, the child born by human effort, persecuted Isaac.” When Isaac was born, there was great celebration…and scorn. Ishmael, the counterfeit heir, expressed contempt and mocked his younger half-brother Isaac; his actions suggested he posed a physical threat to Isaac. Persecution is opposing people for who they are. D.A. Carson writes, “Our intolerant culture is not only moving away from Christianity, it is frequently hostile toward it. Christianity can be tolerated, provided it is entirely private.” Yet we are not called to be silent.
Because of his hostility toward Isaac, Ishmael and his mother were banished from Abraham’s tribe. Let’s banish false teaching as well. We cannot become God’s people by keeping the Law; God’s commandments merely show how God’s people live.