Our text is today’s Epistle (Galatians 4:21–31): 21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 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.”
28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But 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. 30 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.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (ESV)
There was once an international rugby match played in pouring rain. The field became muddier and muddier, and the players got dirtier and dirtier. The spectators could not tell which side was which. Then the referee discovered that even he could no longer recognize who was on which side. Finally the players themselves could not tell the difference between their own side and the opposition.
So the referee offered them the chance to go change into clean uniforms. One side refused: they were proud of their national jerseys, and they did not want to look like cowards, changing out of wet clothes into dry ones. The other side was delighted, and went off to change into warm, dry uniforms. When they came out again, not only could everyone tell the difference between the two sides; the side in the clean uniforms felt so much better that they went on to win the match.
In the Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul is trying to clear up a muddy situation. The Christians in Galatia are confused as to what it means to be a Christian. And it is all because of false teachers preaching a false gospel. St. Paul wants to make it clear to all concerned just who is on which side (see Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (pp. 56–57). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge).
To understand Paul’s line of reasoning, you have to know about Abraham. When Abraham was seventy-five years old, God had promised He would make of Abraham a great nation and that in [Abraham] all the families of the earth [would] be blessed (see Genesis 12:1-3). But ten years later, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, still had no children. In desperation, they took matters into their own hands. According to the customs of the time, Sarah suggested that Abraham take her slave-girl Hagar as his concubine and by her to have children which would count as Sarah’s own. Abraham agreed, but the plan misfired badly. The slave-girl Hagar bore a son, named Ishmael, but then preceded to despise Sarah for being barren, and there arose great animosity between Sarah and Hagar.
But this child, Ishmael, born through human scheming, was not the child God had intended when He had promised to make of Abraham a great nation. That child would be a child not of human scheming but of divine promise. Some years later, God re-affirmed His promise, this time mentioning Sarah by name: And God said to Abraham, …“I will bless [Sarah], and… I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him (see Genesis 17:15–21).
Do you see what God was doing? God waited until the time when, as Paul says in Romans, [Abraham’s] body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and … Sarah’s womb was also dead (see 4:19). Both Abraham and Sarah had laughed at the thought of having a baby so late in life. And so God named the baby “He laughs”, which is what “Isaac” means. Ishmael was the child of human scheming and performance. But Isaac, born to a hundred-year man and a ninety-year old woman, is the child of divine promise. And thus, he is a child of joy and laughter overflowing from the love of God.
But now, among the Christians of Galatia, there is great distress. Paul had earlier preached to these Gentile converts the glorious Gospel of salvation through faith in Christ alone apart from human works. But then, teachers from Jerusalem came preaching a different gospel.
These teachers thought that Christ alone was not sufficient for salvation; they were teaching people that in addition to believing in Christ, they must also keep the Old Testament rules and regulations. In short, they were saying: “now look, you Galatians, Abraham had two sons. The son born of the slave-woman Hagar and the son born of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. You Gentiles were born the sons of slavery. Jesus came so that you Gentiles could join us Jews as the true and free sons of Abraham. But you have to become circumcised and try to keep the Law, like us Jews.”
Talk about muddying the playing field so that you cannot tell who is on which team! The Galatian Gentile Christians were thoroughly confused. They were wondering who was right. “Paul says that those who trust in Christ alone apart from works of the Law are saved. These teachers from Jerusalem are insisting that we are saved by keeping the Law”. And so Paul steps in to make it clear to all concerned just who is on which side, so that everyone knows what it means to be a Christian.
It comes down to the question of how one is saved. How do you obtain right standing before God so that He gives you heaven rather than send you to hell? The false teachers boast that only those who live under the Law are the true children of Abraham and thus are saved. But Paul is saying: “hold on now, you don’t even know who is on which team!”. You see, the false teachers saw themselves and their fellow circumcised law-keepers as the true and free children of Abraham and the uncircumcised Gentiles as the children of the slave-woman, Hagar. But Paul says it’s the other way around! Those Jewish teachers from Jerusalem, who trust in their keeping of the Law, they are the ones who are slaves. And these Gentile converts who trust in Christ alone are the true children of promise.
Ishmael is the product of human performance and scheming. Just so, thinking that you can obtain right standing before God by keeping the Law, well, this way of living is not at all what God intends, but is a human performance and in the end enslaves one to all kinds of sinful passions. Just you try to live a perfect life to win God’s favour and you will soon be shocked by the filthy urges and thoughts that pollute your heart and mind. Trying to win God’s favour by your keeping God’s Law just won’t do. It is the way of Abraham and Sarah scheming to produce a child through Hagar. It is the way of slavery leading to death.
How different, though, is Isaac. Isaac is the child of divine promise. God waited until Abraham and Sarah were so old that they could no longer scheme, and then He gave them Isaac as the child of promise, through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. And indeed, one of Isaac’s descendants ended up blessing the whole world the day Roman soldiers stretched Him out and nailed Him to a cross so that the world might be saved.
Jesus is the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. It was not through Ishmael but through Isaac that the Christ, the Messiah was descended. And what’s more, it is through Isaac being a child of divine promise that you and I are taught what it means to be Christian, and thus to have right standing before God.
Today’s Epistle is about God making a true distinction between who is on which team. And to truly understand the distinction between Ishmael and Isaac and between being a slave to sin and a free child of God, there is something else you must know: that there is more than one Jerusalem. Of course, there is the modern city in the twenty-first century country known as Israel. But that does not concern us here. Please do not think that in today’s Introit we prayed for that Jerusalem, although of course we can and should pray for peace there and everywhere. But Paul is making a distinction between the present Jerusalem, by which he means the way of human scheming to win God’s favour, and the Jerusalem which is above, which is God’s kingdom, whose subjects are all those who trust in Christ alone for salvation, apart from human performance. And so, when we pray for the peace of Jerusalem and when we speak of the New Israel, as Paul does in Romans, we have in mind the Church, all of God’s children, who were begotten not through scheming but through the promise of God.
And such are you. You who are baptized into Christ, you are not children of slavery; you are children of promise, God’s promise. You have right standing with God, not because you try hard to keep the Ten Commandments, but because you trust God to forgive you and to save you only because Jesus is God-in-the-flesh come to save us sinners for an eternity in heaven.
Now, it is not that you are not concerned about keeping the Ten Commandments. Actually, you are very much concerned about leading a holy live according to God’s Word. And so, you strive to honour God by your prayers and worship, by your resisting the temptations of lust and greed and anger, by your willingness to help your neighbour in need, and so forth. As a baptized child of God, you are filled with the Holy Spirit. And so you cannot help but want to please God in all you say, do, and think. But in true faith you confess that your acts of faith and love are not your own doing; they are a gift to you from the Holy Spirit. And so you never scheme to make your service to God and others the means by which you gain right standing before God. That is not the purpose of the Ten Commandments, and you know it.
The Ten Commandments reveal what a great sinner you really are. The Ten Commandments say “don’t even think thoughts of lust! don’t even lose your temper in your heart! For that is the same as adultery and murder!” The Ten Commandments show you how impossible it is for you to win God’s favour by your performance and just how much you need a Saviour.
And a Saviour is just you have in Jesus. Jesus, the descendant of Isaac, allowed Himself to be stretched out and nailed to the cross so that you may no longer be a child enslaved to death, so that you may now be a true child of promise, set free in the baptismal waters.
We are children of promise because Jesus came as God-in-the-flesh to set us free from sin and damnation through His death and resurrection. Oh, we were conceived and born as children enslaved to sin and doomed to hell. But in Baptism, God has made us Christians, His own dear children of promise, who now have right standing before God. And in His Absolution and Supper, He cleanses us from all the sins that seek to enslave us once again, so that, in spite of all our weaknesses and failures and sins, we may live and die as true and free children of God, who belong to the Jerusalem that is above. The world may despise us and we ourselves may at times feel so overwhelmed by our troubles. But we know whose we are; we know that God has promised that all who trust in Christ alone for salvation are set free from sin and death and shall live forever in the glory of heaven with Christ. This news is so incredibly good that really, we all should now break out laughing at the audacity of a God who promised to give a child to a hundred year old man and his ninety year old wife and who now promises to give us salvation not as reward for our performance but as a gift given us in Jesus. Thanks be to God! Amen.