Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21.5-10.
The “slave woman and her son” are Hagar and Ishmael. Fourteen years before the birth of Isaac, when Abraham was 86 and still capable of procreation, he had decided to use his own power to bring to pass God’s unfilled promise of a son by taking Sarah’s maidservant Hagar as a second wife and fathering Ishmael through that woman (Genesis 16). But now there is a problem. There are two sons competing for one inheritance. Ishmael, the son of Abraham’s own work, and Isaac, the son of God’s work. And Sarah knows that Ishmael must go.
Now I may be tempted to think Sarah was being spiteful and unjust in casting Hagar and Ishmael out — after all, she was the one who had prompted Abraham to father a child by Hagar in the first place (Genesis 16.1-2). But that is not what should concern me this morning. What should concern me is the vital spiritual truth that is being illustrated here — a truth which Paul, writing 2,000 years later to the Christians in Galatia, saw so clearly. Law and grace cannot live together in the same house. One must go; and my salvation depends upon it being the law that goes.
“The women represent two covenants,” says Paul speaking of Sarah and Hagar. “One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar” (Galatians 4.24). By contrast, Sarah can be seen as a picture of “the Jerusalem that is above” that “is free, and … is our mother” (Galatians 4.26). What Paul is doing here is turning traditional Jewish teaching on its head. The Jews taught that they were descendants of Isaac and were thus God’s free people whereas the Gentiles were the descendants of Ishmael and were thus outside the covenant. “Wrong,” says Paul. “The spiritual descendants of Hagar and Ishmael are those who embrace the law. Hagar was a slave and she points to Mount Sinai where the law was given, because the covenant there was a covenant of slavery. It involved obedience to a multiplicity of rules and regulations that governed every aspect of life and worship. The true descendants of Sarah and Isaac are those who belong to Jesus and have put their faith in him. His covenant, the new covenant in his blood, is a covenant of freedom.
And, says Paul, it has to be one or the other. The two covenants are mutually exclusive. You cannot be under both. Yet this was what the Galatian Christians were attempting. The Judaizers had moved in among them and were trying to persuade them to bring the law back into their lives. “Are you mad?” says Paul (Galatians 3.1). “Having begun in freedom are you now going into slavery.”
Having recently read Wendy’s “Joyfully Growing in Grace” blog (see Blogroll), I found to my astonishment that there are large numbers of Christians in the US who are, in fact, going precisely down that two covenant route — actually becoming “Law Keepers” as part of their Christian commitment! My first reaction was much like Paul’s. “Are they completely insane!” But the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to recognise that a law-keeper is, of course, something that, if I am not very careful about it, I can all too easily become — though in a much more subtle and less obvious way than those in the States who are banging on about how wonderful obedience to the Torah really is. For what might initially be good and grace-filled spiritual disciplines in my Christian life that help to keep me close to Jesus and true to him — things like Bible reading, prayer, and meeting with other believers — can so easily become things that I must do if I am to retain my right-standing with God. And once that happens, Ishmael has of course moved in with Isaac, and Isaac is fast-disappearing through the door. If law is allowed in, grace will go, because they cannot exist side-by-side in the life of a Christian.