Theme: God’s Fragile Covenant Proves to Be All Powerful Love
1) It seems as fragile as ninety-year-old giving birth
2) It proves to be powerful enough to conquer the law
To those who live in the freedom of Christ crucified, dear fellow redeemed. Our text for study and application today is taken from Galatians 4:21-31:
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.
A couple of weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit some friends who just had their first child. It’s always a special occasion to visit a newborn and their parents but this time was especially significant. Our friends had been trying to have a child for a long time now, over a year actually. Physicians and birth professionals told them that they didn’t have a good chance. That’s tough news for a husband and wife who want kids and sadly many couples must cope with infertility.
I suppose that, to some extent, they had an idea of what Abraham and Sarah felt like in the context of our Scripture reading from Genesis 18. For our friends, it was truly a surprisingly joyful moment when they found out they were expecting. I suppose they shared that too with Abraham and Sarah. It must be an uplifting feeling, to say the least, when you go from disappointment to expectation. But though they shared to some extent in the heartache and joy of Abraham and Sarah, we’d still have to conclude that even they really didn’t know what it was like. Abraham was 99 years old when God’s promise of a natural heir was realized. Sarah was 90. They waited for a long time, much longer than any of us would have been able I’m sure. And there was a lot more riding on the birth of Isaac than any of our children. The heritage of the Messiah was at stake. The validly of God’s promises to His people rested with Abraham and Sarah’s child and eventual descendent.
Today, in our sermon text, the Holy Spirit reveals that there was much more to that story than bare facts in time and history. Ultimately, it was a deeper picture of God’s relationship with you. And just as unlikely as it seemed that His promise to Abraham and Sarah would be kept, so at times it seems like His promises to us are in question. But in both cases, God responds to our doubts with resounding hope. What appears to be a fragile covenant, is in truth, very powerful. May the Holy Spirit bless our study.
Even without the allegorical interpretation of the events of Genesis 18, we’d still have plenty about Isaac’s birth that we could relate with. There’s so many moments in Abraham and Sarah’s life that hit home to us. In their haste to expedite the Lord’s promise, they broke their marriage covenant with one another by inserting Hagar into the situation. When Ishmael was born, the all too common attitudes of jealousy and anger reared their ugly heads. This led to Hagar disrespecting her master Sarah and Sarah despising Hagar’s honor in being able to bear a child. Haven’t we felt similarly at times when others have something we want, or when they receive honor that we think we deserve? Haven’t we tried to circumnavigate God’s plan because we thought we knew better? Sure, it happens to us all the time. In those thoughts alone, even though there’s no direct application to our lives, we know how they felt.
We see ourselves in Sarah’s retort of laughter at the promise that she would have a child. Surely it couldn’t be possible. No way it could happen, doesn’t matter what God’s Word says. We’ve been there before too, and for much lesser reasons.
But the fact that the Holy Spirit was also working a deeper application through these events, one that does apply directly to us, really hits home the hardest. And it’s not just because Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael correspond to things in our lives. It’s because it deals directly with the gospel. Even in these most unlikely circumstances, long before Jesus would be born, God was fashioning and shaping the gospel’s effects in our lives. And Paul brings this meaning out to the Galatians, at a time when they needed it most.
We know from our reading through the letter to the Galatians that they were in immediate danger of losing the truth of Christ crucified. Not because it wasn’t powerful enough, but because they thought they knew better. It’s one thing to think you know better than God when it comes to childbirth, it’s an entirely different level to think you know better about salvation. But can’t we sympathize with the Galatians, and with Sarah? God’s covenant, His promise of salvation in Christ, just seems so weak at times. It’s no wonder that He not only likened it to, but also preserved it through a ninety-year-old giving birth.
The Galatians discredited salvation by faith in Christ alone for the same reasons. It didn’t measure up, in their eyes, to what the rest of the world offered. It didn’t feel right because it didn’t require enough from them. It just seemed to easy. Just like Sarah, they doubted because they couldn’t understand why God would have it that way. And when they doubted, they were led to try things on their own. So Paul led them back to that story in the Old Testament that they knew so well. A story of God’s faithfulness. A story of miraculous power. And also a story about God’s grace. Paul implored them to look beyond the details and see what God intended them to know. It was more than an account about Sarah and Abraham. It was a message of God’s love. See beyond the details and you see the real meaning.
Beyond Hagar and Ishmael was the law of God and its righteous demands. But even further was death and condemnation because no man can escape them. Beyond Sarah and Isaac was the gospel of forgiveness. But even further was life and immortality because it Jesus conquered over the curse of the law. The Galatians saw earthly Jerusalem, with its outdated customs and festivals that were fulfilled in Christ. They focused on those temporary things because they were something they could do; something to make the story of salvation more believable to their ears. Paul saw the heavenly Jerusalem, the true home of freedom. Yes, often despised, rejected, and forsaken. Often foolish and fragile in the eyes of world. But, a covenant of God, sealed with His own Son’s blood.
Everywhere this contrast exists, the contrast between Sarah and Hagar, between Isaac and Ishmael, between the Old Covenant and New, there will always be those who feel that God’s way is too fragile to make it. Those that think they know better; that God’s plan has failed. Sometimes those doubters are you and me. It’s an easy thing to do, as easy as doubting that a couple of ninety year olds could have a child. In fact, it’s much easier to doubt than even that. At least we could imagine that happening. But that Almighty God, whom we’ve never met face to face, would send His Son in our likeness and in our place, even when we did exactly that opposite to deserve that kind of treatment. Furthermore, that Son went against every earthly inclination and made His entire life all about others. He acted and spoke in ways that no one ever has or ever will again. He taught direct truth that pierced so deeply that it couldn’t even be argued against, even by His strongest opponents.
This Savior, heir of Abraham and Isaac, champion of God’s promise of salvation, was the strongest human the world has ever witnessed. Not strong by human definition. He came in fragile circumstances. Before He could even walk His life was threatened. It seemed to hang so closely on the edge of destruction. Even as Jesus grew His disposition was meek and mild. It took years for people to notice His power. Lesser men would have grown anxious about the Lord’s plan, for attention and fame were non-existent in the young Savior’s life.
But even in His greatest moments, what many would consider to be great examples of power; perhaps the raising of the dead, the calming of the storm, or the many healings, it was His love that spoke loudest and strongest, for it was His love that broke the shackles of the law. The law was always mankind’s greatest hurdle. It was the obstacle that everyone sought to overcome but also the very one that revealed our defeat before we even began. Without the love of Christ there is no hope over this barrier. It’s more challenging than being able to call life forth from a barren womb. And perhaps that’s why God chose to reveal this message of salvation in the story of Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael. Speaking again of Abraham and Sarah, one Bible commentator had this to say about the end result, “…God was about to display His power in making nature subservient to His grace.”
True words indeed. God’s power to grant physical life was definitely in play. But as we are reminded in our text, it was ultimately a measure of the power of His love in our spiritual lives, to call us back from the brink of hell. For in that story of Isaac’s conception, we have the entire gospel promise, revealed and protected for us.
God displayed His power in making nature subservient to His grace. We don’t often think about God’s grace as making things subservient or putting other forces in their place. Usually, grace is a comforting thought, one that I might nestle up to in a moment of need and dwell safely in. But grace is only comforting in so far as it is powerful. Grace indeed breaks the bondage of the law with great force and keeps the devil and all his host at bay. Grace is all that separates you from your comfortable life and the disposition of Job at his worst. It is the shield of God that says “no” to Satan. It says that all wickedness, sin, evil, demons, and the like can come this far but that is it. No more, no further, no effect on you.
That’s power. Don’t be duped by your own limited perception or the weakness of others into believing that God’s plan is too fragile. God has it in control. The day of battle is His and He has conquered. He doesn’t need you to adjust His plans. He doesn’t need you to think past each problem. He doesn’t need you to plan for contingencies. He asks you to trust. When all things seem lost and beyond control, leave your problems in His hands. In fact, always leave it with Him, not just when it seems beyond your control. Think how many heartaches you could avoid if you did.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:1-3)