|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 46, November 11 to November 17, 2007|
We are continuing this morning with our study of the Life of Abraham, picking up at the 8th verse of chapter 21 and working through to verse 21 of the same chapter. If you have been with us for much of this series then hopefully you will have discovered, as I have certainly discovered, how very relevant these scriptures continue to be for the church today.
As we have looked at these verses, God's faithfulness to fulfill his covenant promises to his people has repeatedly stood out, especially against the background of Abraham's faith - which has wavered between being very strong, at times, to being very, very weak, at other times.
Most recently, Abraham has undergone a trial very similar to one that he underwent many years earlier and, instead of responding better the second time around, he responds in almost exactly the same fashion as before, demonstrating, once again, that Abraham's blessedness was not a consequence of his exemplary personal holiness! Nevertheless, God used Abraham's failings to humble and chasten him with the result that they became an instrument by which God shaped and grew his faltering servant.
And we certainly see a bit of that here as Abraham finds himself in another situation in which he must trust God - and this time he does, even when doing so is personally a very sad and difficult thing for him to do, as in the account before us this morning. Before we take a closer look at that, let's pray together....
Father in heaven, we thank you this morning for the ways that you worked in the life of our brother Abraham. And we thank you for preserving a portion of the story of his life in your word, that we might, through reading it, come to know you better, come to know your world better, come to know what it is you are doing in this world better, and come to know our place within all of that. Please guide us in these things, we pray, in Jesus' name. Amen....
(Read Genesis 21:8-21)
The first thing I want you to see this morning is how the arrival of Isaac has been an occasion for both joy and heartache in Abraham's household. The joy, of course, is not difficult to see. They have been waiting more than 25 years for this day to come and, on more than one occasion, seem to have been convinced that it never would come. But it has, and there is great celebrating going on, including here on the day that Abraham was weaned which, for them, was a significant milestone. It marked a child's movement out of the vulnerable days of infancy to the less vulnerable stage of true childhood. And so it was a cause for joy and, frankly, relief.
At the same time, however, all the celebration associated with the arrival of Isaac, has brought to the surface other realities - both past and present - which were not so joyous and which, as long as they remained, were on-going reminders of previous times when things were not so good, when hope was all but gone, when faith was not strong.
Some of you will recall how, very early on, it was because of their weak faith, that Abraham and Sarah engaged in a deception that God delivered them from but which also very likely was the means by which the servant Hagar came to be a part of their household. Some time after that, another episode of faithlessness saw them taking this same servant and using her to try and produce the heir that they had despaired of God ever producing through Sarah.
And now more years have come and gone and God has been faithful to them to produce a son through Sarah, in spite of their doubts. Meanwhile, Hagar and Ishmael have continued on in the household of Abraham. Nevertheless, now that Isaac has arrived he is clearly and obviously the preferred son. To be sure, Abraham still loves Ishmael but he is not and cannot be the centerpiece of Abraham's affections anymore. And, in that sort of environment, it is not difficult to see how people would be affected, is it? It would not be un-natural to expect that jealousies would be aroused and feelings hurt. And they were.
It is these sorts of dynamics that lie behind the situation described in vs 9 where Ishmael, the text says, laughs at Isaac on the occasion of his weaning. The word used here for "laughing" is one that has the strong sense of mocking - a derisive kind of laughter. In other words, you get the sense that what may have started out as an older boy teasing a younger one began to take on a darker, more serious tone - one that alarmed Sarah, and perhaps made her wonder if there was something far more serious behind Ishmael's actions, something that she ought to be concerned about.
Whatever the precise nature of this "laughter" that was going on, it clearly seems to have set off Sarah's maternal instincts and, as a result, she felt the need to take steps to guard and protect her son from possibly harmful actions in the future.
And some of you may recall how in an earlier chapter - chapter 16 - there was a divine statement issued about Ishmael's future which stated that when he was older he would be a "wild donkey of a man, that his hand would be against everyone, and that he would dwell over against all his kinsmen." In short, the prediction about Ishmael's life, from the very beginning, was that he was going to be hard to live with. Now, whether Sarah was aware of this divine statement about Ishmael is not known, but in this account we are certainly seeing the beginning stages of this prediction.
And so, in reaction to all this, Sarah's instincts tell her that it is time for the two sons and mothers to separate, once and for all. Undoubtedly, mixed in with those instincts would be elements of Sarah's own sin. We have seen already that she was capable of being very harsh and even cruel towards Hagar. But, at the same time, mixed in with those undoubtedly impure motives are also other motives which were more on target.
And the fact of this is confirmed when, in spite of Abraham's personal reluctance to send Hagar and Ishmael away he is told by God that he should not try and prevent this. Apparently, it is not only Sarah that wants a separation to be made. God also has his reasons for wanting Hagar and Ishmael to leave behind Abraham's household.
What might those reasons be? It seems likely that at least part of the reason for this would include the need to make a distinction between the two sons for the sake of God's covenant purposes. You see, in light of God's promises to provide a deliverer through the seed of the woman, there was a place for preserving that distinction historically so that when the promised one DID come, the faithfulness of God in this regard would be clearly identifiable.
Now, from one perspective, the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael seems a harsh and cruel thing to do. Hagar had not asked for any of this. She had been brought into the middle of things by the actions and agendas of other people. And yet here she is - being sent away into an unknown future.
Still, while the specifics of her future were certainly unknown, the overall outcome should not have been an unknown. God had revealed to her during her previous time in the wilderness that He was going to make Ishmael into a great nation with many descendants to come from him. And so, while from one perspective the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael was a sad and tragic thing, from another perspective it was a necessary thing and, further, should not have come as a huge surprise to either Hagar or Abraham since God had spoken directly to them about what He was going to do.
Nevertheless, as we saw with Abraham many times, the fact that God has told a person something does not mean that they will necessarily remember it or believe it, much less rejoice in it. That certainly seems to be the case here with Hagar. The picture painted here is of a woman who does not head off into the wilderness gladly, but reluctantly. No doubt, this was for a variety of reasons but, in the end, it still seems clear that Hagar felt rather unsure about what the outcome would be for her and her son. Indeed at one point she sets her son to the side, under a bush, and moves away a little distance, just so she doesn't have to watch him die.....
But then, just as before, at the point of despair, God hears the distressed cries of Ishmael and steps in to deliver Hagar and Ishmael from the immediate danger of running out of water, but more importantly to give assurances, again, that He will be faithful to what He has promised. For Abraham's sake, God will be with Ishmael.
Now the language used here raises questions about the status of Ishmael with regard to God's plan and purposes. Are we meant to believe that Ishmael was yet among the people of God, even if he was not within the direct line of blessing? We'll return to that question in a few minutes. For now we can say that, regardless of what we conclude about Ishmael's ultimate status before God, one thing that we DO see here is something about the character of God.
All along the way we have seen this twofold reality that God, at times, seems to content to allow his people to reap the full consequences of their wrong choices - as he did with Lot. And yet at other times God has mercifully stepped in to SPARE his people from the full consequences of their choices - as he did with Abraham on more than one occasion.
But a third thing we have seen is how God, in the midst of these things, has stepped in to show mercy to those who have been somewhat unjustly affected by the actions of people who have played a more central role on the stage of redemptive "history". Of course, I am thinking here about Hagar and Ishmael and how - on two different occasions now - they have been cast out by Abraham and Sarah, and on two different occasions, God has intervened for them.
The first time God brought them back and they were re-established in the household. And this second time God did not bring them back but, as we have seen, moved them on and assured him of his presence with them. But on both occasions what we see is God being merciful to these people who were clearly outside the line of the promised seed. We see his kindness and compassion toward Hagar and Ishmael as they wander in the wilderness, with no home, no direction, and no family.
Well, before we can come to any conclusions about this passage it is necessary that we make two brief pit stops - one in Romans 9 and the other in Galatians 4 - as these are both passages which make use of Genesis 21 and which - as a result, provide us with some infallible insights into the on-going significance of this passage for God's people. First of all, let's have a quick look at Romans 9, verses 1-9,
....I am speaking the truth in Christ - I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit - 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,1 my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: "About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son....
This section of Paul's letter to the Romans was written, in the main, to answer a question, or perhaps a series of questions, that revolved around a common concern. The concern had to do with the whole matter of whether or not God's promises to Israel had failed or, at the very least, had fallen miserably short. And the concern arose out of the fact that here was Israel, having waited a very long time for the Messiah to come, and finally the Messiah did come in Jesus, who was a true Son of David and yet, when he finally came the people of God - for the most part - rejected him.
And so, some people, looking at those realities were apparently coming to the conclusion or at least wondering out loud whether God's promises had failed or had not worked quite the way that God had planned.
Paul's response to those concerns, through this section of Romans is to say, very firmly, that God's promises have not failed or faltered in the least. How can Paul say that? Because, as verse 6 says, "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel" or, as verse 7 says, "not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring".
Let me put that another way. Paul is saying that the covenant promises of God, as Ligon Duncan puts it, "have always found their fulfillment in a subset of the people of Israel". If you trace the history of God's people, you will never find a time when every last Israelite was considered to be, in the end, among the genuine people of God. Instead, what you find is that God always seems to be dealing with a remnant of his people - a nation within the nation, a circle within the circle.
This is what Paul sees, for example, when he looks back at Abraham. He sees Abraham's two sons - Ishmael and Isaac - and, with Genesis 21 in mind, he says, "not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.'" - i.e., not through Ishmael - who is a child of the flesh. In a similar fashion, Paul sees the same reality working itself out in the life of Isaac who, through Rebekah, had two sons - twins, mind you - and God sovereignly chooses to work in and through the one - Jacob - and not through the other - Esau.
And so, with that pattern in mind, when Paul looks at what happened to Jesus, he is not in the least bit surprised that the entire Jewish nation did not respond to him. If they had, that would have been contrary to the pattern of God's working all along. God had always worked with a remnant, a subset of his people within a wider, external community. And that pattern prevailed in the life and ministry of Jesus. For Paul then, Genesis 21 is a foundational passage for understanding this pattern of God's working and for explaining why only some Jews accepted Jesus while many did not. Now let's turn to Galatians 4, verses 20-31,
....I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. 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;1 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,1 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....
Without going into all the details of Paul's letter to the Galatians, one of the big issues behind this letter was the problem that some people were coming into the churches and teaching, in essence, that people are not made right with God by grace alone but by grace plus the observance of certain laws and rituals - in short, grace PLUS works.
In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul goes about refuting that idea in a number of ways, one of them being what was just read to you from chapter 4. Looking back at the events of Genesis 21, Paul uses this story in an allegorical or figurative fashion to say that, since Isaac was the child who was born as a result of God's working and keeping His promises, then he is the "spiritual ancestor" of all those in Paul's day who were seeking to be right with God by trusting in God's work and God's promises.
Likewise, since Ishmael was the child whose birth was the result of faithlessness and the attempt to take matters into their own hands, then he is the "spiritual ancestor" of everyone who seeks to make themselves right with God by their own efforts. And so, all the people in Galatia who were going around telling everyone that they had to be circumcised in order to be acceptable to God were to be cast out and regarded as those who have no inheritance among the people of God..........
Well, seeing those things, what can we say now about the usefulness of this story for God's people in our own day? Let me quickly give you three things to think about in this regard..
1) First of all, the reality illustrated by the distinction between Ishmael and Isaac, which Paul talked about in Romans 9 when he said "not all Israel are Israel" - that reality is still true among the community of God's people today. Not everyone who belongs to the visible community that we call "the church" is, in fact, a genuine child of God. This fact lies behind a number of things.
For example, it is the reason why Paul in his letters will go from one extreme to the other. Sometimes he will speak to the church about having hope and assurance. At other times he will address the church with great seriousness and issue the sternest of warnings against falling away from the faith. Why? Because "not all Israel are Israel". Because within the same church are those who will persevere to the end, sitting right beside some who will not.
This same reality is the reason why the church, on the one hand, administers baptism and, on the other hand, excommunicates. Both activities make sense, and indeed, ought to be expected in a community where "not all Israel are Israel"
But more importantly, and more in keeping with the use that Paul makes of this passage in Romans 9, this reality is the reason why WE do not and must not despair when those outside the church do not take hold of the Gospel and when some within the church do not keep hold of the same Gospel. When those sorts of things happen - as they will continue to happen - while they ARE heart-breaking, they are not a sign that God's promises have failed, or that his purposes have been sidelined in any way.
Even further, we ought to expect and even anticipate this reality. We ought to expect that God's covenant purposes will continue to be only fully realized within a subset of our local churches, and within a subset of our communities, and a subset of our country, and a subset of our world. Unless God changes his pattern, until Jesus comes back, Christianity will never be regarded as having universal worth, or universal relevance. To be sure, sometimes the Church is disregarded and consider irrelevant because of her own sin, and her own sloth. But, as my friend Keith says, there are many other times when the Church is disregarded and considered insignificant - not because it IS irrelevant, but because it is being the Church.
Not all Israel IS Israel. As a result, sometimes even irrelevance, is an honorable thing.
2) The second thing to see, very briefly, is this: When Paul used Genesis 21 in Galatians 4, he did it to make the point that as God's people we relate to him as the people of the promise, not as people who are relying on our own abilities or spiritual manipulations. And that point is, of course, valid for Christians in every age.
When we first come to God, we do so by trusting in Him and in what He has done and in His promises - not in what we can accomplish in our own strength. And not only is that the way that we must first come to Him, it is the way that we continue with Him.
And it is this reality that continues to trip up many believers who, although they would profess an understanding of relating to God on the basis of grace, actually do not think about or respond to him in that way at all. Instead, they respond to God more like an employee than as the child of God that they truly are. They labor under an imagined burden of debt when they might pursue the same path with a much lighter step and with the zeal of the lover for the Beloved.
See Bryan Chappell, Holiness by Grace, for further details.
3) Thirdly, and finally, please note the extraordinary compassion and sensitivity that God has toward Ishmael and Hagar, in spite of the fact that they are not within the line of blessing. Now, whether that means that they were not ultimately numbered among the genuine people of God - I will leave you to wrestle with that. I think Romans 9 presents a strong argument that they are not.
However, wherever you end up on that one, the thing that you simply cannot get past is God's compassion toward these two who were lost and helpless, and God's determination to bless Ishmael, and to watch over him while he grew older, and to make him into a great nation - simply because he too was Abraham's offspring. And in that blessing, you see one of the earliest installments of the promise that through Abraham the nations of the world would be blessed - even those that are outside the line of promise. And you see God's mercy falling, like rain, on the just and the unjust alike.
That same reality is carried on today when the church proves itself to be a blessing to the world, to those outside, giving itself to care for the widows and orphans and the outcast in society - the very same ones to whom Jesus went and among whom he was regularly found ministering. When we do these things we are imitating the compassion of our Father in heaven. It is not necessary that we know in advance the disposition of those to whom we are ministering. It is only necessary that we imitate the compassion and mercy of our Heavenly Father. We simply have no right to be stingy with the mercy of God or to ration out His mercy or, worse, to rationalize it all away.
To be sure, the call and the opportunity to be a blessing to the nations is, primarily, a Gospel call to bring the good news of Jesus Christ into all the world, but it is, at the same time, a call to demonstrate the good news of Jesus Christ by being compassionate toward those who are outcast, and those who are homeless, and those who have been cut off, and those who have no hope.
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