Flesh and Spirit

Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
June 22, 2014, Pentecost II

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

From the Book of Genesis:
But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named.”

From St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

And from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.

The Christian life is a land of hills and valleys,” said Scottish preacher George Morrison, basing his words on Deuteronomy 11:11, which reads, “but the land which you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by rain from heaven.” Solomon expressed the same idea when he wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:4 that “[there is] a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” Heaven is a place of unending joy; hell is a place of unending suffering; but while we are here on earth, we must expect both joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. You cannot have hills without valleys.

This is especially true of family life, for the same people who bring us joy can also bring us sorrow. Relationships can become strained and then change overnight, and we wonder what happened to a happy home. A Chinese proverb says, “Nobody’s family can hang out the sign “Nothing the matter here.”

The coming of Isaac into their home brought both sorrow and joy to Abraham and Sarah. As you look at the persons involved in this important event, you can learn some valuable lessons about basic Christian doctrine and how to live the Christian life.

Sarah had borne the burden of childlessness for many years, a heavy burden indeed in that culture and at that time; the importance of having a son to carry on the family name. People must have smiled when they heard that her husband’s name was Abraham, “father of a multitude.” He was the father of one son, Ishmael, but that was far from a multitude; and Sarah was not the mother. But now all of her reproach was ended, and they were rejoicing in the arrival of their son.

But the birth of Isaac involved much more than parental joy, for his birth meant the
fulfillment of God’s promise. When God had called Abraham, He promised to make him
a great nation that would bless the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3). Then He repeatedly
promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 17:7) and to
multiply them greatly (Gen. 13:15-17). Abraham would be the father of the promised
seed (Gen. 15:4) and Sarah (not Hagar) would be the mother (Gen. 17:19; 18:9-15). The
birth of Isaac reminds us that God keeps His promises, in His own way, and in His own
time. In spite of their occasional failures, Abraham and Sarah believed God; and God
honored their faith (Heb. 11:8-11).

Isaac’s birth also meant the rewarding of patience. Abraham and Sarah had to wait twenty-five years for their son to be born, because it is “through faith and patience [we] inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12). Trusting God’s promises not only gives you a blessing at the end, but it gives you a blessing while you are waiting. Just as Olympic athletes develop their skills as they practice hard and long before the big event, so God’s children grow in godliness and faith as they wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Faith is a journey, and each happy destination is the beginning of a new journey. When God wants to build our patience, He gives us promises, sends us trials, and tells us to trust Him (James 1:1-8).

The birth of Isaac was certainly the revelation of God’s power. That was one reason why God waited so long: He wanted Abraham and Sarah to be “as good as dead” so that their son’s birth would be a miracle of God and not a marvel of human nature (Rom. 4:17-21). Abraham and Sarah experienced God’s resurrection power in their lives because they yielded to Him and believed His Word. Faith in God’s promises releases God’s power (Eph. 3:20-21), “for no word from God shall be void of power” (Luke 1:37).

Finally, the birth of Isaac was a step forward in the accomplishing of God’s purpose. The future redemption of a lost world rested with a little baby boy! Isaac would beget Jacob, and Jacob would give the world the twelve tribes of Israel; and from Israel the promised Messiah would be born. Down through the centuries, some of the “living links” in the chain of promise may have seemed insignificant and weak; but they helped to fulfill the purposes of God.

In Galatians 4:28-29, Paul makes it clear that Ishmael represents the believer’s first birth (the flesh) and Isaac represents the second birth (the Spirit). Ishmael was “born of the flesh” because Abraham had not yet “died” and was still able to beget a son (Gen. 16).
Isaac was “born of the Spirit” because by that time his parents were both “dead” (beyond child bearing age) and only God’s power could have brought conception and birth. Ishmael was born first, because that natural comes before the spiritual (1 Cor. 15:46).
When you trust Jesus Christ, you experience a miracle birth from God (John 1:11-13), and it is the work of the Holy Spirit of God (John 3:1-8). Abraham represents faith, and Sarah represents grace (Gal. 4:24-26), so Isaac was born “by grace…through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9). This is the only way a lost sinner can enter the family of God (John 3:16-18).

It is worth noting that, in the biblical record, God often rejected the firstborn and accepted the second-born. He rejected Cain and chose Abel (Gen. 4:1-15). He rejected Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, and chose Isaac. He bypassed Esau, Isaac’s firstborn, and chose Jacob (Rom. 9:8-13); and He chose Ephraim instead of Manasseh (Gen. 48). In Egypt, the Lord condemned all the firstborn (Ex. 11-12) and spared only those who were “twice-born” because they were protected by faith in the blood of the lamb.

Isaac pictures the child of God not only in his birth but also in the joy that he brought. Isaac means “laughter,” and this time it was not laughter of unbelief (Gen. 18-9-15). In the parables recorded in Luke 15, Jesus emphasized the joy that results when lost sinners repent and come to the Lord. The shepherd rejoiced when he found the lost sheep, and the woman rejoiced when she found the lost coin; and they both asked their friends to rejoice with them. The father rejoiced when his prodigal son came home, and he invited the neighbors to a feast so they could share in his joy. There is even joy in heaven when sinners turn to God (Luke 15:7, 10).

Nowhere do we read that Ishmael caused great joy in Abraham’s home. Abraham loved
his son and wanted the best for him (Gen. 17:18). From before his birth, Ishmael was a
source of painful trouble (Gen. 16); and after he matured, he caused even greater conflict
in the family (Gen. 21:9).The old nature is not able to produce the fruit of the Spirit, no
matter how hard it tries (Gal: 5:16-26).

Like every child of God, Isaac experienced persecution (Gen. 21:9; Gal. 4:29). Ishmael was apparently an obedient son until Isaac entered the family, and then the “flesh” began to oppose “the Spirit.” It has well been said that the old nature knows no law but the new nature needs no law, and this is certainly illustrated in Abraham’s two sons.

Jewish children were usually weaned at about age three, so Ishmael was probably seventeen years old at the time (Gen. 16:16). How unfortunate that a seventeen year old would torment a little boy of only three! Jealousy probably played a role. But God had said that Ishmael would become “a wild donkey of a man” (Gen. 16:12), and the prediction came true. The flesh and the Spirit are in conflict with each other and always will be until we see the Lord (Gal. 5:16-26).

When, like Isaac, you are born of the Spirit, you are born rich (Gen. 21:10). Isaac was the heir of all that his father owned, and God’s children are “heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Abraham cared for Ishmael while the boy was in the home, but “Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac” (Gen. 25:5).

Finally, Isaac was born free while Ishmael was the son of a slave (Gal. 4:22). Freedom is one of the key themes in Galatians (5:1) and one of the key blessings in the Christian life (4:31). Of course, Christian freedom does not mean anarchy; for that is the worst kind of bondage. It means the freedom to be and to do all that God has for us in Jesus Christ. “No slavery except by entrance into some higher servitude,” said Phillips Brooks (An American Episcopal Priest; served many years at Boston’s Trinity Church and later Bishop of Massachusetts; He also wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem); and that “higher servitude” is personal surrender to Jesus Christ. No one is more free than the child of God who delights in God’s will and does it from the heart.

Sarah was wrong when she told Abraham to marry Hagar (Gen. 16:1-2), but she was right when she told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael out of the camp. The Apostle Paul saw in this event an allegory involving the Law of Moses and the grace of God (Gal. 4:21-31). Sarah represents grace (the heavenly Jerusalem), and Hagar represents Law (the earthly Jerusalem under bondage). The lesson is simply that God’s children are to live under the blessings of grace and not the bondage of Law.

The conflicts in Abraham’s home could have been solved four ways. Isaac could have been sent away, but that would mean rejecting the promises of God and all that God had planned for the future. Isaac and Ishmael could have lived together, but that would mean constant conflict. Ishmael’s nature could have been changed to make him more agreeable, but that would have required a miracle. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6), and it always will be flesh. The only solution was to send Ishmael and his mother out of the camp and make Isaac the sole heir.

When you consider the facts about Hagar, you will better understand the relationship between Law and grace in the Christian life.

To begin with, Hagar was Abraham’s second wife. She was added alongside Sarah. Likewise, the Law was “added” alongside God’s already existing promises and was temporary (Gal. 3:19, 24-25). God did not start with Law; He started with grace. His relationship to Adam and Eve was based on grace, not Law, even though He did test them by means of one simple restriction (Gen. 2:15-17). The redemption of Israel from Egypt was an act of God’s grace, as was His provision, the sacrifices, and priesthood. Before Moses gave the Law, Israel was already in a covenant relationship with God (“married to God”) through His promises to the patriarchs (Ex. 19:1-8).

Second, Hagar was a servant. “Wherefore, then, serveth the Law?” Paul asks in Galatians 3:19, and gives the answer. The Law was God’s servant to keep the infant nation of Israel under control and prepare them for the coming of the Redeemer (Gal. 3:24-25, 4:1-5).
The Law was given to reveal sin (Rom. 3:20) but not to redeem us from sin. Grace does not serve Law; it is Law that serves grace! The Law reveals our need for grace, and grace saves us completely apart from the works of the Law (Rom. 3:20, 28).

A third fact is obvious: Hagar was never supposed to bear a child. The Law cannot give what only Jesus Christ can give: life (Gal. 3:21), righteousness (Gal. 2:21), the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2), or an eternal inheritance (Gal. 3:18). All of these blessings come only “by grace [Sarah]…through faith [Abraham]” (Eph. 2:8-9).

This leads to a fourth fact: Hagar gave birth to a slave. If you decide to live under the Law, then you become a child of Hagar, a slave; for the Law produces bondage and not freedom. The first doctrinal battle the church had to fight was on this very issue; and it was decided that sinners are saved wholly by grace, apart from keeping the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1-32).

Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast out completely and permanently. But God did not forsake them. Ishmael was Abraham’s son, and God promised him also that he would become a great nation. The Arab world is a force to be reckoned with today, and it all began with Ishmael. Most of the Arab world is Muslim and they believe in a god named Allah. This was brought about by choice or by conquest. Make no mistake. There is a war going on between those who believe in the One True God, and those who have rejected Him.

Once we have identified with Jesus Christ and confessed Him, we are part of this war. We did not start the war; God declared war on Satan (Gen. 3:15). The only way a believer can escape conflict is to deny Christ and compromise his witness, and this would be sin. Then the believer would be at war with God and with himself.

Each believer must make the decision once and for all to love Christ supremely and take up his cross and follow Christ. To “carry the cross” does not mean to wear a pin on our lapel or put a sticker on our car. It means to confess Christ and obey Him in spite of possible shame and suffering. It means to die to self daily. It may also mean to give your life for Him.

Let us pray:
O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

Amen. †

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