Before we dive into Genesis 21 it’s important we set the scene by quickly looking back to Genesis 17. For context don’t forget for the better part of 25 years Abraham and Sarah have been waiting for God to make good on His promise to provide them a son - which was of critical importance beyond their practical desire to have children.
You see this promised son was important because God said it would be through this child and his descendants that He’d ultimately provide a Savior. As we’ve noted before it was this very promise “Abram believed and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
With this in mind you can see why Ishmael was such an abomination. Born to Abraham through a surrogate named Hagar, he represented Abe and Sarah’s attempt to fulfill God’s promise on their own - unbelief led to the natural work of their flesh… Their efforts!
Amazingly, Abraham even believed God would honor Ishmael as his heir and the ultimate mechanism by which He would send this Savior. And yet, this was not to be so! In verse 15 we read, “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarah your wife… I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!’
Then God said: ‘No, Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him and with his descendants after him… ‘My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.’”
In these verses God is making three things crystal clear to Abraham:
Genesis 21:1-7, “And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him - whom Sarah bore to him - Isaac.
Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, ‘God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me.’ She also said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.’”
It’s clear from our text both the conception and birth of Isaac were completely a miraculous, supernatural act of God. It simply isn’t normal for a 100 year old man and his 90 year old wife to conceive, yet alone survive the birth and “nurse” a healthy baby boy!
It would be nice if we’d been given more information as to how this occurred, and yet all we’re told is that “at the set time… the Lord visited Sarah as He had said and the Lord did as He had spoken.” God communicated a promise to Abraham and Sarah through His Word and now He’s making good just as He promised. Note: There was no natural explanation for what took place apart from the divine involvement.
While both Abraham and Sarah were far from perfect people, the one thing attested to by Scripture was that they each held to this singular promise by faith. Though neither understood how God would or for that matter could accomplish this work in their lives (all things considered), they still believed God would work nonetheless.
In his commentary on Genesis David Guzik wrote, “The promise of a son was not fulfilled because Abraham was perfect in his obedience, but because God was faithful to His Word.” Both Sarah and Abraham believed God was powerful enough to accomplish the impossible.
Romans 4:19-21, “And not being weak in faith, Abraham did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.”
Hebrews 11:11-12, “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged God faithful who had promised. Therefore from Abraham, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude - innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.”
Though it’s not uncommon for pastors to use this passage to exhort people to hold fast to the belief that God is faithful to fulfill whatever particular promises He’s made - even when the fulfillment of these things appear to be impossible if not improbable, the truth is that the application of Isaac’s birth runs so much deeper than this.
Understand… The entire point of Isaac’s birth was to illustrate the fact that salvation from sin could only be accomplished as a work God would do in man and could never be a work of man’s flesh. In and of themselves Abraham and Sarah possessed zero power to manifest God’s supernatural promise through their natural self.
You see, as Isaac, the supernatural rebirth that occurs in the heart of a sinful people (when what was previously dead is miraculously brought to life) can only come via the divine involvement of God. The fulfillment of His promise of salvation is His work, not yours! You can’t save yourself anymore than Abraham and Sarah could have a baby! It’s impossible!
Genesis 21:8-9, “So the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing.”
Verse 8 begins by telling us that Isaac has grown to the point he’s now been “weaned” from his mom making him approximately 2 or 3 years old. Also note: Abraham’s other son Ishmael is somewhere between 13 and 14 years of age by this time.
To mark such an occasion we’re told Abraham decides to throw a party - “a great feast.” This scene is live with everyone eating, drinking, and probably dancing to Dave Matthews Band. Everything is super chill when we’re told “Sarah saw Ishmael scoffing” or literally “mocking or toying with” we presume from her reaction to be little Isaac.
While technically Ishmael was Sarah’s son as Hagar had been brought in to be a surrogate, by this point in time he’s described as simply being “the son of Hagar the Egyptian.” It’s not terribly difficult to see how Isaac’s birth had dramatically changed Ishmael’s life. There is no doubt Isaac, because he’d been birthed via Ab’s wife Sarah, had supplanted Ishmael’s position in the home and heart of his father. Jealousy was a natural reaction.
Genesis 21:10-11, “Therefore Sarah said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.’ And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son.”
The sins of the father have clearly manifested in a dreadful and unfortunate way. While there was no doubt Isaac was the son God had always promised, because Abraham had stepped out in his flesh and committed a sin with Hagar, Ishmael was still very much apart of the equation. Momma bear Sarah doesn’t like the vibe in the home and wants Ishmael gone.
This phrase “the matter was very displeasing” presents a situation where Abraham is literally torn inside out. Don’t forget Ishmael was his son! His blood flowed through the veins of that pimpled-faced teenager. No doubt Abraham could see the resemblance. Yes, it’s true Isaac held a special place in his heart, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love Ishmael any less. Oh, the thought of “casting out” Hagar and Ishmael seemed unbearable to Abraham!
Genesis 21:12-13, “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called. Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.’”
“But God said to Abraham…” As he’s wrestling with what to do with this family conflict, God speaks to Abe and gives him not only a bizarre instruction, but He couples it with a merciful promise. Because Isaac was the promised son, Sarah was right in her position that he should not share the birthright with Ishmael.
Regrettably, for God’s plans to be accomplished, it would be necessary that Ishmael leave! Here’s why this was the case… These two sons of Abraham (the son of the flesh and one of promise) could not coexist! As long as Ishmael was in the home there would always be a threat to Isaac’s rightful position. He and he alone was to be the heir so Ishmael had to go.
And yet, as painful as this would be for Father Abraham, God promises that He would personally care for Ishmael ultimately making in him “a nation because he is your seed.”
Please understand, though this act of Abraham casting out Hagar and Ishmael from his home seems extreme, cruel, even unfair, you must realize God sanctioned it for reasons that really wouldn’t come into view until the N.T. If you’d turn to Galatians 4 I want to let the Apostle Paul explain why it was necessary Abraham cast out Ishmael for the benefit of Isaac.
In Galatians 4:22-24 Paul begins by summarizing the section of Genesis we’ve been looking at for the last few weeks, “It is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic.”
In referencing the Genesis record Paul affirms that “Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman (Ishmael by Hagar), the other by a freewoman (Isaac by Sarah).” In defining the symbolic nature of these events Paul is contrasting Abraham’s son Ishmael “who was of the bondwoman” (Hagar) “born according to the flesh” (his efforts) - with Isaac “who was of the freewoman” (Sarah) “born through promise” (God’s involvement).
Paul’s point is to highlight the symbolic nature of each boy… Ishmael was “born according to the flesh” representing Abraham’s desire to take matters into his own hands when it came to fulfilling the promises of God. Whereas Isaac’s birth could only be attributed as nothing more than God supernaturally fulfilling His promise to Abraham… “Born through promise.”
Paul continues in verse 24, “For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar - for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children…”
While Ishmael and Isaac were the result of two different approaches Abraham made when it came to fulfilling the promises of God (one that involved his efforts with the other characterized by God’s work alone), Paul continues by explaining these two approaches were symbolic of “two different covenants.”
On one side you have “Hagar” - whom Abraham laid with to produce Ishmael! While Ishmael represented the result of Abraham’s flesh (his attempt to accomplish God’s work apart from God), Hagar was the mechanism that made this result possible. She represented the law.
Paul actually says, “Hagar is Mount Sinai” which referred to the location where the law originated. This covenant of the law was a basic agreement between God and man… “As long as you obey me I will be your God and you can enjoy favor as my people.”
Under this covenant God’s favor was dependent upon man’s performance for one very specific purpose… You see the law accentuated man’s inability to earn God’s favor and fundamental need for a Savior - The importance of God’s grace. The Law was designed to be broken which is why it came with a sacrificial system aimed at atonement.
Keep in mind, in this culture your positional and practical standing came not from your father, but through your mother. Ishmael represented bondage because he was born of a slave. Paul’s point is that if you, as Abraham, seek to accomplish God’s will in your life through Hagar (human works to fulfill God’s purposes) it will only result in producing bondage.
Paul continues in verse 26, “But the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: ‘Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.’”
It’s interesting that while Paul defined the first of these “two covenants” specifically connecting the “bondwoman” with “Hagar”, in these two verses he doesn’t make the same direct link between the “freewoman” and “Sarah” - though we know she was the mother of Isaac. Let me explain why this is the case…
Though Hagar played a specific role in facilitating Abraham’s desire to accomplish God’s work in his life apart from the divine involvement, the same cannot be said for Sarah. Not only was she beyond child-bearing years, but their inability to have a child was a result of her barrenness. Note: Abraham was able to yield a natural son through Hagar!
It would appear Paul instead contrasts Hagar with “the Jerusalem above” which he says “is free” and “the mother of us all.” In referring to heaven or “the Jerusalem above” Paul is stating that the promised life born to us all, as illustrated by Isaac (what he means by “the mother of us all”), is a work brought forth only through God’s direct and specific involvement.
This would explain why Paul then quotes from Isaiah 54:1, “Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.” In this passage Isaiah the prophet was reminding a group of dispersed Jews that even when you have no chance of baring life and all seems lost (similar to the plight of Sarah) God still had the ability to bring forth life anyway.
While I know this is some heavy theology, before we continue don’t forget that Paul is making two simple but important points by taking us back to this story in Genesis…
(1) Abraham’s natural man working through Hagar (the flesh) produced Ishmael the son of bondage. Symbolically, this all illustrated that God’s promises can never be fulfilled through your flesh and using the law will only yield a greater bondage in your life.
(2) God supernaturally worked in Sarah apart from Abraham producing Isaac the fulfillment of God’s promise. Symbolically, this illustrated that God’s promises can only be fulfilled in your life through an act of God manifesting by His grace which only yields freedom.
Let’s read on… Paul writes in Galatians 4:28, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.”
“Now we…” Paul is clearly transitioning to the application of all of this symbolism. He first affirms “as Isaac was” we “are children of promise… born according to the Spirit.” What Paul is getting at is that our spiritual birth, like Isaac’s physical one, was entirely miraculous - a work of God’s Spirit in our lives - independent of our involvement - and one that required barrenness (death) in the receiver (illustrated by Sarah).
Notice what Paul says next (and this is where he starts bringing everything together)… “But, as he was born according to the flesh (Ishmael) then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit (Isaac), even so it is now.” Here’s his point…
The flesh (what is born in your life through the law and your best efforts) will never get along with the Spirit (what is born in your life through God’s grace). As there was a constant and unreconcilable tension between Ishmael and Isaac, your flesh (your attempts to fulfill God’s work in your life) will always be in constant tension with God’s Spirit (God supernaturally fulfilling His work in your life). They cannot and will not coexist!
You see the continued involvement of your flesh will by default leave less room for God’s Spirit to work in your life. This is why Paul finishes his thought with this simple exhortation in verse 30, “Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.’ So then, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.”
As an expert in the Old Testament Scriptures Paul extrapolates from the life of Abraham a picture of your life in Christ. Just as Ishmael and Isaac, representing law and grace, flesh and spirit, faith and works cannot coexist without there being strife and constant tension, it’s of critical importance you “cast out the bondwoman and her son!”
Today, it’s sad, but many find themselves frustrated spiritually because they’re trying to condition their flesh to work in concert with God’s Spirit. They’re trying to get Ishmael and Isaac to coexist, but they can’t! As long as Ishmael is home, Isaac can never flourish. As long as you’re seeking to earn God’s favor you can never be influenced by God’s favor!
Understand, the product of God’s grace (Isaac - the Spirit - Godliness) will never fully do it’s thing in your life if you allow your flesh to hang around (Ishmael - your efforts - moralism). Friend, if you attempt to manage this unholy union you will burn out in a hurry! The flesh and God’s Spirit cannot occupy the same heart. One must go for the other to flourish.
Let me explain how this works practically… Some reason that people resist receiving God’s grace out of a fundamental inability to admit their need for help. Pastors plead, “You can’t live this life on your own. Jesus wants to help. He’s more than able to help you clean up your mess. When you’re weak He can make you strong. With Christ you can do all things!”
And while this all sounds nice there is one large problem… While religion is more than willing to help you by giving you things to do to accomplish God’s work in your life, grace has no such interest! I know this will sound weird, but grace is not interested in helping you cross the finish line. It’s not interested in providing you the strength to succeed.
Whereas legalism will jump at the chance to help you out and in most instance will even use Jesus to accomplish its aim, grace isn’t interested in helping you do anything! Instead, grace is more interested in fundamentally transforming your internal constitution! Grace focuses on changing who you are not necessarily what you do!
And since transformation is the goal of grace it requires a condition in the receiver much deeper than simply admitting a need for help! You see grace is only useful to the person who’s given up and thrown it the towel. The person at the end of their rope!
Because grace is a spiritual life birthed following the death of self, grace can only be received once self can no longer be helped - on account that it’s been reckoned dead. In order for Isaac to be the only heir, Ishmael had to be “cast out!”
In much the same way that a caterpillar must first die before it can transform into a butterfly, while the Gospel possess the incredible ability to transform, it’s life-giving power can only be initiated when a person first lays down and dies. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity… “Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”
It’s so important you realize that grace doesn’t demand you admit a need for help - which is a ploy of legalism. Grace demands you instead cry out to God for life! You see you don’t need help. You need a Savior. You need the Spirit of God to live through you. Not your sufficiency through Jesus, but His sufficiency and strength in place of yours.
Since death to self is central to receiving God’s grace it shouldn’t be a surprise that my-self cannot coexist with His-Spirit - my will conserving with His! This entire story emphasizes the reality that self (my efforts in my flesh to fulfill God’s purposes using the law) cannot work with the Spirit (God fulfilling His purposes supernaturally though grace)!
When it comes to being a righteous person and doing the right things you can either rely on your-self (you don’t need God’s help) and live in conflict, or you can rely completely on His-Spirit (the fact He doesn’t need mine), but you cannot rely on both!
“Ok, Zach. How can I remove self from the equation when I still carry around this fallen flesh?” J. Oswald Sanders correctly wrote that “self cannot dethrone self or it would wear the victors crown.” His point is that self focusing on the dethronement of self or the flesh seeking the banishment of flesh will never work. Instead your focus should be on the daily enthronement of Christ. You die to self when you seed the control of self to the Holy Spirit!
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