Reading Time: 7 mins

Ishmael, Isaac, and the Freedom We Receive

Reading Time: 7 mins

Are you on the receiving end of freedom? Or are you trying to make yourself free?

To fully understand what St. Paul is getting at during the last eleven verses of Galatians 4, it is best to keep in mind his opening declaration from the ensuing chapter, where he writes: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). This verse serves as a concise summary of Paul’s argument throughout Chapter 4 — namely, that Jesus’s work on the cross is that which frees sinners from slavery to sin and death. His work is the work that welcomes rebels to live freely by faith in him. It is this gospel that had begun to be defiled and distorted by the teachings of the Judaizers, which ushered the Galatian believers back into bondage. The byproduct of their legalistic indoctrination only served to put the “yoke of slavery” back onto the shoulders of their deluded disciples. This is why the apostle admonishes the Galatians to “stand firm” in the gospel of freedom that comes from Christ alone. 

There is no freedom outside of Christ. Anything that promises freedom or fulfillment without the crucified Christ at its center is lying to you. It’s a mirage. It cannot free you; it can only enslave you. This has been Paul’s theme from the very beginning of this letter and instills in us the best way to understand his lengthy illustration, as Chapter 4 concludes. 

He derisively addresses the Galatians as those who “desire to be under the law” (Gal. 4:21), probing to see if they even knew what that entailed. They had become infatuated by the messages of the Judaizers, but their infatuation was forged under false pretenses since the Judaizers had completely misrepresented the truth of Scripture. In short, the Judaizers were insistent that the Galatians themselves were the ones responsible for their own freedom. As they understood it, freedom was only experienced if one rigorously followed the law of Moses. “Unless you do X, Y, and Z, you aren’t saved,” they said (Acts 15:1, 5). Paul, of course, shatters these notions, exposing them as utter hogwash. “Do you not listen to the law?” he inquires.

He explains what he means by invoking a fascinating piece of Hebrew history: “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now, this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now, Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal. 4:22–26).

This paragraph has, of course, caused its fair share of frustration and confusion in the past. But its meaning becomes clearer if you slow down long enough to catch what Paul is saying. He begins by alluding to Abraham’s “two sons,” Ishmael and Isaac. It is Ishmael who is the “son of the slave woman,” Hagar, while Isaac is the “son of the free woman,” Sarah. These sons serve as the paradigms by which the apostle aims to make sense of not only the history of God’s people but also the Christian faith as a whole. He aggravates this discrepancy by referring to Ishmael as one who was “born according to the flesh,” while Isaac was “born through promise” (Gal. 4:23). As you might expect, to grasp what Paul is getting at with all of this, we are obliged to familiarize ourselves with the events of Genesis 16 and 21. 

When Abraham was a spry 75 years old, God promised him that he would be the father of a great nation through whom the whole “earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3). A crucial detail to remember, though, is that Abraham had no children of his own when this promise was made. Fast forward ten years — with still no children in sight — and the Lord’s promise of offspring as numberless as “the dust of the earth” would certainly seem tenuous at best (Gen. 13:16). Knowing that his wife Sarah was already well beyond her childbearing years and that the both of them weren’t getting any younger, he approaches God with the practical solution to promote his adopted steward Eliezer to be his heir (Gen. 15:1–3). God refuses to entertain this suggestion, though, since not even biology or old age could get in the way of his plans to redeem the world (Gen. 15:4–6). As Yahweh reminds him, Abraham’s offspring would come through him, which emphasizes the sheer impossibility of it all. No loopholes required. 

Ours is not a God of loopholes. He doesn’t need to find a shortcut in order to make his plans happen. Rather, he’s a God of miracles who can make the impossible happen with the mere vapor of his breath. This is what the rest of Genesis 15 demonstrates as God proceeds to “swear on himself” that all of his promises would be fulfilled (Gen. 15:12–18; cf. Heb. 6:13–18). 

With that in mind, the fiasco of Genesis 16 is even worse than it sounds. After years of waiting, with Sarah still unable to produce an heir, she begins to take matters into her own hands. Sarah devises a plan for Abraham to sleep with her handmaid Hagar and bring forth an heir through her in what is, perhaps, the most extreme form of surrogacy on record. Practically, it makes sense since it would “fulfill” the parameters of God’s promise. Abraham would have an heir, and it would be his, with his DNA, and all would be well. Except for the part where Sarah would have to learn to be okay with her man sleeping with another woman and the fact that this scheme completely violates God’s design for a husband and wife. Human nature takes over, and in no time at all, Sarah and Hagar are at odds with each other (Gen. 16:4). As it turns out, Sarah’s plans do not sit well with Sarah, so much so that she tries to shift the blame for the whole arrangement onto Abraham (Gen. 16:5). 

Consequently, even after the birth of Ishmael (Gen. 16:15–16), the hope of the “heir of promise” remains up in the air. “Human scheming,” notes R. C. H. Lenski, “never fulfills the promise” (244). Even still, God once again reaffirms his promise to Abraham, insisting that he would be “exceedingly fruitful” (Gen. 17:5–6). By this point, though, Abraham was ninety-nine, and Sarah was ninety, making the Lord’s words sound more than a little unlikely. Finally, after twenty-five years of waiting, God delivers on his promise and gives them a son (Gen. 21:1–3). Isaac is born, the son “born through promise” (Gal. 4:23). His birth was something God made possible. It was a miracle that could only be explained by the gracious initiative of God. In contradistinction to that, of course, was the birth of Ishmael, who Paul says was born “according to the flesh.” 

Ishmael’s birth was “made possible” by way of Sarah and Abraham’s scheming. They made it happen by assuming that a loophole in their lineage and their marriage would still be sufficient for realizing the promises of God. However, this wasn’t true genetically or historically. But Paul takes it a step further and says that this wasn’t true spiritually either. Utilizing the historical backdrop of the births of Abraham’s sons, he demonstrates what it means that we are “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” by faith (Gal. 3:29). Without disregarding the real histories of Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, and the like, Paul uses them as illustrations to explain the Galatians’ conundrum and the disastrous doctrines of the Judaizers. 

Our standing and identity as the sons and daughters of Abraham is something we are made to receive.

Accordingly, Sarah and Hagar represent “two covenants” (Gal. 4:24). Hagar corresponds to the covenant of works that was established at Mount Sinai (that is, the law). But just as Hagar’s offspring would be slaves since she was a slave, so, too, were all the followers of the law “children [of] slavery.” This is the law’s heritage; this is what the law does. It enslaves. Living “under the law” is living in bondage. Paul, then, connects this to “the present Jerusalem” (Gal. 4:25), thereby insinuating that these are the concomitant effects if the church loosens its grip on “justification by faith.” The Judaizers were, essentially, a bunch of Hagars and their disciples, Ishmaels. Their preaching of “justification by works” only resulted in “bearing children for slavery.” The more their influence grew, the more slaves they made out of the Galatians. 

In opposition to all of that, though, stands the true church of God, which corresponds to Sarah and “the Jerusalem above,” who, it’s inferred, represents the covenant of grace. Just as Sarah’s offspring were not enslaved but were free, so, too, are the disciples of the “heavenly Jerusalem” free. The covenant of works enslaves while the covenant of grace frees. Instead of Ishmaels, the gospel produces Isaacs, children “born through promise.” True “sons of Abraham” aren’t those who belong to a specific bloodline or have a particular pedigree. Rather, they are those who are born again by faith as “children of promise.” Accordingly, continuing with R. C. H. Lenski, “The true heirs of God’s promise to Abraham are not his children by physical descent, the Jews, but his children by spiritual descent, Christian believers whether Jews or Gentiles” (127). “So, brothers,” concludes the apostle, “we are not children of the slave but of the free woman” (Gal. 4:31). 

Paul’s train of thought boils down to this: Are you on the receiving end of freedom? Or are you trying to make yourself free?

The Judaizers were trying to make themselves free. What’s more, they were insistent that true believers had to do the same. This, however, is no different than Sarah and Abraham trying to manufacture an heir through Hagar. The result is Ishmael who represents the promise of God being realized through the efforts and works of Abraham. Trying to free yourself by something you do — by something you can pull off — never results in actual freedom. It only perpetuates your slavery to sin and death. What’s needed is someone who can truly free us, which is what the gospel announces. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Contrary to the slavery of Jewish legalism and its system of justification by works stands the gospel of God, which produces Isaacs — who is, of course, representative of the promise of God being realized through nothing but bare faith. 

John R. W. Stott puts it like this: “The religion of Ishmael is a religion of nature, of what man can do by himself without any special intervention of God. But the religion of Isaac is a religion of grace, of what God has done and does, a religion of divine initiative and divine intervention, for Isaac was born supernaturally through a divine promise” (128–29).

By looking at these two sons, we are made to understand the extent of our justification. We are not justified by our work or striving. Rather, as Paul says elsewhere, we are justified freely “by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24). As sinners, we are recipients of freedom we did nothing to win. “We are declared righteous,” Martin Luther declares, “not by the law, nor by works, nor by our own righteousness, but by God’s pure mercy and grace” (394). Our standing and identity as the sons and daughters of Abraham is something we are made to receive. It’s not something we can work for or make happen on our own. It’s a gift all the way through. Adding even the smallest condition to the salvation that God offers through his Son’s death destroys the whole thing. After all, if you have to work for it, it’s not a gift anymore. Therefore, every sinner who repents and believes in what God in Christ has done for them is “born [again] through promise.” They are freed from the shackles of sin and death, with Christ alone being the only one who can sever the chains.