Ishmael and Isaac
Legalism is the enemy of grace and all legalists are antagonistic to grace. There are basically two options in the Christian life. Option # 1 is legalism; option # 2 is grace. There is no middle ground, no grey area; you are either operating on the basis of grace or you are operating on the basis of legalism. That is Paul's message to the Galatians and Paul's message to us. We have to make a choice: grace or legalism. Legalism is inherently destructive to Christianity and to capacity for life, for joy and for happiness. Legalism erects a system of rules and regulations that if effect enslave the follower of legalism. It is the handmaiden of religion, which is the greatest weapon in Satan's arsenal. Remember, religion is man by man's efforts seeking God's approval. Its emphasis is on ritual, religious activity, church attendance, prayer, discipleship groups, any kind of list of rules and regulations that must be followed that are not mandates specified in the Word of God. In contrast to that, grace is salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Biblical Christianity means that God did all the work, we simply accept it on the basis of faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone and the spiritual life is the same thing, and where people completely fall apart is in their misunderstanding of the nature of the spiritual life. This is why Galatians is so important and why it is called the Magna Carta of Christian liberty, even by those who had no clue as to what that really meant. So Paul says in Galatians 3:3 NASB "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" That, again, brings into focus that it is one of two options: grace or legalism; the sin nature or the Holy Spirit.
The Judaisers had come along to the Galatians right behind the apostle Paul and said Paul only gave them half of the story and they were going to give them the rest of the story. And the rest of the story was that they had to add something to faith; that faith in Christ was great but they had to add the Mosaic Law—specifically circumcision. These Judaisers were emphasising their natural relationship to Abraham. The same kind of thing was evident in the Pharisees: that as long as you were a physical descendant of Abraham who was the father of the Jewish race then you were in. They did not understand that the issues with Abraham had nothing to do with the physical descent but with spiritual descent. For example, Abraham had two sons. Ishmael was the older and Isaac was the younger. Ishmael was the son of the Egyptian slave girl Hagar and Isaac was the child of promise. The promise descended through Isaac because Isaac not only had a miraculous physical birth but he had a supernatural spiritual birth. He was born again. Ishmael was not regenerate. The line went from Isaac to his son Jacob. Jacob had an older brother Esau. Esau was not a believer; Jacob was a believer, so he has spiritual birth. Then the line went down through Jacob's twelve sons and the emphasis all the way is on spiritual birth; that is the line of Israel. The Judaisers and the Pharisees just emphasised the physical relationship to Abraham.
So Paul is going to say, "Okay, you are impressed with Abraham and with the circumcision of Abraham, and you want to make that the issue in the spiritual life. Well, legalism is just one great distraction to spirituality so what I am going to do is show you what the issues are, and we are just going to go back to Abraham and look at what happened in Abraham's life. From Abraham's life we are going to draw some principles to show what the real issues are and then you can make an informed choice." Remember, the choice is grace or legalism, there is no middle ground.
Galatians 4:20 NASB "but I could wish to be present with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you." The verb "wish" is the imperfect active indicative of thelo [qelw]. It means to want, to wish, to will, so this expresses Paul's deep desire to be face to face with the Galatian believers. The imperfect tense means continuous action in the past, so Paul has continually wanted to be with them and to keep them from falling into this trap of legalism. Then "to be present" is the present active infinitive of the verb pareimi [pareimi]—compound: para plus eimi—it means simply to be present, to be with you, and the present active infinitive expresses Paul's purpose, his wish, his desire. The present tense here is a dramatic present which emphasises the drama of the situation and that he wanted to have a dramatic confrontation with the Galatians; "with you" is pros [proj] plus the accusative of the second person plural pronoun which means "face to face with you." He wants to have a face to face encounter with them, to get right there and straighten them out. But if he had done that instead of writing the letter then we would have been missing this particular epistle and would not have this excellent doctrinal dissertation on legalism. So it was God's will for Paul not to go to them face to face but to write them a letter.
Galatians 4:21 NASB "Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?" There are those who want to adopt the law. In fact, they have already started buying into this idea that you can please God by following the mandates of the Mosaic law, and that it will advance them spiritually. Then he asks, "Have you really listened to the law?" "Tell me" is a present active imperative but it is really a rhetorical statement. Remember he is writing and doesn't expect a verbal response. He is using this as an idiom to get them to focus their thinking on the issue. The word "listened" is the verb akouo [a)kouw] which does not mean simply to listen. It is in the present active indicative here and in the Greek the word to hear implies hearing with understanding and application. It is not just the concept of having your ear drums vibrated by sound. It is the idea of listening with a positive response, understanding the concept, thinking it through; it includes the idea of comprehension. When Paul asks, "do you not listen to the law?" he is not talking about hearing with the ear. This is, again, an idiom for paying attention to what they are saying, thinking it through in detail. The Judaisers have been teaching the law to them and saying that you have to add works and that what they do is going to impress God. So Paul asks, "Have you really thought this through? Do you really think that you can do something that is going to impress God?"
If we were to retranslate verse 21: "You all tell me, those of you who have taken the responsibility to place yourselves under bondage to the law, have you truly listened and understood the implications of legalism?" So he goes back to the historical incident of Abraham and his two sons. The Judaisers have talked about Abraham and emphasised Abraham and the physical relationship to Abraham, and that is why they have to be circumcised and come under the law, even though they weren't born physically by becoming a proselyte in some way, they are going to be related to Abraham.
Galatians 4:22 NASB "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman.  But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise." This is allegorically speaking. What does that mean? The modern concept of an allegory is that it is a fictitious narrative, i.e. a made-up story, and the events did not actually take place and are not historical. This narrative is designed simply to illustrate a deeper meaning than the one that is expressed by the words.
In the early church the dominant worldview of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries was neo-Platonism. Plato had the idea that what is actual in this world is not as real and not as significant as what exists in the ideal world. He posited two levels of reality, a physical level and a spiritual level. The church at any given time in history always imitates the world—tragic, sad but true. The worldview of our culture is what we are infected with when we become saved and unless we renovate our thinking to a very deep level we are still going to think like the pagan down the street. We may change the content of our thinking somewhat but unfortunately most people throughout church history never change how they think. A great scholar by the name of Origen came along and he completely transformed the practice of interpretation up to that point. Up to that point hermeneutics was literal, grammatical principle, based on historical principles that the Bible must be interpreted in the time in which it was written and that the literal grammar must be understood, and that there was just the literal meaning of the text. But Origen said no, there is a physical meaning and that really didn't take place; what was really important was this upper story level, so what we have to do is get behind the text to that spiritual level. The physical may or may not have happened, it doesn't really matter, the historical veracity is irrelevant, what is important is the spiritual meaning. This was Origen's view. But as soon as you do that you are into a realm of real relativism as far as interpretation is concerned because anybody can go into the text and say they think it means this, and I think it means that. That is what allegory really is: historical realities are irrelevant, we will just see what we think it means, and the emphasis is on that upper level spiritual meaning.
That is not how the Greeks understood allegory; that is how moderns understand allegory. According to the ancient Greeks allegory was an extended metaphor where the comparison is either implied and stated or simply implied. But for them an allegory was often based on true historical events, not something that was just made up. So to understand how Paul is using the word allegory in v. 24 he is using historical events which actually took place to illustrate a further doctrinal truth without diminishing or detracting from the original historical events. This is how he is going to use the incident in Abraham's life. This is called theological deduction.
Galatians 4:22 NASB "For it is written…" This is a perfect passive indicative: the emphasis is on the present reality of a past act. It stands written in the Scriptures with the result that it continues to be written forever. The passive voice is used to indicate that we received revelation. God is the one who reveals, man received it. God is the one ultimately who ensures that Scripture is written. We are going to see that there was a big difference between the two sons, but we have to realise that a lot is going to be made of the names in these incidents. Abraham was originally named Abram, a compound word in the Hebrew: Ab=father; ram=exalted. So the literal meaning of Abram is "exalted father." We would think that a strange name to give a child. But the name is not relating to Abraham, it is relating to his own father, Terah. It tells us that Abram was born into nobility. His names simply means "exalted with respect to his father," telling us that he is from this distinguished aristocratic lineage. In the course of the narrative in Genesis God is going to change his name from Abram to Abraham. The Scriptures tell us that Abraham means the father of a multitude. It is a popular etymology but to break the word down it doesn't really mean that. It is a play on words. The Scripture, especially in the Hebrew, is full of paronomasias. These are word plays designed to make things stick in people's minds so that they remember them. So the word Abraham does not literally mean father of many nations, but it sounds like another Hebrew name which does mean father of a multitude. So the emphasis is no God's future fulfilment of the promise that Abraham was to be the father of a multitude.
In the same context we have the name change for Sarai. In the ancient world whenever somebody's name was changed that indicated a change in that person's status or circumstances, especially when God is bestowing a new name. In Abraham's case it was a reminder that God is still in control of Abraham's life and destiny, that Jesus Christ still controls history; and that God will fulfil His promise to Abraham. Sarai is an interesting name. When it was translated into the Greek [LXX] the letter "r" was doubled. That is a big difference. The root for Sarai is probably just an antiquated form of the word "princess," which would indicate her nobility. Remember, she is Abraham's half sister, so they are both aristocrats. The root meaning of Sarai in the Greek with a double "r" would mean argumentative or contentious. Many think that this would indicate her character at the beginning. But it is doubtful that anybody is going to look at their wonderful new child and name them "a contentious woman."
"…that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman." The son by the bondwoman Hagar, Ishmael, was born according to the flesh. That means the human solution to man's problems screwed everything up. This is always the principle. When man by man's efforts tries to solve his own problems apart from God he is always going to mess things up and create even more problems. The problem created here has continued for thousands of years. This is the root of the whole Arab-Israeli conflict. We have to remember that man can do nothing for his salvation or his spirituality. Legalism puts the emphasis on man's efforts. Ishmael is Abraham's solution to the problem of infertility; Isaac is God's gracious, complete provision for the solution of infertility. Ishmael is man getting involved in producing a solution. With Isaac man is involved at a physical level but it is totally a supernatural birth.
The Bible only speaks of six women who were barren and in each case God is making a theological point not only about His own grace provision but about the nature of salvation. The first three women are Sarai, Rebecca and Rachel. Who are they married to? The three patriarchs. God is making a point in each one that the child of promise is going to be the result of His work and not man's work. God is making the point that when there is a dead womb he is the one who brings life where there is death. The spiritual point of that is that God is the one who gives spiritual life where there is spiritual death. The next two women come up during the period of the judges. They are the mother of Samson and Hanna who is the mother of Samuel. Both of them speak of God's unique grace provision of life where there is death. The next person is a New Testament woman—Elizabeth. She is barren and her child is going to be John the Baptist. These six [the number of finite man] women who are barren are all types of Mary who is a virgin. She conceives and gives birth to the Lord Jesus Christ, the ultimate solution to death. That is why the Bible emphasises barrenness. Now the flip side to barrenness is that there are always people who come along and start putting an amazing emphasis on human fertility as if that has something to do with the spiritual life and spiritual obedience. The issue in the Bible is not to go out and have as many children as you can; the issue in the Bible is always responsibility. It is never on fertility as an issue in the spiritual life and it wasn't on barrenness, with one exception and that was in Israel under the Mosaic law. The Mosaic law is very physically oriented. The sacrifices were all teaching aids, visual aids. God said if they were obedient to Him He would make them prosperous. If the women were barren and not having children that was divine discipline, they were not being spiritual. All the factors were very physical, very visual. But that was for Israel, not for anybody else.
Genesis 16:15 NASB "So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael." God does not accept socially accepted customs as the divine solution to human problems. Now there is a problem in the household. Hagar is exercising a little arrogance over the other woman in the house and she is looking askance at Sarai because she has bought into this same concept that "you are just not quite the woman you ought to be if you haven't had children." That is a lie. A woman's significance is not in her children or the ability to have children.
Genesis 16:7 NASB "Now the angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur." Notice motif of water and the woman at the well. It is interesting how these motifs display themselves again and again in Scripture. Notice the detail. This shows that this was written by someone who is paying attention to the geography, knows the situation and is writing to people and saying: You know where this is located. This is not just some allegory, some generally fictitious story; it has historical validity and it takes place in specific locations. The Lord tells Hagar to return and submit to the authority of Sarai and promises here a gift of comfort. Genesis 16:10 NASB "Moreover, the angel of the LORD said to her, 'I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count'.  The angel of the LORD said to her further, 'Behold, you are with child, And you will bear a son; And you shall call his name Ishmael, Because the LORD has given heed to your affliction'."
Ishmael means "God Hears" or "God hears man." This was a common name in the ancient world. His name emphasises the doctrinal point that God hears our problems. This name is going to be a continual reminder that God is not ignoring the situation, that he is listening. This comes up in verse 16 and Abraham learns the spiritual lesson when he names the child Ishmael. This is a reminder that God is listening even though all these years are going by between promise and fulfilment, and God is saying wait and be patient.
Genesis 17:1 NASB "Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless'." He is now 99 years of age and there is still no fulfilment. Abram has learned his lesson and God promises the pledge anew, gives them the sign of circumcision, and gives them new names indicating that God will eventually fulfil the promise. In chapter 18 He announces tat the fulfilment of the promise is imminent; in chapter 19 there is the judgment on Sodom, and God is going to protect the seed from the immoral attacks that would be there if Sodom and Gomorrah had continued. In chapter 20 God protects His promise from human irresponsibility when Abram goes to Abimelech and tries to pass Sarah off as his sister. In chapter 21 God provides the child in the first seven verses and this brings joy.
Genesis 21:9 NASB "Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking." This word "mocking" is the piel participle of the root of the word for laughter. So he is having that sort of smart-alec laughter towards Sarah. It is a word that means to toy with, to trifle with someone in a deceptive way with intent to harm them. This becomes the antagonism in the household and now finally Hagar and Ishmael are dismissed from the household as the slave and the child of the slave. That sets up the analogy that Paul is going to use in Galatians chapter four. The child of the free woman stays in the house; grace stays at home as a son; but the child of the slave always has the status of the mother. The issue for the Galatians is: Are you going to submit to the slavery of legalism or are you going to follow grace?