Two pictures - Galatians 4:21-31
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
“Born Again Fundamentalist Christianity has captured the minds and hearts of thousands upon thousands of individuals who have been duped by its false and erroneous teachings and dogma. Those who choose to follow it sometimes never escape its restrictive, destructive and crippling chokehold on their lives…Unfortunately the closed and narrow belief system of Born Again Fundamentalism can have a devastating and crippling effect on those who have chosen to adhere to its dark age dogma, doctrines and mentality. This website has been created to support those who have decided to leave born again fundamentalism.”
This was hit number four on my Internet Search Engine. After logging on to the Internet I had typed Born Again Christianity into Google, hit the return key and sat back to wait for the results. In just 0.26 seconds I was presented with 17,700,000 potential websites that were in some way connected with Born Again Christianity. Now I won’t tell you what all their names were, partly because that would be a major waste of our time this morning and partly because I never wasted my time during the week browsing past the front page of the search results. But here is what I discovered from my quick survey of Born Again Christianity on the Internet. People either love it or hate it. So on the one hand I found a number of websites informing me how to become a born again Christian and even a website called finders-seekers.com that for the small fee of $15.95 promised me access to a wide range of other ‘born againers’ who were in search of a long lasting relationship. You will be pleased to know that I kept my money.
And yet on the other hand I was presented with websites solely dedicated to attacking born again Christianity. For example, there was the one I quoted from just now, which argues that ‘born againers’ are enslaved to outdated doctrines and dogmas from which they need to be rescued.
And it even offers advice on how to walk away from this system of belief. It seems that people either love or hate born again Christianity.
I am one of those who hate it. Or to be more accurate before I lose my job, I am one of those who hate the phrase born again Christianity. Because what does the phrase imply? It implies that being born again, whatever that means, is just one type of Christianity rather than the only Christianity that is truly authentic. You see as I read my Bible I am told again and again that unless someone is made spiritually alive by the Holy Spirit, that is unless someone is born again, then that person is not a Christian. They are not simply a different type of Christian, they are not a Christian. Regardless of how moral they are, or how charitable they have been or how dedicated they are to whatever type of religious activity takes their fancy. Unless they have experienced the new life granted by God’s Spirit they remain spiritually dead and eternally lost.
Now I know the words ‘born again’ frequently conjure up all sorts of negative images in people’s minds. We often picture the tele-evangelists in their white suits and large cars, endlessly pleading for money to sustain their apparently God-appointed life-style of luxury. And so therefore, quite legitimately, we may not want to associate ourselves with the born again language. But let’s be crystal clear about this. The biblical teaching on this subject, when understood correctly, is not an optional extra for some Christians but the necessary experience that makes you a Christian in the first place. If you are not born again you are not a Christian.
And that’s what we discover in Galatians chapter 4. I know at first sight you might be thinking ‘Oh no, not again. Not another one of those Galatian passages that doesn’t seem to make any sense.’ Hey, spare a thought for me. How do you think I’ve felt all week sitting at my desk, pacing the streets, standing in the shower, trying desperately not just to work out what God is teaching us in this section of the bible but also trying to work out how I can communicate this information in a way that does not send you to sleep in the first three minutes. I agree that at first sight this passage from the book of Galatians may seem weird, complicated and irrelevant but, please bear with me, because over this last week I have been convinced that in these verses we are presented with a relevant message that we need to hear. In our so called spiritual age with its pic-n-mix attitude to knowing God and approaching God we are reminded again of the dangers of being religious but not converted and the privileges of being truly born again by the Spirit of God. Or to use the language of Galatians chapter 4 we are presented with a contrast between the son of the slave woman and the son of the free woman, between the son born in the ordinary way and the son born by the power of the Spirit.
So with these expectations in mind let’s turn to our bibles and look at verse 21. Paul says to these Galatian Christians, “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” You seem to have a keen desire to put the law into practice. In fact, your desire is so strong that you are even willing to abandon all the joy you were experiencing when the law did not play a part in your daily routine. Do you remember that from last week? Paul says in verse 15 “What has happened to all your joy?” These were people who once knew nothing of God. They knew nothing of his forgiveness, of his freedom, of his love, of his purpose for their existence, and they knew nothing of his most precious Son, Jesus Christ. But one day Paul had arrived on the scene and had presented these godless people with the only message that can transform a wrecked life and bring true and lasting joy. He had preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, with its amazing offer of instant justification before our Creator and wonderfully these godless people from Southern Turkey had recognized that this was the most important message in the entire world. And the result? They were filled with joy! Because that is the response of those who truly understand what Christianity is all about. Have you noticed that most religious people are never full of joy? Instead you find them full of guilt and doubt but never joy.
And why? Because only those who have truly encountered the message of justification by faith alone through the merits of Christ alone have been given the reason to be joyful. And that’s what the Galatians were like until a number of dangerous individuals arrived in their church and started to inform them that all this talk about simple faith in Jesus Christ was just that: too simple. Instead, according to them, what you needed to do in order to guarantee your salvation at the end of history was to step off the platform of faith and step onto the treadmill of performance. Their message was clear: in order to be saved you had to do your best to keep the law of God.
Now for these Galatians that meant some very significant changes. It meant observing special days and months and seasons and years. It meant keeping a whole host of Jewish food laws. No more black pudding for them at the local chip shop. And for the men, it meant a visit to the local doctor’s surgery for an irreversible surgical operation. Do you see what was happening? Rules, rules, rules instead of a liberating faith in Jesus Christ. No wonder their joy was gone. It always happens. Religious rules remove joy whereas a true understanding of Christianity brings joy. So here is a great test to work out if the Christianity you know is the genuine article? Ask yourself this question: When you think of Christianity are you filled with joy or are you filled with guilt, boredom and doubt? According to the Bible, the genuine article will bring us joy.
And yet here is the incredible fact of history. Despite the reality that their joy was gone these Galatian Christians still wanted to press on and keep the law. Did you see that in verse 21? Who is Paul talking to? He is talking to people “who want to be under the law.” These are not people who are being forced to keep the requirements of the law against their will. No they want to keep it, despite the adverse effects on their emotions. So what has happened to them? Intellectually they have been convinced that to be saved from God’s future judgment they need to keep God’s law as best as they can. Otherwise they will be damned. And so therefore do you see what Paul needs to do as he writes back to these people whom he calls his “dear children” in verse 19? He must convince them intellectually that all they need is Jesus. That’s how to understand the book of Galatians. Argument after argument is piled up to support the outrageous assertion that to gain a guaranteed place in heaven all a person needs to do is to hand over control of their life to the risen Jesus and trust him for their eternal future. Is it that simple? Yes.
According to Galatians 4:29, religious people can be divided into two categories. On the one hand, you have those who are trying to earn their way to heaven by their own performance, the sons born in the ordinary way. And by contrast you have those who are trusting in Jesus alone for their salvation, the sons born by the power of the Spirit.
How do you know if you have been born again? Just work out who you are trusting for your salvation. If it’s still yourself and your own performance then although you may be very religious you are not born again and hence you are not a Christian. But if you are relying on Jesus alone for your salvation, if you are trusting solely in his work for you and his death instead of you then you can be sure that you are born again. Because only those born by the power of the Spirit look to Jesus alone for their eternal security.
Now what I love about Paul’s argument in these verses is that he demonstrates to us that being born again by the power of the Spirit is not a recent doctrine created in the United States of America and so therefore simply an optional extra for some Christians on a different continent. No, Paul demonstrates to us that God’s genuine spiritual children have always been made alive by the power of the Spirit and have never earned their status or their inheritance by their adherence to his law. And he shows us this from a story taken from the 21st chapter of the Book of Genesis. So let’s have a look at verses 22 and 23.
Paul says, “It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as a result of a promise.”
Absolutely right. This is straight from the Book of Genesis. If you read the story of Abraham in the first book of the Bible you will discover that although God had promised that he would make Abraham into a great nation, Abraham at the grand old age of 86 still hadn’t changed any nappies for his own children. And this was not because he was a man with a sensitive nose but because his wife couldn’t have kids. So what about the promise of God? Abraham and Sarah may not have been outstanding biology teachers but they certainly knew that you need babies to make more babies to make more babies so that in the end you can produce a great nation. But without babies the prospect of a great nation seemed as likely as Hull City Council remembering that William Wilberforce was a Christian when they celebrate the abolition of slavery in 2007.
So here’s what Abraham’s wife Sarah suggested. She said, “Look Abraham, you know I’m past my best and you need children in order to produce the great nation that God promised you, so why not sleep with my slave Hagar and build a family through her?” And do you know what Abraham didn’t say? He didn’t say “I think not you batty old woman. I think we should continue to trust that in God’s timing God will fulfill his promise.” No, he said, “Okay then let’s give it a go”. So in Genesis 16:4 we are told that Abraham “slept with Hagar, and she conceived”, eventually giving birth to a son called Ishmael. Success? No, because the Bible is very clear that Ishmael was never the son of the promise. He was never the promised child that God said Abraham would receive. And the reason: because Ishmael was a son conceived by a human plan and by human means. He was born in the ordinary way not by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, do you see, he stands in direct contrast to Isaac? Because Isaac, if you remember, the natural son of Abraham was born as the result of a supernatural intervention of God. Which meant that he was the true child of the promise. God’s promise to Abraham of a great nation was unconditional and so therefore Ishmael could not be the child of the promise because his life was conceived in the boardroom of human plans and in the bedroom of human works. Whereas Isaac, on the other hand, was created solely through the intervention of the Spirit.
Now, according to Paul, this story of Isaac and Ishmael, of Sarah and Hagar, can be legitimately applied to how people stand spiritually in relation to God. So yes it is a story of the physical birth of two boys in the Middle East many years ago but Paul, through his apostolic insight, sees in this story a more general pattern for how people have always tried to relate to God. Have a look what he says in verses 24 to 26: “These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”
Or in other words, Paul looks at the two women in Genesis chapter 21 and views them as a great illustration of the two different methods of producing spiritual children. What are the two methods? Either you have a number of rules that human beings have to keep or else you have God’s promise that in God’s time he, by his own power, will produce the goods. Either you have a religion based on Exodus chapter 20, that is the law given at Mount Sinai, or else you have a religion based on Genesis chapter 12, the promises given to Abraham with no strings attached. So who is who? According to Paul, Sarah stands for the covenant we find in Genesis chapter 12 and Hagar stands for the covenant we find in Exodus chapter 20.
So Paul says look at the story of Hagar and Ishmael and you will perceive in it the story of how human beings frequently try to win a place in heaven. They construct their plans, they try their best. They try to secure their inheritance by their own human achievements. It’s the Mount Sinai Type of Religion.
Now please don’t misunderstand him. Paul has already argued in Galatians chapter 3 that the law of God rightly understood and rightly applied is not against the purpose of God to justify people by faith alone. But his point in Galatians chapter 4 is that the law of God misunderstood and wrongly applied is just like Hagar, the mother of Ishmael. Because it tries to produce spiritual children by human achievements.
But in the end it produces no spiritual children, because these are only created by the Holy Spirit. Instead, like Hagar, the law of God only produces slaves who have no part in the future inheritance of God. Do you see Paul’s point? He argues that anyone trying keep the law of God given at Mount Sinai as a way of gaining a place in heaven is going to be an Ishmael and not an Isaac. Because on its own the law of God simply produces spiritual slaves who are not free. The law hems you in. It tells you ‘don’t do this’ or ‘don’t do that’ but it never releases you from the slavery to your own sinful desires – only the Spirit of God can do that! And on its own the law of God only produces spiritual slaves who do not have a share in the spiritual inheritance of heaven. Which is a rubbish position to find yourself in isn’t it? All that work, all that hard graft and for what? For a joyless, frustrating existence with the prospect of absolutely no reward! Surely you would have to be daft to choose this way of life in comparison to the freedom offered to those who hand over control of their lives to Jesus?
And yet just look at what Paul says in verse 25. “Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.” Or in other words, people actually exist who have chosen this joyless, frustrating existence with no prospect of a future inheritance. And where does Paul say they are based? In the present city of Jerusalem. It was another way of talking about 1st century Jewish religion that was based around keeping God’s laws given at Mount Sinai but which had disconnected them from the greater truth that to be a genuine child of God you needed to receive an internal makeover from the Holy Spirit. And just like Hagar this religion was producing its own slaves who would eventually receive absolutely no inheritance.
Does such a religion exist today? Of course it does. It may not be exactly identical to 1st century Judaism but it will nevertheless have many of the same features. A desire to please God by keeping the rules. A joyless frustration because the rules can’t be kept as perfectly as you would like. And the prospect of being excluded from God’s future plans for his people. Although I may hate the phrase born-again Christianity let me tell you that I hate even more a religious system that keeps people in slavery and which ultimately sends them to hell.
So how can we avoid this fate? Have a look at verse 26. “The Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” In the Old Testament Book of Isaiah the exiled people of God, who were located in the land of Babylon, were often referred to as the city of Jerusalem. And the city of Jerusalem itself was often described as a mother about to bear children. You find this increasingly from Isaiah chapter 40 onwards. What was once the name of a physical city was transferred to a community of people who were thousands of miles away from where that physical city was originally built. So in Galatians chapter 4 when Paul talks about the Jerusalem that is above we know he must be describing not a physical city but a group of people who have their true home in heaven. Who is this? It must be the church of Jesus Christ. And why? Because in the Book of Philippians Paul declares that Christians are citizens of heaven and in the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation we are presented with a picture of the church, first of all described as the wife of Jesus, and then in the next verse presented as the city of Jerusalem. So when Paul talks about the Jerusalem that is above he is referring to the church of Jesus Christ with its liberating gospel about Jesus Christ, which it preaches to the world so that they will follow Jesus Christ. And according to Paul, she is the mother of all Christians. It is through the preaching of the gospel, a task carried out by the church, that the Spirit of God brings new life to those who are spiritually dead. So in this way the church is like Sarah, the mother of the free, and her children are like Isaac, born of the Spirit.
And get this? The church is now the way God is fulfilling his original promise that he made to Abraham way back in Genesis chapter 12. That promise of a great nation is currently being accomplished as the church of Jesus Christ gets on with its task of preaching the gospel to the nations. And how do I know this? Because of where Paul quotes from in verse 27. In verse 26, he has just affirmed that the church of Jesus Christ is the mother of all God’s genuine children and then in verse 27 he tells us why. “For it is written: “Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” Now this is a quotation from Isaiah chapter 54 and it was originally a promise to the exiled people of Israel, those who were regarded as the true descendants of Abraham, that one day, because of God’s power and not their own effort, the population of the nation would increase dramatically. And what does Paul say? That is exactly what is happening when the church preaches the gospel and when the Spirit of God breathes new life into the dead soul of a rebellious sinner.
Religious people can be divided into two categories. We can either be sons of the slave woman or sons of the free woman. We can either be spiritually dead but very religious or spiritually alive and completely righteous. Which one is it to be?
I don’t know if you ever feel ‘got at’ at this church. Perhaps you have been coming for years and years. You have done your duty, you have handed over your collection, you have sung more hymns than you could possibly remember and you have lost count of the number of times you have walked forward to take communion. And so therefore you feel a little bit ‘got at’ when people question whether you are genuinely a Christian.
Surely if they cared for you they would just allow you to continue as you have always done in the past. Surely they would stop questioning your commitment to this church and would refocus their energies on someone else. Can I tell you why we don’t? The reason is in verse 30. “What does the Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Or in words, because we realize the horrific dangers of being religious without being converted and the awesome privileges of being born again, we must keep on pleading with those of you who come to this church who know nothing of the spiritual birth: please be born again. Please be born again
And for the many of us who are genuinely converted this morning can we see from the passage how those in the DIY religious category will treat us? What is to be our normal experience at the hands of the B&Q Religious Shoppers? Verse 29: “At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.” Ishmael persecuted Isaac. And the same treatment has continued ever since. They did it to Jesus’ disciples. They did it to the apostle Paul. They did it to Martin Luther. They did it to Thomas Cranmer. They did it to John Bunyon. Do I need to go on? They will do it to us. But regardless of the mockery we face, regardless of the persecution we endure and regardless of the marginalization we experience, we must keep on going preaching the gospel of justification by faith alone through the merits of Christ alone. Because this is the only message that can bring life to the dead and which can rid our churches of Ishmaels by making them into Isaacs. Let’s pray.
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