Galatians 4:21-31 – Sermon 22.3.20 – Dave Newmarch
Today’s passage builds on all the evidence that Paul has been bringing from the Old Testament. Paul has been saying, “Ok, you guys think that the law given to Moses is more important than the promise that God gave to Abraham. Well, I’m going to give you one more example from the story of Abraham. You are all so proud of being descended from Abraham. So Paul starts in v.21 – “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?”
It would be good to just stop here for a moment and remind ourselves what Paul is meaning by “the law”.
When we talk about the law, we’re not meaning the laws of the land such as the government set; we’re not talking about keeping the law, you know, no going through red lights; no shoplifting; no murder – you’ll get fined or put into jail for these.
We’re talking about the rules and regulations/ customs of the Jews. Jews were followers of God and God had given them a pattern for living.
The core value though, even of these rules and regulations, was to love God with all your heart and mind.
But these Jews who had come to Galatia and had become followers of Jesus were saying that, “Yes, you had to believe in Jesus’ death on the cross that paid for the penalty of your sins, but you also had to adopt the culture of the Jews, there were extra “Jewish” things that came from the law that you had to do to be acceptable to God.”
So when Paul says “you who want to be under the law” in v.21 he does not mean obeying the law, he means people relying on the law for their standing with God.
Paul is saying all the way through his letter, “That is Rubbish!!” These rules and regulations are not needed, the law as you perceive it is not necessary for you to be accepted by God/Jesus into his family.
Okay. So back to v.22 – Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, by two different women. Hagar, Sarah’s slave, bore Ishmael to Abraham while Sarah, his wife, bore Isaac. Paul sums up the differences in births in verse 23 when he says, “His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way (“according to the flesh”), but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.” Abraham had been told that he would have a child who would be his heir and the bearer of the line that would bring salvation into the world. And God told him that it would be Sarah’s child.
So Abraham waited… and waited. Sarah got older and older. But Sarah was a barren woman and very old, and it would take an extraordinary, supernatural act of God for a son to come that way.
On the other hand, Sarah had a maidservant, Hagar, who was young and fertile. By the customs of the time, it would be perfectly legal to have a son through her. Therefore, Abraham decided not to get his son through God’s supernatural act but rather through human attainment—through what he and Hagar were capable of doing.
Why is Paul using this story from Genesis? First, we must realize that Paul is using the story only as an illustration of grace and works? And Paul is focusing on Abraham’s choices. Abraham had this choice before him: (a) he could have waited to receive what only God was capable of doing, or (b) he could go out and obtain what he was capable of doing.
Put another way, he could choose to have faith in God’s promise and wait to receive the son, or have faith in his own ability and work to obtain the son. (Notice that either way he was exercising “faith,” but the choice was between which “saviour” he would rest on.)
He chose the latter and the immediate result was disaster. Sarah became terribly jealous of Hagar and the family was wracked with division and sadness.
The gospel says that we do not try to obtain a righteousness that our abilities can develop, but rather we are to receive a righteousness provided through God’s supernatural acts in history ( Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection). Abraham did not rely on God’s grace—his supernatural action in history—but rather on his own ability.
When we fail to rest in God, but rather seek to be our own saviour, the result is a mess—spiritually, psychologically, and relationally. So we see why Paul chose the two sons as a good illustration of the two ways to approach God.
In v.27 Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1. It’s a great verse, which declares that “more are the children of the desolate(or barren) woman than of her who has a husband.” Originally this prophetic word was for the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The prophecy of Isaiah looks back to Genesis 16, in which God looks down on two women, Hagar who is young and fertile, and Sarah who is barren and old, and chooses to save the world through the barren one. Through Sarah, all the peoples of the world are blessed. That is how God’s grace works.
Now Paul takes up the same story Isaiah used and gives it an even more full and wonderful application. The Galatians are being “beaten up” by the false teachers. They are being told that they are too polluted, too flawed to simply consider themselves beloved children of God the moment they believe. But now Paul turns the tables and comforts the Galatians powerfully. They are the “barren woman.” If salvation is by works, then only the “fertile” can have “children.” Only the morally able and strong, the people from good families, the folk with good records, can be spiritually fruitful, enjoy the joy and love of God, and transform the lives of others. But if the gospel is true, it doesn’t matter who you are or who you were. You may be a spiritual and moral outcast, as much an outcast as the single barren woman was in those ancient days. It does not matter. You will bear fruit, the kind that lasts. The gospel says, “Grace is not just for fertile Hagars, but for barren Sarahs. If Sarah can bear, anyone can!”
What a great message for us – for everyone of us!
Do you feel like a failure? Are you disappointed? In the way that Paul uses this illustration Sarah is an encouragement to you if you feel you are a failure or you are disappointed with your life?
We have to remember that in ancient times, a woman’s “worth” essentially consisted in her ability to bear children. Of course, this is not something the Bible condoned. In fact, this very passage completely undermines the terrible mistake made by so many societies. Ancient cultures told a woman that her worth and “righteousness” was her ability to produce children; if she could not bear children, her life was useless to the tribe. (Unfortunately, it is often the case, even in our society, that unmarried women often feel stigmatized and useless.)
But the Bible shows us here that we should not make children our “life” or the measure of our worth (any more than we should make career or money or power or approval our worth).
You may feel that you are like the barren woman – what worth is my life? The gospel, Jesus, cries out to you that the barren, the poor, the marginal—the people who have felt like their self-worth has collapsed — can be more fruitful, rich, and powerful than all the rest.
In Jesus we have a new life and fresh hope. We have a new worth – we have a Father who loves us and values us. We can bear great fruit if we begin to live out of the gospel and serve others.
So to sum up: Religious people generally will say that God and salvation are only for those who are good. But the gospel says that God and salvation are only for those who know they are NOT good and can ONLY be saved by grace. To use the language of today, the gospel is actually more inclusive! ANYONE can belong to God through the gospel at the moment you believe, regardless of record and background, regardless of who you have been or what you have done or how weak you are. Religion is for the noble, the able, the moral, and the strong, but the gospel is for anyone.
For many Jews who had become Christians they hadn’t got it that following Jesus meant FOLLOWING JESUS!! He was the boss. It was a complete turning around.
It wasn’t becoming a respectable person or a religious person – it was becoming Jesus’ person. Now that might mean becoming a nicer person, a more loving person – but remember Jesus’ biggest critics were the church leaders, the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees. They refused to acknowledge him; they were outright hostile to him.
How are we to live as people of the gospel in these uncertain times. We may not be able to meet in a building. We’re going to be challenged to think what does it mean to be God’s person in this world. Are we willing to do things differently?
As we face this ever-changing world of ours we’ll need to do things differently. We’ll need to do church differently. Andy Crouch, a pastor in the States had some helpful thoughts. I’m quoting his thoughts and just changing them a little. Here are three things he says that we can communicate to our community, our neighbours:
1. We should say, “Love is the reason we are changing our behaviour.”
The reason to alter our practices, especially the way we gather, is not self-protection. For one thing, in the case of this particular virus, if individuals are young and healthy, infection may pose not much more threat than the ordinary seasonal flu. The change is needed because our vulnerable neighbours — those of any age with compromised immune systems, and those over 70 years old — are at grave risk. One of the basic principles of the Christian life is that the “strong” must consider the “weak” (see Rom. 15). We are making these choices about meeting together not to minimize our own risk, but to protect others from risk.
At the same time, some people are taking steps, sometimes extreme ones, to protect themselves and their families, often out of terrible anxiety, and this will likely increase in the coming days. This is not a Christian position, it’s not what we do as Jesus’ followers.
We do not change our behaviour out of fear. In a very different context, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I want you to be free of anxieties” so that his community could serve the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32). We prepare for our expected needs, and others’, so that we can be free of anxieties and serve freely when the time comes.
We are changing our behaviour out of love. It is entirely possible to prepare, even to prepare urgently, out of love. Rapid decisions to prepare are not panic unless they are accompanied by aggression and anxiety. Christians should be preparing — urgently in some cases — but not panicking.
2. We should say, “Prepare for trouble.”
This is not the same as saying, “Worry about trouble,” or a violation of Jesus’ command in Matthew 6 not to give thought for tomorrow. Our model here is Jesus, who warned his disciples over and over that their worst case scenario was going to come true. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . ., and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly” (Mark 8:31–32). Jesus told his disciples to prepare for trouble, things were going to get tough.
On the night before he faced the Cross, none of his disciples had any real idea what was coming in the days and years ahead. So even as he spoke words of comfort, Jesus made clear that his friends would suffer: “In the world you will have tribulation — but take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
There is no reason to expect COVID-19 to be the “end of the world” in any sense. Instead it falls in the large category of events that Jesus also prepared his disciples for, the “wars and rumours of wars” that would not mean the end of the world (Matthew 24:6) but times of trouble.
So we should prepare for trouble, facing whatever today and tomorrow bring, but without anxiety. We may have to share our last meal with others. Or give away our last roll of toilet paper.
The best definition I’ve ever heard of anxiety is “imagining the future without Jesus in it.” When we realize that Jesus is present today and will be present tomorrow, we can be set free from worry. We need to practice the Christian disciplines of prayer, praise, petition, and lament that help us see Jesus in our sufferings, both real and anticipated, and place our trust in him.
One practical step is, as we start the day – don’t look at your phone or the latest update in the news – look at your Bible, spend quality time with God. It’s like taking a step back and seeing the big picture with our Father. Yes, he is in control, we CAN trust him, he IS present with us as we start this new day. Start and end the day with God’s perspective.
3. Above all we should say, “Do not be afraid.”
This was first word the angels spoke in the New Testament. We do not need to be afraid of anything — that will be true even when we are on our own death bed. The only thing to fear, as Jesus said, is the one who can cast body and soul into hell. But we have been rescued from that fear, and having been rescued there is truly nothing that can separate us from the love of God.
I’ll leave you with the words of Jesus from John 14:27. I love the New Living Translation – Jesus says, “I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled and afraid.” This peace from God is a gift, freely given. Let’s accept it and take it today.