In the west Texas town of Plainview there was a farmer whose heartbeat in life was farming the land. Irv Malone was the son of a farmer, whose father was the son of a farmer. For Irv it was more than following in dad’s footsteps – it was in his blood. Wobbly calves brought a smile to his face. He looked forward to the daily chores that went along with farm life. He gathered eggs from the henhouse like a child searching for Easter eggs. For Irv, farm life was the good life, and the best part of farm life was the feeling of euphoria he felt in watching bald, brown fields transform into green, lush lawns of alfalfa. He loved the smell of the fresh cut alfalfa. He loved the work that it took to bring in the harvest. He loved the prayers of faith offered by his family for rain, sunshine, and an abundant crop.
The farmer and his wife also had two daughters…twin daughters. They were the couple’s only children and they were farm girls through and through. Since they were barely able to walk the girls had been included in every phase of farm life. Their parents believed that it was important for the girls to learn how to work so they had their own chores to do around the farm.
When the girls burst into their teen years they became more involved in activities at school, but school didn’t slow their involvement on the farm. The girls got up early every morning to help their mom and dad with the cows and gathering eggs from the hen house.
One of the girls, Tina, was a cheerleader for her ninth grade class. The other girl, Tracey, was on the softball and volleyball team. Both girls were exceptionally bright and were shoo-ins for the Honor Society. Mom and dad would often lie in bed at night and talk about their daughters with pride in their voice and gratitude in their hearts. They could hardly believe that life could be any better than what they were experiencing. “Somebody pinch me!”
When the girls were seniors in high school Tina began to show signs of rebellion. She quit the cheerleading squad. She was hesitant to get out of bed in the morning to help with the family farm. Tina’s grades began to take a nosedive. Her mom and dad talked to Tina to try and find out what was wrong. They asked her, “Is something going on at school that we need to know about? Are you depressed?” Tina would just roll her eyes and let them know that she really didn’t need, or want, their help.
For an entire semester Tina’s mom and dad remained calm. They attributed Tina’s downward spiral to the teenage need for independence. It wasn’t that they were disinterested or preoccupied with other things; it was just that they didn’t want to smother her. Finally, when the spring semester began, Tina announced that she was going to quit school. The quiet resolve of Tina’s mom and dad to stay connected, but at the same time give Tina some room to figure things out, was thrown out the window. They told Tina that she couldn’t quit school. Her mom shouted, “Tina, you are a senior in high school. You are getting ready to graduate in just a few months. What are you thinking?” Tina’s dad was just as pointed as he educated his daughter on how she was slowly ruining her life. Tina had had enough. She burst out of the room and packed her bags.
Tina had some friends in Dallas that she had met at cheerleading camp during the summer months and she decided that she would go to Dallas. She loaded up her car and hopped on I-40 until she hit “Big D.” Tina’s mom and dad didn’t hear from her, they didn’t know who she was staying with, and they were scared. They made phone calls. They talked to Tina’s sister, Tracey, who told them that she knew where Tina was staying and that she was all right. Irv and his wife prayed, prayed, and prayed some more. They had never prayed like this before. They realized that they could go and get Tina, but it wouldn’t do any good…so they prayed some more.
Every now and then they would hear news of Tina. She wasn’t doing well. She was making one bad decision after another. They heard that she had found a boyfriend, but that he was no good. They kept praying, but their hearts were broken and they wondered if they would ever see Tina again.
On a cold winter day Irv was out with the cattle when his cell phone rang – it was Tina. She was crying, uncontrollably crying. Irv began to cry as well as he realized that something really bad had happened. Tina had been with some friends at a party when some guys came on to her and began to harass her. She was high and one thing led to another. When she woke up the next morning in a pool of her own vomit and naked, Tina’s eyes were opened and she began to cry. She cried…and she wanted her daddy. Irv told Tina that he loved her and that he was on his way. Irv got in his truck, headed to the house, and told his wife what had happened. He threw some clothes in a bag and drove NASCAR style all the way to Dallas.
When Irv arrived in Dallas at the address Tina had given him, he couldn’t believe where his daughter had been living. There were burned-out teenagers sleeping in the house, filth, trash, and beer cans were the décor, and Irv held his daughter in his arms and said, “Honey, let’s go home.” Tina couldn’t even look at her daddy.
When they got back to Plainview, Tina’s mom was waiting for her on the front porch. She wrapped her big arms around her and wiped the tears that were still streaming down her cheeks.
After Tina had been home for about one month, Tracey came in to her parent’s room one night and said, “I need to talk.” They said, “Sure honey. What’s wrong?” Tracey said, “I don’t understand. All of my life I have done what you have asked me. I’ve never gotten in trouble. I’m in the National Honor Society. I’m going to college on a full scholarship. I pick up the stinking chicken eggs every morning and never complain. I help feed the stupid calves even though no other girl in my class has to stoop to such menial, meaningless work. Since Tina came home, all I hear is, ‘Tina this and Tina that’ every day.” And the story of the “Prodigal Son” rises from the pages of the Bible to come to life on the flatlands of west Texas, with a feminine twist.
We just don’t get it do we? We don’t like the story of the Prodigal welcomed home. We want him or her to do “time,” suffer for their sins, and redeem themselves. We like justice. We love those who “do” the right thing, who earn what they get, and get what they deserve. We love those who are morally as pure as the wind driven snow. We don’t like love extended to the loser, compassion offered to the corrupt, mercy given to those who have made a mess of their lives, or salvation received by the scoundrel. We like the righteous. We love the virtuous, blameless, and the honorable. God chooses the broken, the loser, and the louse. God saves the rat, the rogue, and the rascal. And yet, we still don’t get it and neither did the legalists and false teachers of the first century.
In our Scripture for today we are going to take a look at one of the most confusing and yet brilliant explanations of the difference between the Promises of God and the efforts of humanity to gain God’s approval. Take a look with me at Galatians 4:21-31.
21Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. 24These 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. 25Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27For 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.” 28Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30But 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.” 31Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:21-31
The folks in Galatia had been toying with the law for far too long. The false teachers had been very persuasive. Their arguments had been convincing. They said, “We, the Jews, are the chosen people of God. We are of our father Abraham. The sign of the covenant people is the sign of circumcision. If you Gentiles really want to be part of the people of the God then you must do something…submit yourself to circumcision and keep the law – be good!” The people in Galatia were God fearing folks. God had broken through their hard hearts and they wanted to do what’s right, they wanted to be right with God, and they were impressionable folks. Impressionable folks can be easily impressed, but that is not always a good thing, depending on who is making the impression.
Paul answers the false teachers call to circumcision and adherence to the law by offering his own Bible lesson. Paul says, “You want to be under the law? You Galatian Gentiles who don’t really know diddley about the law, you really don’t know what you are getting yourself into.”
We know from our past studies of Galatians that some of the Gentile Christians were keeping some of the Jewish calendar holy days. In our next study we will see that some of the men of Galatia were submitting themselves to Jewish circumcision. Keeping some holy days and undergoing circumcision does not even scrape the surface of what it means to keep the law. John Stott says that Paul was trying to get across to the people that the law they desired to serve, when it is fully understood, will judge and condemn them because they would not be able to fulfill its requirements.
From verse 21 Paul goes on to lay out two divergent paths: the path of the promise and the path of human effort to please God. Paul uses Hagar and Sarah as the chief players in the story. Let’s take a look at Galatians 4:22-24.
22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. 24These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. (Galatians 4:22-24 NIV)
Paul doesn’t quote the story of the birth of Abraham’s two sons, but he does give us a summary of the story from Genesis 16-17; 21. Paul also doesn’t mention that Abraham had eight sons, six of them from a woman named Keturah, that he married after Sarah died. (Genesis 25:1-2) The birth of the two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, provided Paul with the sermon material that he needed to teach the biblical lesson that was needed by the folks in Galatia.
Because we always have to deal with time constraints let me summarize the two paths that Paul constructs for us. The first path, Sarah’s path, is the path of God’s promise. Along this path there is no room for human effort or achievement in obtaining the favor of Almighty God. The path of the promise of God is paved with grace. God has chosen to lavish His grace on those who trust in Him. We can see an example of this in Ephesians 1 where Paul writes,
3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. (Ephesians 1:3-8 NIV)
The Bible, from cover to cover, teaches that there is nothing that we, fallen and fallible human beings, can do to impress God. Human effort and achievement, the best of philanthropy and human ingenuity, is still tainted. The prophet Isaiah wrote,
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6 NIV)
God loves us not because we are good, but because He has chosen to love us. He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. He has chosen to redeem those who willingly walked away from Him. He has chosen to lavish us with His glory and save those who thought they were beyond salvation. Why? Because He loves us!
So, our first option is to receive the love of God, trust in His Sovereignty and grace, and relinquish our claim of independence so that we might embrace His will for our lives.
There is a second path that we can follow, the path of Hagar. We can lace up our boots, put on our work clothes, hit the fields of accomplishment, and seek to earn our way into God’s good graces. We can try and show Him that we are worthy of salvation. In the words of John Calvin, “Good luck!” This path of human effort and achievement is paved with blood, sweat, and hard labor. Those who choose this path come home from a day’s work and evaluate how they did, how well they performed their righteous deeds for the day. If they did well, then they feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of nearness to God for a moment. On the other hand, most often, they come home like you and I come home on most days. We realize that we left so many things undone, we failed in so many ways, we let people down, we were impatient with those who tried our patience, and we didn’t meet our expectations for the day. If we gauge our acceptance by God by how we performed during the day then we end up feeling depressed and despondent because we didn’t get the job done…and in our hearts we feel that God is disappointed with us.
Paul Tournier was born in Geneva in 1898. He lost his father when he was a baby of three months and his mother six years later. An uncle took the orphaned Paul and his sister Louise into his home and raised them. Paul knew that he wanted to be a doctor and he went to the University of Geneva to study medicine. In 1937, Paul Tournier experienced the wondrous grace of God and it radically changed his life. He wrote a letter to his patients and told them that he would no longer be doing medicine as he had before, and he shared with them how his faith would impact his practice. Tournier is most remembered for looking for solutions that went deeper than drugs and surgery. He wrote a wonderful book called, “A Doctor’s Casebook in the Light of the Bible,” that has been translated into many languages. As a Christian, Dr. Tournier saw firsthand how those empowered by the grace of God were free to live a more full life. He also saw how those who held to legalistic views of life suffered from constant comparisons with others that drained them of life. Dr. Tournier writes,
I cannot keep count of the number of people in whom religion, the love of God and the desire to serve him, or even a quite secular ideal of perfection, lead only to a life of sterility, sadness, and anxiety. The fear of sinning has killed all their spontaneity. The subtle analysis of their conscience has taken the place of that childlike simplicity of heart that Christ demands. All joy has been replaced by the pursuit of duty. They have come to the point of doing nothing that gives them pleasure, as if God, who loves us, never required any but disagreeable things of us! They make incredible efforts but win no victories. They are always comparing themselves with those they look upon as their betters. (Paul Tournier 1898-1986)
Dr. Tournier was on to something. Those who try and gain their approval by “doing” seek to find comfort in comparing their righteousness to the righteousness of others. This is a doomed effort. There will always be somebody who “does” more, “is” more, and “will be” more than you and me. Greg Albrecht, in his sermon on “Deception of Externalism” says,
Externalism, legalism, Galatianism is alive and well, and attaches itself to Christianity like barnacles on a boat. Externalism, legalism is very much like a leech in that it sucks the very life blood of the essence of Christianity away from the body. Jesus Christ, the life giving power and source of the new life Christians can lead, is denied and devalued by legalism. Jesus Christ alone is the source of living water. He alone can take care of our spiritual hunger and thirst. Legalism takes the focus off of Jesus Christ, and deceives us into thinking that our obedience to traditions and laws, our righteousness which we can produce, (according to legalism) is important. To use one of Paul’s words: Legalism bewitches us and fools us. We wind up thinking that some ritual, some ceremony, some law is what provides eternal life and salvation.” (Greg Albrecht, “Deception of Externalism,” Audio tape R083 Plain Truth Commentary Series on Galatians, © 2001 Plain Truth Ministries-Worldwide)
The path of human effort does not lead to God’s approval. It does lead to frustration, anxiety, despondency, and despair as one realizes that the road is a dead-end.
Now that we understand the two divergent paths let’s get back to Paul’s story of Hagar and Sarah. Paul says that Abraham had two sons; the one born to a slave woman and the other son, Isaac, born as a child of promise to the free woman. I want to lay out for you the two categories Paul lists in his discussion that we are looking at this morning. Take a look.
Ishmael, the son of slavery Isaac, the son of freedom
Birth “according to the flesh” Birth “through the promise”
Old Covenant New Covenant
Mount Sinai Mount Zion
Present Jerusalem Heavenly Jerusalem
The point that Paul is making is that Ishmael was born as a result of human effort and Isaac was born as a result of the promise of God. When God promised Abraham and Sarah that He was going to give them a child, His promise was certain, but His timing was not the timing that an elderly couple would have expected. When they tired of waiting on God, they took matters into their own hands. Sarah told Abraham to go to her handmaiden, Hagar, and she could bear the son of promise. Hagar had a baby and he was named Ishmael. Paul use of Hagar and Ishmael is his effort to show the path of human effort in getting the job done. Paul is saying that we choose to take matters into our own hands, that we work to enhance our God’s effort by our own efforts. God had promised a son, but Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar “helped” God. My friend God doesn’t need our help in fulfilling His promises.
God’s promise was not nullified simply because Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands. God told Abraham that Ishmael was not the child of promise and He blessed Abraham and Sarah with a son, a son born according to the promise and they named him Isaac.
Now, remember that the Jews knew that they were the descendants of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, but Paul turned their most prized “bragging right” on its head by saying, “No, you are the descendants of Hagar! He is saying, “You who take matters into your own hands by seeking to keep the law, by thinking that you can earn your salvation by keeping the law, you are the children of the slave woman and not the free woman.”
Paul says, “28Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.” We are children of the promise, the true children of God, who through faith have received the promise of God. Paul is telling the Gentile converts who have placed their faith in God that they are the true descendants of Sarah, the true children of the promise of God. The promise of God is that those who trust God, those who place their faith in Him are recipients of the promise of salvation.
In verse 30, Paul writes,
30But 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.” (Galatians 4:30 NIV)
In quoting from Sarah’s command to Abraham to get rid of Hagar, Paul is telling the Galatians to rid themselves of the false teachers and cling to faith in God rather than their own effort to gain their approval by God.
I would urge you this morning to rid your mind of any thought that you can somehow earn your way to the throne of God, that you can do “more” to gain your salvation, or that you can somehow catch God’s attention. You already have God’s attention my friend. You caught His attention while you were a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace. If you caught His attention then, when you were in such desperation, don’t you think that His grace is still sufficient for your every need?
We have been justified through God’s grace and God’s grace alone. William Plumer wrote,
Justification is an act. It is not a work, or a series of acts. It is not progressive. The weakest believer and the strongest saint are alike equally justified. Justification admits no degrees. A man is either wholly justified or wholly condemned in the sight of God.
Justification is the wonderful, beyond comprehension work of God, and God alone! God gave His Son to die on Calvary’s cross as payment for our sins. When you hear that message and the Holy Spirit quickens you to your need for the Savior, then you can either accept what God has done for you or you can continue your mad dash to earn His grace.
I want to close this morning by painting a picture for you. I don’t have a canvas or paints, but hopefully you will be able to see more clearly than you’ve ever seen before once I am finished.
When I was a child there was a guy on T.V. named Ed Sullivan. Mr. Sullivan would have all kinds of entertainers on his show, but there was one entertainer that always fascinated me. The man would step onto a stage that was filled with thin poles that were anchored to the stage. On one side of the stage there was a table filled with plates. The man would take one plate and place it on top of one of the poles and begin to spin it. He balanced the spinning plate on the pole and then went to the next plate and pole. He repeated this same routine over and over again. When one of the plates that he had begun spinning began to lose its energy and start to wobble, he would run back to it and twist the pole round and round until the plate built up momentum once again. Eventually, he would have so many plates spinning that it was inevitable that some would start crashing on the stage.
The spinning plate man is a tragic illustration of the life of self-righteousness. We come to know Christ as Lord and Savior of our life. We are basking in the newness of our faith and the joy of knowing salvation in Jesus. Then we are told that if we really want to be a “good” Christian then we need to do have a “quiet time.” Someone else comes along and says, “Well that’s all right, I use to have a “quiet time” when I was a new Christian, but I didn’t really begin to grow until I began memorizing Scripture. So we begin memorizing Scripture. Then someone else comes along and says, “Faith without works is dead” – that verse changed my life and now I volunteer at the homeless shelter. And another plate is put in motion. And eventually we become so busy rushing around trying to be “good” that we forget all about God.
You know, all of those “good” things really are good, but they don’t get you one bit closer to God than the moment you prayed that simple prayer of faith – “Jesus, I am a hopeless sinner. I need your grace and mercy. Please come in and make me Your own.” What a prayer! What a Savior! I hope you will pray that prayer this morning.