Abraham is called the father of faith, but he didn’t always trust God. Early on, the Lord promised him a son and through him the world would be blessed. However, as this man and his barren wife aged, it looked like God would not keep that promise. They decided the only solution was that the son would be born using Sarah’s slave, Hagar. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, but this was not the son of God’s promise even though he eventually became the father of the Arab world.
Then, in their old age, Sarah became pregnant and bore Isaac. This was the promised son. He became father of the twelve patriarchs, and the family into which the Messiah was born. After his birth, Hagar and her son were banished to the wilderness.
In Galatians, Paul uses that history to show how the Christian life has two sides to it. He says that I am a spiritual person who is a child of God’s promise of salvation by faith. Yet there is a side of me that the Bible calls the flesh. It is my sinful nature, separated from God ( spiritually dead) yet still active and able to mess with me, either by blatant sin or by ‘nicely’ running things instead of being yielded to Jesus Christ who lives in my heart.
Here is Paul’s illustration:
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. (Galatians 4:22–26)
Paul used the story to explain that following the flesh is like relying on my own efforts to produce the promises of God. This may not look like sin to those who observe, but in my heart I know that I am not free if that old fleshy nature is governing my life.
There is another truth in this illustration. Paul also shows that the flesh and the Spirit-filled life are at odds with one another. He says it with the same illustration . . .
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:28–31)
Then later, Paul adds this: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16–17)
Down through history, this allegory becomes even more illustrative of the spiritual life and the war between flesh and spirit. The Arabs and the Jewish people are still in a never-ending war, just as my flesh and the spirit will always be at odds.
What is the answer? Abraham had to cast out Hagar and her son. This seems harsh, but it does illustrate the harshness with which God wants me to deal with my old nature. It is to be crucified, laid on the altar of sacrifice. The New Testament uses terms like: living sacrifice, put off, put to death, crucify, consider dead, to show that this is a serious issue.
Lest I think there is some middle ground of neutrality in this war, God makes it plain that there are only two options. My life is governed by the Holy Spirit or by the flesh. There is no ‘natural life’ that can exist apart from this dichotomy. I am either walking in the Spirit or gratifying the desires of the flesh. This can mean gross sin, but it can also mean trying to do the work of the Lord in the power of the flesh. It might look okay to others, even pious and godly, but I know, and the Holy Spirit knows, whether I am trusting Jesus or trusting only my humanness.
Chambers points to the necessity of deliberate sacrifice of self. The Bible points out that “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
The enemy lies with thoughts like: “How can you be alive to God when you do this or that . . . .” I’m learning that these accusations, like those he made to Jesus in Matthew 4, can be mixed with an element of truth designed to confuse. Satan wants me to deny my aliveness and deny my sinfulness, whereas God wants me to affirm my aliveness and affirm (confess) my sinfulness. Then instead of pampering that fleshy stuff, I’m to do with what Abraham did with Hagar and her son: send it out to the desert — and focus instead on the One He gave me, who lives in me and through whom He can perhaps also bless His world.