This post is based on Genesis 21v1-21 coupled with Galatians 4v21-31. It would be best to read those passages before reading this article.
In The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a scene where Frodo is in the Shire, sitting under a tree. In the movie he hears the singing of Gandalf, as he rides up in his wagon. Frodo runs over to the road, pops out at Gandalf and says very pompously, “You’re late!” And he crosses his arms. Gandalf slowly looks up at him and says with a serious look on his face, “A wizard is never late, Frodo Baggins. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” After a few seconds of staring each other down, they burst out in joyous laughter of each other’s company.
That line from Gandalf illustrates a truth about God in our text. Though Frodo, a little Hobbit, in his mind, thought Gandalf should have been there earlier, Gandalf, in his great sage and wisdom, meant to arrive at precisely that time.
In our text, we see the sovereign wisdom and providence of God in His timing. Though our human minds think that God should do something at a certain time, according to our limited understanding, God who sits high in the heavens, operates according to ways that are far higher than our ways. God is never late. Nor is He early. He arrives precisely when He means to.
The first verse of Genesis chapter 21 tells us that “The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised.” And verse 2, “And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him.” The Scriptures not only teach that God moves providentially and ultimately controls all time and events with ease, but it gives us numerous examples of God doing so in real time in history – and this is one of them.
Though Isaac’s birth occurred 25 years after God had promised Abraham a son, it was not a moment too late. One might think that God was slow to fulfill His promise, or that He was hindered by some force outside of Himself, or that the actions of Abraham and Sarah may have slowed the process, or that God forgot, or just procrastinated. But the God of the Bible is no such God. He is not slow to fulfill His promise, He is not hindered by some competing force outside of Himself, the actions of Abraham and Sarah did anything to delay the process, nor did He forget, and never does He procrastinate. God fulfilled His promise at the exact time that he intended and purposed to do so.
This is who the God of the Bible is. He is a punctual God. Never early, and never late. His purposes in the world have always gone exactly according to plan, never a fraction of a millisecond off pace, as God Himself orders and moves all events in perfect motion according to His wisdom and will.
However, this was not an easy 25 years of waiting for Abraham and Sarah. There were many times in which they doubted whether God would actually come through as He had promised. Sarah even laughed in the LORD’S face at such a promise that she would have a child at such an old age after being barren for all those years. There were times when Abraham and Sarah attempted to take matters into their own hands, such as Abraham having a child with his servant Hagar. As creatures made by a sovereign God we are not privy to the timing of God’s secret will. This is God’s intention. So we should not try to pry our way into a place that we do not belong.
The struggle of the life of faith of Abraham and Sarah is a great picture and example of our lives as Believers. Even though we have so much more revelation and history of God’s faithfulness than Abraham and Sarah did, we still struggle just as they did to believe God’s promise and trust His timing and wisdom. There are many times we doubt, there are many times we laugh, there are many times we don’t trust God’s Word, and there are many times that we try to take matters into our own hands in ways that God does not intend for us to do.
In our text we arrive at the exact appointed time in which God had predetermined to fulfill His promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son who was to be named Isaac. For Abraham and Sarah the past 25 years of struggle, doubt, and frustration is over. Their son is born.
They name their son Isaac, as God commanded, which means, “He laughs.” And Sarah says in verse 6, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.”
Have you ever had a time of struggle or pain that was an emotional rollercoaster, and then you come out of it and experience a moment of realizing everything will be okay, or you experience God’s faithfulness to you, and just begin to laugh with joy at the perfect providence of God? I don’t think that I am the only one who has ever experienced that.
The providence and sovereignty of God is often preached as a thunder bolt and lightening truth – which it certainly is. We need preaching like that. But here, in this moment of a delivered promise, against all odds, we see that to the believer, the sovereignty and the providence of God is a sweet, joyous, and perfectly timed truth. Just as the arrival of Gandalf was a sweet and joyous thing for Frodo. The providence of God is a sweet and comforting treasure to the believer. It may be a haunting reality to a carnal man, but oh how welcoming the providence of God is for those who love Him. What instances in our own lives have we experienced this sweetness of providence?
Not only was God’s blessing dispensed at the Lord’s designated moment, but it was unhindered by human actions. I have briefly mentioned this, but let us ponder this grace a moment more. If Abraham and Sarah could have hindered this blessing from happening, they would’ve done it. In Genesis 22 we read how irresponsibly Abraham acted by lying about Sarah being his sister, thus allowing her to be taken in by Abimelech. From a human perspective, they came dangerously close to ruining the promised seed. What if Abimelech would’ve ended up marrying Sarah, and she never returned to Abraham? What if she would’ve had a child with Abimelech? This is the position Abraham put them into. But even though this was a reckless decision, they were no closer to ruining their promise of blessing than if they would’ve never sinned. God was not hindered by their sin, God’s purposes were not, for a single moment, threatened by Abimelech.
Why? How? Because God’s promise of blessing is completely unhindered by human actions and human sin. There are times when some of us may feel paralyzed or paranoid about making the right decision in order to do God’s will for our life. We may think that if we don’t make the right decision than we might mess up God’s plan for our lives. This type of thinking can tend to paralyze our decision making. Or it can make us overthink or over-spiritualize normal life decisions out of fear that we could hinder God’s will. But let us not live lives of paralyzation or paranoia. The sovereign mover of all things is not hindered by any decision or action that we make. God’s will for your life is to obey His Word. Trying to do God’s will for our lives often means that we just want to know God’s plan for our lives. God has not revealed that to us. It is not for us to try and peer our human eyes into.
So God is not hindered by human actions. This does not mean that this is so, simply because God is more powerful than our actions and can easily overcome them. Ladies and gentlemen, God is not hindered by human actions, because He is the one behind them. He orders them all to take place. Romans 8v28 does not say that God overcomes all things for our good, but rather, God works all things for our good. The call for us as Christians is not to fret about what God’s plan for our life might be, but rather the call for us as Christians is to live obedient to God’s revealed Word, and trust that He works all of the decisions that we make out for His glory and our good.
So God’s blessing is unhindered by human actions, and furthermore, God’s blessing is not dependent on human merit. The drama of Genesis gives us numerous examples of Abraham and Sarah failing to be fully obedient and trusting to God. We have seen them sin time and time again. And yet God blesses them just as He purposed to do, regardless of their lack of meritorious deeds. God didn’t choose to give them Isaac because they had displayed great and mighty faith and were such righteous and deserving individuals above the rest of society. God saw fit to choose and bless Abraham because God desired to show incalculable mercy toward a wretched man and make him into a man of faith.
John Macarthur puts it quite simply, “Everything we receive other than eternal damnation is more than we deserve.” How true that is. There is nothing God gives us that we deserve, as Christians. For those who die apart from Christ, there is nothing God gives you that you deserve, except for eternal damnation.
We are saved entirely by grace. None of it is owing to human merit, or any amount of good deeds we think we have done. It is all owing to Christ and His divine, providential mercy.
In Genesis 3:15, God promised that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. This was the first promise of Christ. Jesus would come and crush the head of Satan. When Jesus finally arrived 2,000 years ago, we should not say “finally,” for it was at the right time. When Christ was raised on the cross, pierced for our transgressions, and shed his blood for our sin, it was not a moment too early, nor was it a second too late. For it was at the right time that Christ died for the ungodly. The moment Christ died and rose for our justification was the precise moment in history that God determined was wise.
God’s providence is everywhere throughout Scripture, throughout history, and throughout our lives today. God’s providence brought Isaac into this world at the right time; God’s blessing was unhindered by human actions; and God’s blessing was not dependent on human merit. It is all of grace.
But the birth of Isaac is not merely a birth of a baby. The birth of Isaac brings forth Christ from the text. The birth of Christ is foreshadowed by that of Isaac’s. There are two main ways I want to mention about how Isaac’s birth foreshadows Christ’s birth.
The first is that Isaac was the promised seed and son; and so was Christ. God promised Abraham to make him into a great nation by giving him Isaac through which it would come. From the seed of Isaac, Christ came, thus fulfilling God’s Genesis 3v15 promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. Through Christ a great kingdom of believers of all tribes, nations, and tongues would be born again into.
The second similarity between the birth of Isaac and the birth of Christ is that they were both miraculous births. Isaac was born miraculously to a barren elderly couple. Biology was not in favor of this birth. But God was. In similar fashion, our Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. A supernatural work of God, once again defying the odds of biology. The miraculous birth of Isaac points forward to the miraculous birth of Christ, which points even further to the miraculous work of a second birth that takes place when we become Christians. A.W. Pink says, “As it was with Isaac so it is with every Christian. Before any of us could be born again, God had to work a miracle.” As God brought life from the deadness of Sarah’s womb, so God brings our dead stony hearts to life in Christ.
Our second birth is not something that is attainable or possible to the natural man, nor is it something the natural man desires. It is entirely a supernatural work of God when man is regenerated and brought to spiritual life in Christ. God has to initiate. God has to do it. Everyone one of us who are believers are believers because God has worked a miracle in us.
Our being saved is not unrelated to the birth of Isaac. God has moved history towards the redemption of His people in Christ. One of those big movements toward the redemption of His people was that of the birth of Isaac. For from the seed of Isaac, our eventual Savior, Jesus Christ came – the One who worked a miraculous new birth in us, and is still doing so today in others.
So after the birth of Isaac, our text takes an interesting turn. We read that once Isaac grew and was weaned, Abraham throws a feast to celebrate. So at this point Isaac would probably be two or three years old. But then it says that Sarah sees Ishmael, the son that Abraham had with Hagar, laughing at Isaac. This is a mockery type of laughing that Ishmael is doing. And at this point Ishmael would have been a young teen. Anywhere from 13-16 years old probably. And so Sarah goes to Abraham and she tells him to send Hagar and Ishmael away, for she does not want Ishmael to be an heir along with her son Isaac. Abraham is a bit disheartened, because after all, Ishmael is his son too. But the Lord comes to Abraham and says, this is for the better, do what Sarah tells you. So Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael packing. Hagar then goes out to the wilderness. She runs out of water, and despairs of life, thinking they will both die there in the wilderness. But an angel of the Lord speaks to her, and tells her not to fear because God hears and will indeed make a great nation out of her son Ishmael. So God then opens her eyes to a well of water where they find nourishment. The boy then grows and ends up marrying a wife from the land of Egypt, for Hagar, was Egyptian.
This is an interesting text, because on a first cold read of this, I thought to myself that Sarah was being a bit rude and overly dramatic. I felt quite bad for Hagar. After all, it was Sarah’s idea that Abraham have a child with Hagar. But I believe that the best route to take in understanding this text is going with the light that the New Testament shines on it.
In Galatians 4v21-21, Paul, in talking essentially about the relationship of law and gospel, takes the story of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 21, and interprets it allegorically. Saying that Hagar, a slave woman, represents the law, the old covenant. And Sarah, a free woman, represents the new covenant, the gospel.
Now, when we read our Bibles, we want to be careful with allegory. Allegories are not to be recklessly applied, because you can make Scripture say whatever you want with allegories, and in doing so, abandon Scripture’s true meaning, intent, and purpose.
Here is what John Calvin says about allegory and this passage, “This we read allegorically. Not that Paul wishes all histories, indiscriminately to be tortured to an allegorical sense, as Origin does; who by hunting everywhere for allegories, corrupts the whole Scripture; and others, too eagerly emulating his example, have extracted smoke out of light.” So we don’t want to take an allegorical approach to Scripture and thus extract smoke out of light as Calvin puts it. But Paul, in Galatians 4, tells us that with this passage, we may interpret it allegorically, and then he goes on to show what the allegory means himself in that passage.
So the allegory is this: Sarah and Hagar represent two covenants. The slave woman, Hagar is Mount Sanai, Paul says. That is the law, the old covenant. The Old Covenant, a covenant of works, says, “Do this, and do it perfectly without spot, blemish, or error at any step along the way, and you shall live. Do not do this perfectly without a single iota of error and you will be damned.” It is the law that thunderously demands absolute perfection.
Sarah, a free woman, not a slave, represents the New Covenant. I love the simplicity of the way that Charles Spurgeon puts it, “But the covenant of grace is, ‘Do this, O Christ, and thou shalt live, O man!’” This is the glorious truth of the gospel that Christ has done everything necessary for our salvation. He has lived the life of perfection that we have not, he died the death we deserved, and he rose again for our justification as none other could do.
There are four ways that we see the trueness of this allegory in Genesis 21 that we will examine.
The first is that Sarah was there first. She was the wife of Abraham before Abraham had a child with Hagar. In the same way, the covenant of grace was there before the covenant of works. Christ was plan A. God was not caught off guard by Adam’s sin, and scrambled around to try and find a plan to save humanity. No, there have been no surprises to God. He did not come up with the plan to send Jesus after we sinned, as if He was trying to figure out a way to save us. No, the Scripture teaches, Ephesians 1, that “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” And that “in love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will.” And again that we have “been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” This covenant of grace was an agreement the Father and Son made to save sinners. They made this agreement before time as we know it began. The Father purposed to set forth Christ as the savior of his people before people were created, before sin entered the world, and before the law came thundering from Sinai.
On this matter, I want to read a portion from chapter 7, of God’s Covenant, from the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith. It says this, “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their Creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ… This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by further steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect…”
Next hear Charles Spurgeon on the matter, “The covenant of grace was the original covenant… There be some bad theologians who teach that God made man upright, and made a covenant with him; that man sinned, and as a kind of afterthought, God made a covenant with Christ for the salvation of his people. Now, that is a complete mistake. The covenant of grace was made before the covenant of works… We, long ere we fell, were loved of God; he did not love us out of pity.”
Amen. Praise God He did not feel bad for us because we fell, but He loved us with an everlasting love before the earth began to even rotate around the sun. There is no sin, or no way that we can surprise God who has placed his everlasting stamp of love on us, and that stamp is Christ.
Furthermore, Spurgeon brings out this point, that not only was Sarah a wife to Abraham first, but Hagar was never even meant to be Abraham’s wife. So with the covenant of works, it was never intended to save us. The law was never meant to be a stairway to heaven. It wasn’t as if it was supposed to save us, but we humans just turned out to be a little more depraved than God thought we’d be, so he had to make a new covenant. No, that was never the purpose.
This brings us to the second observation of the allegory – the law is the accuser. Galatians says that Ishmael, the son of Hagar “persecuted” Isaac – he laughed at him, he mocked him. He, in a sense was an accuser of Isaac.
So it is, in an honest look at ourselves in light of the law of God, it breaks down any pride or false notion that we are good people. The moment you think you have done many good deeds that God must be proud of, the law stands, at that moment, laughing, mocking, and accusing those pitiful efforts to climb the mountain. The moment you think you’ve begun to climb the mountain of the law, it shakes with laughter, reminding you that you haven’t even brought yourself out of the pit below the mountain.
Any man who thinks he kept it well, is blind and delusional. We could not keep it in its original form, and then Jesus comes along and reveals that the law is deeper than simple do’s and don’ts; but it’s a state of the heart. “If you even look at woman with lust, you have committed adultery,” Jesus says. “If you even hate someone, you have committed murder,” Jesus says. So if you think that you can keep those commands, Jesus says, yeah, you actually haven’t.
On the day when you stand before God, and he asks, “Why should I let you into my gates?” You will not be able to say, “Your law, I have kept it.” If any man dare utter those words, the law will come thundering out as a witness on the stand, and witness against you, and say, “This man has not only lived a life of law-breaking, but lived a life of disdain for you law, O God, and even now he breaks it, as he dares to lie to your face, saying that he has kept it. Away with this criminal!”
The law reveals the perfect standard of God’s requirements and points out every fault and every ugly mark and stain of sin in our lives where we have fallen short. But when the Spirit of God has its effect on us it throws us toward the covenant of grace and into the arms of Christ to keep us safe from the condemnation of the law. When the Spirit brings conviction to our hearts of covenant breaking, the purpose is to point us to find peace and solace in Christ, the great covenant keeper. Remember Spurgeon’s words on this covenant of grace, “Do this, O Christ, and thou shall live, O man!” Your works are nothing to hang your hat on, hang it on Christ.
Our third observation of the allegory is this: Isaac, the son of Sarah, was to be the only heir of Abraham. Ishmael, the son of Hagar, was not to be an heir with the son of Sarah. Galatian 4v30-31, “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.”
Those born only of the flesh, who have no second birth, who rely on their good works, or rely on anything other than Christ alone, have no inheritance awaiting them in the heavenly places. They have no claim to eternal life. They have no right to the eternal riches of Christ. All they have a claim to is to perish in their sins.
Ah, but for those who have a second birth that is not of the flesh, but one of the Spirit, as Paul says in Galatians 4v28, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.” For you, God is your Father in Heaven. There an inheritance awaits you that is worth more than all the riches of the earth. There you will inherit every Spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. All of Christ is yours. The law can accuse us of breaking it at every turn, but it cannot void our inheritance in Christ, for we are sons and daughters. We receive the reward that Christ has earned.
Our final observation of the allegory is a lesson of faith. We read in Genesis 21 starting in verse 10, “So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.’ And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you…’”
By way of allegory, Abraham was sad, and struggled with putting away works of the law. There are many of us who want to come to Christ, but we struggle with putting away our own righteousness, or the good that we think we have done to earn or deserve something from God. It is a difficult hurdle to get over for a man to let go of whatever good work of the law he is holding on to, to save him, and cling wholly to Christ and the work that He has done.
For some of us, it may be our own righteousness, or a self-righteous pride in our own way of life. For others of us, it may be our sin that we are sad to let go. Some of us may be clinging way too tight on to some of those things as what defines us or makes us righteous. It may be displeasing to us to be told to let go of those things and hold on to Christ’s hand, but the Spirit of God directs us to do so.
Spurgeon says that, “The poor sinner trying to be saved by the law is like a blind horse going round and round a mill, and never getting a step further, but only being whipped continually.” But let us, “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” In Christ we are free from the yoke of slavery. We are free from the condemnation of the law.
In God’s circumstantial blessing toward Abraham and Sarah, He provided the seed that would lead to Christ; Christ being the way that we are admitted into the family of God; Christ being the way that we are counted as covenant keepers and children of the promise. God in His providence, provided Christ for us, to bless us, as He provided Isaac to bless Abraham and Sarah.
God providentially cares for His us, and it culminates ultimately in Christ. Throw away your good works, and self-righteous rags stained of sin, and throw yourself onto the spotless, righteous Lamb of God. Spurgeon once said that “neither gold nor good works will get you into heaven.” We need blood to get there. We need the blood of Jesus. The covenant of grace is the way that was accomplished for us.