Abraham’s Sons: A Tale of Two Covenants

Last week we looked at how Paul allegorized the story of Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, to give us a paradigm for understanding the symbolic nature of prophetic language’s fulfillment in an all-inclusive spiritual Israel, fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant to bless all people.

A related purpose of Paul’s was to show the essential difference between Old Covenant and New, and the difference between the temporal and the spiritual, or flesh and spirit. Ishmael was born after the flesh (Galatians 4:23) and Isaac was born after the Spirit (Galatians 4:29). This contrast of flesh and spirit with respect to the birth of these two sons is based upon the manner that each came into being. Ishmael was born after the flesh in that his birth was according to the common course of nature, his parents being of a reasonable age; there was nothing uncommon or supernatural in his birth. The birth of Isaac to the elderly Sarah was above and beyond the ordinary course of nature, involving the promise of God, and calling forth from Abraham and Sarah an act of faith. In response to this act of faith in the purpose and power of God, God gave them Isaac, miraculously allowing barren Sarah to conceive (Romans 4:17-21; Hebrews 11:11). Both were physically born, but the power by which they were born was different.

The birth of Ishmael of a bondwoman, according to the natural course of nature, became a fitting representation of Abraham’s temporal descendants, and the state of their bondage under the Old Covenant. By contrast, the birth of Isaac to a freewoman was symbolic of Abraham’s spiritual seed born of faith through Christ, and their freedom under the New Covenant.

Bondage and death were the states of the nation of Israel under the Law, “Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3). In contrast to this was freedom and life for those born of Christ, the spiritual seed of Abraham. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, “and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” Flesh and spirit are, therefore, contrasting terms for the Old and New covenants. It is common for us to apply these terms to the physical and spiritual aspects of humanity, but this is not how Paul uses these terms. An example is Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit [New Covenant], are you now being made perfect by the flesh [Old Covenant]?” Terms used in a similar way are “letter” and “spirit” – “who also made us sufficient as ministers of the New Covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6; see also Romans 7:6).

Leaving the Old Covenant and coming into the new, then, is a matter of rebirth, “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Pet. 1:23).

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

Another aspect of this story that might have some application to our study is that the barren Sarah would have more children than Hagar. Both Hagar and Sarah were to have a large number of descendants, but according to prophecy, Sarah was to have the larger family. This is implied in the original promise of Genesis 12:3, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The prophet Isaiah sets forth this fact more explicitly in Isaiah,

“Sing, O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who have not labored with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord.

Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your dwellings; Do not spare; lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes.

For you shall expand to the right and to the left, and your descendants will inherit the nations, and make the desolate cities inhabited” (Isaiah 54:1-3).

The more numerous children of the desolate, the spiritual seed of Abraham, were to include both Jews and Gentiles, a fact that was shrouded in mystery until the coming of Christ. Paul was an apostle of this mystery,

How that by revelation He made known to me the mystery…

which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets:

that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel (Ephesians 3:3, 5-6).

As Paul tells the story, we can see that Ishmael is the nation of Israel at the time of Paul’s writing. Isaac was the infant church, now made up of Jews and Gentiles both, waiting to be vindicated. Isaac’s mother would bear the greater fruit, the greater number of descendants. It remained only for Ishmael to be cast out. Ishmael and Isaac could not continue to coexist. The son of the bondwoman could not inherit with the son of the freewoman.

In the same way, the early church awaited the putting away of the Old Covenant system. This was not some macabre joy at the loss of life for their Jewish brothers and sisters, but the sign of the coming of the kingdom was clear: Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. The center and heart of prophecy is not Pentecost (the birth of Isaac) so much so as the fall of Jerusalem (the casting out of Ishmael).

Join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy by Max King. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Stay tuned! And weigh in below.

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