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What is Your Ishmael?

Abraham sends away Hagar and IshmaelThe Promise

Before there were Bible schools, seminaries or colleges…before denominations, creeds, councils or even churches, there was only a Promise. While still in the pagan city of Haran, Abraham heard that promise and responded:

“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him…” (Gen. 12:1-4)

That was all Abraham needed to hear—it was as simple as that.

Abraham responded promptly to God’s calling. To see Abraham respond so quickly is inspiring. It is obvious that something had immediately taken hold in his heart. What happened? Was it a vision, a visitation, or a revival? Whatever happened, it is clear that God stepped down, and a new awareness of God so gripped Abraham that he responded at once. Following his lead, his entire family responded with him. Once again, as it had been centuries before, communication with God was reopened and men began to call upon the name of the Lord. (Gen. 4:26) Being led through mountains and deserts, not knowing whither he went; he learned to follow God by faith, trusting in Him, as the living God who had promised. As he went forth he actively trusted in this promise, earning him the coveted name, “Friend of God.”

Woven like a golden strand throughout the pages of the New Testament, we find many inspiring references to the eternal testimony of Abraham’s life and faith. Paul was quoting from the Genesis account when he said, “What saith the scripture? Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” (Rom. 4:3) The message that Paul brings out of Abraham’s testimony is that before the compulsion of a law, ceremony or obligation, Abraham simply heard the voice of God, left his old way of life behind and followed Him. Paul argued that the benefit of Abraham’s testimony was that his promise was not written for his sake alone…but for us also. (Rom. 4:23-24) Like Abraham, without the law and apart from our own strength, confidence, or sense of ability, we too can have fellowship with God, through faith.

Beyond Justification

Scripture tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. (Heb. 11:6) Recognition of our own absolute inability, and our desperate need to be fully reliant upon God’s absolute ability is vital to a clear conversion. As we move beyond our conversion, this same awareness must prevail if we ever hope to make progress in our walk with Him. Paul told the church at Colasse, “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him.” (Col. 2:6) The years we spent in self-reliance have fortified our flesh, making it all the more difficult to throw off its binding limitations and cast our entire trust upon God. The new call to trust God for everything goes against our old nature. As we desire to grow in holiness and sanctification this principle too often gets overlooked. It must always be resolute within us that without Him we can do nothing. (John 15:5)

Compounding our difficulty with the concept of holiness by faith is the sad reality that Christendom today is full of people (and entire churches for that matter) who claim all the promises of God without any real change in their lives. Remaining full residents of Babylon and embracing the world, they profess to be citizens of the Kingdom of God. Scripture teaches that this form of mental consent is powerless and is not the faith of Abraham. It would seem that they have forgotten that the faith which Abraham possessed was identified by the works that God did in his life. “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works and by works was faith made perfect?” (James 2:22)

As many of us come out of this deception, we remember the sin and hypocrisy that we came from and we endeavor that our life will be different. Out of our desire to please the Lord and to see His fruit in our lives we become earnest to make our election sure and to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. These are good and inspired desires, but how quickly we can become blinded and meagerly sustained if we forget that the same God that worketh in us to will these things also said that He will do them according to His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13)

Likewise, those converted from conservative religious backgrounds also struggle with the idea of sanctification by faith. Heritage, training, good manners and ethics are all fine Christian attributes, but putting our trust in these works is like trusting that filthy rags could wash us clean. Furthermore, when we rely upon ourselves we forfeit all the blessings that come when we allow the very God of peace to sanctify us wholly. (I Thess. 5:23) Brother Mose Stoltzfus, in a recent hard-hitting sermon on Phil. 3 said, “I do not believe that every thing that we ever learned needs to be discarded…but when we put a sort of pride in it and think that we are a bit above another man who is ‘just a sinner saved by grace,’ then we come to dangerous ground and trouble will come into our lives…Looking at the situation here in Lancaster County and other places, I know that this is a problem for many. They see themselves a mite superior because of their long standing heritage or background and some put a little, some put a little more, and some put way too much confidence in the flesh.”

There have always been Pharisees, false-professors, and fakers in the Church. This need not trouble us. It will always be true that a real conversion will produce a changed life. If a person claims to be saved by faith then his faith should be saving him. “He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked.” (I Jn. 2:6) Like the conversions of Simon the magician in Acts 8, and like that of the believing Pharisees from Acts 15, the true church of Jesus Christ has always had to deal with those who come to God with insincere hearts and ulterior motives. Turning to carnal methods to spite a worldly church will prove futile.

It’s Not Your Turn

Whether we are from a worldly background or religious, as we rise from the altar of regeneration and press toward the mark of holiness, there is a tendency to feel that the Lord has done His part in justification so now it is our turn to do the part of sanctification. This is the very fallacy that we find Paul rebuking the Galatian church for when he cried out, “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?” In this third chapter he appeals to them asking them to call to mind their conversion, challenging them with the leading question, “…did ye receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” In pursuing his rhetorical question he admonishes them with a rebuke that still sends me searching into my own heart and motives every time I read it, “Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” To illustrate this, Paul is asking how it could be possible that while you were an enemy of God, totally lost and on the road to hell, God’s grace picked you up and was able to save you; but now that you are a child of God, you think that God expects you to travel the Christian walk as a vagrant by your own strength.

His interrogating indignation is a good lesson to us. His question challenges the reality of our salvation. When we fall into this way of thinking his strong words—foolish, bewitched and disobedient should come as a fitting reprimand to us. Throughout this book he argues that salvation is real, and it changes our life by the infusion of God’s grace. It benefits us nothing to strive by fleshly means without a consecrated life, infused by the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. All else is vain striving. Our fruits will show in due time whether we walk in Him or of ourselves.

In simplicity, Paul teaches about the Promise that was given to Abraham and how his belief in God was counted to him for righteousness. However, in comparing the Genesis account to the Galatian error, Paul points out the near fatal act of unbelief by Abraham that has caused centuries of consequential heartache and trials.

Abraham’s Ishmael

One of the central points of God’s call to Abraham was that God was going to provide Abraham with an heir. But when the fulfillment of the promise tarried, Abraham was tempted to lose heart. Coming back from the battle after rescuing his brother Lot, Abraham met with Melchizedek. Shortly after this meeting God came to Abraham and renewed his vision telling him, “…fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” Encouraged by his renewed communication he cried out to God with the burden of his heart. Being now 86, he had begun to grow discouraged that the promise of an heir was not fulfilled. So he reasoned with God that what God must have meant by an heir was not a real son, but by means of a custom, whereby a servant born in his house could become his legal heir, thus fulfilling the promise in principle. Abraham did not feel he directly denied the promise by compromising in this way, but in effect, he diminished its efficacy and power by leaning on his own human reasoning.

Like Abraham, we are tempted to redefine God’s promises. When we read in scripture, “…now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless…” (Jude 24) it is easy for us to turn it into some kind of legal or pretended holiness instead of an actual reality in our life. But God assured Abraham, “…this shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.” God’s promise was fulfilled in reality, not by a legal aberration.

The theological revelation and reassurance he received about his promise gave him clarity and renewed his faith. But as the years continued to pass, the possibility of a real fulfillment began to grow more and more unrealistic. Frustration surfaced and Sarah offered her bond slave, Hagar, to Abraham as a carnal means to fulfill the promise. This time the mistake did not just stop with mental temptations. As it says in James 1:14-15, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” The fruit of Abraham’s sin was Ishmael. After Hagar conceived she immediately felt superior to Sarah and started to despise her. Later, when Isaac was born by the miraculous fulfillment of God’s promise, the contention and jealousy proliferated. Ishmael grew in jealousy and persisted to persecute Isaac incessantly. There was no way for them to live together peaceably so eventually Ishmael and Hagar were driven out.

In time Ishmael’s descendents moved to the east and south of the Promise Land, and came to be known collectively as the Arabs. Still today, 4000 years later, the conflict between the descendants of Sarah and the descendants of Hagar wages on, making international news as they continue to fight. O what damage results when human means are used to accomplish spiritual matters.

The Allegory

In a merely humanitarian assessment it would seem that the Galatians should at least get credit for having good intentions as they strive in the flesh to please God. But alas, the full weight of Paul’s rebuke clearly denounces such thinking. Beseeching them to recognize their faithless bondage he cries, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh, but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”

Can we see, therefore, that trusting in carnal methods to achieve holiness is likened to Mount Sinai and its futile ability to make us holy? Furthermore, Paul says that the law by its very nature gendereth or rather, causes to be born in us, a spiritual bondage. He concludes that even a partial reliance upon the law is cursed and will endanger our souls... “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” (Gal. 3:10)


Contrasting this principle, Paul encourages us to rejoice in what God will do in us as we walk by faith, even before we see the fruit in our life. He wrote, “For it is written, rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.” (Gal. 4:27) This passage is not addressing our physiological barrenness, but is referring to our spiritual progress in the Faith. How can this be? How can a barren woman rejoice over the children that she does not have? Or in this Galatian passage, as it refers to our spiritual growth in holiness, how can we rejoice over spiritual victories that are not yet experienced in our lives? Only one way—by living in the substantial reality that the things we have hoped for, we believe will be accomplished in us, by God.

As Paul said of Abraham in Romans, “…he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that what he had promised, he was able to perform.” (Rom 4:20)

Incidentally, this settled joy does not imply passivity. We are commanded to fight the good fight, to press toward the mark, to contend, and to battle, but we fight this war in Christ, by faith. As one Keswick writer, Steven Barabas put it, “…the believer must by faith plant his feet on the victorious position which Christ has obtained for him…this at once shows the nature of the fight, he fights not in order to reach the place of victory but, occupying the position already obtained for him by Christ, he fights from it.” By faith we fight triumphantly. If we wish to truly abide in Him, then we must first believe that the Promise is true—that we are, indeed, more than conquerors through Him that loved us. (Rom. 8:37) This is victorious spiritual battle. Just as in the Old Testament when Abraham was returning from the battle of Hobah. He had fought hard, but in truth it was God who won the battle. Coming back from the battle Melchizedek said to him, “…blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.” Abraham fought and was victorious by the grace and strength of God.

Emanuel Esh, at a recent prayer and fasting meeting, likened our unused potential of God’s grace to a valuable tool that remains unused as we labor to work without using it to its full potential. He said, “…there are many areas of our life where we have not appropriated the grace of God, or we have not made full use of the finished work of Christ; for we have not taken to ourselves and used to the fullest degree what God had meant it to be when He raised Jesus from the dead, victor over the devil, sin, and death.”

What Is Your Ishmael?

The Galatian rebuke has been the text of countless sermons throughout the centuries. This question has no doubt been bellowed across the pulpits of such prophets as Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, Tozer, and Redpath—namely, what’s your Ishmael?

Have you avowed yourself to the deceptively self-gratuitous snare of Hagar, and now suffer from the torment of a persecuting Ishmael that destroys your peace with God? As you face frustrations in your own walk of holiness, as you become grieved by the progress of your children, worried over the spiritual maturity of your spouse, wearied over your church, your ministry, your job—in what ways have you turned to carnal methods to accomplish God’s will?

Cast Out The Bondwoman And Her Son

Scripture allows only one solution for dealing with Ishmael, “Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” (Gal. 4:30) The efforts of our flesh and the working of God poise irreconcilably inverse to one another. The Ishmael of carnality in our souls will always persecute the Isaac of our Promise. There can be no compromise—they must go! Cast out the bondwoman of doubt, the bondslave of guilty fears, the Ishmael of manipulation and self-assertiveness. And don’t settle for a legal deliverance, drive them completely out. This is the only way we can have true spiritual victory. Only by walking in the sustaining power of God’s grace will we make it to the end.

Let us seize hold of that which is free, that grace which will enable us to live godly in this present age! And let us not fail to bring to remembrance that we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. To settle for anything less than this risks frightful consequences. Let us not call Him a liar by our reluctance to recognize His workmanship in us all. Paul concludes the Galatian rebuke with, “Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain.” (Gal 3:4) Or, as the writer of Hebrews put it, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation…” (Heb 2:3)

Our perseverance in the faith is a direct reflection of our confidence in Christ. God has required that our confidence be placed only in Him. “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God…. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end.” (Heb 3:12, 14) In Him there is confidence, hope, and joy unspeakable and full of Glory! (1 Pet. 1:8) Embrace Christ’s full salvation today. Come boldly to the throne of grace, walking confidently in His promised holiness. From the secured citadel of Christ’s atoning blood, allow your heart to be sprinkled from an evil conscience and hold fast the profession of your faith without wavering—for He is faithful that promised! (Hebrews 10:22-24)

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