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"Hagar and Sarah"

October 31, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: Galatians 4:21–5:1

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Hagar and Sarah

Galatians 4:21-5:1

October 31, 2021

 Galatians 4:21-5:1 

Before I get into the substance of our sermon this morning, it is worth noting that today is Reformation Sunday.  It was 504 years ago on this date that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door; and that is the marker of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. ––– Aside from the significance that holds to us as Protestants – Presbyterians are part of the Reformed Tradition, a specific subset of the Protestants who objected to abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy – it is important for us today because of the significant consequences of theology.  The Protestant Reformation sought to correct theological error that had manifest in destructive and abusive practical ways.  The same was true with Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  In our Scripture today, Paul was urging the Galatians to exercise church discipline to restore order in congregations that were experiencing theological confusion. 

You might not have picked that up from our reading, but by the end of this sermon, my prayer is that I have been able to make it clear.  And, it is a prayer. 

It should be obvious that this is not going to be the easiest sermon you have ever heard.  We are going to do some “deep in the weeds” kind of exposition today.  In order to make sense of what Paul was arguing, I am going to start with his conclusion, and then work my way back to show you how he got there. 

Paul concluded by declaring that the Galatians were the authentic children of Sarah and Abraham, the children of the promise, and the children of the new Jerusalem – the heavenly Jerusalem of the fully realized kingdom of God.  His opponents – those who were urging fidelity to Jewish law – were the children of Hagar, children enslaved to the flesh, children from the current worldly Jerusalem, the children who needed to be driven out from the presence of the rightful heirs. 

In short, Paul was saying the Galatians should drive out his opponents from the Galatian churches.  That’s what I mean by saying that Paul was urging the Galatians to exercise church discipline to restore order in congregations experiencing theological confusion. 

Now, that is where he ends up.  How he gets there is not a short route.  He takes six steps to get from here to there.  Let me walk you through them and then we will start the journey. 

  • First, Paul re-told the story of Hagar and Sarah.
  • Second, he declared it was an allegory.
  • Third, he tied Hagar to Mount Sinai and the earthly Jerusalem.
  • Fourth, he associated Sarah with the heavenly Jerusalem – the Jerusalem of the promise made to Abraham.
  • Fifth, having tied his opponents to Hagar, he characterized their behavior as following that of Ishmael, who persecuted Isaac.
  • Sixth, and finally, he concluded by urging the Galatians to take the right action: drive out the children of the slave women from their midst.

 First, Paul re-told the story. 

Paul directly addressed those who opposed him.  Although we do not know this for sure, it seems as if he picked up the Sarah and Hagar argument in order to answer his opponents’ interpretation of these verses.  The best way to do this would be to go back to the source material and tell it again.

We read about Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21.  We preached on this in-depth earlier this year.  Just to re-cap: 

Abraham and Sarah were expecting a child.  Sarai was not pregnant – had never been pregnant – but God had promised to Abraham that he would have an heir of his own.  was well past child-bearing years when the LORD told Abraham to leave his home and country for a land that the LORD would show him.  The LORD had promised Abraham that he would have more descendants than the stars in the skies. 

They had been in the land for ten years.  At that point, Sarah was about 75 years old. She was tired of being patient.  She was impatient with God for not doing what God had promised to do.  In her judgment, God was not acting in a timely fashion so, she came up with a plan to fix that: she would follow the pattern of the ancient world and have her maid conceive a child for her. 

Hagar was Sarah’s slave.  In the ancient world, Sarah had the authority to give her maid to her husband in order to generate children.  Abraham could not take initiative by going into one of his own slaves for the purpose of procreation, but it was possible for Sarah to direct her own possessions to serve this function on her behalf.

The upshot was that Sarah took Hagar to Abraham to serve as a surrogate wife.  At this point we have to see the parallel to Fall in the Garden of Eden, when Eve gave the fruit of the forbidden tree to Adam.  In the telling of the story of Hagar and Sarah, the language of the Fall is intentionally copied.  As the Word Biblical Commentary notes: Sarah offered.  Abraham accepted.  Hagar got pregnant.[1]

Sarah got mad when her plan worked.  When Hagar was aware that she was pregnant, she looked with contempt on Sarah.  It did not have to be overt, it may have been a simple look, “What is wrong with you?  I got pregnant the first time.”  Given Sarah’s state of mind about the whole situation, that would have been sufficient. 

Sarah went to Abraham and was mad at him.  “May the wrong done to me be on you!” She was furious and it was obvious that she was going to take out her anger on Hagar. Thus, Hagar fled Sarah’s wrath, fearing for her life.  She was headed back to Egypt.  On her way she stopped by a spring of water.  We do not know exactly where, but Scripture puts her in the desert on the Sinai peninsula; keep that in mind for a few minutes from now.  A stranger approached her.  We know – because the narrator told us – that this stranger was the angel of the LORD.  Hagar must have been surprised when he addressed her by name and status, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarah, where have you come from and where are you going?”  The stranger ordered Hagar to return to Sarah.  It was not a suggestion; it was an order. 

Thus far, Paul’s opponents would have no quibble or quarrel with Paul.  But then… 

Second, Paul declared the story was an allegory.

Paul declared the story was an allegory.  Wait, what?  That is a huge step and changes the conversation dramatically.

How did he get that this was an allegory?  Sarah and Hagar were real people. Isaac and Ishmael were real people.  The Genesis accounts were the preserved recollection of the beginning of God’s people – the people whose God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Well, an allegory is the revelation of a spiritual truth through the use of concrete or material forms.  Paul was arguing that Sarah and Hagar represented competing spiritual realities.  “These two women are two covenants.”  This was not to say that the events depicted in Genesis did not occur; rather, they were only remembered because they revealed some greater meaning. 

Paul’s train of thought here runs something like this: the only reason why the story of Hagar and Sarah is included in Scripture is because they represent something bigger in God’s “Upper Story.”  The practice of having a slave-woman bear a child for a barren wife was well-known in the ancient world, so Sarah giving Abraham Hagar to have a child was not – by itself – momentous enough to justify inclusion in God’s word unless there were something else at play. 

Some of you are familiar with the Bible study called, “The Story.”  Bill Rose led it here recently.  Two terms are important to understand from that material: “Upper Story” and “Lower Story.”  The Upper Story is God’s overarching narrative of creation, redemption, and reconciliation.  The Lower Story is the day-to-day lives of individuals – including us – and all the things we experience.  The point is: we need to know how we fit into God’s Upper Story and not how we can fit God into our Lower Story. 

That is precisely the move that Paul was making: he urged the Galatians to stop taking this story as history and to begin looking at it as an allegory.  Sarah represented the promise of the Upper Story; Hagar represented humankind’s failed attempt to accomplish God’s purposes on our own in the Lower Story. 

Let me stop here for a moment because it is essential we understand the difference; it is essential we understand our place in this world.  Many Christians get frustrated, scared, and confused when the world looks like it is coming apart at the seams.  They look at the economic disparities and wonder how a just God could tolerate that.  They look at the violence and warfare and all the suffering it causes and wonder how a loving God could allow that.  They look at pain and loss of illness and wonder how a sovereign God could be blind to that.  And I could go on: whether in macro or micro, people look around and wonder how we can believe in God when the world looks as it does.  They want to fit their notion of who God should be into our current circumstances. 

Friends, we have to see the world from God’s eternal perspective.  We have to know that what we see, what we feel, what we perceive is not as complete and comprehensive as God’s Upper Story plan.  This is why studying and dwelling in Scripture is so important.  We need to NOT rely on our own understanding, but rather to trust in God who has revealed in Scripture how he is moving through all things – things pleasing and unpleasing to us.  And more than that, we need to know that God is moving through all things for us.  God is not impassive and impersonal; God is active and intimate.  Again, God working and willing for us does not mean that our lives will be without trial or difficulty; rather, it means that we can and must trust God to be faithful to his promises through our trials and difficulties.  Our hope rests in the LORD, not in the circumstances of the day. 

Once we make the step to trusting in God’s Upper Story plan, we see things differently.  no longer rely on the material world to be the foundation for our spiritual reality.  If Paul’s opponents were arguing that the Jews were God’s chosen people because they were the recipients of the law and the physical descendants of Abraham, Paul applied the allegory analysis to show how they were completely wrong. 

Third, Paul made a play on Hagar’s name to tie her to Mount Sinai. 

Paul’s opponents were urging the Gentiles to become better Christians by becoming Jews “like Jesus.”  They were relying upon flesh and blood to claim superiority through their genetic lineage to Isaac.  Paul turned that on its head by showing that their dependence upon the law actually made them the spiritual descendants of Ishmael, not Isaac. 

Remember: an allegory is the revelation of a spiritual truth through the use of concrete or material forms.  What did the two women represent?  They represented two covenants.  “One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery.  Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.”  How did Paul get that? The Word Biblical Commentary is helpful here:

Hagar, in fact, would be a very suitable designation for Sinai, and would be all the more appropriate if Sinai were believed to be in the vicinity of Petra, associated in the Jewish interpreted Bible [the Targums] with the dwelling place of Hagar, the bondwoman, and her son Ishmael.  There was also a place named Hagra or Hagar in that area, and this name may also have been read or pronounced as Hagra or Hagar.  In fact, it is quite conceivable that this very place, Hagar, was regarded in some sections of Jewish tradition as the mount of revelation.  Hagar, in fact, may have been a designation for Mount Sinai in the vicinity of Petra and at the heart of Arabia (ibid, 36).[2]

In other words, Paul may have been basing the allegory on a play on words – specifically, a homonym; that is, two different words that sounded the same or very similar.

Once we get to the allegory, the question is, what was Hagar’s “covenant” of slavery? It was the law of Moses that was given on Mt. Sinai.  If you recall Paul’s argument from a little earlier in this chapter, he noted that the purpose of the law was to “imprison” or enslave the Jews “under the power of sin.” (v. 22)  The law could not generate righteousness in men; the law only convicted of the unrighteousness of men, revealing the need for a savior.  The savior was born under the law, but fulfilled it, “so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

Fourth, he associated Sarah with the Jerusalem above – that is, the Jerusalem of the promise made to Abraham.

If you have traveled with Paul thus far, the rest falls into place rather easily.  Paul’s emphasis was on the spiritual kingdom Jesus proclaimed.  Righteousness was reckoned by faith, not works of the law.  Thus, Paul distinguished the visible Jerusalem of the world – the one still captive to those who were enslaved by the law – from the spiritual Jerusalem of the promise.

He justified that association by remembering that Isaac was born of the promise, not of the fleshly plan made between Sarah and Abraham involving Hagar.  Having a child with Hagar was man’s sinful and inadequate way of trying to make God’s promises come true in their own way.  God’s provision of Isaac was the divine Upper Story plan at work – invisible until revealed.  In support, Paul quoted from Isaiah 54, which was an exhortation of expectation.  God promised that “the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married.”  Though not perceptible beforehand, God revealed his Upper Story hand in fulfilling the promise to Abraham and Sarah.  

Fifth, having tied his opponents to Hagar, he characterized their behavior as following that of Ishmael, who persecuted Isaac.

Here, we have to go back to the Genesis account.  When we pick up this story, Sarah witnessed Ishmael playing with her miraculously born son Isaac.  It is important to note the language used to describe the players here: it says, Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  The implication is that Sarah understood the competition.  Here are two sons of Abraham – one by Hagar the Egyptian, one by Sarah, Abraham’s wife – and the visual imagery Sarah gets is that Ishmael is first and stronger.  There is all sort of speculation as to what was happening – if Ishmael was teasing Isaac or taunting him about the nature of his birth or was simply enjoying the company of the little boy – but what is important was Sarah’s perception and reaction.

Sarah went to Abraham and demanded that he act.  “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  Again, Sarah is making clear that she perceives a rivalry between the two.  “Casting out” the slave woman meant giving Hagar her freedom; granting a slave freedom meant cutting off any inheritance rights that the children of slaves may have had.  And that is what Paul exhorted the Galatians to do with his opponents from the worldly Jerusalem.

Paul’s Application: cast them out.

And that brings us full circle: Paul concluded by declaring that the Galatians were the authentic children of Sarah and Abraham, the children of the promise, and the children of the new Jerusalem – the heavenly Jerusalem of the fully realized kingdom of God. His opponents were the children of Hagar, children enslaved to the flesh, children from the current worldly Jerusalem, the children who needed to be driven out from the presence of the rightful heirs.

In short, Paul was saying the Galatians should drive out his opponents from the Galatian churches.  He urged them, exhorted them, shouted at them, “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

What does that mean?  On this Reformation Sunday, it means, “grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, for the glory of God alone”; and, most of all, “Christ alone.”  It is not Christ and anything else.  If someone is urging or arguing that your salvation is dependent upon “Christ and …” anything, rebuke them and – if they are unwilling to repent – exercise church discipline.  That may sound harsh, but consider what is at stake: it is the very unity of the body of Christ under attack.

Ok, that’s fine and we see the historical applications, but how does that apply to us? Well, more recently – almost one hundred years ago – the Presbyterian Church split; and the prevailing ethos was “doctrine divides and mission unites.”  The winning thought was we that doing mission together was the most important thing because everyone believed close enough to the same thing.  How did that turn out?  Well, this congregation is no longer a part of that Presbyterian denomination because, as it turns out, Paul was correct and theology does matter.  What we believe defines what we do. What we believe is what God has revealed and it is our hope.

To sum it up: we need to know how we fit into God’s Upper Story and not how we can fit God into our Lower Story.  We have to see the world from God’s eternal perspective. We are Reformed Christians for a reason: we are reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God.

Friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.  Believe that way. Live that way.

Amen.

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[1] From the Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis, Vol. 2.

[2] Richard N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary, Galatians, p. 36. Here is the full explanation:

How can “Hagar” be identified with Mt. Sinai?  Many scholars have worked from the name itself, so associating it with the Arabic word (“rock” or “cliff”) that was used with reference to mountains…More likely, however, Martin McNamara is right to insist: “An explanation of the connection would seem to lie not so much in the text of v. 25a itself as in the constellation of ideas that we can with some probability presume to have been in Paul’s mind.”

It is McNamara’s thesis that not only were “most of the significant episodes of the desert wanderings and of the further Jewish traditions” centered in and around the Nabatean capital Petra, but also that the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai was believed by some to have taken place in that region… McNamara concludes:

Hagar, in fact, would be a very suitable designation for Sinai, and would be all the more appropriate if Sinai were believed to be in the vicinity of Petra, associated in the Jewish interpreted Bible [the Targums] with the dwelling place of Hagar, the bondwoman, and her son Ishmael. There was also a place named Hagra or Hagar in that area, and this name may also have been read or pronounced as Hagra or Hagar.  In fact, it is quite conceivable that this very place, Hagar, was regarded in some sections of Jewish tradition as the mount of revelation.  Hagar, in fact, may have been a designation for Mount Sinai in the vicinity of Petra and at the heart of Arabia.

Questions:

  1. How would you explain to a casual Christian or non-Christian what Paul was saying about Sarah and Hagar? Why does it matter?
  2. How do you feel about “church discipline”? In other words, how do you feel about the church having authority and responsibility to hold you accountable for the way you live your life, the things you say and teach, and how you act in public?  Because church discipline is to be exercised for the purpose of “encouraging virtue and repressing vice,” how would you explain to non-church people why you submit to it?  How do you approach others with the authority and responsibility to hold them accountable?  What are the important considerations?  How do you proceed with confidence and integrity?