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Has the Spirit come by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith? Begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the works of the flesh? The antithesis here is not “the Law is bad or makes me feel bad” versus “the Gospel is good.” Paul himself rejects such a notion elsewhere (Romans 7:7 ff.). The works of the law which Paul rejects is a focus on one’s own performance of the Law, which, not incidentally, excludes God from the picture. To begin in the Spirit and end in the flesh is to begin with God and end in the self, something which even Abraham did not do.

Justification comes by faith, and Paul reminds the Galatians that God Himself preached the Gospel to Abraham, long before Sinai. “In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:3). Even in the particular blessing of Abraham, the Lord has a greater purpose in mind. Israel, through Abraham, will be the means of blessing the whole earth. Israel is the vehicle of a greater blessing, and the peculiar holiness of Israel serves as a witness to that end.

This is what Israel failed to understand. Israel is called to be holy so that all the nations would come to know the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-5, 1 Kings 4:20-24, Psalm 72:8-11, among others). Yet Israel had perverted her witness to the world into something else entirely. Faith was no longer needed, because they regarded their own separation from the world as their righteousness. Without faith, such separation could only produce hypocrisy and wickedness. “To the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips’” (Psalm 50:16; also Jeremiah 7:4, Amos 8:4-6, etc.)?

But the righteous shall live by faith. These words of Habakkuk show that the promise made to Abraham has not been set aside. Mamre has not given way to Sinai. Faith is not perfected by the flesh. The promise made to Abraham finds its end in Jesus, through Whom the blessing of Abraham comes also to the whole earth. The Gospel preached to Abraham does not end in Israel, as if the uniqueness of Israel was the whole point. The Gospel goes out to all by faith.

Paul uses a couple of examples to drive his point home here. No one changes human covenants after they have been ratified. If no one tampers with human ones, how much less ought we to tamper with divine ones, especially the one ratified in Genesis 15? More than this, Paul points to the text of Genesis 12 directly, noting that the offspring of Abraham is singular, which can only mean Christ. Were this single word plural, the argument of his opponents might have some weight. Then the inheritance of the physical land, the peculiarity of Israel, might very well be the whole point. But it is not plural, but singular. The scope of the promise made to Abraham is worldwide. The promised inheritance depends on faith and faith alone.

But the Law given at Sinai was put in place because of “transgressions” and also as a “guardian.” Israel broke the covenant when she broke faith with the Lord, setting up the golden calf. The Lord departed from the camp, separating Himself from Israel (Exodus 32-33). Following the intercession of Moses, the Lord remakes the covenant with Israel, but now the veil of Moses covers his face. The transgression of Israel required that veil, because the external letter brought with it the curse (2 Corinthians 3:4-11; Deuteronomy 28-29). But in Jesus Christ, the veil is taken away, because He is the promised offspring. Moses, the intermediary, served to put this into place, but now the promise by faith puts an end to all intermediaries.  Delighting in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1), the Christian inherits the promise of Abraham through the inward working of the Spirit.

Requiring Christians to be circumcised meant submitting to a false understanding of the Law.  Those who demanded it had the appearance of following the Law, because God certainly commanded circumcision, but they had misunderstood its purpose.  They sought a justification with the Law as mediator, so that the same Law which condemned them would also somehow justify them in the sight of God.  Yet this did not annul the promise given to Abraham.  The righteous shall live by faith.

Paul’s intense, mother-like concern for the Galatians meant that he sought to bring them back to a proper understanding of the Law and of the Gospel.  “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?”  The Law itself testified to its own proper understanding.  Those who misunderstood it did so precisely because they failed to listen to it in the first place!  Had they listened, they would have known that the righteous shall live by faith, but because they sought to be the cause of their own salvation, they had shut their ears and closed their eyes.

Paul employs an allegory to explain what he means.  Scripture is full of devices like this, such as the parables in general, allegories like 2 Samuel 12:1-15, even fable-like stories like Judges 9:8-15.  Their purpose is always to illustrate.  Here in Galatians, Paul is not revealing the secret, hidden, “actual” meaning of Genesis 16, as if the history itself were of secondary importance.  Rather, the history of Abraham himself, the one to whom the promise was made, provides an apt metaphor that illuminates what Paul means.

Sarai, in an attempt to seemingly jump start the promise of a son made to Abraham in Genesis 15, offers her Egyptian servant Hagar to Abraham as a wife, thinking that “it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2).  Hagar, a headstrong woman by nature, uses her pregnancy as an opportunity for gloating over her mistress, a move which cause Sarai to have her expelled.  After Hagar is humbled and returns, she gives birth to Ishmael (Genesis 16:15).  Ishmael, however, similar in temperament to his mother, mocked Isaac (Genesis 21:9).  Thus, Sarah brings the same judgment upon the pair, saying “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10).  Whatever may be said of Sarah’s motives, the Lord confirms her words, though he promises that he will also increase Ishmael for Abraham’s sake.

Paul note that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh,” because he was not the promised son.  Not even Abraham could fulfill the promise on his own terms!  The Lord gave Isaac according to His promise in His own time and in His own way.  Hagar corresponds to “Mount Sinai, bearing children from slavery,” “corresponding to the present Jerusalem” (Galatians 4:25).  Those who would be justified by the Law, having the Law as a mediator, are indeed the fleshly offspring of Abraham, just as Ishmael was!  But the flesh is of no account before the Lord.  The just shall live by faith, not by the flesh.  Sarah, for all her faults, stands for the “Jerusalem above,” the barren one whose children exceed the fruitful.  The inheritance of God does not belong to the sons of Ishmael, the fleshly sons of Abraham, but to the sons of Isaac, his spiritual sons.

Ishmael himself “was a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he [dwelt] over against all his kinsmen” (Genesis 16:12).  Coupled with his mockery of Isaac which caused him to be expelled, he stands for those who persecute those born of the Spirit (Galatians 4:29).  This has always been true, since the days of Cain, who murdered Abel “because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12).  All the righteous blood shed on earth, “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah,” shall come upon those who seek a righteousness apart from faith, for they are the sons of those who murdered the prophets (Matthew 23:29-36).

Through this allegory, therefore, Paul demonstrates what he clearly states in the following chapter.  “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).  You desire to be the sons of Hagar, sons of Abraham according only to the flesh!  But our righteousness does not come from the Law, for the Law condemns us as law-breakers.  Our righteousness is of Christ by faith.  “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

Genesis 15 comes fairly early in the major section of the “generations of Terah” (Genesis 11:27-25:11).  The Lord has already sent Abram (not yet Abraham) to Canaan in chapter 12.  After a brief sojourn in Egypt, Abraham rescues Lot from being a prisoner of war in Genesis 14.  Abram is then blessed by Melchizedek.

The phrase “after these things” refers then to these previous events.  Abram has left Ur in faith, not knowing exactly where the Lord is leading him (Genesis 12:1).  The Lord has promised Canaan to his offspring, and Abram builds an altar in an act of worship (Genesis 13:14-18).  The Lord has even given him victory over kings with a relatively small band of 318 men (Genesis 14:13-16).  Abram has every reason to continue trusting the Lord who has led him this far.

Yet the Lord comes to comfort Abram in one continuing problem:  he has no son.  God has promised him numberless offspring, yet he remains without a child.  As Paul says in Romans 4:18-22 and Hebrews 11:12, humanly speaking Abram’s body was “as good as dead,” since he was well beyond the human capacity for fathering a son.  Abram then hears the Word of the Lord and believes the one who has made this promise.

A few specific notes are in order.  First, “the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.”  The word vision here is derived from a word meaning “to see,” and also occurs in Numbers 24:4 and 24:16, where it refers to Balaam, and Ezekiel 13:7, where it refers to the “false visions” of the false prophets.  Abram therefore receives the revelation visually in some way.  Inspiration, generally speaking, does not occur always in the same way.  Other prophets also received direct visual revelations, such as Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:11-12), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-7), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1), and so on.  Abram himself will fall into a “deep sleep” later in Genesis 15, which in itself indicates some sort of prophetic fit (especially since the corresponding darkness is described as “dreadful and great”).

Second, the Lord directs Abram to look at the stars as a way of showing to him that He is faithful in His promise of a son.  The created stars serve as a sign and a confirmation of the promise.  If Abram were to be able to number them, he could also number the offspring of this promise.   As mentioned earlier, Paul cites this expression directly in Romans 4:18, but it is alluded to throughout the Old Testament in Genesis 22:17; 26:4; Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 1:10; 10:22; and 1 Chronicles 27:23.  This also explains David’s sin in 2 Samuel 24 when he takes the census, because attempting to count Israel (apart from an express command to do so) is tantamount to wondering whether the Lord will keep His promises.

Finally, “Abram believed the Lord, and He counted to him as righteousness.”  Paul uses this verse to prove in Romans 4 that Abraham was not justified by his works, but by his faith.  Therefore, the Gentiles also, who are not the sons of Abraham according to the flesh, are still sons according to the promise.  Paul makes the same point in Galatians 3:5-6:  we are not justified by the works of the Law.  These passages also clarify any ambiguity with the pronouns which might seem to exist in Genesis 15:6.

James also makes reference to this verse in James 2:14-26.  His overarching point is that faith cannot exist without good works.  It is not enough to say “I am a Christian,” if one then turns and acts in an unchristian way.  Abraham therefore demonstrates his living faith through his willingness even to offer up his own son Isaac, the son of the promise upon the altar.  In this way, Genesis 15:6 is fulfilled, because the faith which believes the promise of God is the same faith which then expresses itself in an unshakable trust that “God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:19).

Like Jacob a couple of weeks ago, the Old Testament reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent is reaching a high point. Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his promised and beloved son Isaac. Within the wider context of Genesis, this chapter comes toward the end of the section which deals primarily with Abraham. The “generations of Terah” began in Genesis 11:27 and will end in a few chapters in Genesis 25:12. Chapter 23 deals with the death of Sarah before beginning to focus on Isaac in Genesis 24. This is plainly the last major event in the life of Abraham.

The passage begins by noting that God is testing Abraham. The Scriptures clearly forbid man testing God, as seen clearly in Deuteronomy 6:16. However, God frequently tests men, such as in Exodus 15:25, Deuteronomy 8:2, Psalm 26:2, and 2 Chronicles 32:31. Such passages also clarify that God intends to prove the faithfulness of those who He tests. All people, like Adam, are by nature covenant-breakers (Hosea 6:7). Like a vassal who has broken faith in the past, it is reasonable to ask whether he will prove true in the future. This, then, is why it is forbidden to test God: it at least asks whether God will be faithful in His promises, something which the Scriptures teach over and over again. Even when God asks Ahab to test Him in Isaiah 7:10-12, He seeks to show in this extraordinary instance that He is steadfast and true to His Word. But such testing should not alarm us. God does not seek to crush with such testing, but rather to chastise and discipline those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6).

The Lord commands Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah to the north. Abraham had been dwelling in or near Gerar as of Genesis 20:1 and making a treaty with Abimelech in Beersheba in Genesis 21, both of which are toward the southern end of the land of Israel in the Negeb. Moriah is in what would later be Jerusalem. The Lord appeared to David on Moriah in 1 Chronicles 21:18-22:1 when David sought to avert the plague brought on by his census. Solomon therefore builds the temple on Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1). The second temple, built over the ruins of the first, thus was also on Moriah, which means that Jesus would spend much of His time teaching in the same place where Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac.

Abraham notes to his young men that he and Isaac will go and “bow down” and return, a gesture of worship. Hebrews 11:17-19 strengthens this point, since Abraham did all of this “by faith,” recognizing that God can also raise the dead. Faith shows itself by its works, which is the point of James 2:21. Being justified by works is tantamount to saying that a good tree produces good fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). Abraham also demonstrates this through naming the place Jehovah-Jireh, that is, “The Lord will see” in the sense of “will see to it, or will provide” (Genesis 22:8 and 22:14). Even though he had not yet seen the lamb for the sacrifice, Abraham knew by faith that the Lord would see to it.  Even if he had to follow through with the sacrifice, the Lord would raise Isaac from the dead and see to His promises.

Much could be made of the ram caught in the thicket being sacrificed “instead of” or “in place of” Isaac. After the Lord stops Abraham’s hand, He sees to it that a substitute for Isaac is found. This notion of substitution continues throughout all of Scripture, first in the animal sacrifices of Leviticus 1 and following, and finally in the great substitution of Christ on the cross for our sins. Because of this, allegory is unnecessary.  God substitutes His own Son for those who hated Him in order that He might have mercy on them and deliver them from the coming wrath (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

Finally, the Lord renews His promise to Abraham and includes a beautiful oath: “By Myself I have sworn.” This phrase occurs in four places in the Old Testament: here in Genesis 22:16, Isaiah 45:23, Jeremiah 22:5, and 49:13. Here and in Isaiah, the phrase is used to strengthen a promise: it is the Lord who shall save and no other. However, in Jeremiah, the Lord uses it to seal a judgment: Judah shall become desolate and Bozrah shall become a waste. Thus, it is a highly intense modifier, a solemn promise that what the Lord has said will without doubt come to pass (Numbers 23:19). “For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:16-18).