"Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?" (Gal. 4:21.)
When once we recognize that God has a purpose, and that, too, an eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord, we are prepared to find in the earliest part of God's word those great principles which He intends to illustrate. Among these we find two remarkably connected together; the one, that no flesh shall glory in the presence of the Lord; the other, that he that glorieth must glory only in the Lord. These great principles are copiously illustrated in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. God will show Himself to be God, and it is necessary not only to show that the creature is not God, but, also, that the only proper place of the creature, and his only possible happiness is dependence on God. This great truth is illustriously brought out in the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. God and His creature man are thereby set in their proper relation one to the other — God the giver, man the recipient — God, not man, the actor — the creature redeemed, supremely blessed, because God is glorified. This is God's eternal purpose. But how many are the foreshowings and foreactings of this, before it is either fully revealed or will be fully displayed. The book of Genesis, besides being the most ancient historical record extant, has this deep interest — it is a book of great principles. It is to this book that the Lord and His apostles so frequently refer to illustrate their teaching. The Lord Himself refers back to God's original creation of a male and a female, to show the sanctity of the marriage tie in the mind of God. He points to Abel as the righteous sufferer. He refers to the days of Noah and Lot, as illustrative of the unpreparedness of men for the day of the Son of man. He refers to Abraham as rejoicing to see His day, at the same time asserting His own essential Deity in these memorable words, "Before Abraham was, I am." We need not, therefore, be surprised that the apostle, led of the Spirit, (for known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world,) should find "the law" in the earlier chapters of Genesis, four hundred years before it was actually given from Mount Sinai. "Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?" The apostle finds the law in the history of the father of the faithful. He had before illustrated, by Abraham and his faith in God, his great argument, that blessing from God can only come in the way of faith. He now illustrates, by the failure of Abraham, how insidiously the principle of law had entered in to mar the blessing of the father of the faithful himself, and so disturbed the peace of the family of faith, that there was no rest to Abraham or his family till the law was cast out. How important is it for us to regard the Scriptures in the light in which God has set them forth, even as a revelation of Himself, of His thoughts, and counsels, and intentions. What an immense difference it makes between one man and another as to the place the Bible occupies in their respective estimation! One man regards the Scriptures as a mass of ancient records, out of which he may gather what light he can; as though man, and not God, was both the beginning and end of these various writings. The spiritual man, redeemed to God by the blood of Jesus, finds himself let into the counsels and thoughts of God (Eph. 1:7-9); and able to trace throughout the marvellous volume the counsel and design of God; so that the great point openly discussed by the apostle in this epistle, he finds remarkably illustrated in the history of Abraham.
"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." (Gal. 4:22, 23.)
In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, the word of the Lord comes to Abraham in a vision; and for the first time is that heaven-born word heard by a sinful man, "Fear not, Abram;" and how strong the ground afforded for taking away all fear: "I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward." All that which is subsequently unfolded to Abraham is wrapt up in this comprehensive blessing. But how can such a blessing come to Abraham, seeing the circumstances in which he is? "Behold," says Abram, in answer to the announcement thus made, "to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in mine house is mine heir. And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and He said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness." Abraham believed that God could do that which Abraham could not do. It is this which the gospel presents to us, "That which is impossible with men is possible with God." It is possible for God to make a sinner perfectly righteous, and the way in which He does this, and the ground of His doing it, is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ; so that no question ought to agitate the mind of the believer as to his complete justification. But there is a kind of hereditary disease in the family of faith, even the disease of unbelief; and we see, in the history of Abraham before us, an early exhibition of it. Faith and patience are necessarily connected together; but unbelief is restless and impatient, and would take things out of God's hands into its own. Abraham had left his country and kindred at the call of God. This act of faith is recorded by the apostle in another place: "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went forth, not knowing whither he went." We get deep instruction, not only from the faith, but even from the very failures, of the father of the faithful. After so decided an act of faith on the part of Abraham, even his renouncing every thing at the call of God, we are hardly prepared for signal failure. But so it is. The failure of the believer is usually manifested in some instance where it would seem more easy to trust in God, than in instances in which we had previously trusted Him. But habitual dependence on God is always contrary to nature. Abraham and Sarah became impatient, and thought to get, by their own wisdom and strength, that very blessing which God had promised to bestow by His power and grace. Hence the giving of Hagar to Abraham by Sarah. (Gen. 16.) This was, in reality, an attempt to get the promised blessing in the way of law; and it issued, as all such attempts must issue, in signal and sorrowful failure. The immediate result was, that Sarah was 'despised' by Hagar. The Pharisees, proud of their own righteousness, 'despised' Him by whom came grace and truth. So with respect to ourselves; when we become legal, grace becomes contemptible in our eyes. Hagar bore a son, but he was born after the flesh. The word 'flesh' is here used to denote man's power. If you bring in man's power, and attempt to add it to God's power, there is confusion and trouble. the power of man, is here contrasted with promise — with that which God Himself had undertaken to do. Flesh and promise cannot stand together; salvation must be either by the power of man, or by the power of God; and if we refer it to the power of God, we must not bring in the power of man as helping it. God will show Himself to be the Almighty" — the all-sufficient God — for effectuating His own promises in the case of all the family of faith, as well as in the case of the father of the faithful. (Gen. 17:1.)
"Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar 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. 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. 4:24-27.)
We are here taught by the apostle, that these facts in the history of Abraham are intended to teach us a great moral lesson. The Lord Himself has ruled, that "the Scriptures cannot be broken," meaning the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and that these "Scriptures testify of Him." The apostle in another place lays it down as a general rule, "Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning." What deep spiritual truth is often couched under an historical fact very simply narrated. When we look back to the garden of Eden, we find the deepest truth (which has only been brought clearly out since the coming down of the Holy Ghost) foreshadowed, when Adam said, "This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh." "We are members of Christ's body, we are of His flesh and of His bones." And so in this episode in Abraham's history, we find deep spiritual instruction.
Hagar represents Mount Sinai and its covenant, under which Jerusalem was at the time of the apostle's writing, and from which she refused to be delivered by the gospel of grace. To this covenant of bondage the Galatians were being turned — "they desired to be under law." Hagar, in the presence of Sarah, could never forget that she was a bondwoman. And the law in its spirit must always guide unto bondage. It was, as Peter says, "a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear." The Galatians were tempted to exchange "the easy yoke" of Jesus for the heavy yoke of the law. How strange, yet how true, that we should prefer spiritual bondage to spiritual freedom. But the reason is plain; if set free, it must be entirely owing to the grace of God; and our proud hearts refuse to submit to this. Yes; men refuse to be saved as lost and ruined sinners, from first to last, by the grace of God, through the precious blood of Christ. They will not "submit to the righteousness of God;" but, like Jerusalem in the text, bind their chains more closely round them; and, not content with this, seek to bring others into bondage with themselves. When Christians lost their sense of their heavenly and unworldly calling, as the keen eye of the apostle saw the Galatians beginning to do, they looked to Hagar, not to Sarah. They took as their pattern "the Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children." And the result would be, and actually is, a religious system as truly bondage as Judaism itself. Christ did not come into the world to institute a religion, but to save sinners, and so to save them as to "deliver them out of this present evil world," and to make them citizens of a heavenly Jerusalem, even Jerusalem which is above, and which is free. And where do we find freedom, but by being introduced into the presence of the Father through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus? Worldly religion hinders access with confidence through the faith of Jesus to the Father. The law — Jerusalem which now is — could never lead any under it to cry, Abba, Father. This is the result of accomplished redemption, and one of the richest gifts that comes down from above — even from the Jerusalem which is above, and is free. True, we take our place as servants now; but still it is as sons, even as the Son of God Himself took His place as servant here; and, hence, our very service is liberty. The whole Jewish system was necessarily one of bondage; Jerusalem that now is — Jerusalem not knowing redemption. But, through faith, "we are come to the Mount Zion, and to the heavenly Jerusalem;" and, therefore, have "the garment of praise, instead of the spirit of heaviness."
The apostle quotes Isa. 54:1, in illustration of the Jerusalem above being the happy mother of free-born children. Hagar, when she conceived, despised her mistress; but laughter from God was not to be connected with her son; but with Isaac, the son of Sarah. "Rejoice, thou barren (Sarah, not Hagar) that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not; for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband." How blessedly does this follow immediately on the details of Christ's suffering for us in the previous chapter of the prophet. We should read the chapters together, to see even the present glory following those sufferings, in enabling "the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children." This is a true type of grace. The law knew nothing of praise. Hagar's son was born of the flesh. Sarah's child was the child of God's grace and power. So it was with Hannah subsequently. The barren woman bearing can only find utterance in praise. Outward greatness and glory may be connected with bondage; for men are either slaves of sin, or of the law, or of the world, till they know redemption. Ishmael was great in the presence of his brethren, while Isaac was in obscurity; so it was with Esau while Jacob was serving; and so now professing Christians may be great and glorious, because they are lovers of their own selves. But they know not the liberty of truth; they know not grace, and praise cannot burst forth. When the work of Christ was finished on the Cross, and presented as the object to faith; to those who saw it and believed in it, nothing remained but praise. "Rejoice, O barren, that bearest not." "Rejoice, in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice." "As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing."
"Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. 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 free-woman." (Gal. 4:28-30.)
How constantly are we reminded, that all error is to be traced up to the departure from a very few fundamental principles. What was the Galatian error? What is Christendom of the present day but the practical denial "that a man must be born again"? Was Isaac the child of natural or supernatural power? We all say that after God had stamped death, both upon Abraham and Sarah (see Rom. 4:19), as to all expectation of having a child, then God, according to His promise and power, gave them Isaac. "Now we, brethren," says the apostle, "as Isaac was, are the children of promise;" "born of the Spirit;" "born of the incorruptible seed of the Word;" of God's "own will, begotten by the word of truth;" "born of God." And if there be faith in our hearts, it is the result of the like mighty power of God which He wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead. (See Eph. 1:19.) Now, it is against such a power as this being needed by man, to enable him to "see" and "enter into the kingdom of God," so as to have to do with God in mercy and salvation, that man frets and kicks. And the professing body have ignored the truth, some one way and some another, that "we must be born again."
Ishmael and Isaac cannot live in the same house, or go on peaceably together. When Isaac, Sarah's son, is weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the occasion, Ishmael, Hagar's son, 'mocks.' He looks at Isaac as despicable and insignificant; mocks at the old age of Sarah, compared with the vigour and comeliness of Hagar. "Even so it is now." There is nothing man more instinctively dislikes than grace. He cannot endure the thought that God should make one to differ from another, and that the difference is not made by man himself. Man naturally frets more against the grace, than he does against the holiness of God. He presumes that he can, by some means or other of his own devising, meet the holiness of God; but grace is God's ability to meet man in his utmost need, and unspeakably to bless him. The oft-repeated story of religious persecution is but the story of Ishmael and Isaac here pointed out by the apostle. And the peculiar form of Ishmael's opposition to Isaac, even mocking, is very characteristic of the day in which we live; for the more man comes to glory in the greatness of his own powers, the greater will be his antagonism to "the gospel of the grace of God."
The unrelenting word comes to Abraham, "Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman." 'Grievous' indeed was it to Abraham to cast them out; it went against his feelings and affections to do so; but it was not more 'grievous' to Abraham to do so, than it is for us to turn the law out of doors. It cleaves so fast to us. It seems so grievous to us to give up the works of our own hands, and to renounce that on which we have most prided ourselves. But until Hagar is gone, there is and can be no peace in the house of Abraham. Until the law, and all expectation from it, is thoroughly renounced, there is no peace in the soul. "Being justified by faith, we have peace."
How little do even real Christians apprehend their present dignity, "Sons and heirs of God, joint-heirs with Christ." And so long as they cleave to the law, it is impossible for them to realize their title to "an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved for them in heaven." The realizing of this title necessarily puts those who do so into the place of pilgrims and strangers here. To be an heir of all that God can give can never be earned by any thing a man can do. The law made those under it servants, not sons; and to be an heir, it is necessary to be a son, even to be born to an inheritance. How impossible is it, until we enter into God's thoughts in giving to us the Scriptures, to read, in what was apparently but a passionate speech of an angry woman, a most profound spiritual truth. "The son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac." And so it was historically. "And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac. But unto the sons of the concubines, which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son." Isaac was 'heir' according to God's original promise. (Gen. 15:4.) Others might have gifts, and flourish; but nothing would satisfy Sarah but the heirship for her son. It is even so now. Men are content with an outward knowledge of Christ, and the many gifts which they get thereby; but they stand entirely apart from the true heirs of God. Born of Him, they can be satisfied with nothing less than God is pleased to give; and if He has given them now the unspeakable gift of Christ, and they have received Him by faith, how will not God with Christ freely give them all things? The children of the concubines receive their gifts, and go their way. So now; all connected with the false Church receive their gifts, and think not of the inheritance, yea, despise it. The present engrosses their minds; and the spirit of the age is strongly set on present blessings, by the development of human powers. Thus, like Esau, they despise the birthright; for what good does it do? They may, indeed, desire the inheritance, when about to be removed from the present scene. But God has inseparably joined together the birthright and the inheritance; and those who despise the birthright will never be heirs. Men despise being born of God; they direct their malice and their wit against those who prize the birthright, and thus despising, as Esau, the birthright, can never possess the inheritance.
"So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." (Gal. 4:31, Gal. 5:1.)
If born of God, we are not children of Hagar, but of Sarah — free-born children of the free-woman, set free by the Son Himself, and therefore free indeed. It is into the liberty of sons that Christ has brought us; and although the glorious liberty of sons be that for which we wait, even to be manifested with Christ the Son in glory; yet, even now, it is a glorious liberty to have access unto the Father with confidence by the Spirit of adoption, instead of having a yoke of bondage imposed on us by those who would tempt God by forcing the law on us. (See Acts 15.) The only one who is free from law, is he who can look at it in all its condemning power, and yet knows deliverance from it by the Cross of Christ. (Rom. 7:4-6.) And he alone who is thus delivered from it upholds the law in all its integrity, as "holy, just, and good." What a marvellous liberty is that wherewith Christ has made us free. It is the liberty of truth. (John 8:32.) We dare to look at things as they really are — to look at the very worst of our condition — to see fully our guilt and helplessness as sinners, and appalling as this is, it is amply met by seeing the grace of God in truth, and the reality of Christ's propitiatory work on the Cross. And what a blessed reality it is, that Christ is "of God made unto us righteousness!" What liberty to be delivered from the vain attempt to find some ground of confidence in ourselves toward God! What liberty to be occupied, not with ourselves, but with the worthiness of the Lamb slain. The apostle's word of command is, "Stand fast in the liberty." And how needed the word; for there are many 'entanglements' to which we are liable, and by means of which we exchange the liberty of Christ for a yoke of bondage. One of the readiest entanglements is a system of ordinances: this was the danger of the Galatians. But we have our special danger of entanglement from the traditional religion by which we are surrounded. The yoke of traditional religions is grievously galling to the consciences of many real Christians. We all need the word, "Stand fast in the liberty of Christ," — freedom from all condemnation, freedom of nearness to God, freedom of holiness, freedom of service. Bring in the law, and all this freedom is gone, and in its place a heavy yoke placed upon us.
"Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law ye are fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision but faith which worketh by love." (Gal. 5:2-6.)
This is very stern language, but the honour of Christ, as well as the salvation of sinners, was at stake. Christ will not take the place of a helper, to the detriment of His place as a Saviour. Any dependence on legal righteousness, moral or ceremonial, renders Christ 'profitless' unto us. Nothing but salvation meets our need. How often do we hear the phrase, "I know I can do nothing by myself." But this only puts Christ in the place of a helper, and helper indeed He is to thousands who are never saved. The ten lepers were alike helped by Christ, but one only had faith to throw himself at His feet, and thus to get salvation. If you look partly to yourself, and partly to Christ, "Christ shall profit you nothing." What profit is Christ Himself to thousands who bear His name? Well might the apostle, who gave up every advantage for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ, ask this question. Christ was truly all to him. Well might he reiterate the testimony, "He that is circumcised is a debtor to do the whole law." The holy majesty of the law, the rich grace of the gospel, and the glory of Christ, alike forbid the vain and senseless attempt to make our own partial obedience, together with Christ, the ground of our salvation. Such an attempt is, in the language of the apostle, to nullify the work of Christ on the Cross, as though it were a needless work, and to fall from grace — to abandon the firm rock of God's grace in Christ Jesus, for the sandy foundation of our own righteousness. It is, indeed, a fearful thing for a Christian to fall into sin; but even for such a one there is provision in the rich grace of the gospel. "If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins." But to fall from grace is to reassert confidence in the flesh, and to give up confidence in Christ; it is to turn the gospel into a mere remedial law; so as to produce a religion, which leaves man in his native distance from God, without purging his conscience, or giving him peace with God. Man, as a sinner, needs salvation, and this the grace of God brings to him. To fall from grace is to undermine the certainty of salvation by faith in Christ Jesus, and to leave salvation as a grand uncertainty, to be determined at the day of judgment, instead of receiving it now as of God, and on the ground of it rejoicing in peace with God, and nearness to God.
But those who thus 'fall from grace,' not only abandon the truth of the gospel as to present justification before God by faith in Christ, but they surrender also the true Christian hope, by making the attainment of righteousness their hope, instead of making present righteousness, through faith in Jesus, the sure warrant for expecting glory. "We," says the apostle, in the name of all believers, "wait not for righteousness, but the hope to which righteousness is entitled." If we tamper with the truth of present acceptance in the Beloved, we undermine the blessed hope for which, through the Spirit, we are entitled to wait — even glory. We find many Christians looking to justification, as something in prospect, instead of seeing that they possess it now, and on that ground rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. The Lord Himself is our 'righteousness,' and our hope is grounded on that righteousness; and what a glorious hope it is, even that those who are thus "righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
All distinctions in the flesh become lost where there is faith in Christ. Circumcision, the badge in the flesh of God's earthly people, 'availeth' no more than uncircumcision. It is a new living principle which is needed. Such is faith wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God. And such faith is an energetic principle; it "worketh by love," The law could give neither life nor righteousness; it might command love to God and man, but was powerless to enforce its own enactment; but faith 'worketh' by love to God and man.
"Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." (Gal. 5:7-9.)
It is "obedience to the truth" which is now God's test of obedience. It is not man's competence to present himself in moral righteousness to God which is in question; that has been decided already in the negative. But the question is, Will man accept righteousness as a gift from God? will he accept Christ as the righteousness of God, by faith in His name? This is the test. On this turns the judgment; as it is written, "The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven . . . taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." How many are now making, as the Galatians did, their very imperfect and partial obedience to the law a positive hindrance to obeying the gospel. It might appear a little matter; but the apostle discovered in this legal tendency that leaven which would corrupt the whole gospel, and deprive it of its glory. When the truth of the gospel is at stake, the apostle speaks with stern decision. It is a bad sign when there is not stern contention for the truth of the gospel — when there is more sensitiveness about our own honour than the honour of Christ — the honour of His cross, and His spotless righteousness.
"I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded; but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be. And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. I would they were even cut off which trouble you." (Gal. 5:10-12.)
The apostle knew that 'the truth' he set forth would be responded to by the heart and conscience of those who had been quickened by the grace of God, however for the moment that truth had been overlaid by legalism. This was his confidence in them through the Lord. How earnestly and constantly do real Christians need to be "persuaded to continue in the grace of God." (Acts 13:43.) It is remarkable to find the concurrent testimony of the apostles to the real character of legalism. It presents itself in such a fair form, — moral, philanthropical, or religious, that it seems hard to characterize it as the great disturber and troubles. Such was the united testimony of the apostles in their one memorable council recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: "Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law." And so the apostle here characterizes the legal teacher as a troubler; and whilst such 'trouble' by their 'words' and teaching, how many Christians are self-tormentors because they look to themselves, instead of looking to Christ. The Apostle will not spare the legal teacher be he who he may, he shall bear his judgment. Yes, hard as it may appear — uncharitable, as men in our days would say — the apostle hesitates not to say, "I would they were even cut of that trouble you." The glory of God and His Christ are in question; and such being the case, soft words are not in season.
The apostle knew that the preaching of a modified gospel, so as to mingle God's grace and man's work together, and to give much more prominence to man's work than the work of Christ on the cross, would take away the offence of the cross. And so it has done. Men may preach, and men may say that Christ "died for our sins;" but they hesitate as to the true conclusion, "then are we saved." The real offence of the cross is, that while it takes away from man every possible ground of confidence in himself, it gives to him, as a known and proved sinner, such a ground of confidence with God, that he can have peace with Him on the ground of His holiness, as well as of His grace. The offence of the Cross still exists, when the Cross is set forth as the verdict of God against man's righteousness, wisdom, and goodness, and the introduction of a new order of things, even Christ and Him crucified, "the wisdom and power of God" to those who are "called of God, and saved by His grace."(1 Cor. 1:18-24.)