Text: Galatians 4:21-31
“Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” St. Paul said, “and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” St. Paul wrote these inspired words to the congregation at Rome as they struggled with the question, just who were the children of Abraham, that is, of God? Was it those descended from Abraham according to the flesh? No, said Paul; but those who shared Abraham’s faith in the promise of Christ.
The Galatians faced a similar question, though earlier in time than the Romans. How does one become – and remain – a child of God? Is it through faith in the promise of Christ, as St. Paul said, or by – in addition to faith – observing the laws of Moses, as some others said. To put it into contemporary language: are the children of God those who live perfectly moral and upright lives? Or, are they those who struggle against sin and temptation – and often fall – but look to Christ for forgiveness and rescue? Those who seek to appease God by their own moral perfection will ultimately find themselves condemned by the same law they claim to uphold. But, those who have been called by the Gospel, who look to Christ for forgiveness, are set free from the condemnation of the law and are children of the Jerusalem above.
This text from Galatians 4 is one that’s hard to understand on first glance. This is a text where it’s very important to know the context. The congregations of Galatia were Gentile converts to the faith who heard the Good News of Jesus Christ through the missionary work of Sts. Paul and Barnabas. As these new brothers and sisters in Christ grew in the faith and love of God, some other missionaries came to them. These other missionaries came down from Jerusalem with a supplemental message. St. Paul, indeed, laid a good groundwork by sharing with them the Good News that Jesus had died and rose for the forgiveness of their sins. However, to remain in that forgiveness, they must continue to observe the laws of Moses. By this they meant, the dietary and ceremonial laws, the moral law, and, particularly for these Gentiles, circumcision. In terms we would be familiar with: they had faith, which is good, but the Galatians needed works to be true Christians.
“Tell me,” St. Paul said to the Galatians, “you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.” Right. Those who came to the Galatians to add to what St. Paul taught them used Abraham as an example. So, St. Paul fired right back – from Abraham. Abraham had two sons, but only one of them came from God’s promise. Remember that God had promised that through Abraham’s offspring all the nations of the world would be blessed. After some time had passed, thinking that God was being slow to make good, Sarai had Abram lay with her servant Hagar. Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. He was the son born according to the flesh. He was not the one born according to God’s promise. That would be Isaac.
The Lord said to Abraham, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” The Lord promised Abraham, who was 100, that his 90 year old wife, would give birth to a son. And she did. It was through this child that the Messiah and forgiveness would come: the child of the promise. The true child of Abraham, the one who would inherit the promises of God, was not the one born through the work of the flesh, but the one born according to the promise, the one born through faith.
As you probably feel, this is a difficult text – but the concept less so. What is it that St. Paul is trying to stress to the Galatians? At some point you’ve heard this word from James, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” St. Paul is trying to stress to the Galatians that those who are the children of God, are not those who seek to fulfill the Law themselves. For, since the Fall into Sin, the Law does not bring life – only condemnation. We hear in the Law, by this we mean the Commandments, which things are pleasing to God – but which we are unable and fail to do. If we seek to earn righteousness or to be righteous before God by good works, we will pull the whole house down around us and suffer eternal condemnation. For, whoever fails the Law in one point fails the whole thing.
“Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise,” St. Paul said. He recalled to them earlier in the letter how it was they first received the Holy Spirit, not by their works but by hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Galatians heard through St. Paul that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took on our human flesh. He became subject to the Law, yet kept it perfectly. By His perfect keeping of the Law, Jesus fulfilled the Law. By His death, He made the full payment for our sins. This forgiveness He gives to all through faith and, at the same time removes from us the curse of the Law. The curse of the Law is that those who fail to keep it shall die. The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus died, so that those who believe in Him live eternally.
What does this mean for us? We, like the Galatians, are children of the promise. We have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ and have been called to faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. Though we were under the curse of the law, rightly headed to eternal death for our failure to keep even a single Commandment, that curse has been removed from us. How? By Christ becoming a curse for us. He Himself bore our sin on the cross and suffered the condemnation of the Law for us. By faith in His death we are set free. We no longer live beneath the eternal condemnation, but the eternal light of the Gospel. That is why St. Paul called the Galatians – and all who believe in the Gospel of Christ – children of the Jerusalem above.
But, as we learned on Sunday, the temptation to sin remains. One of those temptations is to turn inward into ourselves. We either tell ourselves things are good because of all the good works we have or we assume that we must be condemned for our lack. That is what the Galatians were tempted to. Any attempts to justify ourselves by works of the Law will bring only death. The true children of Abraham, rather, are those who look not to themselves but to Christ for forgiveness. By His death, Christ set us free from the guilt we deserve to bear. And so, we rejoice, as this Sunday in Lent is called. Christ, by His death and through the preaching of His Gospel, has released us from the curse of the Law. We now live freely by faith in the light of the Good News. Though for our sins we deserve eternal death, by faith we now reign in life. “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Thanks be to God.