Symbolic lessons from the life of Ishmael


extracted from 'Sondez les Ecritures'

The epistle to the Galatians unveils the spiritual meaning of scenes which took place in the house of Abraham after the arrival of Isaac. In the first paragraph, we shall examine the inner conflict of the believer. In the second paragraph, we shall see the enmity between the religion of servitude and the delivered believers, which has been perpetuated from the days of the apostles until now. Finally, we shall consider the deliverance of Israel which, spiritually, has remained in servitude until now.

1.   The flesh lusts against the Spirit

A permanent conflict takes place within the believer because he possesses two natures:

  • The nature that is born of the flesh, the old man, illustrated by Ishmael.
  • The nature that is born of the Spirit, the new man, illustrated by Isaac.

The believer is no longer in the flesh, but the flesh is in him. It does not want to be subject to God's word because it is not capable of it. Further, it 'lusts against the Spirit' who acts in the new man to bring about submission to the word. Victory over the flesh cannot be obtained but by a walk according to the Spirit (Gal. 5:16).

This is what happened in Abraham's house: Isaac was born, but Ishmael remained the same. As son of the servant-maid, he continued to be marked by unbelief in the divine promises. This spirit had been dormant until the time that Isaac was born. After that, mutual understanding proved impossible and living together became intolerable. Keeping Ishmael would have meant acknowledging to some extent the claims of the flesh; but 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God' (1 Cor. 15:50).

As a believer-by his new birth-can fully enjoy being able to enter into a blessed sphere, it is necessary that he quickly understands by faith that, because he is in Christ the new man alone can stand before God. The old man, the man of the moral nature of Adam, has to be set aside (illustrated by Ishmael being chased away), and he can be by the power of the Spirit because, in fact, he has been crucified with Christ. This has to fill the believer's heart.

2.   The son of the servant-maid, and the son of the free woman

(i)       The opposition from legal religion

The apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Galatia of the scene of the feast. The believers were in danger of falling into a legalism which is so natural to the heart of man, who wants to mix it with the sovereign grace of God. In fact, it was necessary for Paul to work and to 'form again Christ in them', and to chase away the legal spirit as prefigured in Ishmael.

He shows them the figurative sense of the passage: Israel, under the law, had demonstrated its incapacity to obey and to produce fruit for God. Those who remained under this covenant of servitude could not pretend to be children of Abraham, although they were his descendants according to the flesh (Rom. 9:7,9). The true children are those who-having been delivered from the slavery of the law and from its condemnation by the death of Christ-are placed in the liberty of grace; they all become children of the free woman, as we are now (verse 31). They have been born during the time when barren Israel was rejected (verse 27). They are the objects of the religious world's hostility (in ritualistic Christendom), as was the case with the Apostle Paul and the Christians of his time, on the part of the Jews who refused the gospel of grace. This is the perpetuated echo of the laughter of Ishmael.

(ii)      The deliverance of Israel

But God has reserved a wonderful deliverance for the Jews, the 'Jerusalem of the present time', always in slavery because it keeps the veil on the heart (2 Cor. 3:15,16). Once the believing Jews of the nation of Israel have come back into their lands, they will turn to the Lord, their Messiah, and will look upon Him whom they have pierced (Zech. 12:10). At this time will be fulfilled what has been prophesied about them for a time still in the future (Gal. 4:27).  The legal and carnal spirit (Ishmael) will have been driven out of their heart, and they will be the true earthly seed of Abraham; such is the grace of the new covenant.