Illustrating Two Choices


It is a truth that every public speaker needs to accept: people are more apt to remember your illustrations than your carefully reasoned arguments. The challenge is to come up with an illustration that conveys the truth of your argument.

It happens all the time. I make an offhand reference during a message and that is the thing people comment on as they leave the church. It would be aggravating if it wasn’t so predictable.

We communicate best through verbal pictures. Gary Smalley and John Trent have written a wonderful book: The Language of Love in which they reveal the way to communicate any truth effectively and powerfully to the people you love. It is all related to crafting an appropriate and powerful illustration. If communication has gone stale in your relationship, I commend the book to you.

This morning Paul continues his theme by illustrating the difference between relying on Christ and relying on the Law or our own performance. He is confronting a group of false teachers who insisted that the only way to know the favor of God was to obey all of God’s commands. They believed that if you wanted to be made right with God, you had to earn it.

Paul has been arguing that this is not the message of the gospel. He has stated over and over that the reason Christ came into the world was precisely because we CANNOT earn our salvation. We needed God to rescue us and that is what God did in Christ. Becoming a child of God; becoming a true believer; is about putting ALL your hope and confidence in what Christ has done for you. Now Paul is going to illustrate this from the history of Israel. In other words, he went to the home court of the false teachers to make his point. 

21 Tell me, you who want to live under the law, do you know what the law actually says? 22 The Scriptures say that Abraham had two sons, one from his slave wife and one from his freeborn wife. 23 The son of the slave wife was born in a human attempt to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise. But the son of the freeborn wife was born as God’s own fulfillment of his promise.

24 These two women serve as an illustration of God’s two covenants. The first woman, Hagar, represents Mount Sinai where people received the law that enslaved them. 25 And now Jerusalem is just like Mount Sinai in Arabia, because she and her children live in slavery to the law. 26 But the other woman, Sarah, represents the heavenly Jerusalem. She is the free woman, and she is our mother. 27 As Isaiah said,

“Rejoice, O childless woman,

you who have never given birth!

Break into a joyful shout,

you who have never been in labor!

For the desolate woman now has more children

than the woman who lives with her husband!”

28 And you, dear brothers and sisters, are children of the promise, just like Isaac. 29 But you are now being persecuted by those who want you to keep the law, just as Ishmael, the child born by human effort, persecuted Isaac, the child born by the power of the Spirit.

30 But what do the Scriptures say about that? “Get rid of the slave and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 So, dear brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman; we are children of the free woman.

Two Women

The Apostle Paul turned to the life of Abraham. Jews and Muslims trace their ancestry back to Abraham so this is an illustration they would understand.

In the book of Genesis, we read of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. He told Abraham that God was going to make him into a great nation. He was going to make his descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore and through his descendants God was going to bless the whole world. (He was referring to Jesus who was a descendant of Abraham).

Abraham believed God’s promise but there was a problem. The problem was Abraham and his wife were having trouble getting pregnant. You can’t have descendants unless you first have children. For years Abraham and Sarah faithfully believed. However, there came a time when Sarah was beyond child-bearing age. She was in her late 70’s when she told Abraham that she had an idea. It was an idea on how they could “help God”.

Sarah’s idea seems very strange to our ears. She suggested that her husband (who was 9 years older than she was in his mid-80’s) have a baby with her young servant. In those days if the servant of a barren woman had a baby it was considered to be legally the child of the barren woman and the heir to the estate. Sarah figured this would be a way to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

Abraham, I am sure, checked with Sarah many times (“Are you SURE this is what you want to do?) Sarah felt it was the only way to fulfill the promise they had anchored their life to.

So, Abraham fathered a child by Hagar, Sarah’s servant. She gave birth to a boy and they named him Ishmael. Abraham welcomed Ishmael as the son he had longed for. But there were problems. As soon as Hagar became pregnant Sarah started to resent her. This caused problems between Abraham and Sarah (“when momma isn’t happy . . .”).

Things were so bad that Hagar ran away before she ever gave birth. The Lord appeared to her and told her to return to Sarah and submit to her. Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86.

It was 13 years later that God appeared to Abraham again. This time he brought shocking news! God said the child of promise would be born to SARAH! Abraham couldn’t believe his ears. He tried to let God off the hook telling him that Ishmael could serve as the descendant of promise. Abraham reminded God that Sarah was 90 and he would be 100 years old when this baby would be born. But God already knew these things.

A little later angels came to Abraham and reiterated the promise that Sarah would have a child. She overheard the conversation and laughed. (Some of you would cry!)

Sarah delivered the child and that child was named Isaac. Abraham and Sarah had a party when Isaac was weaned. Sarah saw Ishmael (now a teenager) laughing. We don’t know whether he was laughing at the sight of Sarah (perhaps leaning on her walker) with the baby or whether he was making fun of Isaac. Either way, Sarah demanded that Ishmael and Hagar be sent away. Abraham did not want to do this (Ishmael was, after all, his son) but he did what Sarah asked.

Two Approaches to Salvation

Paul said this story of the two children of Israel illustrate two ways of being right with God. If you will, it illustrates two different approaches to salvation.

Hagar represents Mt. Sinai (where the Law was given). You can say Hagar represents salvation by human effort. She is an illustration of when we feel the need to “help God” in the area of our salvation. Paul says the approach to God represented by Hagar is the approach of the Judaizers (present unbelieving Jerusalem).

Of course not everyone in Jerusalem was an unbeliever. There were lots of Christians (including the disciples) in Jerusalem but for the most part, it was a city that had rejected Christ in order to cling to the Law (or their own efforts).

On the other hand, you have Sarah and Isaac. They represent trusting the promise and grace of God. Sarah was called the “free woman” and Isaac is called the child of promise. Isaac was born by God’s grace alone (which is why Sarah was so old when she had him . . . it showed that Isaac was made possible only by the Lord). The way of promise represents the true and Heavenly Jerusalem.

Paul said, “Sarah, represents the heavenly Jerusalem. She is the free woman, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). We read this and we may come away thinking Sarah wasn’t very nice. After all, it was her idea to have Abraham have a child by Hagar!  But don’t miss the point. Paul is using this as an illustration of the two ways of salvation. It is not approval of everything Sarah (or anyone else) did.

But don’t miss something very important. He said “and she is our mother.” He does not say, she will be our mother but that she is. In other words, when we trust in Christ we are immediately made a citizen of the New Heavenly Jerusalem. We are put in the will. Our inheritance is guaranteed. This is where the Galatians are and yet they were thinking about turning back to the old way!!!!

Tim Keller wrote,

He is saying, “You, Galatians, if you try to listen to what those teachers are saying and dealing with all of your shame by trying to be moral, by trying to be religious, by doing all this stuff, you will be nothing but a slave. On the other hand, if you understand what Jesus Christ has done is sufficient and there’s nothing to add to it, then you’ll be free and you’ll live a free life. You’ll work, but you won’t have to work. You’ll try to succeed, but you won’t have to succeed. You’ll try to build a family, but you won’t have to have a family. You won’t be a slave to anything.”[1]

Two Different Results

In the middle of all of this Paul quoted Isaiah 54:1

“Rejoice, O childless woman,

you who have never given birth!

Break into a joyful shout,

you who have never been in labor!

For the desolate woman now has more children

than the woman who lives with her husband!”

Paul argues that we are descendants of the free woman just as promised in Isaiah. Sarah may have been barren, but her descendants (all the followers of Christ) are more numerous than a woman who has many children.

There is another application here. The point is that when we try to help God we are going to get in trouble. We are going to make things more difficult. But when we trust Him; when we rely on Him; even though it seems like we taking the less desirable path, the blessing will be greater in the end.

In other words, we make decisions every day. We decide whether we are going to try to “make things happen” or whether we are going to wait on the Lord. We decide whether we are going to do it our way, or His way. We choose whether we will do what the Bible tells us to do or whether we will do what popular opinion seems to dictate. Every day we choose between the way of Hagar and the way of Sarah.

God’s promise is this: if we choose to take the road less traveled, we will find that we will be more greatly used of God.

A good illustration of this could be Mother Teresa. She gave up having her own family so she could care for others. She determined that she would serve the Lord. When she died, she owned little. But is it not true that her descendants are more than the woman who lives with her husband.

This is about who/what you truly trust.

  • Will you wait on the Lord for that believing spouse or will you make a decision based on your biological clock?
  • Will you trust God to provide the right job (where you can serve the Lord) or will you compromise your principles to get a job? Will you take the job the Lord provides (trusting He will meet your needs) or insist on something that pays way more money?
  • Will you take the test on your own and face the consequences? Or will you find ways to cheat like you may be aware other students are doing? Will you go for the grade (and the GPA) or will you deal honestly, believing that God will honor the person who lives with integrity.
  • Will you do what you promised, or will you cast off the promise because something better comes along?
  • Will you keep working on your marriage (even though it is hard) or will you take what seems the easier way and just start over?
  • Will you buy what you can pay for or will you go into debt on the “great deal”?
  • Will you treat others with grace and dignity even when they don’t extend the same courtesy and resort to intimidating tactics toward you?
  • Will you trust the Lord to resolve conflicts or will YOU resort to intimidating tactics?

These are the practical decisions we make every day that show whether or not we trust God or trust our own ability to “make things work”?


As most of you realize, the Arabic nations descend largely from Ishmael and the Jewish people come from Abraham. The attempts to “help God” as well-meaning as they were, has led to serious consequences and animosities throughout history.

The religion of Islam and the message of Christ illustrate the difference between Hagar and Sarah. Islam is about rules and doing what is required to earn Allah’s favor. In Islam you work to force people to acknowledge ALLAH. The Muslims are told to bring the infidels (that’s us) in by force. The Christian faith is about grace (when rightly understood). It is about what God has done rather than what we should do. This contrast between the slavery and tyranny of works versus the new life of grace is played out every day in the world. One way leads to frustration and anger; the other leads to contentment and love.

Once again Paul has brought us to where we have been every week in our study of Galatians. We are reminded that it is the Lord that draws people to faith and changes lives. We depend on Him for these things.

Our “freedom” comes from knowing that the Lord is sufficient even when we stumble. We are set free knowing that God is committed to us and He will strengthen us when we are weak; convict us when we are wrong; heal us when we are broken. We serve Him not out of obligation thinking we must or even can earn His favor. We are free because we don’t have to pretend. We can be honest about our fears, our failures, and our insecurities. We can be honest with God and know that He will not cast us aside. We serve Him because we love Him. We serve Him because we have learned that He will not steer us wrong. To do things His way is not a punishment . . . it is the way of the wise.

We get into trouble when forget these things. We buy into the worldly philosophy of thinking we can “make it on our own”. When we start relying on our wisdom, our strength, and our plans, we have gotten back on the treadmill of futility.

Even as churches we are quick to buy into programs that have “worked in other churches” yet we are slow to labor in prayer, waiting on the guidance of God’s Spirit. We eagerly read the words written by our favorite authors and yet we are reluctant to read and study the Word of God. We are often swayed by the world’s expectations instead of the picture of God’s Kingdom.

As long as we are “hung up” on being successful we will be frustrated in life. We will continually find ourselves trying to ‘help God’. Faithfulness and a Kingdom Outlook are content to let God reign.

I hope you have seen in this illustration that this subject of grace and law is not just a theological issue. It has practical application to our everyday lives. If you understand these distinctions, you will be building your life on the surest of foundations. And then, whether you are exalted by the world or considered barren by the world, as long as you trust and rely on Him, the impact of your life will be much greater those who are children of slavery.

[1] Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).

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