The obvious comparison and contrast between Hagar and Sarah illustrates the differences between the Old and the New Covenants. A closer look shows that the two women also represent what happens in each of us.
We are all born to "Hagar" and a human father. We are all born as slaves to sin and struggle, represented by our mother Hagar who stands for Jerusalem and its legal bondage. We are all born to legalism-to the struggle of growing in maturity and goodness according to our understandings of our culture's expectations.
But when we meet Jesus, something miraculous becomes possible. He offers us a "new birth". He tells us we can be born of the Spirit-we can become the "offspring" of a miracle. We can become heirs of the promise God gave to Abraham.
When we accept Christ, we are reborn as sons of God, and Sarah is our mother. Sarah, representing the heavenly Jerusalem, stands for freedom. She is the mother of all Christ-followers. She is the mother of the "new birth."
In the Jewish culture, ethnic inheritance comes from the mother. A person is a Jew only if his or her mother is a Jew. In the metaphor of Hagar and Sarah, the same thing is true. As natural-born humans, our "seed" comes from our fathers, but our natural inheritance is bondage as represented by our "mother" Hagar.
When we are born from above, however, the Holy Spirit becomes our "father," and we are a new creation. We are children of the promise; we are the offspring of a miracle. Our new inheritance is freedom as represented by our new "mother" Sarah.
The quote from Isaiah in verse 27 is a completely different metaphor. It's not referring to Hagar and Sarah.
"Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband."
Isaiah wrote these words to Israel when the people were in exile. They had disobeyed God, and they had been cut off from his blessings. The context of this verse in the book of Isaiah is that Israel is like a wife separated from her husband. In its original setting, this quotation contrasts the condition of Israel-an abandoned wife-with the prospering nations who held Israel in bondage.
This verse is a promise that even though she is abandoned, God will still fulfill his promises to her, and ultimately she will be prosperous in ways she can't imagine.
Paul is using this text to apply to people who find the blessing of a relationship with Jesus. The desolate, he says, will produce greater offspring than she "who has a husband." He is saying that when we are willing to risk experiencing grief and helplessness and desolation, God can restore us and bless us in ways much greater than he can bless those who believe they already have the truth, or those who believe that their lives are complete and comfortable.
Those who walk through life's desolations, those who face the depth of their hopelessness and sin, are those whom God can heal and bless. Those who avoid facing the reality of their lives only open up limited parts of themselves for God to bless.
Paul also makes it clear that those who have not experienced being born from above will persecute those who have. But he insists that we are not to flirt with staying attached to those who mock us or criticize us or otherwise humiliate us. While we are to love them, we are to firmly reject any form of legalism, whether it's overt obedience to the ten commandments, or whether it's more agnostic viewpoints that we can improve ourselves by trying and by self-discipline.
We have an inheritance the slave woman's children will never share. We are children of the free woman, Paul concludes.
We are the children of a miracle; we are the sons of God.
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