The Two Covenants
The concept of Sonship is first set forth in a meaningful way in the story of Ishmael and Isaac. Islam and Christianity differ on the details of the story. No doubt if I had been born in another part of the world, I would be arguing for the Islamic side, but God saw fit to have me born into a Christian family. Studying the Bible and having a direct relationship with a living Christ has satisfied me as to which version of history is correct.
Without going into all the details, let me say simply that Ishmael was the oldest son of Abraham through Hagar, the Egyptian bondwoman. He was born while his name was yet Abram. The Hebrew letter "hey" had not yet been added to his name, indicating the presence of the Holy Spirit--the breath of God.
God changed Abram's name to Abraham when he was 99 years old (Gen. 17:1-5). Ishmael was 13 at the time. According to the Biblical account, God then told Abraham for the first time that he was to have a son in the coming year through Sarah, the freewoman. Thus, Isaac was born when Abraham was 100. Sarah was 90 at the time, which in those days was somewhat beyond the age of childbearing. (They were healthier in those days and lived longer.)
For 13 years Abraham had assumed that Ishmael was the heir of the birthright. This birthright, as we have said, had been passed down from Adam and included being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Thus, the ultimate promise of the birthright was the promise of Sonship.
But suddenly God informed him that this was not so, although Ishmael certainly would have an inheritance. It is not that Ishmael was disinherited. It is rather that he was given an alternate inheritance--something other than Sonship. That inheritance had to do with earthly things--specifically, land or territory. Genesis 17:20 says,
20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul tells us that this was part of a great historical allegory, "history with meaning." Because Ishmael was born through a bondwoman, Hagar, he represents the "children" (or followers) of the Old Covenant. Conversely, because Isaac was born through a freewoman, Sarah, he represents the "children" (or followers) of the New Covenant. Each covenant had a different inheritance: one physical or earthly; the other spiritual, or heavenly. In Galatians 4:22-26 we read,
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the freewoman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh [i.e., a natural childbirth], and the son by the freewoman through the promise [it was supernatural, since Sarah was 90 years old]. 24 This is allegorically speaking: for these two women are two covenants, one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. . . And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.
In the book of Galatians, Paul was explaining how the Old Covenant led to bondage and slavery, while the New Covenant led to freedom. Essentially, the Old Covenant promises to bless those who are obedient. The New Covenant promises to bless those who rely upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ on their behalf.
Let me explain. Paul tells us in Rom. 5:12 (literal translation),
12 through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death [mortality] through sin, and so death spread to all men, on which all sinned.
In Romans 5, Paul was telling us that sin entered the world through Adam and that Adam's sin was then imputed to all men. In other words, everyone has to pay the penalty for Adam's sin, because his sin was imputed to all men. We today were not present when Adam sinned, but we are paying the penalty as if we had sinned in Adam.
Thus, we are all mortal. This death in us is a disease that makes us morally weak. And so Paul says in Romans 5:12 above, "death spread to all men--ON WHICH all sinned." No man is without sin, because all are mortal. We sin because we are mortal. We did not suddenly become mortal when we ourselves sinned.
The Old and New Covenants are two different ways of dealing with this most basic problem in man. The Old Covenant promises life and blessing if man is obedient. The blessings are conditional upon obedience, as we read in Exodus 19:5, "IF you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples..."
The problem with the Old Covenant is that mortal man is incapable of full obedience. The conditions of the Old Covenant are beyond man's capability to reach perfection, even though man's actions may be controlled by external laws. Some are even capable of self-discipline and can achieve a high level of "goodness." But even if man could reach perfection today, this could not cancel or nullify his past sins. He might be able to pay restitution to all of his past victims that he has unlawfully offended, but how can he pay restitution to God, who says, "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23)?
This is the great weakness of the Old Covenant. It requires man to do something in order to come into right standing before God. It is thus a covenant of works, man's effort or self-discipline, but it does not make man capable of fulfilling such obligations.
This is what puts man into slavery. The sincere person finds himself in slavery his entire life time, trying to be good enough to inherit the promises of God. Thus, he must either lower God's standard to fit his capability, or his guilty conscience will continue to plague him all of his life.
The New Covenant is different. We will show this difference in Chapter Seven.