Flesh and Spirit
In Gal. 4:22-26 Paul compares the two covenants to Hagar and Sarah. Hagar was a bondwoman, while Sarah was a free woman. Each has a son, the offspring of their marriage. Paul says that Ishmael “was born according to the flesh,” that is, by natural means that is normally seen on earth. Isaac, however, “was born according to the Spirit” and was a child “of promise.”
These two wives and their children present an allegory of the two covenants. Neither were to be despised, of course, but yet we ought to recognize the truth that God intended to convey to us.
Children of the Flesh
We were all begotten by an earthly father and born according to the flesh when our mothers brought us forth into the world. Abraham, Israel, David, Isaiah, and even Jesus’ disciples were all born according to the flesh. Adam himself, though born as a “son of God” (Luke 3:38) became fleshly when he sinned and could beget only children according to the flesh.
Jesus, however, was born by promise and was the only-begotten Son of God, having a heavenly Father. Being begotten by God and born of a virgin, He was unique. Furthermore, John 1:12 says,
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born [begotten] not of blood(line), nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
As with Jesus, so also we are able to be begotten by the Spirit. John said that we do not need to remain children of the flesh. Those who accept Jesus as the Christ and as the Mediator of the New Covenant have the right to become children of God, even as Jesus was a Son. The main difference between us and Jesus, however, is that we must do so by an adoptive process, because we were already born as children of the flesh. No man is a son of God who has two earthly parents or who was born “naturally.”
Hence, for us, it is a secondary event to become a son of God. We must be begotten by the Spirit and, after a time of pregnancy, be born a second time.
The Old Covenant, represented by Hagar, can only bring forth children of the flesh. To Hagar, her son was the chosen one. That is, the Old Covenant has chosen children of the flesh to be God’s chosen people. This extends far beyond the physical children of Israel. It includes all who are born of flesh by natural childbirth, for among the natural Israelites were a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38), all of whom came under the Old Covenant at Horeb when they proclaimed their vow of obedience.
All of them, regardless of ethnicity, had this in common that they were born according to the flesh. The Old Covenant, then, “chose” them to achieve salvation by fulfilling their vow to God, even as Hagar had chosen her son Ishmael to be the promised seed of Abraham.
The problem was that this was not to be. Even as Ishmael could not change the circumstances of his birth (from flesh to the promise), so also neither can any child of the flesh become a child of promise by natural childbirth. As much as the flesh may strive to fulfill its vow to God, it always fails in the end.
The Alternate Path
The way to being “chosen” must be by a different path. That second path is manifested by the New Covenant, which is rooted in the promises of God. The vow (oath) that God made to all the people in Deut. 29:10-15, was patterned after the vow that God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and others). Being chosen was by God’s choice, as seen in the illustration of Jacob and Esau. Rom. 9:11-13 says,
10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
This has often been misapplied, because fleshly men still want God to choose children of the flesh. Hence, they interpret Paul’s statement to mean that God rejected fleshly Esau only to choose fleshly Jacob. This interpretation solves nothing, because it still maintains the Old Covenant view that flesh is chosen. It upholds the claim that “my flesh is better than your flesh.”
If we go back a few verses, we see what Paul was really saying. Rom. 9:6-8 says,
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel, who are descended from Israel; 7 neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “Through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
So Paul interprets this in verse 8, not that fleshly Isaac was chosen while fleshly Ishmael was not, but rather that “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God.” In other words, the story of Isaac and Ishmael was an allegory, as Paul calls it in Gal. 4:24. The fact that Isaac was conceived in a supernatural way when his father was 100 years old reveals the meaning of the allegory. Though Isaac, in the end, was born naturally of two parents, he represents, it took a supernatural act of God to beget and bring forth “the children of promise.”
Isaac himself could not actually be conceived by the Holy Spirit, for if this had taken place, then Jesus would not have been the “only-begotten” Son. There would have been two sons literally begotten of God. So the Scripture suggests this truth in allegorical form to be similar to the virgin birth of Christ and teach us the principle of being divinely begotten.
That principle shows that all children of flesh are under the Old Covenant, for they are children of Hagar, allegorically speaking. Conversely, the children of God are under the New Covenant and are children of Sarah, allegorically speaking. Of these, Paul says in Gal. 4:28,
28 And you, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.
Paul’s intent was not to say that the Galatians were fleshly descendants of Isaac, but that their faith in Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant, had made them “like Isaac.” Their status as “children of promise” had nothing to do with their flesh, but with the Holy Spirit begetting Christ in them.
Cast out the Children of the Flesh
Paul’s conclusion, then, is given in Gal. 4:30, 31,
30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bond-woman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
Paul then admonishes the Galatian believers not to revert back to the Old Covenant by returning to Judaism. Gal. 5:1 says,
1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
The nature of that slavery is evident in that the Old Covenant required the people to vow obedience in order to be saved. While such a vow is admirable and even necessary as an expression of one’s desire to follow God, it is always doomed to failure.
Vows place an obligation upon the one making the vow. If a vow can be kept (or paid), then one can overcome the slavery of a vow. But no man, apart from Jesus Himself, has been able to keep the law perfectly. The rest of us who depend upon our vow (or the vow of our forefathers in Israel) find ourselves enslaved by the law on account of our disobedience. The Old Covenant, then, can only bring slavery.
Can the Old Covenant Nullify God’s Vow?
The New Covenant shows us a different path. God made a vow or oath by His own will to make us His people—that is, to save us. This is seen in the first time the word “covenant” is used in Scripture, where God made a covenant with the whole earth in the time of Noah. While that covenant was given to Noah for the record so that we would learn of it, Noah was not required to vow anything in return. In fact, the earth itself was not required to make a vow to God. God took full responsibility to save the earth.
The same was true when God made the second covenant with Israel and with the aliens among them, and even with all others who were not present (Deut. 29:10-15). God vowed to make them His people and to be their God, and this vow stood above any human response. God took full responsibility to make this happen. The people hearing about this divine oath may have looked at each other and said, “How will He do that, seeing that my flesh is incapable of full obedience? Can He override the will of my flesh? Can He truly transform me—and all of us—into His people?”
The answer is YES. God is more powerful than the flesh. His will is stronger than the will of man. He is all powerful. He has the wisdom to know how to do it and how to overcome all opposition from the wills of men. And He is motivated by love to make such a vow. While most people (even Christians) find it difficult to believe that God has the ability to fulfill His vow, even that lack of confidence cannot nullify the promise of God.
Fleshly religion tries to be saved by the power of flesh and by the will of man. It cannot achieve righteousness by those means. The Hebrew concept of righteousness is rooted in one’s ability to keep his word, that is, to fulfill his vows. Our Old Covenant vows always fail, because flesh is incapable of fulfilling our good intentions. But God is righteous, because His New Covenant oath is more than a good intention. He is actually capable of doing what He says He will do.
Yes, He will save the whole world, for that was why Jesus died on the cross (1 John 2:2). But this will take time, set forth in the divine plan, and prophesied in the law, the prophets, the psalms, and the New Testament. The Old Covenant has no power to overrule the promise of God. Paul says in Gal. 3:17,
17 What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later [after the promise to Abraham], does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance is based on [one’s ability to keep the] law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
Paul was telling us that the Abrahamic covenant—which is the New Covenant—was given 430 years prior to the Old Covenant under Moses. The New Covenant predates the Old Covenant. The prior covenant under Abraham takes precedence over the later covenant (in Exodus 19) under Moses. The later covenant cannot nullify the previous covenant.
So also, that which God established by promise, apart from the will of man long before we were even born, cannot be thwarted by our inability to keep our Old Covenant vows which we made later.
The Limitations of Divine Judgment
Many have attributed more power to the Old Covenant than to the New. They think that man’s rebellion and sin against God will keep God from saving the vast majority of mankind. They prove their case by showing how most of humanity dies without faith in Jesus Christ. But can death cause God’s promise to fail?
Such views assume that death is the end of the matter. They quote Heb. 9:27, “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment,” and then interpret this as a divine deadline. But it does not say that death is a divine deadline for salvation.
The Great White Throne judgment is the place where most of humanity will receive the revelation of God and of Christ. It is true that they will still be judged according to their works (Rev. 20:12), but this is not the end of the story. Death does not assure God’s failure to fulfill His vow. Instead, God uses judgment to restore all things and to teach the sinners of His ways.
Isaiah 26:9 says, “for when the earth experiences Thy judgments, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.” The lake of fire is not a fiery pit but the judgment of the “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2 KJV). The law does not prescribe torture, but restitution, and all sin is judged by measure, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). No man can commit so much sin that it would warrant never-ending punishment. Instead, the law demands limits on judgment.
Judgment is limited by the law of Jubilee, where all debt and liability for sin is cancelled at an appointed time. Even judgment for lesser crimes are limited to forty lashes (Deut. 25:3). This is the law by which God will judge the whole earth.
In His wisdom, God set up the law to reflect His own character of Love. This includes all of the judgments of the law. He limited judgment in order to be able to fulfill His vows. All of the passages that speak of “eternal judgment” are mistranslations of the Hebrew word olam and the Greek word aionian. These words do not mean “everlasting,” but an indefinite and unknown period of time—that is, an age. For further study on this, see my book, The Judgments of the Divine Law, chapter 5.
The law of Jubilee makes it possible for God to fulfill His New Covenant vow. The judgment of the law upon sinners is based upon the Old Covenant, and it judges all men for the works—or lack of works—unless, of course, they base their salvation upon the New Covenant by faith in Jesus Christ.
The question, then, is how God’s New Covenant vow actually works in us to make us sons of God. Not only does the scope of salvation interest us, but also the manner in which it is accomplished.
As we will see, it is not by fleshly conception but by the Holy Spirit’s ability to beget Christ in us. Christ is begotten in the few during this life time, but at the Great White Throne, the rest of humanity will likewise be given the gift of faith through the revelation of God at that time, so that they too may go through the same training and discipline of sons that we ourselves experience in our life time.