Our story today is a story of two families; two families in conflict. Whenever we speak of family we touch a nerve. The Lord has so designed life that who we are and how we feel are more affected by our family than anything else on this earth. For the human race to survive, God has given family members strong natural affections for each other. Parents have such strong natural affections toward their children that they must fight hard against nature to dislike or ignore their children. The natural bond toward family is so strong that often even the most selfish people will do anything to help a family member. Barring unusual circumstances, we can safely say that when marriage or family life is good, life is good; and when marriage and family life is miserable, life is miserable. The bond of family is the strongest natural bond on this earth, a bond not easily broken.
After mankind fell into sin, the Lord introduced a second family into the world, the family of faith. Now mankind was divided into two families; the natural family we are raised with or marry into, and God’s spiritual family; those redeemed from their sin through the blood of Jesus Christ.
Throughout history these two families are often in conflict with one another. Cain killed his brother Abel. Cain hated Abel because Abel loved God while Cain did not. Sometimes the gospel strengthens the bond between natural families; at other times the gospel divides natural families. The Lord Jesus warned you of this when he said that he came to divide families. His gospel would often pit husband against wife, brother against sister, parent against children.
Because the natural bond of family is so strong, the Lord was forced to use shocking hyperbole to express that allegiance to him must supersede allegiance to your natural family. Jesus said, unless you hate your family member in comparison to me, you cannot be my disciple. Sometimes you must take a righteous stand against your family because you love Jesus more than them.
There is nothing more difficult for a Christian than to have to choose between God and family. As most of you are aware, being Jewish and a Christian minister, I know first-hand the pain the gospel can bring to family relationships.
In Genesis 21, this conflict comes right to Abraham’s door. Abraham had two sons; Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael’s mother was Hagar, Abraham’s maid. Isaac had been conceived supernaturally in the womb of Sarah. The Lord had reversed the usual order concerning who would receive the family inheritance. Usually the first-born son would receive the father’s inheritance, but in this case, God had instructed Abraham that Isaac was to receive the inheritance. This arrangement was by divine appointment.
In Abraham’s case the inheritance was not really about money and livestock, but to continue living in the Promised Land and leading future generations of Abraham in the true faith. The inheritance was spiritual in nature. Ishmael was to understand that his status as first-born did not automatically earn him the right to God’s spiritual blessings.
Now in those days, women weaned, or breast-fed their children until they were about two or three. At the end of the weaning period parents would mark this transition from infant to toddler with a party, as we see in v. 8. Ishmael would be about 17 years old at the time of this toddler party.
When relatives gather for family occasions, often long-standing differences between people make their way to the surface, as was the case here. At this party for Isaac, the division among family members is revealed. Sarah catches Ishmael laughing at Isaac. Here again we have a play on the word “laughter.” Isaacs’s name means “laughter.” Abraham and Sarah had laughed with joy over his miraculous birth. Ishmael also laughed, but not with joy. Ishmael’s laugh was the laugh of mocking. Ishmael was ridiculing little Isaac. In Galatians 4 the Apostle Paul labeled this persecution; Ishmael was persecuting Isaac.
Here we see Ishmael’s heart concerning spiritual matters. Ishmael ridiculed the idea that Isaac would receive the inheritance over him. Because of his jealousy and pride, Ishmael hated his little brother. He also demonstrated his hatred for Sarah by laughing at Isaac in her presence.
In v. 10 we see that Sarah was enraged about this. Her solution to the matter seems overly harsh. She advises her husband to cast out his first-born son, along with his mother. Sarah does not want Ishmael sharing the inheritance with Isaac. Abraham becomes greatly displeased with her suggestion. With Ishmael being his natural born son, Abraham’s affections for Ishmael were much greater than Sarah’s.
Our emotions are quick to side with Abraham in this conflict. Surely Sarah favors Isaac over Ishmael. Surely her motives are questionable. Because we are quick to side with Abraham, it is quite shocking that God enters the picture and sides with Sarah.
In v. 12 the Lord speaks to Abraham and agrees with Sarah’s desire that Ishmael be cast out. Abraham, do not be so angry at Sarah’s solution, it is the right solution; listen to her, for only Isaac shall receive the inheritance. The fact that God needed to remind Abraham that Isaac receives the inheritance reveals that Abraham was still not yet prepared to agree with God on this. Lord, I know my son has rejected you in his heart and cares nothing for spiritual matters, and I know you already said he would not receive the inheritance, but since he is my son and I love him, and he is the oldest, can you give him the inheritance anyway?
The Apostle Paul saw this story as a picture of the two ways to receive eternal life, through grace or by works. Ishmael was begotten by human effort and pictures salvation by works. If Ishmael received the spiritual inheritance it would be given to him based upon his pedigree, because as the oldest he deserved it.
In essence, Abraham was asking God if Ishmael could be saved by works; that God save him based upon the fact that he was Abraham’s eldest natural son. If God granted Ishmael the privilege of staying in the Promised Land and leading the family spiritually, God would be granting Ishmael these blessings based upon Abraham’s efforts, or upon Ishmael’s firstborn status, not upon grace. Isaac’s birth represents being saved by grace, for his birth was not the result of any work, but by the supernatural work of God according to promise.
Now, Remember, in this period of history, the family of Abraham was the church, so what Sarah was suggesting was that Ishmael, now an adult, be ex-communicated from the OT church. However mixed Sarah’s motives were, God agrees with her suggestion. The Lord instructs Abraham to ex-communicate his son from the OT church.
The age-old conflict between the two families, natural and spiritual, has come right to Abraham’s doorstep, and he must make a decision. This may be the greatest test of Abraham’s faith thus far. Can you imagine the struggle in Abraham’s heart the night before he sent Ishmael away? John Calvin wrote of this night, “there is no doubt that, during the whole night, Abraham had been tossed with various cares; that he had a variety of internal conflicts, and endured severe torments.” Many of you have experienced the same internal conflict when your devotion to Christ put you at odds with your family.
But as painful as it was, Abram’s love for God superseded his love for his son Ishmael. Abraham arose early, determined to do what he must do; ex-communicate Ishmael because he had rejected the Lord. How agonizing that morning must have been for Abraham. Little did he realize that this test was only a precursor to a greater test to come, when God would call upon him to sacrifice Isaac.
What could have caused Abraham to make such a profoundly difficult decision, to overcome his natural instincts to cling to his first-born child? Only a supernatural love for God could do that; one that superseded his love for family. Abraham is demonstrating that with all his faults he is a true believer; he loves God above all else.
The call of the gospel is the call to come to God admitting you are a sinner, trusting only in Christ’s death to save you. It is also a call to discipleship, to love and serve your Savior above all else. This supernatural love for God he gives you freely when you believe. They say blood is thicker than water, but the blood of Christ is thicker than all earthly bonds.
If you only serve God because you think God exists to bless your family and keep it strong, you are really serving an idol called “family,” and God is only a another servant to serve your idol. The true God will have none of that, as we see from God’s instruction to Abraham.
Choosing God over family is often the greatest challenge a Christian faces. Will a Christian husband and wife honestly speak the truth to each other, or will they live in fear and denial? Will Christian parents coddle and make excuses for their children, or will they hold them accountable for their actions? Will a spouse stop attending church because the other spouse refuses to go, or will he or she put God before her spouse and attend worship as God commands? Do you feel the tension here? Though putting God before family is painfully difficult, when a Christian chooses family over God, negative consequences usually ensure.
The only way you will be able to choose God over family is that you become so secure in Christ’s love for you that you can bear the displeasure of your family or spouse when you stand up for the Lord.
Yes, the Gospel often strengthens families. But sometimes the gospel divides family. Because God often converts only one or two members of a family, great friction can occur in the home. Because one spouse refuses to serve God, marriages can end in divorce. Because some children do not follow their parents’ faith, divisions occur between parents and children. These divisions cause us great pain; maybe the greatest pain of this life, pain that Abraham was all too familiar with as he sent his son packing.
But even more, the Lord Jesus understood this pain. His own family assumed he was crazy for claiming to be the Messiah. His ethnic family, the Israelites, rejected him and placed him on a cross. Alone and rejected by natural family, Jesus created a new family by dying for their sins. Now God is our true Father and every Christian our everlasting brother or sister.
Because the Lord understood the pain of family conflict, he provided strong encouragement in this area. In Mark 10, after calling on those wishing to be his disciples to love him more than family, he gives this promise:
“Truly I say unto you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundred-fold now in this time houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, along with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
To leave family does not necessarily mean to leave them physically, it may mean relationally or emotionally. Whenever you choose to obey God at the expense of family harmony, in essence you leave family for the gospel. The Lord comforts you with this precious promise; as you experience these internal struggles because of your devotion to me, I will ensure you always have a family, a Christian family in this life, the church, and in the age to come, glorious eternal life will be waiting for you. Amen