Ishmael's "Fading Glory"? Or Isaac's "Ever-Increasing Glory"?! Part 3
Ishmael Was a Dead Ringer for Isaac
“Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now” (Galatians 4:28-29).
“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: ‘At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son’” (Romans 9:6-9).
You’ve encountered someone in school or on the street that you were sure that you knew, but knew that you didn’t. They just had a very familiar look, though possibly totally unfamiliar features as well. And then it hit you: “You must be Bruce’s sister! Yepper, no doubt about it!” Family resemblance is one of the fun things of life. But not always so fun.
Ishmael and Isaac had the same dad, Abraham. Ishmael’s mom was an Egyptian, while Isaac’s mom was God’s Promise and God’s Spirit. Along with Sarah, of course. But they both had the same father, and no doubt there was a distinct “family resemblance.”
The spiritual disaster of Ishmael and Isaac looking like identical twins at times has been a curse to Followers of Jesus throughout church history. And, as our brother Paul, the apostle, said regarding Ishmael and Isaac, “It is the same now.”
The deceptive factor in satan’s work (to immobilize and paralyze the church these last two thousand years) has always been for his work to appear very, very similar to God’s Work. In the Garden of Eden satan appealed to a twisted manipulation of God’s Word. “Did God really say...?” In the wilderness, satan again tried to manipulate Jesus by an appealing mutation of what was originally the Father’s Word. Satan has a long history of using an uncanny resemblance (to the naked eye) in his work, the counterfeit to God’s true Work.
“Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also masquerade as ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).
The apostle Paul was sent out by the church in Antioch to do the Work of advancing the Gospel of Jesus and His Kingdom. His first serious opponent after he went out was a man, “a sorcerer,” on the island of Cyprus. The man was slick. Everyone was fully persuaded that Elymas was the answer. Sergius Paulus, “an intelligent man,” and the Roman Proconsul (no slouch), was fully taken in by this sophisticated emissary of the wicked one. Paul had no patience for one who intentionally interfered with the Purposes of God and His Gospel, and responded accordingly.
“When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) withstood them, seeking to turn away the proconsul from the faith. But Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.’ Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:6-12).
Mark it down as no accident that when the Kingdom of God thrust forward into new territory, the kingdom of darkness had already attempted to set up its phony counterfeit—governed by Elymas Bar-Jesus—El (meaning God)-ymas, Bar-Jesus (meaning offspring of Jesus).
When a cold front and a warm front collide, a violent storm results. “The Kingdom of God is entered forcefully—and the violent take it by force.” A storm like the one on Cyprus will likely occur if we’re on the right track. And, to our dismay, the black kingdom that is there to oppose us seldom looks as dangerous and wicked to those around it as it truly is. Satan is a master of disguises, and generally his mask will be one of religion and good works (or entertainment). The “father of lies,” as Jesus called him, will wear the cloak, not of hell and death, but of light and “love” and Bible “scholarship.” El Bar-Jesus. The enemy often masquerades as God and God’s Work.
Peter, the rock, couldn’t distinguish between Truth and satan’s counterfeit early in his walk with Christ. In Matthew 16, Jesus praised Peter for having correctly discerned an inaudible Voice from the Father in Heaven. What a glorious breakthrough! Then, moments later, Peter “did God a favor” out of his carnal sympathies and appetites and Jesus soundly rebuked Peter as heeding and quoting the very voice of satan, prince of hell. Satan does a pretty good imitation for those that are not well trained.
Just as God had Twelve Tribes with twelve Princes—His “church” of that era, Ishmael’s offspring were known as the “Twelve Princes of Ishmael.” A counterfeit kingdom.
Just as Jesus is the “Balm of Gilead,” so also the Ishmaelites come bearing the soothing balm.
Though, no doubt, some would want a different kind of Christianity, Jesus is the only one who gets to make the rules. And He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ (christian counterfeits, claiming Rom. 10:10) shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Mat. 7:21-23). Why so many falsely thinking they are ready to meet Jesus on great terms, under the impression that they, too, are washed in His Blood? Because this Ishmael and Isaac deal even involves the nature of Salvation itself! Paul said more than once that Salvation was for those with “the Faith of Abraham”—those are “Abraham’s descendants!” Obeying God and trusting Him, even with a barren womb, is at the very core of what it means to be a CHRISTIAN! “Without Faith it is impossible to please God...” (Heb. 11:6).
There are many attractive counterfeits to true Christianity. There are many clones for the Church that JESUS is building. Very often, more often than we’d want to admit, men are building their own thing, using Hagar to have babies and multiply, and adopting Jesus as their logo or trademark. Thus Paul, the apostle, was to say, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also masquerade as ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2Cor. 11:14-15).
The Moral of the Story
The moral of the story? Everything that looks like a “good work” by “good folks” is not necessarily what it appears to be. “He’s a good man and preached good sermons.” “They have a good heart.” “What’s wrong with a ‘prayer meeting’ every Wednesday night? You got something against prayer?” “What’s the matter with a bible study for all the singles every Friday night? Don’t you study the Bible?” Does it make a difference how we perceive these things? Is it really harmless to commend everything that is done “in Jesus Name”—as long as someone might get helped by it? It’s not harmless at all, though I hate (truly) to say it. In the end, the son of Abraham’s good intentions to do something for God in a way that wasn’t God’s...in the end “the child born in the logical way will persecute the child born of the Spirit. It is the same now” (Gal. 4:29).
It surprises folks to discover that neither Jesus (the “master teacher”) nor the apostles ever had prayer meetings or bible studies some certain night, for a certain amount of time, and then refreshments. “Devoted to the apostle’s teaching” and “prayer” is really entirely different than “having bible studies” or “house church meetings” on some pre-programmed night at a certain time and place for a certain amount of time.
Haven’t you been in “bible studies” where many of the people there had little or no relationship with the Son of God (and their lives and families and priorities reflected something far different than Jesus)—yet they had quite a lot to “say” during the hour? This is a very serious matter. “A little leaven leavens the WHOLE batch.” This catastrophe is virtually impossible to remedy when we are using men’s gimmicks and programs and traditions and human logic and a religion of convenience to serve God. Ishmael does look much like Isaac, but there is a supernaturally powerful and wonderful difference if we only have the courage to find it.
It’s not that some don’t benefit from these creative ways to do God’s Work. Of course they do. But you need to remember a couple of extremely important principles. First of all, programs and preset long-term agendas are misleading to those who are not following Jesus in a way that glorifies the Father. In fact, a person could even remain totally unsaved and unconvicted about his condition for forty years of attending religious events. He or she might even remain totally unaware that they are in grave danger of eternal devastation, while in the midst of God’s people for their entire lives! We should never do anything that would allow this tragic possibility. And we don’t have to.
Imagine with me that we have created a format or method based on world principles (“If we have food or entertainment, or a celebrity, more people will come!”), psychological group dynamics (“Thirty people maximum, then start a new group” and “Try this manipulative technique: _____—it’s a proven icebreaker!”) and expedients (“If we always do it at the same time and place, then we can be sure to fit it into our busy schedules and visitors will know where to find us!”) One obvious, extremely well-documented, universal pitfall is that the event can be viewed as an “end in itself” by anyone who shows up “regularly.” In other words, one could “attend” some such “bible study” or “worship service” or “prayer meeting,” view themselves as “members,” and not have a single real, exposing relationship with God or man. Yet they feel entirely “a part of things.” Why, again, this terrible deception for them and others? Because they are “there” each week faithfully and “participate.” They’re not at ease and comfortable in their lives because they know God or are walking in Truth and righteousness, but because they are involved in religion! We shouldn’t do anything “for God” that allows, by its very nature, a way to feel justified while not truly in Christ.
A second, but very related Principle that highlights the error of the man-made expedients to do God’s will (the stuff that can be put indefinitely on the calendar) is summed up in the Spirit’s Words, “A little leaven leavens the whole batch” (Gal. 5:9). If we really believe that this Scripture is more true and immutable and non-negotiable than the Law of Gravity, we should consider the practical and deadly ramifications of this Truth. “A little leaven leavens the whole batch” means that if someone, anyone, can remain in our midst unchecked in hidden sin or unregeneracy indefinitely (because of lack of relationship and scheduled “hiding places” of events on the calendar), then every single one of us, as well as every good thing that we do and God does in our midst, is hindered, diminished, or destroyed by disease.
At one point, I was spending a couple of weeks with some Believers in a southern city. I was, along with those who had traveled with me, invited to a church-sponsored bible study one evening. One man, the host that evening, was especially vocal and certain of himself as a teacher. Sixty minutes later the session was over and everyone drifted off. I was driving home and realized that my jacket was still in the corner of the room at the home where the event had taken place. We drove back to the house, the front door was ajar, and I gently knocked and leaned into the living room where I had left my jacket. (Very low) and behold, the man who had hosted the “bible study” and had taken the status of teacher throughout the evening was, not on his face praying for those who had just left his home, but sprawled out on the couch watching a cess-opera, vile television program. Not ten minutes after the last people had left the “bible study”! This man has, happily, since repented in tears publicly (because someone was willing to break religious protocol and address sin in his life and home) for not being who he had let everyone believe that he was. Yet it is still an amazing testimony of the reason why “bible studies” were never in Jesus’ or the apostles’ agenda. There are far worse and more obvious stories available to illustrate the point, but most lovers of Truth have already experienced their own heartbreaking illustrations.
Jesus never held a Tuesday night, 7 PM, verse-by-verse study of Leviticus. Why? Because “bible studies” don’t get the job done, no matter how true to the Scriptures they may be. It just is NOT the way that Jesus taught us to impart His Word. It sounds like a super idea (“What could be wrong with that?!”)—because the family resemblance between Ishmael and Isaac is so profound. There are bible studies all over every city in the Western Hemisphere every day—and yet the cities are untouched by the gospel, and the divorce rate and teen pregnancy rate amongst the “attendees” are statistically no different than that of the world! The “gates of Hell” ARE prevailing—because we are not letting Jesus build His Church!
What’s the point?! How about some practical, modern day examples of what are usually Ishmael (attempting to use man-devised, world system techniques to have babies)? “bible studies” and “worship services” or “christian concerts” or “parachurch” organizations (“Joe Schmoe Ministries”), church growth techniques, and “cell group” stuff. Some of these events headline and showcase mere men in brochures, advertisements, or posters. Some of these things are expedients, designed (if the truth be known) to accommodate our worldly lifestyles and priorities, or to accommodate certain “leaders” desire for continued control and financial security. Some of this is birthed because the church isn’t who she is supposed to be and people with genuine gifts don’t want to invest in the church that Jesus was willing to die for, at the cost of their personal “ministry.” Some of these things are simply methods, drawn from the well of good intentions and man’s wisdom, to get a baby for God when the womb seems barren and things aren’t working.
All of the events, programs, and “ministries” sound so right. Nevertheless, none of these normal, unquestioned, aforementioned practices are anything like what Jesus and the apostles taught or experienced, per se! At least these are not God’s Way, expressed as they are today. The fruit is a dead giveaway. Literally. (Actually, they aren’t usually a “giveaway,” they’re often “peddled for profit.”) The priesthood of Believers is crushed, and mere men are exalted to positions that men should never be tempted by (on the stage, in the lights, on the marquis, on the bulletin and letterhead and pyramid organizational chart). Meanwhile, satan continues to steal our children, blind our relationships, and wear us out with programs, committees, good deeds, and short-lived church fads.
As God so often works (while in relationship rather than form), a brother sitting three feet away from me as I typed this page asked a question about something that he was reading in 2 Samuel, chapter 6. “If God was upset about the Ark being carried in an oxcart (the method being wrong—Num. 4:15; 1Chron. 15:2), then why didn’t He stop it at that point, instead of waiting and killing Uzzah later on for doing the ‘good deed’ of trying to keep the Ark from falling out of the oxcart?!” The answer is important to all of us as we consider this topic of whether or not “methods” mean anything to God, one way or another. Is it not “the heart” and the motive that He is after, rather than the “method”?
This illustrates so well what I am trying so very hard to put words on, without confusing or frustrating anyone unnecessarily. God didn’t kill Uzzah because the “method” was wrong, but because he was irreverent! (2Sam. 6:6-7). The man-made, high-tech “method” simply set Uzzah up to fall into a trap that would never have been there otherwise! Can you see it? The programs, gimmicks, hierarchies, and scheduled events aren’t the enemies, per se. They are born of a desire to do God’s Work (the Promise to Abraham), but utilize man’s wisdom (Hagar) to have a “baby” for God. In so doing, they simply set us up for a fall that will eventually come. Don’t forget, it took Ishmael many years to show his colors. The baby that is born of man’s desire to do a work for God using his own ingenuity and skills and intellect and talents and experiences will ultimately, eventually, bring chaos, division, and pain—and people like Uzzah will die unnecessarily.
Our Supernatural Inheritance
There is another way of looking at the cost of doing things for God, with men’s wisdom, rather than calling out to the God of the barren womb and obeying minute by minute. According to the Scriptures, “the child born in the logical way” will never have the super-natural inheritance that God intended. The simple saints of the first century experienced walking in the ways and power and fellowship with the Father that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, experienced. Most today have no idea whatsoever what this means. But you and the body of Believers that you are a part of can experience the supernatural blessings and Life of God, just as some other mere men just like us did in Acts, chapters 2-4 and onward. Really! How?
For starters, seriously consider this essential, Eternal Truth: “The LIFE becomes the Light of men” (Jn. 1:4). “The Word became flesh, and dwelt for awhile AMONG us” (Jn. 1:14). God’s Way to relate to one another is not in a “service” or during an “event” or classroom, but as we “rise up, sit down, and walk along the way.” “Mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands.” The way Jesus lived with us! “Making disciples,” as Jesus commanded, is apprenticeship; it’s relationship, not classroom knowledge impartation (that we are so fond of in our generation) or events. Hey, it’s risky to not have the props of structures, hierarchies, five-year plans, committees, pre-planned speeches and worship, and “small groups.”
But God is the God Who loves a vulnerable People, with an admittedly barren womb. Their whole trust is not in themselves or the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but rather fully in the God of the barren womb, a truly awesome God.
Satan has counterfeited the real stuff—the organic Life of a People living every minute of every day for Jesus and each other (rather than religious events and independent, self-centered lifestyles). I just have to belabor the point to make certain it’s not forgotten! “Bible studies” and “worship services” and these other things sound like they ought to be good things, don’t they? But, then again, Ishmael and Isaac have the same dad, and look a bunch alike.
“So what could be wrong with having a preacher or a pastor or a priest or Elders? Don’t those words show up in the New Testament?” Please don’t confuse the Ishmael of hired hands and official Sunday speech presenters and administrators with the Isaac of organic “gifts” (not offices) of Ephesians 4:11, and elders of 1Timothy 3! They have nothing in common, in their origins or their daily functioning amidst the Body of Christ.
Now don’t go off and get cynical and skeptical about everything that crosses your path. On the other hand, don’t think for one minute that everything that looks spiritual and “fruitful” is automatically from God. It ain’t necessarily so. The remarkable similitude of fraudulent church stuff will easily fool those who are not leaning fully on God and obeying Him in their lives, as well as those with ulterior motives of pleasing men, or financial security, or any number of other placebos. A man once said, “The fact that preachers and writers spread and write God’s Word is no proof that they are God’s men. The devil quoted Scripture. It is possible to word a prayer without praying. It is possible to know the words of Scripture and be able to quote them without being scriptural. We are undergoing a poverty of the Spirit that leaves our religion an empty shell. Our concern (in most of the church world) is for the shadow and not the substance. Oh, Lord, make our religion real! Make it Life itself!”
Ishmael is a serious contender for the throne of your life and the invisible leadership of your church. His charming good looks and persuasive speech will often fool you into mistaking him for Isaac, unless you care to know the difference and demand to see the Fruit in your lifetime of “on earth as it is in Heaven”—not just words or smoke. If you really do care, then God Himself, if you’ll really risk everything for Him, will stand by you to give you the discernment and courage and compassion you need to change your life, your church, and the world around you. Jesus, Himself, in the Power of His immutable Word said, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mk. 10:29-30).
Do you have any idea what that means?! Can you grasp what it would mean to truly have hundreds of true fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and children? Does that sound like Acts 2:42-47 or what?! What an awesome church Jesus described. And it can be that when it is made up of people who want something more than events to attend and a “worship service high”—folks who have given up their entire lives to see Jesus’ Return for a spotless, blemishless, beautiful Bride!
“Put the slave woman and her child out of the House, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance” (Gal. 4:30). God ONLY saves His best “Wine” for those who call out to Him with barren wombs—turning away from manmade props or test-tube babies, and turning unwaveringly to Him.