Abraham Had Two Sons
(Galatians 4:21-31)

by Max R. King

This article is an excerpt from King's 1971 book The Spirit of Prophecy. All Scripture quotations are from the King James Version. To order this book, see information in the list of Bible Study Materials.


Born of Abraham were two sons, each typifying a world to come. Ishmael was typical of the Jewish world. Since Hagar, the bondwoman, represented the Sinaitic covenant, her son Ishmael represented the children born of the covenant, the fleshly descendants of Abraham. That this people, along with their constitutional system, was referred to as a "world," or as an "heaven and earth" will soon be seen.

Isaac was typical of the Christian world. Since Sarah, the freewoman, represented the new covenant from Mt. Zion, her son Isaac was typical of Christians born of this covenant, or the Christian world. That this spiritual seed, along with their constitutional system is referred to as a "world," or the "new heaven and earth," will be seen in the progress of this study. It is these two worlds which constitute a major portion of Bible teaching, and occupy a prominent place in prophecy. Failure to see these two worlds as they unfold in the scripture, and to make proper distinction of them, is a major source of error in the interpretation and application of scripture. Also, a fusion of either of these two worlds with the material heaven and earth can result in mass confusion in the study of God's scheme of redemption.

According to Paul, a promise was given to Abraham that he and his seed would inherit a world. "For the promise, that he should be heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith" (Romans 4:13). The question that arises out of this verse is, what world would Abraham and his seed inherit? Several answers could be given, but only one will harmonize with the scripture. Some might say this present material world, or some might espouse the view of a new material world to come. But from the context it is evident that the world in inheritance was the one typified by Isaac in contrast to the world typified by Ishmael. This promise was not given, nor was it going to be received through the law, therefore it was not the Jewish world. But, being a promise that is declared to come through the righteousness of faith, or the gospel, one may rightly conclude that the world of Romans 4:13 is the Christian world, the spiritual abode of Abraham's seed through Christ. Let us now see if the scripture will support this view.

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There is a twofold promise involved in Genesis 12:1-3, which corresponds to the allegory of Abraham's two sons. "Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed."

There is a temporal and spiritual promise contained in this passage, and as seen in Paul's allegory, the temporal promise would be developed and fulfilled first. This accounts for the fact that throughout the Old Testament, the fleshly promise overshadows the spiritual promise. While Hagar bears children, Sarah is barren and stands in the background. However, the fact that the temporal promise was first, and received primary consideration throughout the Old Testament dispensation, does not merit for it a greater value or standing than the spiritual promise: quite to the contrary. The purpose of the law was to be a shadow or pattern of "good things, or better things to come." The temporal promise was not, therefore, the one of greatest interest to Abraham. His hope was in Isaac, not Ishmael. His faith was extended beyond Canaan, the inheritance of his fleshly seed, to the land typified by Canaan, which would be inherited by Isaac or his spiritual seed. In other words, he did not look for inheritance in the Jewish world, but rather the Christian world, of which the first was typical. This truth is manifest in Hebrews 11:8-16, where the spiritual promise is eventually brought forth and given preeminence over the temporal promise: "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed: and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God . . . These all died in faith, not having received the promise, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city."

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The first note of interest in this text is seen in verse 9. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelt in the promised land (Canaan) as in a strange country. Two things indicate that this temporal land was not the country he was looking for. First, it is said to be unto him "as a strange country," and second, he dwelt there in tabernacles, or portable tents, indicative of a temporary abode. The reason for this is explained in verse 10: "For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." What Abraham was really looking for was not in Canaan or the temporal promise, but rather it existed in the spiritual promise. What he really wanted would not come through Ishmael but Isaac. What did he desire, and see by faith? What made him confess that he was a stranger and a pilgrim in Canaan? The Bible says, in verse 14, that he was looking for a country, but not Canaan, for he was already in that land. Nor was it his native land of Ur of Chaldea, for he could have returned to this place (verse 15). "But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city." (verse 16). Abraham was looking for the world that he and his seed should inherit, and this world, says Paul, did not come through the law but rather the gospel. The city he looked for, which hath foundations, was the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22), or the Jerusalem which is above (Galatians 4:26). This is the new heaven and earth promised to Abraham and his seed, of which the Jewish world (old heaven and earth) was a forerunner. The New Testament saints, born of Abraham's spiritual seed, looked for this new world (2 Peter 3:13), in anticipation of the time Ishmael would be cast out, or the old heaven and earth would pass away. The time was drawing near when the Hebrew letter was written. "Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13).

A further development of this view is advanced in Hebrews 12:18-29: "For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, . . . But ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire."

The purpose of the writer is to show what Christians have not come to. "For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched" (verse 18). This was the mountain and covenant of Abraham's fleshly seed, but Christians are not children of the bondwoman. But as children of the freewoman, "we are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God (the one Abraham looked for while in Canaan), the heavenly Jerusalem (the one that belongs to the heavenly country mentioned in Hebrews 11:16).

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Now not to be overlooked is the fact that these things were not of a distant FUTURE because of the present tense of the verbs "are come." Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the church of the firstborn, Jesus, the new covenant, his blood, combine to constitute the new world promised to Abraham and his seed. It was not a world in contrast to the MATERIAL heavens and earth, but rather in contrast to the Jewish world. Here is where many stumble, as we have already indicated. Placing the world promised to Abraham and his seed, at the end of the present material world puts it in contrast with the wrong world, and postpones the time of its arrival far beyond what scripture will allow. The world promised to Abraham's spiritual seed stands in contrast to that world promised his fleshly seed, and this is the new heaven and earth that replaces the old heaven and earth. The present material world has nothing to do with either one of the worlds involved in God's scheme of redemption, as typified by Ishmael and Isaac. Therefore, the writer in Hebrews 12:25-28 is showing the shaking of the first heaven and earth, which had Mt. Sinai and the old covenant as its foundation (the Jewish world), in preparation of bringing into existence a heaven and earth which cannot be shaken. So the prophecy of Haggai 2:6, 21 applies to the Jewish world or system and not to the present literal heavens and earth. "Things that are shaken, as of things that are made" refers to the carnal nature of the Jewish system, which was destined for destruction. "Those things which cannot be shaken" refer to the intangible, spiritual nature of the Christian world or system, which cannot be destroyed by earthly foes. Verse 28 makes it clear that the writer was speaking of the Christian world, "Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear."

Again, we emphasize the fact that the destruction of Jerusalem was a crucial point in God's scheme of redemption, for it was the end of one world, and the completion and beginning of another world that had been born on Pentecost day. This was the world promised to Abraham and his seed (Romans 4:13). Everything promised to Abraham came right on schedule, as we may well expect in the plan of Him who is Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omnipresent. He who made the worlds (Hebrews 1:2) is able also to form and shape their destiny, according to the working of his mighty power.

Max R. King is the editor of Living Presence and the author of several books on Covenant Eschatology.