The covenant of circumcision is an interesting one. It’s symbolism for the Christian is so enlightening that it seems a whole new world with new values opens up to us in the spread of the Gospel. The Abramic Covenant which included only the cutting of the flesh has always meant more to the godly (Deuteronomy 10:16). Yet, its literal meaning has always been the main take for most of God’s historic people, the Jews.
Another interesting point of fact is that the covenant of circumcision, from the Lord’s point of view, was not for all of Abraham’s descendents, but only those through Sarah. In other words, although Ishmael’s descendents did participate in the act of circumcision, it meant nothing more to them than a tradition of their father’s. Only Abraham’s seed through Sarah would be identified with God under the covenant of circumcision. Why did the act of circumcision mean one thing for Sarah’s descendents, but something different for Ishmael’s? I believe the answer lies in the meaning of the names God gave to Ishmael, Sarai and Isaac. Both Ishmael’s and Sarai’s names point to human conflict, but Isaac’s name points to laughter (joy) at the thought of what God intended to do through the weakness of the flesh.
Ishmael was born because Abraham and Sarah became impatient with God’s timing. Thinking God intended to work through their own plan and efforts to honor God, they acted to bring about the promises God made to them. Although God never reprimanded them for doing so, God was not moved to change his plans to accommodate theirs. Nevertheless, God blessed what they did, but not in the manner in which it was hoped. Such is the case today in the Church. Ishmael (God hears)was so named to show God is not deaf to our pleas even when our desires are not exactly according to his will (cp. Genesis 16:11; 17:18, 20).
Ishmael was a blessing to Abraham in that Abraham took great joy in his life. Yet, this would not be the promised seed. Why? It is because Ishmael represents conflict, or unsettled feelings and desires of the heart. While he doesn’t represent unbelief, he does represent impatience. All these feelings follow the Lord’s estimation of what Ishmael would eventually become: “he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren” (Genesis 16:12 – emphasis mine).
I believe spiritual Ishmael has always dwelt among the Christian brethren and may even appear outwardly to be more genuinely Christian than God’s elect. He is the activist among us, but not merely contending with evil in the sense of protesting evil behavior in the world. He is the one who actively works against the evil in the world. He seeks to enforce God’s will upon the people who reject the Lord. He even chides God’s elect for their seemingly immature behavior (cp. Genesis 21:9). Spiritual Ishmael is impatient and acts prematurely without considering the overall plan of God, but spiritual Isaac waits until he is fully weaned (Genesis 21:8), for growing in Christ is important in that one whose diet is milk is but a babe and unskillful in the word of God (Hebrews 5:13). Those unskillful in the word of God are more likely to be impressed with new teachings regardless of their application to Scripture and are therefore more apt to be deceived (Ephesians 4:14).
To be carnally minded is to be fleshy minded and not spiritual as God intends his people to be (cp. 1Corinthians 3:1). To be carnally minded is to be a spiritual babe in Christ. Moreover to be carnally minded is to be given to envy and strife, a spiritual babe who hasn’t been weaned of the milk of the word of God (1Corinthians 3:2-3). This is exactly how Ishmael acted at the weaning of Isaac, showing us how spiritual Ishmael in the church acts toward spiritual Isaac. There are those among us who are more interested in behavior than the heart, more interested in cosmetically changing the world’s appearance than changing the world’s heart toward God. God’s way has never been to use force, except when behavior has been so wicked that it had to be forcefully checked before anyone would listen. Our circumcision is not the circumcision made with hands, but the cutting off of fleshy desires in the heart (cp. 1Corinthians 2:11-14; Romans 2:29), and our walk, although in the flesh, is not according to the flesh, for every imagination of the heart is brought into captivity for the sake of Christ (2Corinthians 10:3-5).
The Gospel is the word of God addressed to one’s heart and mind. It doesn’t seek to forcefully control anyone’s behavior, but rather seeks a change of heart that willingly receives God as Lord and Savior. If God is not the Ruler of man’s heart—by invitation—God will rule nowhere.