Besetting Sins

Of all the things that I find difficult about the Christian life, at the top of the list would have to be my battle with sin – especially repeating sins.  There are particular sins that I struggled with as a new Christian that I thought I would eventually overcome once I attained more maturity.  But as the years went by, I found myself continually dogged by those same sins.  Even today they still hound me.  They harass, stalk and pursue me. 

I’m sure you have your own besetting sins that you have to deal with.  Perhaps it’s an inordinate desire for something – a craving you just can’t beat.  Perhaps you have a tendency to hold grudges against people or you have an anger issue or a sharp tongue that often gets the best of you.  Whatever it is, you know it is a weak spot in your defence against the enemy and you find yourself repeating it again and again. 

Setting the Scene

Here in Genesis chapter 20, we have Abraham falling into a besetting sin.  He’s doing the same foolish thing he did in chapter 12: he passes his wife Sarah off as his sister in order to save his own skin, putting not only his wife’s purity at risk but also God’s plan at risk as well.  And just like with Pharaoh in Egypt, it’s only because of God’s swift intervention that Abraham’s ruse is discovered, preventing Sarah from ending up in Abimelech’s bed and becoming pregnant by another man.  

The similarity of this event with that in chapter 12 is uncanny.  In fact, some liberal scholars say these accounts are actually the same story and some not-too-smart editor didn’t pick that up.  Well, liberal scholars aren’t always as clever as they think they are.  You see, the author is showing us what the life of the real Abraham is like.  He’s not perfect.  He’s flawed – just like us.  And God continually steps in to prevent him from making a mess of things and then blesses him when he doesn’t deserve it.  And that gives us all hope does it not? 

I. Abraham’s deception (1-2)

For reasons that are not explained, Abraham heads south through the Negev, the region one would travel to go to Egypt.  He stops at Gerar which is a Philistine city located between Beersheba and Gaza (Gen 21:32, 34).  And it’s here that Abraham follows the same ruse he used in chapter 12:

“Abraham said about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him.”

Why does he do this?  For the same reason that he did it back in chapter 12: FEAR.  Fear is the opposite of faith.  And when Abimelech confronts him about his deception, he says “I did this because I thought there is no fear of God in this place” (verse 11).  He doesn’t know that; he just imagines that.  That’s how fear gets the best of us; we imagine things that aren’t true.  We tell ourselves lies.  Then he tries to rationalize his sin. 

“Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” (Gen 20:12)

This was a terrible thing for Abraham to do, to put Sarah in jeopardy at such a time, a year before the promised child was to arrive.  He fears his own life is in danger, but he has no problem endangering his wife.  Furthermore, he uses emotional blackmail on her.  He says to Abimelech:

“So when God had me wander from my father’s house, I said to her: Show your loyalty to me wherever we go and say about me, ‘He’s my brother.’” (Gen 20:13)

In other words, “If you really love me, Sarah, you will tell everyone you are not my wife but my sister.” 

We are shocked by the selfishness, shallowness and faithlessness of Abraham.  But when it comes down to it, we can be just as selfish, just as shallow and just as faithless.   No doubt you’ve heard of John Newton – the one who wrote “Amazing Grace.”  Newton was formerly a slave trader who did many terrible things.  He experienced the love of God in Christ to forgive him of his past.  If anyone understood the grace of God, he did.   In a letter he wrote to a friend, he shares his ongoing struggle with sin:

“Alas, my dear friend, you know not what a poor, unprofitable, unfaithful creature I am! If you knew the evils which I feel within and the snares and difficulties which beset me from without, you would pity me indeed. Indwelling sin presses me downwards. When I would do good, evil is present with me. There is much darkness in my understanding, much perverseness in my will, much disorder in my affections, much folly and madness in my imagination. In short, I am a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistency.”

Do you ever feel that?  I know I do.  Sometimes, after speaking harshly to my wife or dredging up some sordid memory of the past, I feel a deep loathing of myself.  It can send me to despair.  That’s when I need to preach the gospel to myself.  I need to say with Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25) I need to take heart that God’s grace is greater than my sin and Christ’s blood is powerful enough to wash me from every stain. 

II. God’s intervention (3-7)

Abimelech is taken by Sarah’s extraordinary beauty and takes her into his harem.  What he doesn’t know is that he has just put himself in the crosshairs of Abraham’s God.  God confronts Abimelech in a dream:

“You are about to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman.” (Gen 20:3)

Now that’s the kind of dream that will wake you up real fast!  God suddenly has the king’s undivided attention.  He says to God,

 “Lord, would you destroy a nation even though it is innocent? Didn’t he himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I did this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” (Gen 20:4–5)

Abimelech hadn’t yet touched Sarah.  And even if he had, it was with a clear conscience because he didn’t know any better.  Now watch how God responds:

“Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this with a clear conscience. I have also kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I have not let you touch her.” (Gen 20:6)

This is a striking example of human responsibility and divine sovereignty working concurrently.  Abimelech is fully responsible for his actions.  God will hold him to account for everything he does.  Yet God is fully in control.  He won’t allow Abimelech to do anything that might thwart his divine plan.  And his plan is Sarah will give birth to the promised son through Abraham.

God sometimes keeps us from sinning.  Did you know that?  He doesn’t always do this.  Sometimes God just abandons someone and says, “Listen, if you’re going to go down that path, go down that path. I’ll let you.”  But he does not tend to do that with believers; he preserves them, and he prevents them from falling into further sin.  God grace is at work in you my friend, preventing you from doing many foolish things, even when you don’t even see it. 

Well, after all of this Abimelech – like Pharoah in chapter 12, is feeling a bit miffed.  He’s about to take Abraham to task and confront him. 

III. Abimelech’s confrontation (8-17)

We pick up the story again in verse 8:

“Early in the morning Abimelech got up, called all his servants together, and personally told them all these things, and the men were terrified.” (Genesis 20:8)

OK remember now – Abraham had this thing in his head that there was no fear of God in this place.  But Abimelech has shown he fears God and so do his servants when he tells them about the dream.  Do you see the irony in all this?  If anyone in this story is said not to fear God, it’s Abraham himself. 

“Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said to him, “What have you done to us? How did I sin against you that you have brought such enormous guilt on me and on my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.” (Gen 20:9)

Abraham is getting a right spanking – by a Philistine King who is proving to be more righteous than Abraham himself.  Abraham goes on the defensive and tries to rationalize his sin, but it all sounds so weak.  He failed to trust God, he imagined all kinds of things that weren’t true, he saw threats where there weren’t any, and he puts his wife as well as God’s plan at great risk.  And to cap it all off, he says in verse 13 this was his go-to strategy wherever he went!

Abraham sometimes acts with great faith and courage, trusting in God and turning away from the world.  But at other times he reacts in fear, sin and self-protection and he manipulates others to get what he wants.  He really is just like us. 

That brings us now to the final act of this drama:

IV. Abraham’s intercession (18-20)

God’s instruction to Abimelech was that he must return Sarah to her husband and ask Abraham if he will pray for him so that he does not die.  “For he is a prophet,” the Lord says (verse 7). Don’t you find that remarkable?  Abraham is still God’s chosen means to be a blessing to the nations.  He is still God’s man for the hour – even though he sinned and deceived and acted cowardly. 

Abimelech, recognizing this, showers him with gifts – flocks and herds and animals and 1000 shekels (or pieces) of silver.  That is a considerable amount of money.  Abraham prays for Abimelech and his family and God responds to the prayer by restoring the Philistine women’s ability to have children.

Conclusion

Do you know what really gets me in this passage?  It’s not Abraham’s failure.  I experience that all too frequently.  Nor is it Abimelech’s godly response.  We all know that people outside the church can often act better than those inside.  It’s the mind-blowing grace of God.  God shows grace to Abimelech by warning him in a dream and keeping him from sinning.  He shows grace to Sarah by protecting her from being violated.  And he shows grace to Abraham by confronting him with his sin and restoring his position of patriarch.

God preserves his people, in spite of their sins, in spite of their failures, and in spite of the many setbacks.   In spite of it all, God preserves us and restores us.  He continues the work of grace in our hearts so that we continue to believe.

That’s God’s amazing grace!

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Remember Lot’s Wife

One of the defining characteristics of any true follower of Jesus is that of a person who is always looking ahead and moving forward.  They are always pressing on to new things, new opportunities, and new depths in their relationship with God.  It does them no good to look backwards for a person who looks backwards is likely to go backwards.

So it was for Lot’s wife.  Here was a woman who was almost saved.  God had rescued her and her husband from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  She was in the process of flight and almost safe, snatched from the flames.  But there was something in her heart that pulled her back to Sodom.  God showed her the way of deliverance and life, but she wasn’t willing to leave her old life behind.  And God turned her into a pillar of salt.  Today there is even a pillar of salt named “Lot’s Wife” near the Dead Sea, the place where Sodom once lay. 

If the Genesis account is all we had, we might raise an eyebrow at this or add it to our weird things in the bible list, but that’s about the extent of it – if it weren’t for Jesus’ words in Luke 17.  That changes everything.  Jesus is speaking about his second coming and the judgment that is to come upon the world.  He is describing the state of things when that happens – people eating and drinking and going about their business and being totally unprepared.  And so when he says, “Remember Lot’s wife” he suddenly has our attention.   There is something about this woman that Jesus wants us to learn from. 

1. Consider her privileges

During the days that Lot’s wife lived there were no bibles, no churches, no preachers, no tracts, and no missionaries.  Knowledge of the true God was confined to a few favoured families.  Lot’s wife belonged to one of those families.  When Abraham came with his little army back in chapter 14 and achieved a mighty victory and delivered her family from captivity, she was there.  When the angels came to Sodom and warned her husband to flee, she saw them. When they urged them to flee the judgment to come, she heard them.  She even became one of the few people in the world who has ever held an angel’s hand.

Yet what good effect had all these privileges on the heart of Lot’s wife?  It appears, none at all.  The eyes of her understanding were never opened, her conscience was never quickened, her will was never really brought into a state of obedience to God, and her affections were never really set on things above.  The world was in her heart and her heart was with the world.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus said (Matt 6:21).  This is the state she lived in and in this state she died.

Let this lesson sink into you today:  the mere possession of privileges will never save a person’s soul.  You may have an abundance of spiritual advantages.  You might have grown up in a Christian home where the bible is taught and people pray; you may enjoy great preaching and soul-moving worship.  You can even have an active role serving in the church.  Yet you yourself can remain unregenerate; your heart unchanged and be lost forever.  Take note: it is possible to be surrounded by the most wonderful Christians in the world and still remain unrepentant and spiritually lost. Heed the words of Jesus.  Remember Lot’s wife. 

2. Consider her error

Earlier that day, Abraham had pleaded with God to spare the cities if just ten righteous people could be found there (Genesis 18).  When two angelic messengers arrive in Sodom at nightfall, it seems only one man is worth saving: Abraham’s nephew Lot.  The men of the city surround Lot’s house and demand the angels come out so that they can abuse them.  The angels urge Lot and his family to run – to flee, lest they be swept away in God’s judgment upon the city. We are told one of the angels grabs his wife’s hand.  Come on Mrs Lot, it’s time to go.  You need to get moving.  But Sodom’s hold on her was great.  The angels kept urging and pulling on her hand.  Come on Mrs Lot. You need to flee.  But why?  “Because of the Lord’s compassion,” we are told in verse 16.  Because of the Lord’s mercy. Because God cares for people like Lot’s wife.

The angels cry out, “Don’t look back and don’t stop anywhere on the plain!” (Gen 19:17) You might say to yourself, “Well that seems a bit severe.  Like, one backwards glance back and ‘poof’ – you’re gone?  That hardly seems reasonable.”  I don’t believe it was like that.  John Walton, in the NIV commentary, points out that Lot’s wife’s “looking back” was more than a backward glance.  She had turned back to the city.  That becomes even clearer when we consider Jesus’ words in Luke 17:

“But on the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be like that on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, a man on the housetop, whose belongings are in the house, must not come down to get them. Likewise the man who is in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:29–32)

This wasn’t a curious backward glance over the shoulder.  She turned back.  The voice of the angel was urging her onwards, yet she turns back.  And what was it that her heart longed for?  Was it some treasure she had left under the bed?  Was it the glitter and city lights of Sodom – the markets, the street food, the music, the atmosphere?  Whatever it was, she turned back.  She ignored the angels warning.  She disobeyed God’s Word.  And she became a pillar of salt.  God wanted to deliver her from that wicked city and give her a new life.  But she wasn’t willing to pay the price. 

3. Consider her end

Picture the scene from a movie camera.  Dark clouds swilling in the sky above.  Anxious faces in Sodom glance upward.   Lot and his daughters have almost reached the gates of Zoar.  And there, in between, a lone figure on her way back to Sodom is Lot’s wife.  The earth begins to shake, sulphur and molten rock begin to rain down.  The last thing she sees is a swirling inferno of ash and sand and then the hot gasses envelop her.  The smoke lifts and there she is – incrusted, hard, immovable – frozen in time; her gaze in the direction of Sodom, for all to see.   Whether that was the way it happened or not; whether it was volcanic eruption or some other way, be sure of this: it was the judgement of God.              

Listen to these sobering words from J.C. Ryle in A Woman to be Remembered:

To die at any time is a solemn thing. To die amid kind friends and relations, to die calmly and quietly in one’s bed, to die with the prayers of godly men still sounding in your ears, to die with a good hope through grace in the full assurance of salvation, leaning on the Lord Jesus, buoyed up by gospel promises — to die even so, I say, is a serious business. But to die suddenly and in a moment, in the very act of sin, to die in full health and strength, to die by the direct interposition of an angry God — this is fearful indeed. Yet this was the end of Lot’s wife.

To come so close to salvation, and yet be so far away.  To be on the way to the gates of Zoar, and only to turn back.  To have your husband and daughters reach safety while you come under the judgement of God – that is a tragic, tragic end.  The worst thing about the perishing of Lot’s wife lay in this: that she perished in the very act of sin, and no time or space for repentance was given to her.  

Think of the parable Jesus told of the rich man whose goods had amassed so much he had no room to put them.  He said to himself, “I will do this – I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones… and then I will say to myself, ‘You have many goods stored up for many years.  Take it easy, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’  But God said, “You fool!  This very night your life is demanded of you” (Luke 12:16-20).  God was not part of his life.  He gave no thought to eternity or where he was going.  He died, unprepared. 

It is this state of unreadiness – of being unsuspecting and unprepared that Jesus gives the warning he does in Luke chapter 17: “Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”

He relates this to two time periods: the days of Noah and the days of Lot.  In both examples, people were completely unprepared for the disaster that was coming upon them.  They were busy with their lives – eating and drinking, planning weddings and buying and selling. Then suddenly and unexpectantly, the water came.   Suddenly and unexpectantly, fire and molten rock began to fall from the sky.  Up until that point, their lives had one single purpose: just living. All their actions, all their days, each little moment of their existence was spent on themselves.  They lived as though God never existed.  All that mattered was their next meal, their next purchase, or their next little project.

And so it is with deep love and urgency that Jesus gives us this warning: Remember Lot’s wife. 

Perhaps you are one here who does not know what it means to be saved, to be forgiven and to be assured of eternal life.   And you are thinking, “What must I do?”  The answer is very simple.  It is not complicated.  You must take God at his Word.  You must believe in the gospel.   You must turn from the world and become a follower of Christ.  Turn from the way you are living and begin a journey of living the truth.

If you are following Christ, this warning is for you also.  Beware of the pull of the world.  Be careful what your heart becomes attached to.  When judgement comes, you don’t want to be found on the plain. 

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Lessons from Lot

Genesis 19 is often used to address one of the hot-button issues of today: homosexuality.  But that is not the main focus of the passage, nor is it the main reason that God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Ezekiel 16:48-50 for a full inventory of Sodom’s sins).  The central focus of this chapter is Abraham’s nephew Lot – his choices and compromises, the corrupting influence of the culture he lived in and the adverse effect this had on his moral judgment.

As W. H. Griffith Thomas once observed, “A ship in the water is perfectly right, but water in the ship would be perfectly wrong. The Christian in the world is right and necessary, but the world in the Christian is wrong and disastrous.”

How very true.  Lot is not the first individual in this world who paid the price for compromise, nor will he be the last.  When it comes down to it our culture is more like Sodom than we imagine, its influence over us is greater than we realize, and if God was to call us out of it (and he is), we would be just as reluctant to leave as Lot was.  To steal a popular phrase from our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: this is us. 

The ambiguous Lot

The New Testament gives us deeper insight into Lot.  The Apostle Peter says that he was “distressed by the depraved behaviour of the immoral,” and “his righteous soul was tormented by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” day by day (2 Peter 2:7-8).  

Lot was a believer.  He is referred to by the Apostle Peter as “righteous Lot” three times.  But Lot was a soul in torment. He lived in constant conflict.  He was both drawn and repulsed by Sodom.  He liked the prosperity and the comforts the culture provided, but he hated the evil things that people did.  He was desperate to protect his guests, but he was also desperate to keep the peace with the men of the city.  So desperate, that he was willing to give his daughters over to them to do with them whatever they pleased. 

Lot’s problems began some years ago with the choices that he made.  Over the past 4 chapters we see a gradual progression:

  1. First, Lot looks toward Sodom (13:10).  That’s when he parted ways with Abraham and took the best-looking land.
  2. Second, we read that he pitched his tent near Sodom (13:12).  He wants to be close to the action.  Lot loves the city lights and opportunities the city offers.
  3. Then third, we find him living in Sodom itself (14:12).  He’s made it his home.
  4. And now, here, we find him in a leading role in Sodom (19:1)

Those who “sat at the gate” of a city had an influential role in the governance of that city.  Now, let me point out there’s nothing wrong with having an influential role in Sodom or any other town or city in our world.  Christians need to live in a place like Sodom so they can share the gospel and be a godly influence there.  But God doesn’t want us making it our home.  And that was Lot’s mistake.   

Lot’s lingering

It is interesting, when reading the account, to see Lot’s reluctance to leave Sodom.  The angels are urging him to flee the city lest he too be swept away in God’s judgment.  “Get up!,” they cry, “Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city” (Genesis 19:15). Then we read in verse 16, “But he hesitated.”  I like how the ESV puts it, “But he lingered.”  Why such hesitation?  Why did he linger?  He knew of the terrible state of the city in which he lived.  He knew God’s judgment was about to come upon it.  And yet he lingered.  The angels had just spoken to him, warning and urging him to leave.  And yet he lingered. 

It almost seems incredible.  We want to shake him – “Lot – wake up man, what are you doing?”  And yet, as incredible as it seems, there are many of God’s people today who are very much like Lot.  J.C. Ryle in his book The Holiness of God provides a powerful application of this in our own lives:

Mark this well! There are many real children of God who know far more than they live up to and see far more than they practice — and yet continue in this state for many years. Incredibly, they go as far as they do and yet go no further!

They believe in Heaven — and yet seem faintly to long for it. They believe in Hell — and yet seem little to fear it. They love the Lord Jesus — but the work they do for Him is small. They hate the devil — but they often appear to tempt him to come to them. They know the time is short — but they live as if it were long.

They know they have a battle to fight — yet one might think they were at peace. They know they have a race to run — yet they often look like people sitting still. They know the Judge is at the door, and there is wrath to come — and yet they appear half asleep!

These are those who get into their heads false ideas of charity, as they call it. They are morbidly afraid of being illiberal and narrow-minded. They would gladly please everybody, and suit everybody, and be agreeable to everybody. But they forget that they ought first to be sure that they please God.

These are those who cannot find it in their hearts to quarrel with their besetting sin, whether it be sloth, indolence, ill-temper, pride, selfishness, impatience or whatever it may be. They allow it to remain a tolerably quiet and undisturbed tenant of their hearts. They say it is their health, or their constitutions, or their temperaments, or their trials or their way. Their father or mother or grandmother was so before themselves, and they are sure they cannot help it. And when you meet after the absence of a year or so — you hear the same thing!

But all, all, all may be summed up in one single sentence. They are [brothers] and sisters of Lot! They linger!

Lot’s losses

There might be some who would say, “We shouldn’t look at this so negatively.  After all, Lot was saved, he got to go to heaven.  Isn’t that what we should be concerned about?  Shouldn’t every Christian say, ‘as long as I get to heaven, I will be content.’”  Yes, it is a wonderful thing to be assured of heaven.  But if that is your only goal, that is a sad thing.  It is unlikely you will live a life that is honouring to God and at the end of your life there will be things you regret. 

Let us consider some of Lot’s losses and see if we can gain some wisdom from it.  What exactly did Lot lose?

1. He lost his influence. Lot lived in Sodom for many years.  No doubt he had many opportunities to speak about God and try to turn people to God.  But what evidence do we have that anything came of it?  No one cared for his opinion or his judgment.  He had no credibility even with his own sons-in-law to be.  When he tried to convince them about the coming judgment, they thought he was joking (verse 14).  His life carried no weight; his words were ignored and his testimony powerless.

2. He lost his moral judgement.  As the pressure of his surroundings strengthened, his resolve weakened.  One compromise led to another and then another and another. When nothing is white or black and everything is grey, it’s hard to know right from wrong.  He was prepared to give away his daughters in order to save face with his contemporaries.  Clearly, he had lost all moral judgment. 

3. He lost his family.  He lost his daughters and their husbands in Sodom. He lost his wife as she looked back at the city when it was destroyed.  

4. He lost his home.  Sodom went up in smoke. All the material goods that Lot had acquired were now gone.  Everything he lived for and worked for – his investments, his treasured possessions – all gone. 

5. He lost any lasting legacy.  Little is said about Lot after this chapter.  We don’t know where he died, or when he died, whether he saw Abraham again, what was the manner of his death, what he said or what he thought.  We are told of the last days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David — but not one word about Lot.  He left no mark, no godly influence and nothing worthy to be remembered. 

Later in the passage, we have the sordid account of Lot’s daughters getting him drunk in a cave and having sex with him (Genesis 19:30-38).  The descendants of those incestuous relationships would become the tribes – the Moabites and Ammonites, that would be at war with the Israelites for centuries.  Lot’s life didn’t just affect him, because our choices don’t just affect us.  They got his wife and future sons-in-law killed and ruined the lives of his daughters and future grandchildren for generations. 

Conclusion

Sometimes Scripture is given to comfort us.  Sometimes it is there to encourage us.  And other times it is for warning us.  This is one of those times.  It doesn’t do us much good to moan and complain about the spiritual and moral degeneracy of our culture.  What we need to be doing is examining our own lives.  Where are we compromising with the world?  What are some areas where we are starting to drift?  What behaviours that are not pleasing to God are we are ignoring or rationalizing away? 

These things must not discourage us. The Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd; he knows how to deal with his sheep.  He knows how to cure them of disease and heal them of their wounds.  Look what he did with the backslidden Peter.  He restored him and put him back into service.  Do not doubt but believe in his grace and his mercy.  He has the power to revive the sorriest soul. 

If you are not a Christian, you do need to take this passage seriously.  The destruction of Sodom is a picture of what God will do to the whole world at the end of the age.  God’s judgment is coming.  The ship is going to sink, the buildings are going to burn, and everything you see is going down.  But here’s the good news: there is a way of escape.  Jesus Christ has taken our place in judgment and if you will repent of your sins and put your trust in Christ; if you will look to him and flee to him, he will save you.  He will rescue you. 

So flee to him today. 

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Will the Judge of the earth do right?

Most of us have been taught that it is rude to listen in on other people’s conversations.  Whenever I was caught listening in on my parents’ conversation, I was sharply rebuked.  “I know you are there,” I would hear my mother say, “this is none of your business.”  I did find it annoying, later in my teen years, when I was on the phone to certain friends of the female gender, that same mother would position herself where she was in earshot of my conversation! 

In Genesis 18 we are given ear to an intriguing conversation that God has with his two heavenly messengers as to whether or not he should let Abraham in on his intention’s regarding the city of Sodom.  And Abraham is listening in.  He is meant to be.  And so are we.  There is something important about God’s character and God’s ways that the author wants Abraham (and us) to know.   

There are 3 parts to this passage.  We have the judge, the city, and the intercessor.  

1.  The Judge

Three heavenly visitors appear on Abraham’s doorstep – of which one of them turns out to be the Lord himself.  Now the four of them get up and walk out to the edge of Abraham’s camp and look down on the Jordon Valley below, where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah lie. 

“Then the Lord said, “Should I hide what I am about to do from Abraham?” (Gen 18:17). 

Now, this is fascinating. The Lord is speaking out loud about what he intends to do in Abraham’s hearing.  He is voicing his purpose and plans.  The question is, why is God choosing to reveal his plan to destroy Sodom, to Abraham? The answer is given to us:

“Abraham is to become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him so that he will command his children and his house after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” (Gen 18:18–19)

Abraham will become a great and mighty nation.  He is to become the father of all of God’s faithful – whether Jew or Gentile, throughout the ages.  It is imperative, therefore, that Abraham has a right understanding of who God is.  He is a God who judges, and he is a God who saves.  He punishes and he forgives.  He acts in wrath, and he acts in mercy.  Abraham cannot afford to pass on to his children, and by extension – to us, faulty concepts of God.  And we cannot afford to do the same. 

Abraham’s number one concern is in destroying Sodom he might sweep away the righteous with the wicked.  In the end, Abraham is assured God is indeed gracious and merciful, that he is more willing to save than he is to judge, and if there was good reason to spare Sodom, he would.  And when he looks down upon the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah the next day and sees smoke going up from the land like the smoke of a furnace (Genesis 19:28), he knew could not attribute injustice to God. 

2.  The City

“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious. I will go down to see if what they have done justifies the cry that has come up to me. If not, I will find out” (Gen 18:20–21)

The outcry of the sins of Sodom was severe and they propelled God into action.  So what kind of sins are we talking about?  Well, I know the sin you are likely to jump to – that which takes after the city’s name: sodomy or homosexuality.  But that’s just the surface of it.  Sodom was guilty of wickedness (Genesis 13:3), pride (Isaiah 3:9), idolatry (Deut 32:32), hypocrisy (Jer 23:14), greed (Ezek 16:49) and sexual perversion (Jude 7). 

This was a wicked, wicked city.  Their sin had reached – to use a phrase we saw two chapters previous, it’s full measure.  But there is another reason God acted in such a decisive, terrifying way.  Like the great flood – another terrifying, cataclysmic judgment, it serves as a warning to all mankind.  It is a foretaste of the great day of judgment to come. It is a prophetic judgment. 

Remember Jesus’ stinging words to the people of Capernaum who had rejected his words and his works?  He said to them in Matthew chapter 11,  

“And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until today. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matt 11:23–24)

The Apostle Peter, likewise, says that God made these cities an example of what is coming to the ungodly (2 Peter 2:6).  All sin – no matter what it is, is a sin against God.  And God, if he is to be a righteous and just judge, must call all sinful people to account. 

3.  The Intercessor

“Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” God asks.  And God’s answer to his own question is, “No; I’ll bring him in on the discussion.”  But why?  Because he wants to reveal to Abraham his thoughts and his heart.  Because Abraham is his friend.  Because it is important that Abraham understand the full expression of God’s character in all his acts.  But there is another reason:

So that Abraham might pray. So that he might intercede.

God is wanting someone to mediate.  He is wanting someone to intercede for sinners who are under his judgment.  God wants someone to cry out to God for them and say, “Lord God, is there another cup you can give the people of Sodom to drink?  Cannot your judgment be altered?  Is there another way this can be done?”  God knows there is Lot there, with his wife and two daughters and futures sons in law, who desperately need Abraham’s prayers.  And so he invites Abraham in on his plans so that he might stand in the gap for them.

We see Jesus in this scene, don’t we?   We see God’s Son.  God has appointed Jesus to be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God (Hebrews 2:17).  God has resurrected his Son, exalted his Son, and he now sits at God’s right hand, and he ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:27).  Right now Jesus intercedes for you.  He intercedes for sinners.  And God the Father never tires to hear his pleas.  It is not something bothersome to him.  It is what he desires and loves.  

And so too God loves to hear the intercession of his children on behalf of those in desperate need of his mercy.  He wants to hear us cry out for our towns and our cities.  He wants to hear us plead for the salvation of our leaders and our nation.  He wants us – as Jesus urged us – to pray and not lose heart.  He wants us to pray for our children and for the souls of the lost.  

And so Abraham pleads for the people of Sodom.  They are guilty of sin, deserving God’s awful judgment and he knows it.  And so he steps forth boldly and he says to the Lord,

 “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that!” Won’t the Judge of the whole earth do what is just?” (Gen18:23–25)

You see what Abraham is saying here.  He is saying, “To wipe out righteous people with the wicked would be unthinkable, it would be profane, it would be unworthy of you Lord.  Surely, you would never do such a thing.” God answers,

 “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” (Gen 18:26)

His intuition is right.  God wouldn’t do this.  So Abraham holds his ground and lowers the number, to 45 and then 30 and 20 and finally to 10.  He stops there.  There is no need to go further.  God cannot destroy the righteous along with the wicked and remain a just and good God.

Conclusion

This passage gives us a lot to think about, doesn’t it?  There are many things in life that we don’t understand.  We don’t know why innocent people suffer while those that tyrannize them live at ease.  We don’t know why God appears to intervene in some cases and not others.  But we do know this – that the Judge of all the earth will always do right.  And if this is the case then we must accept his judgments in all matters, even if we think he should do otherwise. 

I was talking to a woman recently and we got on to the subject of Christianity, the bible and God.  “I cannot believe in an all-powerful and all-wise God,” she said, “just look at the state this world is in.”  So I said to her, “OK, if there was such a God like that, what would you want him to do?”  She said, “He should sort out all this mess we are in.”  “In that case,” I replied, “he’ll have to take a few bad people out – like evil dictators and murders and paedophiles that harm innocent children.”  There was a pause and she said, “Yes, I suppose so.”  “Then who’s next?  And where should he stop?  With you? With me?” 

She got the point.  The fact of the matter is, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10).  We are all guilty of sin.  Under God’s perfect, righteous judgement, we are under his condemnation and therefore without hope.

But there is one who is righteous, one who is perfect, one who has never lied, never coveted, never lusted, never retaliated in sinful anger; there is one who is holy and sinless. He came all the way from heaven to our Sodom and he took our place on a cross and bore the wrath of a holy and righteous God for our sins.  And by taking our refuge in this Jesus, we are spared from God’s judgment and receive eternal life.

For those who refuse this offer, however, there is nothing more God can do.  God’s judgment must fall upon them.  For he has set a day when he is going to judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31).  And on that day, when multitudes of people stand before God, there will be no argument and no discussion.  No one will accuse God of injustice or wrongdoing.  All will know they are guilty.

Knowing that day is coming, will you not do something about it now?  Will you not accept God’s offer?  Will you not flee from the coming wrath?  The Judge of all the earth will do what is right.  Come under his wings and find refuge.  Heed the words of the Psalmist:

Kiss the Son,

lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,

for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2:12 (ESV)

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here

Is anything too hard for the Lord?

In one of Gary Larson’s classic cartoons, there is a picture of two spiders perched on top of a guard rail at the bottom of a slide in a children’s playground.  They have just finished their greatest project ever by weaving a giant web across the bottom of the slide.  One spider says to the other, “If we pull this off, we’ll eat like kings.” 

But we all know that’s an impossibility, don’t we?  As any rational, thinking person knows, the force of even the smallest object coming down that slide is no match for a flimsy little web and the best that the spiders are likely to get is a child’s shriek seconds before they are catapulted to the other side of the playground.

But what happens when that thinking finds its way into the realm of faith?  Karl Barth, an influential theologian in the 20th century once made an interesting observation.  He said we often reduce “reality” to that which fits our idea of the “possible” which, according to the requirements of modern reason, is defined by our best scientific learning, our most trusted experience, our best logic, and our most advanced technological capacity.  By that reckoning most of what takes place in the bible and throughout church history is impossible.  It simply could not happen. 

An impossible birth

That brings us to our story of Abraham and Sarah.  As we open Genesis chapter 18, we find Abraham setting in the shade of his tent.  He looks up and sees three visitors standing in front of him.  As the passage unfolds, we learn these are not ordinary men but heavenly visitors – one of which is the Lord himself.

Abrahams moves immediately into action.  The sleepy community is suddenly awakened as Abraham move everyone into high gear, going from tent to tent giving orders, preparing a good spread for his guests. During the course of this meal, the conversation turns and they ask him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”  

He replies, “There, in the tent”.

And then like a bolt from the blue that immediately identifies this visitor to Abraham, the Lord says, “I will certainly come back to you in about a year’s time, and your wife Sarah will have a son!” (Gen 18:10)

That voice that Abraham heard in the past that the Lord would bless him and make his name great; that voice that told him to look up into the sky and count the stars – so shall your descendants be, that voice that declared “your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham for I will make you a father of many nations,” he was now hearing again.  And Abraham realized it was from the same source.  This was– the great El Shaddai – the Almighty God speaking to him again.  And he was assuring Abraham that he would keep his covenant promise and that it would be by his supernatural power he would give Sarah the child that for so many years she had longed for.

Meanwhile, Sarah is in her tent listening.  She hears this statement from the Lord, and she laughs.  Now there is nothing wrong with laughter.  Laughter is a gift from God.  And there would be nothing wrong with Sarah laughing – if that laughter was prompted by the thought of, “Oh my, the God of heaven is able to do with a simple word what has been impossible for us to do over all these years.  Isn’t that marvellous; isn’t he great?” 

But it becomes very evident as we read on, that it is a very different kind of laughter coming from Sarah.  It was not joy and wonder at what God can do, but as the Lord reveals, it is the laughter of unbelief.  “A 90-year-old post-menopausal woman is going to give birth, is she?  Now I’ve heard it all.”

And perhaps it is all the more significant that no one heard her laugh except the Lord.  She laughed – note what verse 12 tells us, to herself.  This was a silent laugh, in her heart.  She does not know that on the other side of the tent is one who knows her very thoughts.

You cannot hide anything from the Lord my friends.  He reveals the secrets of our hearts. His Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword – able to penetrate into the deepest part of our being and judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).  And this same living Word speaks to Abraham in Sarah’s hearing and says, “Why did Sarah laugh?”  Can you imagine her shame and guilt as the thoughts of her heart is exposed and her unbelief is uncovered?  And then following this comes those wonderful words, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” 

It is the question before each and every one of us, isn’t it?  God is urging Sarah to believe that nothing is impossible for him, and he is urging us to believe the same.  Perhaps you are in a difficult situation right now.  You can’t see a resolution.  From a human perspective, there is no hope.  Do you think that is too difficult for God to solve?  Perhaps you are in a marriage, where there is tension and conflict.  You have experienced over the years an accumulation of hurt and unforgiveness to the point there appears to be no hope of a resolution.  My friend, the Lord says to you today, “You don’t think I am big enough for this?  Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” 

The bible tells us that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  He created the atom in its microscopic form, with electrons flying around a nucleus in perfect harmony.  He created the human body with all of its various systems: the circulatory system, the nervous system, the skeletal system, the digestive system, the muscular system, the respiratory system, and somehow all of these systems work in harmony to make up a physical living human being.  And He did it using nothing but dirt.  He created the UY Scuti, the largest star in the known universe.  It has a circumference of 7.5 billion km.  To put that in perspective, it would take you 950 years to fly around it in a commercial airliner. 

And you imagine that you have some little problem in your life that God can’t deal with, some impossible situation that is too big for him to handle?  How easily we can allow our understanding to place restrictions on what we think God can do! How often we limit Him by assuming that some things are too hard or simply “impossible.” We easily can forget that God has no limitations.

Ben Patterson speaks powerfully to our current day when he says,

“Is anything too hard for God?” That is an overwhelming and shattering question. It demands an answer. Answer yes and the world is shut down, the universe is closed, and God is no longer God: benevolent, maybe; kindly and concerned, perhaps; but as powerless as we are in the face of our cosmic incongruity. Answer “No, there is nothing that is too hard for God,” and you and the world are in his hands and the possibilities are endless. He is radically free to keep his promises, despite the odds against it.”

Conclusion

There is a happy ending to this story. The Lord’s rebuke worked.  It brought Sarah to faith.  We read in chapter 11 of Hebrews:

“By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the one who had promised was faithful.” (Hebrews 11:11)

Sarah came face to face with her sin of unbelief.  She heard God’s Word and took it to heart.  A short time later, the impossible happened: a child was conceived in her womb.  Her laughter of cynicism and doubt was replaced with the laugher of joy when Isaac was born.  In fact, Isaac’s very name means “he laughs.” God has a way of turning our sin and unbelief into something good – that which brings praise to him and joy to us.  He is the one who has the last laugh, so to speak, and we get to laugh with joy with him. 

When you are struggling in life, when your faith is failing and, in your heart, you think all is lost and there is no hope, remember God’s question, “Is anything too difficult for Me?” and trust Him to do what is humanly impossible.  He is able to far beyond what we ask or think, according to the power that works in us (Ephesians 3:20). 

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here

The Covenant

Today we come to a very important chapter in the story of Abraham: Genesis 17.  God had promised to Abraham a son.  The problem was that no son was forthcoming.  Sarah was barren and beyond the age of childbearing.  In the last chapter, she tried helping God out by providing a son through her maid, Hagar.  But that plan goes south.  Abram and Sarai didn’t follow God’s plan; they take matters into their own hands and the result was trouble upon trouble.

Abram doesn’t hear from God for 13 years.  Then, when all seems lost, God appears to him again and says,

“I am God Almighty. Live in my presence and be blameless.” (Genesis 17:1)

 This is the first time in Scripture we find the name of God – El Shaddai.  It carries the idea of strength and power.  But the name also carries the idea of sufficiency.  God is saying, “I am sufficient for you Abram; I am all that you need.” God then changes his name, from Abram (which means ‘exalted father’) to A-bra-ham, father of a multitude.  He’s not the only one to receive a name change.  So is Sarai.  Her name is changed to Sarah – which means “princess.” 

That’s a quick overview of the chapter.   Now I want to focus on one word that is repeated 13 times in 9 verses.  It is the word covenant.  We don’t talk a lot about covenants today – even in the church.  But we should.  Covenants are one of the most important themes in the Bible because they act as the skeletons upon which the entire redemptive story is built. They’re like the backbone of the Bible. We know how important our backbone is.  The backbone or spine gives our body support, allows us to walk upright, and carries all the necessary information to and from the brain.  Without a backbone, we would not survive.  So it is with biblical covenants.  The question is, why are they so important?  And how are they relevant in the life of the Christian today? 

Understanding the Covenants

A covenant is an agreement in which two parties make binding promises to each other and are often accompanied by oaths, signs, and ceremonies.  A covenant differs from a contract in that it is relational and personal.  The best example would be marriage.  A husband and wife choose to enter into a formal relationship binding themselves to one another in lifelong faithfulness and devotion.  That’s a covenant.  In the bible, God’s relationship with mankind rests entirely on covenants.  No covenant = no relationship with God.  We are dead in the water.  So you can see how important this is. 

Now, theologians differ on the exact number but basically you have five key covenants in the bible. 

  1. The first explicit covenant in Scripture is between God and Noah after the flood (Genesis 9).  God then established a sign of the covenant, which was an upturned bow in the sky, signifying his judgment was turned away.  His “warrior’s bow” would be put to rest until the final judgment day. 
  2. Following that, we have God’s covenant with Abraham which we see in Genesis 12, 15 and here in chapter 17.  This covenant lays the groundwork for the nation of Israel and the coming Messiah, through whom God would bless all the nations of the world.  It is hugely important.
  3. Then we have the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 19) where God rescues Israel from Egypt and promises to make them his own treasured possession, a holy nation, set apart to God. God promises to dwell among them – a new concept.   
  4. Then comes the Davidic covenant (2 Kings 7) where God established David as king over Israel and promises to make his name great.  God promises to raise up a descendent after David whose throne and kingdom will last forever.
  5. Then lastly, we have the all-important New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34.  God promises to write his law on our hearts, forgive our sin completely and put his Spirit in us to empower us to love and obey his commands.  This covenant was enacted by the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

OK – so that’s the basic framework, the skeletal structure of the bible and how the covenants unfold.  Now let’s turn our attention to Genesis 17 and see how this covenant God makes with Abraham fits within that. 

The Covenant that will not Fail

There are 5 key truths about the covenant God makes with Abraham in Genesis 17. 

First, this covenant is an expansion of the covenant in chapter 12 and 15. 

God’s not making another covenant with Abraham.  It’s essentially the same one, except now it is enlarged and expanded.  Back in Genesis 12, God said to Abram,   

“Go from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1–3)

Here in chapter 17, all 3 of those elements are extended.  The land now includes “all the land of Canaan” (verse 8).  His seed now includes not just one nation but “many nations” (verse 5).  Furthermore, Abraham is told that “kings shall come forth from you.”  There will be a dynasty – a royal dynasty that will be part of his family.

Second, there is a requirement to this covenant: walking with God. 

God says to Abraham, “Walk before me and be blameless.”  We hear the word “blameless” and we think God is telling Abraham to be sinlessly perfect.  But that’s not what it means.  Job was a man who “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1) That doesn’t mean he never sinned.  It means he lived a life of integrity.  What God is saying in essence to Abraham is this: Follow Me and My ways. I’ve made promises, I’m going to reiterate those promises, but as we enter into this covenant together, follow Me and follow My ways.

It’s a call to obedience.  That’s what walking with God entails.  As it was for Abraham, so it is for us.  I think as Christians, we are big on this grace thing, which we interpret as meaning you live how you like and still be part of God’s kingdom.  But that would not resonate with Jesus.  There’s a cost to following Jesus.  There is a cross to carry and flesh to deny.  There is self-sacrifice, there is selfless service, and there is a measure of pain.  And if you think God is calling you to something that is hard, imagine what it was like for Abraham to go off and get circumcised – at age 99 – without a hospital and without anesthesia.  I’ll leave you to have a think about that one.

Third, there is a sign accompanying the covenant: circumcision.

The Lord says to Abraham in verses 11-12:

“You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring.” 

So what’s this all about?  Like many things in Scripture, it is symbolic of something deeper. As we read further down the pages of Scripture it becomes clear that what God is interested in is not the physical surgery, but what that surgery symbolizes: the cleansing of the heart.  In other words, this has spiritual significance.  The cutting away of the foreskin of the male was meant to be a spiritual sign of the cutting away of the flesh of the heart.  It pointed to rebirth, regeneration.  This becomes clearer in the New Testament.  This was not just a weird Old Testament rite. 

Fourth, the covenant is not restricted to the Jewish nation.

We see in verse 12, verse 13, verse 27 that slaves, servants, and foreigners must also receive this sign.  From the very beginning, God was making provision for those outside Abraham’s blood family to come in and enter and enjoy the covenant blessings.  It was never meant to be badge of national pride (which is what it eventually became). 

Fifth and most importantly, it is an everlasting covenant.

Twice in this chapter, God refers to this covenant as a “permanent covenant” or an “everlasting covenant.”  So how does that work with the transition from the Old Testament into the new, from the Mosaic law to Jesus, and Israel to the church?  Paul says in Galatians 3 verses 16 and 17:

“Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say “and to seeds,” as though referring to many, but referring to one, and to your seed, who is Christ. My point is this: The law, which came 430 years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously established by God and thus cancel the promise.” (Galatians 3:16–17)

Paul is saying the covenant God made with Moses on Mount Sinai (the Law), did not cancel out the covenant God made with Abraham 430 earlier.  It is still in place.  How so?  Because the Abrahamic Covenant acts as an umbrella covenant under which all other covenants fit.

So when you think of the new covenant, the new covenant replaced the old covenant, which is the Mosaic covenant. The new covenant did not abolish the Abrahamic covenant, it is the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant.  So there is still a principle of the Abrahamic covenant that is surely operative in our day.

Conclusion

God promised that Abraham would become the father of many nations – not a single, ethnic nation, but a whole multitude.   This multitude, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, Revelation tells us, is too large to number (Rev 7:9).  Through Abraham then, all the nations of the world are indeed blessed.

But this blessing could not be possible if it were not for the one who came from Abraham’s line who would be the blessed one — the Messiah, Jesus.  Through this One, God’s blessing to Abraham comes to the world.  All the promises of God are yes in Him (2 Cor 1:20).  In Him, the multitude from every tribe, nation and tongue is made into one big, beautiful family.  All those who believe in him and confess with their mouths that he is Lord will be forgiven and adopted into God’s family (John 1:12). 

So here’s the application: are you one of that number?  Can you call Abraham your spiritual father?  Are you a son or daughter of the living God?   If not, you can be, by confessing before God that you are a sinner in need of his grace and mercy and forgiveness and trusting in the promised One – Jesus our Lord and Saviour. 

The second application is this: if you are of that number, if you have trusted in Jesus, are you walking in obedience to him?  Abraham’s salvation cost him nothing, but his faith cost him everything.  Abraham was saved by grace – just like us today.  But he also lived in obedience to his Word.  Are you doing the same?  God is calling his people to covenant faithfulness, which is going to require daily repentance and fresh steps of faith.  

As it was for Abraham, so it was for Jesus and so it is for us.

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Impatient Faith

When it comes to heroes of faith, two stand out figures in the bible would be Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham is referred to by Paul as the father of those who believe (Romans 4).  Sarah is upheld as a model woman of God who put her trust in God.  Peter encourages Christian wives to follow her example in honouring and respecting their husbands, doing what is right (1 Peter 3).  As noble as they are, Abraham and Sarah are far from perfect.  Their faith – though admirable, is flawed.  They have their bad days.  Here in Genesis 16, we see them plummet to an all-time low. 

God promised to give them a child, but after years of waiting, they grow impatient and decide to go it alone.  Sarah comes up with a convenient plan: Abraham can sleep with her servant Hagar and they will have a child through her.  When Hagar becomes pregnant, however, she starts treating Sarah with contempt, inciting her jealousy and wrath.  Abraham absolves himself of all responsibility and tells Sarah to do with her as she pleases.  Hagar is tossed out, like an unwanted rag and left to fend for herself.  But God finds Hagar and meets her in the midst of her distress, and graciously restores her. 

This is not an easy chapter to read.  It’s one Christians find uncomfortable.  It is raw, it is crude, and it makes two great heroes of faith – Abram and Sarai – appear as cruel, uncaring, vindictive, and weak.  The bible does not always paint people in their prettiest colours.  Sometimes it uncovers their worst.  And it does that for a reason: so that we are not tempted to make heroes of them. 

Abram and Sarah are no different to you and me.  They fail, they sin, they get impatient and angry, and they make poor decisions.  And yet God still saves them by his grace.  The only person coming out looking good in this story is God.  He is the only one who remains faithful.  He is the one who forgives and restores and goes after the outcast. 

I. Human Failure

Back in chapter 12, God promised Abraham that from his loins would come a great nation.  In order for that promise to be fulfilled he would have to have at least one son.  Time passes and still no son. As each day passes Sarah’s hopes grow weaker and weaker.  So she says to him:

“The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said.” (Gen 16:2)

Now what we read here appears to be completely immoral and unacceptable to us was the legal custom in Abraham’s day.  If a woman was barren and unable to bear children, she would give her maid to her husband and the resulting child would be considered her child.  Everyone in the land of Canaan was doing this.  Everyone back in Ur and Haran was doing this, just as people continue to do it in parts of Africa and Islamic lands today. 

But it is at this point that we discover our first faith lesson, and it is this: just because something is culturally acceptable doesn’t make it right.  What is legal may not always be moral.  Today prostitution, abortion, and pornography are all legal.  And in some cases, culturally acceptable.  But that doesn’t make them right.  What does God say about the matter?  Sarah asked Abraham to commit adultery and he was happy to oblige.  We already know where there is going.  We know it’s a terrible idea.  We know the fruits of such action.  It is going to result in jealousy, bitterness, anger, and regret. 

There’s another lesson here: it’s never a good idea to try and accomplish God’s plan our way.  That’s exactly what Sarah attempted to do.  And it revealed her impatience.  “Patience,” says John Piper, “is the peaceful willingness to wait for God in the unplanned place of obedience, and to walk with God at the unplanned pace of obedience – to wait in his place and go at his pace.”  Think about a recent situation where you were faced with a problem or a delay.  How did you respond?  Did you put your trust in God?  Or did you rush ahead trying to solve it yourself?  Impatience is a sign of unbelief.  It gives evidence that we are not willing to trust God and wait for his timing. 

“So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.” (Gen 16:3)

Do you see the echoes of the garden of Eden here?  Consider the parallels between Genesis 3 and 16:

Sarai spoke to her husband, Abram (16:2a)Eve spoke to her husband, Adam (3:2)
Abram listened to the voice of his wife (16:2b)Adam listened to the voice of his wife (3:17)
Sarai took Hagar to Abram (16:3a)Eve took the fruit (3:6a)
Sarai gave Hagar to her husband (16:3b)Eve gave the fruit to her husband (3:6b)

At first, it all seems to work out just fine. Everything went according to plan. Hagar conceived just as Sarai wanted.  At long last, they have their long-awaited child. But, as with all disobedience, there are unexpected, negative consequences.

“When [Hagar] knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.” (Gen 16:4)

Hagar starts given Sarah that look.  In her eyes, Sarah had just been demoted.  Proverbs 30:21-23 says this:

“Under three things the earth trembles,

under four it cannot bear up:

a servant who becomes king,

a fool who is full of food,

an unloved woman who is married,

and a maidservant who displaces her mistress.”      

The earth begins to quake – with a woman’s bitterness and anger.  Hagar struts about the place with her rounded profile.  Sarah becomes volcanic. 

Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for my suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and when she saw that she was pregnant, I became contemptible to her. May the Lord judge between me and you.” (Gen 16:5)

Even at this point, after their failure, Abraham should have taken responsibility, accepted blame, and assured Sarah of his love for her alone.  And he should have dealt kindly and fairly with Hagar.  Instead, he does neither.  He absolves himself of all responsibility.  He shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Anything for a quiet life.  She’s your servant.  Do with her as you please.” 

Poor Hagar.  She was nothing more than a baby machine – a useful object for a couple’s convenience.  Now she is not convenient anymore.  She is unwanted and discarded like a piece of trash.  Once discarded from the household, her chances of being able to support herself and her child in any honourable way were nil.  It’s all pretty disappointing.  That’s why the next part of the chapter shines so brightly, as we turn from human failure to God’s faithfulness.  

II. God’s Faithfulness

“The angel of the Lord found her by a spring in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. He said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She replied, “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.” (Gen 16:7–8)

God meets Hagar.  He knows everything about her – her name, her status as a servant, and her mistress Sarah.  Though everyone else has forgotten her, God has not forgotten her.  Though all else have deserted her and forsaken her, God has not forsaken her.

The Lord God comes to Hagar – the outcast and the despised one.  He reveals himself to her, blessed her, promises her protection and he points her eyes in the future and gives her hope.  He says, “Hagar, you have a son in your womb, and you will bear a child and he will become a great nation.”  Isn’t this remarkably similar to God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12?  God has not committed himself exclusively to Abraham and Sarah.  God’s concern is not confined to the chosen line.  God has concern for all human beings – especially the despised outcast. 

Hagar is quite overwhelmed with all of this.  She is stunned.  The gods Hagar grew up with, the gods of Egypt would never notice a slave girl.  Hagar responds in a way that is completely unique in Scripture: she gives a name to God.  She names him, “El-Roi” – the God who sees me.  And seeing in the Old Testament is identical to caring.  The one who sees is also the one who cares. 

Every blow Sarah inflicted on her, every blind eye Abram turned, every injustice she suffered, the God of the universe – the God of Abram, saw.  God cares for those outside of his people.  He hears their cries and sees their tears.  We must never forget this.  In a world where people are quickly written off or overlooked or treated as a number or like discarded property or a means to an end, he sees, and he cares.

As we think upon this story, we can’t help thinking of another outcast woman, in John’s gospel, who had no real husband, who also met Someone at a well who really saw her. There at the well in Samaria, Jesus noticed a woman who was an outsider. He told her how He could give her water, but more than water, Living Water. The Samaritan woman returned, like Hagar, to the very people who wanted nothing to do with her. And we hear her confessing, “Come and see, come and see a man who knew everything about me,” yet He noticed me, talked to me, offered me drink (John 4:29-30).

This One would suffer a worse fate than Hagar’s son ever would.  Not only would everyone’s hand be against him, but his own Father would turn away his face from him as he was impaled there on the cross, bearing the punishment for all our sins.  All this so that we might become recipients of God’s marvellous grace.    

Conclusion

Our chapter closes with these words:

“So Hagar gave birth to Abram’s son, and Abram named his son (whom Hagar bore) Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him.” (Gen 16:15–16)

These verses make it clear that Hagar did obey the Lord and return to Sarai. Upon her return, she no doubt told Abram how the Lord had met her in the wilderness by the spring. Abram then named the boy Ishmael at Hagar’s request.

There is no mention of Sarai in these closing verses.  Sarah’s scheming and Abram’s failure delayed the promise for some thirteen years. Shortcuts do not promote God’s purposes, do they?   Ishmael became the father of all the Arabic peoples who to this very day are hostile toward the natural-born son, Isaac, who would become the father of the nation of Israel.

Yet despite all this, God’s grace is being extended to the Muslims in great measure.  More Muslims have converted to the Christian faith in the past 40 years than during the entire 14 centuries since Islam’s advance from western Arabia.  While the church in the West is dying, the church in the Middle East is thriving.  And one day Hagar, whom I believe met Jesus by that well and came to true saving knowledge of God, will welcome her kinsmen and women into her Father’s home. 

The good news, that God saves us by grace through faith in his Son, which is offered to both Jews and Muslims alike, is also offered to you.  If we have any hope of being put right with God, of having our sins forgiven and finding eternal life, it’s not going to be by our own means.  It can only be by trusting in God’s means and his gracious deliverance through his Son. 

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Trusting God (when all seems lost)

Abraham serves as a pattern for all God’s people what it means to walk or live by faith.  It is one thing to talk about faith in the abstract; to say, “I believe in God” or “I believe the bible is the Word of God.”  It is quite another to live it.  We can sound very confident assured when we say “God is in control” until something goes wrong.  All of a sudden, our world falls apart and our security system collapses. We question whether God is in control after all. 

I’m sure you’ve been there.  You made a difficult decision that you know would honour God and instead of things getting better, they get worse. You’ve been praying for years for one of your kids to turn back to the Lord and there is still no sign of change.  You see miracles happening in other people’s lives, but there is no sign of any such miracle in your own.  How do we continue to trust in God’s goodness when all evidence in our lives is against it?

This is the exact position that Abraham finds himself in in Genesis 15.  God had promised him land.  But here he is, a pilgrim and a wanderer, still without a home.  God had promised that from Abram’s loins would come forth a nation. But here he is, still without any children.  How can he be assured God will come through on his promises? This is another great test of Abraham’s faith. 

Let us begin firstly, with Abram’s struggle of faith. 

I. The struggle of faith

The chapter opens with God appearing to Abram in the vision and speaking to him:

“After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward will be very great. But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Gen 15:1–2)

You can see Abram’s problem here. Here 10 years on and there’s no sign of any children.  Yes – he had the promises of God but there’s nothing to show for it.  Abram’s problem is a problem each one of us will face one time or another: believing in God in the face of barrenness.  And it is in the midst of this barrenness – of unfulfilled promise that Abram begins to question God. 

Now it not necessarily wrong for a believer to question God.  Nor is a sign that a person is giving up on God or disbelieving God.  Unbelief doesn’t question God; it ignores God altogether.  Unbelief is not troubled by the fact that God doesn’t come through on his word because it has no belief in his Word in the first place. But it is precisely because God’s promises and God’s Word really do matter to him that he questions God.  

God had made it very clear to Abram back in chapter 12 that it would be from Abram’s loins – from his own seed that a great nation would come forth.  But Abram and Sarah, who are now well past child-bearing age, and seeing no sign whatsoever of that coming to completion, conclude that they will have to do what they did in the world at that time.  If a couple were without a child, they would adopt a household servant who would then take care of them in their old age and when they had passed away, would inherit their possessions, and continue the family line.  And in Abram’s house that individual would be Eliezer. 

In the midst of your struggle and your perplexity, when you fail to see any sign of God’s activity, you will be tempted to do the same thing.  “God has not come through; I’ll come up with an alternative plan.”  Instead of persevering in faith, waiting patiently for God to work out his plan his own way, you rush headlong into some scheme invented in your own mind.  

I want you to look now how good and kind and gracious God is with his troubled servant.  He does not abandon Abram in his struggle but meets him in his struggle and strengthens his faith.   

II. The strengthening of faith

“Now the word of the Lord came to him: “This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” (Gen 15:4)

Abram is troubled; he is perplexed and what he needs right now, more than anything else, is for his thinking to be corrected.  And that correction comes by way of the Word of the Lord. And this is always the way it must be.  When you can’t see your way out of a situation and you wonder what on earth God is doing, it is through his Word that God will sort us out.  It will clear up all our muddled thinking, it will lay bare all our worldly thinking and cut straight to the core.

And it is only now that his thinking has been straightened by the Word of God that his faith can be strengthened by the promises of God.  We see this in verse 5.  God takes him outside and tells him to look up to the night sky:

 “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.” (Gen 15:5)

Now there is nothing more awe-inspiring and beautiful, than when you look up into the night sky – particularly when you are away from city lights).  Astronomers tell us of the many hundreds of thousands of stars there are only about 5000 visible to the naked eye and only about 2,500 at any given time in our hemisphere.  As Abram looked up at his sight, God was saying to him, “Do you see all those stars, Abram?  Can you count them?  No, you can’t count them, can you?  That’s how numerous your descendants will be.” 

I believe God had two kinds of descendants in mind: physical descendants – those of the nation Israel, and spiritual descendants – those who like Abram, would become men and woman of faith.  This was bigger than Abram could ever imagine.  God was planning something that would affect the whole of human history.  And even as you read this, God is multiplying those descendants of Abram, who have come under the hearing of the gospel and have been born – not by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but of God (John 1:13).  And so as Abram looks up into that night sky, he sees you and he sees me and all those who come to God in faith through the seed – the Lord Jesus Christ.  And when we consider this, I think it is quite remarkable.

We have considered the struggle of faith as Abram wrestles with the problem of delayed promise.  We have seen the strengthening of faith after God correct Abram’s thinking and brings it into line with his own.  We come now to the climax of our passage: the resolve of faith

III. The resolve of faith

“Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6)

Something very significant occurred in the heart of Abraham that night – something supernatural that would forever change his destiny.  Abram fully and truly believed God.  The word for “believe” in Hebrew is close to our word “Amen.”  That is, he “amened” the promise of God.  He totally accepted it.  He utterly rested himself and his future upon God and his plan and his provision – however it looked like and however long it might take. And what was the result?  His salvation. And Abram’s salvation serves as a pattern for our salvation.  This is explained in detail by the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 4.   

In Romans 4, Paul is making the argument that there is only one way by which we are made acceptable to God and that is by faith.  There is only one way we can be pleasing to God and that is by faith – not by works, not by religious performance, not by doing good to our fellow man or by giving to charities – only by faith.  We pick up the argument in verse 19:

19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about a hundred years old) and also the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 because he was fully convinced that what God had promised, he was also able to do. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness., 23 Now it was credited to him was not written for Abraham alone, 24 but also for us. It will be credited to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:19-25)

Do you see what Paul is saying here?  Abraham was believing God for a miracle that was yet to come.  He was believing on God for a future he could not yet see – not wavering in unbelief but casting himself utterly upon God to fulfil a miracle that had not occurred.  Now, says the Apostle Paul, this was not written for Abraham alone for us as well.  This has direct application for us.  We believe God for a miracle that has already taken place. 

We believe God for the miracle for the coming and the dying and the rising of the Lord Jesus.  We believe in the miracle that he is the Son of God in the flesh, that he took our sins upon the cross and bore God’s wrath for those sins on our behalf.   We believe in the miracle that he rose again from the dead, conquering sin and death, and opening heaven’s door for all to come in.  And when we abandon all other attempts to be made right with God and trust ourselves entirely in the work of Christ, God credits this to us as righteousness.   That is, we become acceptable to God.

This is where saving faith has its beginning.  And this is where it must be constantly cultivated, day after day after day.  We must never outgrow the glorious truths of the cross.  We must never think we need to progress to some new level of Christian experience.  This is where God wants us grounded.  This is where God wants us to rest.  

Conclusion

True faith, saving faith is not mere acknowledgement that God exists or that he created the world or even that he sent his Son into the world to die on a cross for our sins.  True saving faith goes further than that. It stops trying to figure life out on our own, it abandons the wisdom of the world and takes God at his Word – believing that God is able to do what he promised, in the midst of barrenness and hopelessness of our present world. 

This is what it means to follow in the footsteps of Abraham. This is what is what makes us acceptable to God. This is how you, like Abraham, can become a friend of God.

Not just now, but forever. 

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Our Forever Priest

If you’re ever done any reading of the bible you know there are certain parts which appear very strange, if not bizarre.  Take the story of Balaam the prophet for example.  He heads off to talk to a guy called Balak when suddenly an angel appears and blocks the way.  Balaam starts beating the donkey for stopping and the donkey says, “Why are you beating me?” and then they have this little conversation together. In case you weren’t aware, that’s not normal.  And then there’s that weird scene in the life of Ezekiel where God tells him to act out the siege of Jerusalem by lying on his side for 390 days and when he’s done that he is to turn over and lie on his other side for 40 days. 

We come to a passage today that although is not as strange as the examples I just gave, still leaves us scratching our heads.  Abram returns victorious from a battle and encounters a mysterious individual called Melchizedek, who we are told is a priest of the Most High God.  He pronounces a blessing on Abram and then they take bread and wine together.  Nothing is said about where this individual came from or how he got to be a priest or where he goes after this.  He simply appears on the scene unannounced and disappears the same way. We are left thinking, what was that all about?

It’s tempting to ignore a passage like this.  We don’t understand it, so we go to the next part.  But everything in the bible is carefully crafted and put there for a reason. 

I. A Battle (1-16)

The chapter opens with a battle scene.  There were five major cities in and around what we know today as the Dead Sea (the Jordan Valley), and these cities were ruled by five kings.  For twelve years these kings had been forced to pay tribute to four other very powerful kings.  In the thirteenth year they rebelled.  The five kings went to war against the four lesser kings.  Two cities that lay in his path were Sodom and Gomorrah. None of this would be particularly relevant if were not for one little detail at the end in verse 12:

“They also took Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, for he was living in Sodom.” 

How will Abraham respond?  He could have said, “Lot is getting what he deserves.  He chose Sodom and now look where it’s got him.  It’s not my problem.”  But Abram doesn’t respond that way.  He takes up his armor and goes out against the enemy and he does this my friends, because he is a man of faith who knows God is with him.  He knows the promises of God will come true for him.  And armed with this assurance he steps forth and proves his valor as well as his genuine care and concern for his nephew, Lot.

God honored his faith and gave him a surprising victory.  318 against an army of who knows how many.  By the power of God, Abram surprised them and defeated them. He pursued them north all the way to Damascus.  And we are told in verse 16:

“He brought back all the goods and also his relative Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the other people.” (Gen 14:16)

The story does not end there, however. The first 16 verses of this chapter simply serve as the background for the real action which takes place in the next part of the chapter.

II. A Blessing (17-24)

On his return home from his great victory, Abram is met by two kings – the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, the king of Salem.  Now we already know something about Sodom.  Genesis 13:13 says that “the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord.”  So here is the king of that evil city coming out to meet Abraham.  We don’t know anything about Melchizedek except what we read here, and he is clearly God’s ambassador – a “priest of ´El `Elyon – God Most High”He is God’s special envoy, his representative.  And Melchizedek says to Abram – look at verse 19:

19 Abram is blessed by God Most High,

Creator of heaven and earth,

20 and blessed be God Most High

who has handed over your enemies to you.  (Gen 14:19-20)

And then, immediately after that, comes the king of Sodom:

 “Give me the people, but take the possessions for yourself.” (Gen 14:21)

The king of Sodom didn’t fight and win the battle; Abram did.  But he wants to take advantage of the situation and so he offers Abram a deal.  Melchizedek, in contrast, doesn’t come to make a deal.  Melchizedek comes with bread and wine.  Melchizedek comes to bless Abram, not to take.

Two kings – the godly king and the worldly king.  Two ways – God’s way and the world’s way.  And here stands Abram between these two kings and these two kingdoms.  Which way will he go?  Here we come to what I think is the climax of the story.  Abram has just fought a physical battle.  But now he’s fighting a greater battle – a battle for his heart; a battle in his soul.  Look how Abraham responds in verse 22:

Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand in an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or sandal strap or anything that belongs to you so you can never say, ‘I made Abram rich.’”

He’s not going to be tempted by the riches of this world.  He knows the source of his riches lie in God. He knows the source of all true lasting happiness.  It’s God.  It’s always God.  So he says to the king of Sodom, “Take it.  I don’t want any of it.” 

Abraham acts nobly and faithfully.  That leaves us now this mysterious individual called Melchizedek.

III. A Better and Lasting High Priest (Ps. 110; Heb. 7)

Who is this Melchizedek? And what is he doing here in the bible?  He is referred to as both a king and a priest.  Further down the track, we learn that Scripture forbids any man from being both king and priest. Yet here in Genesis 14, before Israel even becomes a nation, is a man who is both king and priest of God Most High.  So what gives?

Let’s go to Psalm 110.  We are now fast-forwarding 1000 years.  God raises up a king – his name is David, and he is about to be ordained and installed.  While this is occurring, David points us to an even greater event, the installation of THE KING who is over all heaven and earth.  Look at verse 1:

“This is the declaration of the Lord (Yaweh) to my Lord (Adonai): “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1)

David is given insight into a future king – his Lord, who will sit at the right hand of God and rule over his enemies. We know, on the other side of the cross, who that Lord is.  It is the Lord Jesus Christ.  But now – watch this with me, look at what verse 4 says:

“The Lord has sworn an oath and will not take it back: “You are a priest forever according to the pattern of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4)

David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reaches back to Genesis 14 and says he will not only be King but also a Priest – a Kingly Priest, a Royal Priest, in the likeness of Melchizedek. 

Let us turn now to the book of Hebrews, chapter 7.  We are fast-forwarding another 1000 or so years to another Scripture writer who gives us a commentary on what Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 is saying.  We are jumping midstream into a lengthy discussion on how Jesus is greater than the angels, greater than Moses, greater than Joshua and now, in chapter 7, greater than Aaron and the Levitical priesthood.  Let’s pick up the argument in chapter 6 verse 20:

“Jesus has entered there on our behalf as a forerunner, because he has become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of God Most High, met Abraham and blessed him as he returned from defeating the kings, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means king of righteousness, then also, king of Salem, meaning king of peace. Without father, mother, or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” (Hebrews 6:20–7:3)

Are you following the argument?  There is no record of Melchizedek’s origin – nor is there record of his death.  In a similar manner Jesus’ origin is just as mysterious and because of his resurrection he lives forevermore.  And because Jesus is both king and priest (like Melchizedek), his kingship and priesthood is eternal. 

Now what implications does this have for you and me?  Hebrews 7 verses 25-27 give us the answer:

“Now many have become Levitical priests, since they are prevented by death from remaining in office. But because he remains forever, he holds his priesthood permanently. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:23–25)

We need an intercessor.  We cannot approach God on our own.  We are sinners, in need of a mediator – a priest.  But earthly priests don’t cut it.  They have sin themselves, and they keep dying.  We need a perfect, sinless high priest who will not die.   And in this meeting Abram has with Melchizedek, God was pointing forward to the day when he would send that perfect king and priest, who would provide the perfect sacrifice: himself.

God was giving those first readers of Genesis a clue as to how the blessings of Abraham was going to come to all peoples of the earth.  It would be in the person of his Son – the Lord Jesus, the perfect Priest and King, who died and rose again on our behalf.  It is through Jesus that God’s blessings for the world come.

Now you have to admit – for a strange looking chapter in the book of Genesis, that is quite stunning!

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Choices and Consequences

Life is full of choices; we face them every day.  Some of those choices, like what you eat for breakfast or what you wear to work or school, are minor and don’t need much thought. There are other choices, however, that carry greater weight and have long-lasting consequences.  They take us down a certain path that we can later regret. 

In Genesis chapter 13 two men are standing at a fork in the road.  Previously these men always travelled the road together but now they find themselves having to separate and take different paths. One chooses based on what he believes; the other chooses based on what he sees.  One is thinking about God’s long-term promise; the other has his thoughts on short-term pleasure.  The first man ends up being blessed by God; the second man ends up losing everything. 

Those two men are Abram and Lot.  God has lessons he wants us to learn from these two men, with the choices they made and the consequences that followed.  And we’ll be looking at those lessons here.  First, we will look at Abram’s choice, then Lot’s choice and then Abram’s reward.

I. Abraham’s choice (8-9)

We saw last week Abraham facing his first test of faith with a famine.  This came after a string of remarkable promises (Gen 12:1-3).  God promised him a great land, a great nation, a great name, and a great blessing.  God said, “through you Abraham, all the peoples of the earth will be blessed” – a promise that finds full realization in the gospel and the coming of Jesus.

Initially, Abraham demonstrates great faith in leaving his homeland and stepping out to follow God in obedience.  But then a test: a famine.  Instead of trusting in God to provide, he slips to self-reliance, heads off to Egypt and then, out of fear for his own life, concocts up a lie that Sarah is his sister and almost loses her to Pharaoh’s bed.  It’s only God’s intervention that Sarah is not compromised and Abraham high tails it out of Egypt as fast as his donkey will carry him.

Here we have Abram facing another test.  Not a test of adversity, but a test of prosperity.  Abram and Lot had become very wealthy, and they had so many flocks, herds, and possessions we are told in verse 8, that “the land was unable to support them.”  The family profits had outgrown the family territory.  That wasn’t the only problem. Conflict broke out between Abram’s herdsmen and Lot’s herdsmen. 

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of a family feud, but I can tell you it’s no fun.  It’s painful.  If you fall out with your neighbours, you can always stop talking to them.  There’s usually a fence between the two of you.  Ignoring family members can be a lot more difficult, especially at family gatherings!  When conflict erupts with our neighbours or family members or fellow Christians, we must work extra hard to be at peace with each other.

This is what Abram does.  He takes the initiative.  He makes the first choice.  He chooses to be big-hearted.  He chooses to be generous and give.  He chooses to serve.  Look at verses 8-9 with me:

“Abram said to Lot, “Please, let’s not have quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, since we are relatives. Isn’t the whole land before you? Separate from me: if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” (Gen 13:8–9)

He allows Lot to have the first choice.  He will take what’s leftover.  How different is his response here compared to that in chapter 12!  He’s learned from his mistake.  He’s not going to respond in the flesh. He’s going to walk by faith. 

Abraham knows all the land is his.  God has already promised it to him.  He doesn’t have to grasp for it.  He doesn’t need to fight for it.  Abraham is learning to trust God.  So he decides to put the matter into God’s hand and defers to Lot. 

“My brother, we should not quarrel about this. You have first choice. Take what part of the land you want. I insist.”  

Brothers and sisters: we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  All the promises of God are “yes” for us in Christ.  We are seated right now with Christ in heavenly places. Therefore, let us cease grasping for that which God has already given us.  As Alexander Maclaren put it:

“The less our energies are consumed in asserting ourselves, and scrambling for our rights, and cutting in before other people, so as to get the best places for ourselves, the more we shall have to spare for better things; and the more we live in the future, and leave God to order our ways, the more shall our souls be wrapped in perfect peace.”

We’ve seen Abram’s choice, which was based on faith and trust in the promises of God.  Now let us compare that with Lot’s choice. 

II. Lot’s choice (10-13)

“Lot looked out and saw that the entire plain of the Jordan as far as Zoar was well watered everywhere like the Lord’s garden and the land of Egypt. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose the entire plain of the Jordan for himself. Then Lot journeyed eastward, and they separated from each other.” (Gen 13:10-11)

If you were looking to get ahead financially, this is where you would head.  If you were looking for an investment property, look no further than Sodom.  The only problem is the people living in it are sinful and wicked.  Verse 13 tells us that was widely known.  Why would you move your family to a place like that?  It appears Lot is not thinking wisely or carefully.  He is not putting the spiritual welfare of himself and his family first. 

“Lot looked out…” verse 10 tells us.  Literally, “Lot lifted up his eyes…” And what did he see?  He saw a financial opportunity and he saw prosperity.  He did not see the dangers to his own soul and the souls of his family.  He did not see the corrupting influence of the culture of Sodom that would affect his own heart and life.  Lot’s focus was like that of so many today: short-term gain and immediate gratification.

We all know the outcome of this decision.  We know how the story plays out.  Things do not go at all well.  The Apostle Peter tells us that “day by day, his righteous soul was tormented by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8).  In the end, God dispatches two angels to rescue him before the place is incinerated, and Lot escapes with smoke on the clothes of his back and lives out the rest of his days in a cave.

Lot serves as a warning to us all of the importance of making wise choices.  And those choices are influenced by the values and commitments we hold.  James Boice says it well:

You may think that you are different from Lot. But if you have put your job ahead of your family’s spiritual life, if you have put your social advancement ahead of a proper association with God’s people, if you have let your choice of a home keep you from a church in which you can grow in faith and worship– you have moved from the highlands to the plain of the Jordan.

You cannot spend lengthy time close to the fire without coming away smelling with its smoke.  You can’t spend extended time beneath a hot sun without feeling the effect of its heat.  Ask anyone who works in a fast-food restaurant, if they don’t come away reeking of the very product they were handling. So too, you cannot linger long in the company of the godless without being influenced by them. 

Beware – the grass always grows greener on the other side of the fence.  Lot went chasing the greener grass and ended up paying dearly for it.

We’ve seen the choice that Abram made and how that contrasted with the choice that Lot made.  We are going to see the consequences of Lot’s choice a little later on.  But we see the results of Abraham’s choice right here in verses 14-18, with Abraham’s reward.

III. Abraham’s reward (14-18)

“After Lot had separated from him, the Lord said to Abram, “Look from the place where you are. Look north and south, east and west, for I will give you and your offspring forever all the land that you see. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust of the earth, then your offspring could be counted. Get up and walk around the land, through its length and width, for I will give it to you.” (Gen 13:14–17)

There is a deliberate parallel between verse 14 and verse 10.  In verse 10 “Lot looked out” (he “lifted up his eyes”) over the plain of Jordon, and here in verse 10, the exact same Hebrew expression is used when God says to Abram, “Look from the place where you are…”  It is the same intense gaze.

Back in chapter 12, God said, “I’m going to give you the land” (verse 7) but now he puts a magnifying glass on it.  He shows him more.  “Look in every direction,” the Lord says.  “Walk through its length and breadth.  I’m giving you the lot.  It’s all yours.”  “Do you see the dust blowing off that land on the horizon?  Try to count the dust – that’s how many offspring there’s going to be.”  

The Lord is saying, “Abram, this isn’t just land I’m giving you; I’m giving you a kingdom. It’s not just a son; I’m giving you a dynasty.”  And if you take the time, you could trace these promises all the way through the Bible and you would see how they lead to Jesus, the true seed of Abraham (Galatians 3).  And would discover that Jesus brings renewal, not just to the land of Canaan, but the whole world so that people from every tribe, language and people can know and enjoy God – not just here and now, but forever.

Like Abram, we have to learn that the scope of God’s grace and the measure of his mercy and the proportion of his promises far transcends anything that we can understand right now.  That’s part of what it means to learn to walk by faith: to not make decisions based on what we can see and hear and feel right now, what we can understand right now; but to keep our eyes on the promises of God and to look for the city whose builder and maker is God, to have an eternal perspective, an eternal mindset.

Like Abram, we struggle to do that. Our minds just can’t quite grasp what the Lord has for us.  But when that promise really sinks down into your heart, when you really get it deep, deep down, into the pores of your soul, you know what it does? It expands your heart.  It gives you a generous spirit.  It gives you an eternal perspective. And it changes the way you handle conflict, it changes the way you make decisions, it changes the way you live in the world.  

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.