Where the world comes to study the Bible

Lesson 46: The Lord Who Provides (Genesis 22)

Related Media

We’ve lost touch over the years, but I used to know a man who met Christ while he was doing five years to life in Tehachapi prison on drug charges. He later found out that at the very moment he went into the prison chapel and cried out to God for salvation, his mother was at home on her knees beseeching the Lord to save her wayward son. He often said, “I was forgiven much, so I love Jesus much.” He would tell every stranger he met how Jesus had forgiven all his sins.

At first I was bothered by his referring to that passage of Scripture, because I thought, “I was raised in a Christian home. I never committed terrible crimes, like he did. So does that mean I can’t love Jesus as much as he does?” But then I realized that Jesus’ point was not that some are forgiven more than others, but that some are so self-righteous that they don’t see their need for God’s forgiveness, and so they do not love God very much. Others, even those who are outwardly good, see how desperately wicked their hearts are. The more they see their own depravity in the sight of God, the more they love the Savior who rescued them from a horrible pit.

In my estimation, one of the major problems in the evangelical church today is that we have watered down the gospel message by minimizing the desperate need of lost sinners and thereby minimizing the greatness of God’s salvation. We’ve told people that Jesus can help them with their problems and give them an abundant life. They’re doing reasonably well in life, but they could use a little help now and then, so they try Jesus to see if He will boost their happiness quotient. Like well-fed people at a feast, they sample a little of the “Jesus” appetizer, to see if they like it, but they don’t feel a great need for the Savior. Forgiven little, they love Jesus little.

But that’s not the gospel! The gospel is that apart from Christ, people are under the wrath of the holy God, and that unless they flee to Christ, they will perish in their sins. They are hopelessly, helplessly lost. Unless Christ saves them from their sins, they will suffer God’s eternal condemnation. Somewhere in the process of God’s dealings with us, He must bring us to the point of recognizing our great need for His salvation. For some it happens before conversion; for others (and I fit here), it happens after. But only when we see how desperate our need is, will we see how great God’s provision of the Savior is. Seeing how much we’ve been forgiven, we will love much.

When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, He allowed Abraham to go to the very brink, where he would see his desperate need for the substitute which God provided. Out of gratitude, Abraham named that place, “The Lord Will Provide” (22:14). This story illustrates the salvation that God later provided for the world in the death of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Last week we looked at this story from the perspective of what it teaches us about surrendering all to God. Today I want to look at it from the angle of God’s provision:

The Lord has provided a great Savior for our great need.

The first thing we must grasp is that ...

1. We have a great need.

If God had merely asked Abraham to go and sacrifice one of his lambs, he wouldn’t have felt the desperate need he felt when God asked him to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved (22:2). This was a life and death matter. Of course, Isaac felt his great need, too! He would have died if God had not intervened. God allowed Abraham to get to the point of raising the knife to slay his son, to show him his desperate need for a substitute.

This drama teaches us some important truths about salvation:

A. Man can only approach God through the shedding of blood.

This was not the first time Abraham and Isaac had learned this. Isaac had been with him on other occasions when he had sacrificed one of their animals. This fact lies behind his question as they proceeded up the mountain, “... where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (22:7). Isaac knew that to approach God there had to be the shedding of blood.

God had made this plain from the time of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden. They had tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves, but God provided animal skins for them. I think God explained to them the significance of that shed blood and of His provision for their sin.

Their sons, Cain and Abel, knew this. When Cain brought a sacrifice of fruit, which represented his attempt to approach God in his own way, God did not accept it and told him to do well. God would only say that if Cain knew the proper way of approach. Later, God would ordain through Moses the sacrificial system by which Israel was to approach Him. The point is, from the earliest times God made it clear that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. God cannot just brush our sin under the rug, or He would compromise His holiness and justice. He has ordained that the penalty for sin is death, and He must exact that penalty.

B. Man can only approach God through the shed blood of an acceptable substitute.

By accepting the death of animals, God showed people from Adam and Eve on that He would accept the death of a proper substitute as payment for a person’s sins. It could not be just any animal; it had to be a male, without spot or blemish, because it pointed ahead to the sinless Son of God who would offer Himself as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world. By requiring the death of Isaac, God was going a step further in His revelation to man. He was showing that man’s sins required not only the death of an animal substitute, but that ...

C. Man can only approach God through the shed blood of an acceptable human substitute.

Only man can atone for the sins of man. Furthermore, that man who must die as the substitute must be a son, an only son, a beloved son (22:2). So Isaac and the ram together represent the sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross. The ram represents the aspect of substitution; Isaac represents the humanity and sonship of the Savior. Abraham pictures the Father, who loved the Son, but who sacrificed Him on our behalf.

Think about how Abraham must have felt as he lifted the knife to kill his beloved son! He must have felt overwhelmed by his desperate need before God. He must have thought, “Oh, God, why couldn’t it be a lamb? Why couldn’t it be me? Why must it be my son, my only son, whom I love? Is my sin so great that only Isaac will suffice?” And think of how Isaac must have felt! Unless God provided a substitute, he would die!

God has to bring us all to that place of realizing our great need. Our sin is so great that nothing other than the death of God’s own Son would suffice. The death of lambs could never atone for sin. They only pointed forward to the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. Through the command to sacrifice Isaac, and through the ram which God substituted at the last minute (which shows that God was not endorsing child sacrifice), the Lord was impressing on His people the greatness of their need for the Savior He would provide. Donald Barnhouse observes, “God was instilling a reflex in the minds of His people so that every time they thought of sin they would think of death, for sin means death. It means the death of the sinner or the death of the Savior.” (Genesis [Zondervan], 1:203.)

I wish you all could read the autobiography of the great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. His father and grandfather were preachers in Victorian England. Outwardly, Charles was a moral, well-behaved boy. But from age 10 to 15, he went through deep conviction of sin before he came to faith in Christ. God had to show him his great need so that he would appreciate God’s great provision in Christ. He spends over 20 pages describing his inward struggles. Here’s a brief sample:

For five years, as a child, there was nothing before my eyes but my guilt, and though I do not hesitate to say that those who observed my life would not have seen any extraordinary sin, yet as I looked upon myself, there was not a day in which I did not commit such gross, such outrageous sins against God, that often and often have I wished I had never been born....

Before I thought upon my soul’s salvation, I dreamed that my sins were very few. All my sins were dead, as I imagined, and buried in the graveyard of forgetfulness. But that trumpet of conviction, which aroused my soul to think of eternal things, sounded a resurrection--note to all my sins; and, oh, how they rose up in multitudes more countless than the sands of the sea! Now, I saw that my very thoughts were enough to damn me, that my words would sink me lower than the lowest hell, and as for my acts of sin, they now began to be a stench in my nostrils so that I could not bear them.... I reckoned that the most defiled creature, the most loathsome and contemptible, was a better thing than myself, for I had so grossly and grievously sinned against Almighty God... (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:58-59).

A few pages earlier (p. 54) he suggests that the “flimsy piety” of his day arose from the fact that too few people had gone through deep conviction of sin. Then he states,

Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Saviour. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.

While I have never gone through anything as deep as Spurgeon went through, the more I have grown as a Christian, the more I have come to realize how holy God is and how sinful I am. When I first put my faith in Christ, I knew that I was sinful and that God is holy, but I had no idea of “the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary.” That may be one danger of being raised in a Christian home, that we may not realize how much we’ve been forgiven, and thus not love the Savior as greatly as if we had felt “the rope around our neck.” The modern church is going overboard to tell us how to love ourselves and esteem ourselves. But the Bible shows us the depth of our great need as sinners so that we will appreciate God’s great provision in the Savior.

2. God has provided a great Savior.

A. Only God can provide a Savior for our great need.

Abraham’s desperate situation showed him that only God could meet his need. If God had not intervened at the precise moment He did, Isaac would have been killed. Abraham offered the ram God provided “in the place of his son,” so that Isaac was spared (22:13). As the apostle Paul wrote, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).

The place where this sacrifice took place is significant. God could have told Abraham to sacrifice his son somewhere closer to Beersheba, where he was living. But He directed him to the land of Moriah, to one of the mountains there. The only other place in the Bible where Moriah appears is 2 Chronicles 3:1, where it is stated that Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. In Abraham’s day, this spot was uninhabited. But it later would be the place where sacrificial lambs would be offered at the temple. I can’t prove it, but I believe that Mount Moriah is the same as Mount Calvary, where God’s Son would die as the sacrifice for our sin some 2,000 years later.

A proverb sprang up concerning this story, “in the mount of the Lord it will be provided” (22:14). The idea is that in our time of extremity, when all human help is gone, God will see our need and provide deliverance for us. The mount of the Lord is, supremely, Mount Calvary, because our greatest need is to be reconciled to God. Like Abraham, we must come to the place God has appointed, to the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross God provided everything the sinner needs to be reconciled to Him. All we can do is thankfully receive by faith what He provided.

B. The Savior God has provided is His only Son whom He loves.

The ram provided by God represents Christ, who died in our place. But Isaac is also a type of Christ. Whereas Isaac was spared death, Christ actually died in our place. But God allowed Abraham to go right up to the point of killing Isaac to illustrate the fact that He would one day sacrifice His own Son for the sin of the world.

Just as Jesus would one day bear His own cross up that same hill, so Isaac bore the wood for the sacrifice on his shoulders. Just as Jesus willingly gave Himself in obedience to the Father (John 10:17-18; Eph. 5:2), so Isaac willingly submitted to his father. We don’t know how old Isaac was, but he was at least old enough to carry the wood. Probably he was strong enough to resist his elderly father, if he had tried. But his willing submission shows his trust both in God and in his father. In Abraham’s mind, Isaac was as good as dead for three days (22:4), before he was raised from that altar, just as Jesus was actually in the tomb three days before He was raised.

Just as Abraham carried the fire and knife, the implements of death, and would have plunged the knife into the heart of his own son, so there is a sense in which God the Father put His own Son to death. Isaiah wrote of Christ that He was “smitten of God,” and that “the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, ...” (Isa. 53:4, 10). John 3:16 makes it clear that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. Just as Abraham loved Isaac, and it pained him deeply to think of killing him, so the Father loved the Son, but offered Him up for us all (John 10:17; 15:9; 17:23, 24).

Why? “God so loved” us that He gave His Son to die in our place! Probably no one appreciates what that means like Abraham did after he received Isaac back from the altar. Nothing was more precious to Abraham than Isaac. Nothing could have cost the Father more than to give His sinless Son as the penalty for our sin.


Years ago, a missionary in India named David Morse had developed a close friendship with a pearl diver named Rambhau. Morse had spent many hours trying to tell his friend of God’s great and free gift of salvation in Christ, but the Indian man could not accept it. It seemed too easy; he insisted that a man must work for and earn his place in heaven.

As Rambhau grew older, he told the missionary that he needed to make preparations for the life to come. He had decided to spend his final days crawling to Delhi on his knees to make atonement for his sins and earn his spot in heaven. With alarm, the missionary tried to dissuade him and show him that God had provided all that a sinner needs in His Son, Jesus Christ. But the old man could not accept it.

One day just before he left on his pilgrimage, Rambhau invited Morse to his house. He brought out a strongbox, and explained that he kept only one thing in it, something very precious to him. He surprised the missionary by explaining that he had a son. With moist eyes, he told of how his son had been the best pearl diver on the coasts of India. He always dreamed of finding the best pearl ever found in those parts. One day he found it, but he had stayed under too long. He brought up that pearl, but he lost his life doing it. All these years, the father had kept that pearl. But now, since he did not plan to return, he wanted to give it to his best friend, the missionary. He opened the box, and Morse gasped as he stared at the biggest, most perfect pearl he had ever seen, a pearl worth thousands of dollars.

Suddenly, a thought came to the missionary. He said, “Rambhau, this is a marvelous pearl. Let me buy it. I will give you $10,000 for it.” The old man was stunned: “What do you mean?” “I’ll give you $15,000 for it, or if it takes more, I’ll work until I pay it off.”

Rambhau was indignant. “This pearl is beyond all price to me. My son gave his life to get this pearl. I would not sell it for a million dollars. But I will give it to you, my friend, as a gift.”

“No, Rambhau, I cannot accept it as a gift. Maybe I am proud, but I must work for it and pay for it or I cannot take it.”

Rambhau was offended beyond words. David Morse, with choked voice, took his hand and said, “Don’t you see that what I’m saying to you is just what you have been saying to God? God provided for your salvation by offering His own Son. Your pride in thinking that you could earn it or deserve it shows your great need as a sinner. But the fact that God provided His Son for sinners shows His great love. All you can do is thankfully receive God’s great provision for your sin.”

By now, tears were streaming down the cheeks of the old Indian man. He understood at last that salvation is not something man can earn, but only something that God can provide. He trusted in Christ as God’s provision for his sin.

If you have never seen it before, I hope that today you see that as a sinner, you have a great need for a Savior. Without Christ, you will perish in your sins. I hope you see that God has provided the Savior in His own Son, Jesus Christ, and that you trust in Him as your substitute sin offering. If you’ve trusted in Christ, I hope you remember always the great provision that God has made for your great need, and that, remembering, you will love Him, trust Him, fear Him, worship Him, and obey Him with all your heart. As sinners, we have a great need; but God has provided an even greater Savior!

Discussion Questions

  1. Must a person feel convicted of sin before he trusts in Christ? Are we too quick to lead a person to salvation before he senses his desperate need?
  2. Some say that we should not emphasize God’s judgment and man’s sin, but rather God’s love and the benefits of salvation. Agree/disagree?
  3. Some say that to be increasingly aware of how sinful we are is not good in that it leads to poor self-esteem. Why is that bad theology?
  4. How can we help people who are spiritually complacent see their great need for Christ?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Forgiveness, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 47: How Believers Deal With Death (Genesis 23:1-20)

Related Media

No subject is more difficult for us to face than that of death. Writer Somerset Maugham said, “Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it” (Reader’s Digest [1/80]). But, of course, we can’t dodge it. We all have loved ones and friends who have died or will die. And we must die. But it’s still difficult to think about.

Author William Saroyan, just five days before his death from cancer, issued this statement: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” (Reader’s Digest [12/81]). He was probably being facetious, but underneath he was probably voicing a fear that has haunted most of us: How are we to think about and deal with death, be it the death of loved ones, or our own death?

That question has caused some confusion among God’s people. Some have said that since Christ defeated death, we’re supposed to be joyful and victorious through it all. They deny the process of grieving. Others are quick to explain how God will work it all together for good, which is true. But we still grieve and feel the pain.

Genesis 23 provides some answers to the question of how believers should deal with death. Abraham, the man of faith, loses his wife, Sarah. His response reflects both realism and faith. It is interesting that only two verses deal with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s grief, whereas 18 verses deal with his negotiations to secure a burial plot. You have to ask, why is so much space devoted to that which, at first glance, seems insignificant? The answer is given in Hebrews 11:13-16, which talks about Abraham and Sarah’s faith:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.

It is significant that just preceding the death of Sarah is the news from Abraham’s homeland of the children born to his brother Nahor. In that day, it was important that a person be buried in his native land. It would have been easy for Abraham, with news from the family in the homeland, to have thought when Sarah died, “I must take her back there to bury her.”

But God had called Abraham to the land of Canaan and promised to give it to him and his descendants. Verse 2 states that Sarah died “in the land of Canaan.” Verse 19 states that it was “in the land of Canaan” that Abraham secured the burial site for her. So the point of emphasizing Abraham’s efforts in securing a burial plot in the land of Canaan is to show his faith in God’s promise as he dealt with Sarah’s death. The field and cave of Machpelah was the only piece of real estate in Canaan Abraham ever owned, and he had to pay the going price for it. But in so doing, he was saying, “I believe that God will do as He promised.” Abraham dealt with Sarah’s death realistically, but with solid faith in God’s promises concerning the future. That’s how we must deal with death:

Believers deal with death with realism, but with faith in God’s promises.

1. Believers deal with death with realism.

Death is the ultimate test of our faith. Being a faithful Christian doesn’t exempt us from death, unless we are living when Christ returns. We can’t escape it or postpone it when it’s our time to go. As Christians, we need to view death realistically.

That means that we recognize death for what it is: an enemy that entered the human race as God’s curse on our sin. It is not, as some say, a natural part of life. It is our enemy. When the Bible says that Christ abolished death (2 Tim. 1:10), it means that He broke its power over believers. Christ’s resurrection triumphed over death, but that victory will not be fully realized until He returns to give us resurrection bodies like His own. Until then, death is our enemy, a painful reminder of God’s judgment on our rebellion against Him. We are not supposed to smile and say it doesn’t hurt. Death brings hard realities.

A. Death brings emotional realities.

There is the reality of loss and grief. Even though Sarah lived a relatively long life (she is the only woman in the Bible whose age at death is given), Abraham mourned and wept when she died. It’s never easy. There is nothing unmanly or unbiblical about tears in a time of grief. Jesus Himself wept at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:35). Paul tells us to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). We should not make people who are grieving feel uncomfortable or unspiritual about their tears. I once preached the funeral for a man who had died in his thirties. Afterwards, I was consoling his widow when her former pastor from another town came up and tried to get her to stop crying by saying, “Well, praise the Lord! Scott’s in glory now!” I wanted to punch him in the nose! Let her weep!

There is also the reality of loneliness, as the loved one is no longer with us. Twice Abraham repeats the phrase, “bury my dead out of my sight” (23:4, 8, NASB; not in NIV). This may be just a Hebrew way of expressing burial, but it suggests the pain of separation which death brings. Before death, a loved one is in our sight often. We delight to see the person. In the case of lovers, even in old age, the beauty of her face, the warmth of her smile, the twinkle in her eyes, all make your heart glow. But death instantly changes all that.

Abraham and Sarah had shared their whole lives together. She had been with him when he left Ur of the Chaldeans by faith. She had shared his anxieties as they moved into the land of Canaan. She had waited with him over the years as they longed for God’s promised son. Together they had seen that son grow into a man (now 37). So when Sarah died, Abraham was left with a gaping hole in his life. While he had Isaac, and he had the Lord, and he later remarried, nothing could fill up the hole left when Sarah died. Death brings the pain of loneliness into our lives.

Note that the Lord did not appear to Abraham or give a special word of comfort at this point in his life. I’m not suggesting that God abandoned him, or that Abraham did not find comfort in the Lord. But there is no indication of any special revelation at this difficult point in Abraham’s life. Sometimes we give pat comfort when we tell a grieving person that God will be especially close to them in their loss. Maybe He will. But there is no indication that God was especially close to this great man of faith at his time of loss. The picture is rather of a lonely man grieving and taking care of the necessary arrangements to bury his wife. Death brings the hard emotional realities of loss and loneliness, even to a man who is the special friend of God. It’s okay to say, “Even with God, it’s going to be hard!”

B. Death brings financial realities.

Perhaps you thought that the expensive cost of funerals was a recent American phenomenon! But 4,000 years ago, Abraham was faced with the high cost of burying his wife. He had to take care of this business in the midst of his grief.

Maybe it’s from the Lord that we must take care of such business in a time of grief. If we didn’t have to rise from our grief (23:3) and deal with some of the practical matters of living, we might be overwhelmed. The duty of work and taking care of the business side of life helps us not to grieve beyond what is healthy and to get on with the process of establishing a new life for ourselves after our loss.

This story gives us an inside look at the way business was carried on in this ancient culture. There are a lot of nonverbal, culturally-understood signals going on here, but the basic issue being decided is whether this resident alien, Abraham, will gain a permanent foothold or not by becoming a land owner. The flattering words of verse 6 were probably an attempt to get him to remain a landless dependent. Abraham’s rejoinder, where he names Ephron, “made skilful use of the fact that while a group tends to resent an intruder the owner of an asset may welcome a customer” (Derek Kidner, Genesis [IVP], 1:145).

Ephron offers to give Abraham not only the cave, but the field attached to it (23:11). On the surface, that sounds like a generous deal. But the offer to give it to Abraham was probably a culturally courteous way of saying, “Name your price.” No one with honor would actually take up such an offer. It was kind of like our asking a dinner guest at 11 p.m. to stay for one more cup of coffee. It gives the person the polite opportunity (hopefully) to say, “No thank you, I’ve had a wonderful time, but I must be going now.”

In offering to throw in the field along with the cave, Ephron wasn’t being generous. Under Hittite law, if he retained ownership of the field, in modern parlance, he would have to pay the taxes on it. But if he sold the larger portion with the cave, the obligation passed on to the new owner. Abraham agreed to this extended package, so all that is left is establishing the price.

Ephron is subtle in this matter as well. He persists as if he is willing to give the property to Abraham, but he attaches a market value to his “gift.” This allows Ephron to mention the value of the land as he sees it, and it implies that if Ephron is so generous as to give Abraham this land, how could Abraham be so petty as to dicker over the price? Abraham accepts the price, pays the money, and the transaction is legally witnessed (23:16-18, 20). Note also that Abraham had enough money in hand to pay for this need. I believe that God’s people should have enough in either a savings account or life insurance so that you don’t have to go in debt to cover the cost of a funeral.

Let me say a practical word on the expense connected with funerals. The key should be moderation. Some people are extravagant in buying the most expensive caskets and floral arrangements. Sometimes they feel guilty about their relationship with the deceased. Sometimes they feel the need to impress those who attend the funeral. But in my opinion, it is not good stewardship of the Lord’s money to be extravagant at a funeral.

On the other hand, we don’t need to get by as cheaply as possible. Christians are divided over the issue of cremation. I’m not bothered by it theologically, in that whether a corpse is burned or decays in the ground is no problem to God in the day of resurrection. But cost shouldn’t be the only factor in deciding. It’s important that you feel right about the funeral in terms of the honor given to the deceased within the boundaries of moderation. There may be some benefit to succeeding generations to have a grave site, which cremation usually doesn’t provide. While I do not believe in putting flowers on a grave site or that the dead person enjoys a grave with a nice view, there can be value in having a place where people can go to see the grave marker and reflect on the life of the dead person.

When we were in Macau, we visited the only Protestant cemetery there, where Robert Morrison and his wife, the first missionaries to China in the modern era, are buried. It was sobering to walk around that cemetery and notice that most of the women died in their twenties or thirties, and the men in their thirties and forties. They paid a high price to take the gospel to China in those days before modern medicine. To see their graves was a solemn reminder of the godly pioneers of the faith who carried the torch faithfully in their generation and a challenge to imitate their faith.

It’s important that the funeral be a time of publicly expressing the hope of the gospel. It’s fine to mention some of the person’s strengths and reflect on the lessons of his life. But the main focus ought to be to make those present think about the reality of death for them and the hope of the gospel if they will trust in Christ. Whoever you ask to officiate at the funeral of your loved one, make sure that he promises to give the gospel clearly. A funeral is no time to beat around the bush about the truth of the gospel.

To come back to the point of our text, death involves financial realities and those who are grieving often are faced with the practical matters related to the death of the loved one. But there is a much greater point here, namely, Abraham’s great faith in God’s promises. While believers need to face the reality of death, both emotionally and financially, we also need to face death with faith in God’s promises.

2. Believers deal with death with faith in God’s promises.

The point of this extended story of Abraham’s securing the burial plot is to show his strong faith in God’s promise to give this land to his descendants. Moses was writing to people on the verge of entering that land to conquer it from some frightening enemies. Many of them weren’t so sure it was a good idea. As reports of the giants in the land spread through the camp, slavery in Egypt didn’t sound too bad! Moses is showing how their forefather Abraham paid for legal title to this burial ground because he believed what God had promised. Not only Sarah, but Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob were buried in that cave as a testimony of their faith in God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to their descendants. Genesis ends with Joseph dying in Egypt, away from the promised land, but charging his sons to take his bones with them when God led them back there. So now Israel must go in and claim the land God had promised.

All of these were testifying that they believed in more than a piece of real estate. They believed that God’s promises do not end with this life. God is going to do far more than He has done for us in this life. As the author of Hebrews says, they were desiring “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). Abraham was “looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). His faith looked beyond the grave to the promises of God to send the Savior, and through Him to bless all nations.

Just as Abraham said that he was a stranger and sojourner (23:4), so God told Israel, “the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). David acknowledged to God, “For we are sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were” (1 Chron. 29:15). In the psalms, he cries, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with You, a sojourner like all my fathers” (Ps. 39:12). Even when Israel was in possession of the land, these men of faith confessed that their true home was not here, but in heaven (Heb. 11:13-16).

That’s how believers face death. They say, “God, you’ve promised me something that I haven’t yet realized. You’ve promised more than this life. You’ve promised me and my loved one who trusted You eternal life with You. You’ve promised a new, resurrection body. You’ve promised a day when all tears and pain and sorrow will be wiped away for Your people. And so, in this moment of despair, when death has claimed my loved one, when death stares me in the face, when I am lonely and I hurt inside, I trust in Your promises. Your promises are my hope in the face of death.”


Joseph Parker, a famous London preacher in the last century, experienced this. At one point in his life he began to dabble with some of the liberal theology of his day. Many scholars were undermining the truth of the Scriptures, and as Parker read their books and attended their meetings, he began to lose his grip on the foundational truth of salvation through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.

Then he was hit with the worst sorrow he ever had to bear. His wife, whom he loved dearly, became ill and died in a matter of hours. He was unable to share his grief with others. He paced back and forth in the empty rooms of his house, his heart breaking. In his misery, he felt for some footing in the liberal theology he had been embracing, but he found no comfort or hope. As Parker later told it publicly,

And then, my brethren, in those hours of darkness, in those hours of my soul’s anguish, when filled with doubt and trembling in fear, I bethought myself of the old gospel of redemption alone through the blood of Christ, the gospel that I had preached in those earlier days, and I put my foot down on that, and, my brethren, I found firm standing. I stand there today, and I shall die resting upon that blessed glorious truth of salvation alone through the precious blood of Christ. (In H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies [Loizeaux Brothers], pp. 56-57.)

Parker faced the death of his wife with realism concerning the pain, but also with faith in the promises of God.

Death, even for believers, brings hard realities. It always hurts, it always leaves us with a lonely spot in our hearts. It often brings hard financial realities. The Lord does not spare us these things just because we believe in Him. But with the pain, which reminds us of our sin as the reason death entered this world, He gives us the hope of His promises. Christ died for us, so that the sting of death is gone. Yes, we grieve at the death of loved ones, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope. He has gone to prepare a place for us. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have fallen asleep in Jesus!

If you have not come to Christ and trusted in His death as the payment for your sin, the Bible says that you have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). But you don’t need to be there. God promises that whoever believes in Jesus Christ “shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). You can trust Him right now and go to bed tonight with the confidence that if you should die, you have eternal life because God promised it.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is proper grief for a Christian? When is it excessive?
  2. What should you say and not say in trying to comfort a grieving person?
  3. Critics sometimes accuse Christianity as being “pie in the sky when you die.” Is this true? How would you answer the charge?
  4. How can we know that our hope in God’s promise of eternal life is not just wishful thinking? What guarantees our hope?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 48: Knowing God’s Guidance—Especially in Choosing A Mate (Genesis 24:1-67)

Related Media

A flight attendant spent a week’s vacation in the Rockies. She was captivated by the mountain peaks, the clear blue skies, and the sweet smelling pines. But she also was charmed by a very eligible bachelor who owned and operated a cattle ranch and lived in a log cabin. At the end of this week, Mr. Wonderful proposed. But it had all happened so quickly that the woman decided to return home and to her job, feeling that she would somehow be guided.

The next day, in flight, she found herself wondering what to do. To perk up, she stopped in the rest room and splashed some cool water on her face. There was some turbulence and a sign lit up: PLEASE RETURN TO THE CABIN. She did--to the cabin back in the mountains (Reader’s Digest [1/81], p. 118)!

I don’t recommend that method! But many Christians wonder, How can I know God’s guidance, especially in the crucial decision of whom I should marry? Our text speaks to this issue. Genesis 24 is the longest chapter in Genesis, but since it is a unit, it’s tough to break it down into several messages. We could treat the whole from several angles. We could learn about serving the Lord from the fine example of Abraham’s servant. We could learn about faith and service from Rebekah. We could study the chapter as an illustration of God the Father (Abraham) sending the Holy Spirit (the servant) to seek a bride (Rebekah = the church) for His Son (Isaac) who had just been through death and resurrection (chapter 22).

But I’m going to approach the text by gleaning some principles of divine guidance. Since it deals with God’s guidance as it pertains to finding a mate, I’m going to apply it that way. If you’re already married, please don’t decide that you made a mistake in discerning God’s will in your marriage and decide to try again! You can apply the principles to other areas of guidance.

Moses wrote Genesis to a people who were poised to conquer the land of Canaan which God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. They were a rebellious bunch who were not inclined to endure the hardship necessary to fulfill God’s purpose. They put comfort for themselves ahead of obedience to God’s will. The point of this story in its context is to show Israel the importance of maintaining their purity as God’s people when they entered Canaan. They must not forget God’s purpose to give them that land and they must not intermarry with the corrupt people there. If they would obey God and commit themselves to His purpose, He would faithfully guide them and provide for them, just as He providentially led Abraham’s servant to Rebekah as a wife for Isaac.

If you’re single, it’s crucial to seek God’s guidance and to obey Him in choosing a mate, because except for trusting Christ as Savior, whom you marry is the most important decision you’ll make in life. The overall principle of our text is that

God will guide us when we walk with Him and are committed to His purpose.

Under that overall theme, I want to give five principles on how to know God’s guidance. These are not comprehensive and they are not a formula to plug into your computer. But I think they will help.

1. To know God’s guidance we must be unswerving in our commitment to God and His purpose.

Both Abraham and his servant had an unswerving commitment to the Lord and His purpose concerning the land of Canaan. Abraham calls his unnamed servant and commissions him to find a wife for Isaac, but not from among the Canaanites. The servant asks a practical question: “Suppose the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land; should I take your son back to the land from where you came?” (24:5). Abraham strongly warns him against doing that and repeats God’s call and promise to give him the land of Canaan. So the servant swears to do what Abraham has said (24:6-9).

To know God’s guidance we must put aside our own will and seek the will of the God who has called us. That is the basic principle in determining the will of God in any situation--to empty yourself, as much as you are able, of your own will and to commit yourself to seeking and obeying God’s will. As you seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, He will reveal the specific steps you need to take as you need to know them. But if you claim to want to know God’s will, but you’re not willing to do it unless it agrees with your will, you’re kidding yourself. All you really want is God’s approval of your plans. But you’ll never know God’s direction that way. God reveals His will to those who are committed to doing it.

Often it is more difficult to go this route than it is to operate on the basis of human wisdom. For Abraham’s servant, it meant a 500-mile journey across difficult terrain. It involved a lot of planning, expense, and hassle. “Why be so fanatical about this, Abraham? Surely there are some nice girls somewhere in Canaan!” But Abraham saw that it was crucial for his son to marry a woman who would share his commitment to the Lord and His purpose concerning the land.

Seeking first God’s kingdom is the primary factor in finding the right marriage partner. If you’re committed to doing what God wants, He will give you a partner who wants to do His will as you wait on Him. That unity of purpose builds unity in marriage, as the two of you work together in serving the Lord.

But be forewarned! Just as it was more of a hassle for Abraham to secure a wife for Isaac from his own people rather than from the Canaanites, so it will be more difficult for you to find a mate who is committed to God’s purpose. Let’s face it, there are a lot of nice, good-looking single pagans out there. And there are a fair amount of nice, good-looking church-goers who are living for themselves, not for Christ. But it can be pretty slim pickin’s to find a nice, good-looking (there’s nothing wrong with good looks--Rebekah is described as “very beautiful” [v. 16]), godly single person. And as you watch other Christian singles marrying those who aren’t so committed to the Lord, it’s easy to begin thinking, “Maybe I’m being too rigid. Maybe there are some nice Canaanite girls (or guys) around.” But if you want God’s guidance for a marriage partner, you must be unswerving in your commitment to God and His purpose.

2. To know God’s guidance we must move out in obedience accompanied by common sense.

Abraham’s servant didn’t sit in his tent praying for a wife for Isaac. He prayed a lot, but when Abraham told him to go to Haran and find a wife for Isaac, he arose and went (24:10). He moved out in obedience and he used common sense by taking the gifts needed to secure a bride in that culture.

Sometimes we get super-spiritual about this matter of determining God’s will, especially as it pertains to finding a mate. In college I heard speakers say that we should just trust God for a wife. I felt like if I went to a Christian gathering to look for a Christian girl to date, I was really carnal! I bought that for a while. But I remember one time after I hadn’t had a date for about two years, I was on my knees pleading with God for a wife when I realized that He wasn’t going to bring her floating through the window like the old Hertz rent-a-car ads. The Lord was saying to me, “At least go where there are some prospects!”

That’s what Abraham’s servant did. He didn’t start hanging out at the local bars or discos in Canaan. He went where he could find a godly young woman from Abraham’s relatives, as Abraham had told him to do. So obey God and use the common sense He gave you. You won’t find a godly mate in bars. Don’t go there! You may find a godly mate at church. Go there! That’s not super-spiritual. But I think it’s biblical!

3. To know God’s guidance we must seek and expect it, while submitting to His sovereign ways.

Abraham told his servant that he could expect God’s angel to go before him and lead him to the right young woman for Isaac (24:7). So the servant went in obedience, called to God for guidance, and God gave it to him (24:11-14).

So often we don’t experience God’s guidance because we get so caught up doing our own thing that we fail to stop and ask God to reveal His will to us. Or we get into our established routine, and it takes a catastrophe for God to get our attention so He can let us know what He wants us to do. So if you want God’s guidance, stop and ask Him for it, expect Him to give it, and wait long enough to listen to what He might have to say. “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).

But what if God doesn’t say anything? Maybe you’re waiting for the wrong kind of communication. Note here that there was no voice from heaven, no miracle, no visible angel, no display of God’s glory, no sign in the sky. In fact, there was no guarantee of success. Both Abraham and the servant recognized that they might not succeed (24:5, 8, 49, 58). So how did he know what God’s will was in this situation?

The answer is that when you seek and expect God’s guidance, and remain submissive to God’s sovereign ways, He providentially orchestrates circumstances in such a way as to confirm His will. Before the servant was done praying, God brought Rebekah along and the circumstances fit together in such an unmistakable way that the servant knew God had led him.

You need to be aware that God’s providential ordering of circumstances does not always work out in storybook fashion with a happy ending. Sometimes He providentially leads you into a relationship where you get your heart broken. I went through two major and one minor heartbreak romances before the Lord led me to Marla. While such experiences are not fun, the Lord does have important lessons to teach you if you submit to His sovereign ways. But if you think, “I trusted God and got burned, so I’m going to take matters in my own hands,” you’re not going to know His guidance. You’ll only bring more pain and discipline into your life.

In the case of Abraham’s servant, God did confirm His will through the circumstances. But however it works out, to experience God’s guidance, we must seek and expect it, while submitting to His sovereign ways.

4. To know God’s guidance we must apply God’s wisdom.

Some think that Abraham’s servant was putting out a fleece when he laid out the terms of how he would know which young woman was right for Isaac (24:14). But there’s a big difference between what he did and what Gideon did in putting out his fleece. God had clearly told Gideon what His will was; the fleece was Gideon’s way of catering to his weak faith. God graciously consented to it, but it’s not a model for determining God’s will.

But here, the servant wasn’t dictating to God what to do or doubting what God had already made clear. Rather, he was trying to provide a basis upon which he could know that his prayer had been answered. The test he proposed shows that he was applying God’s wisdom to this situation.

It would have been customary for any young woman to have given a stranger a drink. But to draw water for ten thirsty camels, each of which could drink about 20 gallons, and to do so without being asked, required a woman who was not self-centered, but who had a servant’s heart. Since self-centeredness is the root of most marriage conflicts, the servant was going to the very heart of what Isaac needed in a bride to have a happy home life. He applied God’s wisdom in seeking God’s will.

Note how Rebekah’s normal thoughtfulness and willingness to serve paid off for her. She didn’t know who this stranger was. She wasn’t putting on her best “date” behavior to impress him. She was simply living as she always did, thinking of the needs of others and giving herself to meet those needs. God used that to make her the wife of Isaac, the mother of Israel (Jacob).

Note four aspects of God’s wisdom for the choice of a mate:

1) Look for godly character qualities above all else in a prospective mate. Beauty is okay (24:16), but godliness is essential. Especially look for someone who denies self and is focused on loving God and others. Look for a person who bases his or her life on obedience to God’s Word, who is growing in the fruit of the Spirit. If you marry a beautiful woman who is focused on herself or a hunk who thinks the world revolves around him, you’re in for a miserable ride in marriage!

2) Finding the right person depends on being the right person. Because Rebekah had a servant’s heart, she found Isaac. If she had thought, “Who is this old man asking me for water?” and had gone on her way, she wouldn’t have met Isaac. You’ve got to be the kind of person the kind of person you want to marry would want to marry. If you want a kind, loving, godly mate, you’ve got to become a kind, loving, godly person.

3) Seek the wisdom of your parents. You probably didn’t want to hear that! But it’s an unmistakable principle in the Bible. Abraham, through his servant, picked Isaac’s wife. Although Rebekah had some say in the matter, it was her parents who really approved it. Even though we don’t have our parents arrange our marriages, we still need to listen to their counsel. If your parents are not believers, their counsel may not be as valid as that of godly parents. But if your parents have a strong objection to your fiancé, you need to listen to them and think carefully about what they say. They often have wisdom you lack, especially when you’re in the passion of romantic love.

4) Marriage is the foundation for love; love is not the foundation for marriage. Isaac and Rebekah married; then we read that Isaac loved her (24:67). Don’t misunderstand; I believe in romantic love. But if you build a marriage on romantic love, what do you do if conflicts develop and you don’t feel in love any more? But if you build love on the foundation of the marriage commitment, then you can weather the inevitable storms. In the Bible, we are commanded to love our mates whether we feel in love or not; the feelings follow if we obey.

To know God’s guidance we must: (1) Be unswerving in our commitment to God and His purpose. (2) Move out in obedience accompanied by common sense. (3) Seek and expect it, while submitting to His sovereign ways. (4) Apply God’s wisdom. Finally,

5. To know God’s guidance we must bathe the whole process in prayer and constant fellowship with God.

The servant didn’t meet Rebekah and say, “You’re Rebekah? No kidding! What a coincidence! This must be my lucky day!” He knew it wasn’t luck because he had sought the Lord in prayer. I think Abraham and Isaac were praying, too (see v. 63). The story reveals that this servant walked in fellowship with God. So when God worked the circumstances out, he worshiped the Lord and then was careful to tell Rebekah and her family the whole story of how God had led him. When he got done and asked whether they would permit Rebekah to go with him, they could only answer, “The matter is from the Lord; what can we say? ... Take her and go ... as the Lord has spoken.” (24:51-52).

The longer I’m a Christian, the more I believe that finding God’s will isn’t a matter of some formula. It’s a matter of walking in constant fellowship with the Lord, taking everything to Him in prayer. When you know that prayer is behind your circumstances, then that which otherwise may seem to be a coincidence turns out not to be a coincidence at all. Your steps are ordered by the Lord. When you walk with Him and are committed to His purpose, He will work quietly behind the scenes of your life, leading you through potential hazards, not always leading as you might have hoped, but still leading, putting all the pieces together. The process becomes a beautiful blending of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty and of our obedient trust in Him.


I’d like to conclude by telling you how God led me to Marla. After my third brokenhearted romance, I was more lonely than I had ever been. I spent a lot of time crying out to the Lord for His provision for a wife. One time several months after the third relationship had ended, that girl called me to ask my counsel on an important matter and to share her own confusion about God’s will for herself concerning marriage. I hung up the phone and fasted and prayed for three days, entreating the Lord to give her to me for my wife. But He didn’t seem to hear me.

Some time before that, my former roommate had been hiking in the local mountains. He told me that he had met three Christian girls. A few weeks later, Mark, a mutual friend of ours, started dating a girl, and when he showed my roommate her picture, he said, “That’s one of the girls I met hiking!” Mark’s girlfriend roomed with another of those three girls, and he lined me up on a blind date with her. She was a nice girl, but she wasn’t my type.

Then Mark and some of my friends met the third girl. They all told me that she was my type. Mark asked if he could set me up with her. I said no, it wouldn’t be cool after dating her friend. But he kept pestering me. Finally, I said, “Okay, set up something where she will be there, and I’ll show up.” He called back and said, “It’s on for Saturday night.” Out of duty I went and met Marla. I thought, “She’s kind of nice.” So I didn’t mess around--I asked her out for the next night. After that night I thought, “I like her!” And she even seemed to like me! Glory! We saw a lot of each other that week and by the end of the week we knew that we wanted to get married. We spent almost every waking moment together, and in less than three months we were married. It was kind of like Hezekiah’s revival, where the people rejoiced over what God had done, “because the thing came about suddenly” (2 Chron. 29:36). I’ve been rejoicing for almost 23 years now!

It might not work out quite like that for you. But if you’ll “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” and “in all your ways acknowledge Him,” then “He will direct your paths” for His glory and for your good. Walk daily with Him; be committed to His purpose. He will guide you in all your ways.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the most difficult aspect for you in determining God’s will?
  2. Why doesn’t God normally speak to us in an audible voice? Why is determining His will so vague and subjective at times?
  3. Does God’s will contradict common sense: Usually; Often; Seldom; Never? Discuss.
  4. Have we overemphasized the role of romantic love in choosing a mate? How should it be any different?
  5. What is right (if anything) and wrong with the American way of dating in looking for a mate?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Faith, Marriage, Singleness, Spiritual Life

Lesson 49: God’s Purpose, God’s Choice (Genesis 25:1-26)

Related Media

Few biblical doctrines have caused as much controversy as that of divine election, the truth that God’s sovereign choice lies behind our salvation. The story is told of a church that got into a squabble over this issue. As the debate grew more heated, they separated to two sides of the auditorium. One poor man didn’t know what to do, so he wandered into the predestination side. Someone asked him, “Who sent you here?” He replied, “No one, I came of my own free will.” They couldn’t tolerate that, so they pushed him across the aisle. Someone in the free-will camp asked him why he had come over there. He replied, “I had no choice; I was forced over here!” At this point, the poor man had no where to go!

I don’t want to stir up controversy, but I must teach what the Bible says, even when it presents difficult doctrines. If you don’t agree with me, I ask that you have a teachable heart and be a Berean, examining the Scriptures to see if what I say is true. I believe you will discover that at the heart of the Bible is the truth that God sovereignly works all things, including the salvation of His elect, according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). The apostle Paul cites Genesis 25:23 in his defense of this doctrine in Romans 9:10-12. So we need to think carefully about this important doctrine and how it applies to us.

Genesis 25 is the kind of passage a lot of preachers would skip. It begins by telling of other sons whom Abraham had by Keturah; it gives notice of Abraham’s death and burial; it runs through a list of Ishmael’s descendants; and, it describes the birth of Esau and Jacob. Although I don’t own a copy to consult, this is the kind of passage the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible could easily compress into just a few verses. Frankly, it doesn’t seem very relevant to where we all live.

When you come to a passage like this, you need to ask, What was Moses’ purpose in writing it? From there we can discover how it applies to us. Moses was writing to a people about to go in and conquer the land promised to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. The previous generation had the opportunity to conquer that land, but they died in the wilderness because of their unbelief. Now this generation had an opportunity to obey God in His redemptive plan of giving the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. God’s purpose as promised to Abraham will be fulfilled. The question is, will this generation be used of God to fulfill it, or will they, too, be set aside?

The point Moses was trying to impress on his readers was that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. God is sovereign; what He says, He will do. But even so, His chosen people must submit and commit themselves to His purpose if they want His blessing.

Since God’s purpose according to His choice will stand, we must submit and commit ourselves to His purpose if we want His blessing.

1. God’s purpose according to His choice will stand.

Whenever a great man, who has founded a work or a movement, dies, there is concern for who will carry on. But with God’s program, there need be no such concern. His purpose is greater than any man. Although Abraham was the father of our faith, it was only because God chose Abraham, called him, and promised to make a great nation of him, to give him the land of Canaan, and to bless him and all nations through his descendants. The most certain thing in this world is that God will do what He has said. Nothing can thwart His purpose.

This section of Genesis shows that God keeps His promises. That’s the point of listing Abraham’s sons through Keturah. There is debate about when Abraham took her as his wife. If it was after Sarah’s death, then God miraculously had to extend Abraham’s physical ability to produce children after the birth of Isaac. Because of Abraham’s age and the fact that Keturah is called a concubine (25:6; 1 Chron. 1:32), some prefer the view that Abraham took her while Sarah was alive. The problem with that view is that it doesn’t seem consistent with Abraham’s character or his commitment to Sarah. So take your pick!

But the point is, God had promised to make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations (17:4). The list of Abraham’s sons through Keturah, several of whom grew into nations, shows the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even though we don’t recognize most of these names, Israel did. The existence of these nations was a demonstration to Israel that what God promises, He does.

The text goes on to make the point that Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac (25:5). While he gave some gifts to Keturah’s sons, he sent them away. They were not given the promises of blessing and the land which Isaac received. Isaac was God’s choice, and thus He blessed him after Abraham’s death (25:11). As Isaac’s descendants, Moses’s readers needed to see their part as God’s chosen means of fulfilling His promises to Abraham, and they needed to obey God in taking the promised land.

Then Moses lists the generations of Ishmael (25:12-18). Why? To make the same point--that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. Abraham had asked God that Ishmael might live before Him (17:18). God denied that request because He had chosen Isaac, but He promised Abraham that Ishmael would become the father of twelve princes, and that He would make him into a great nation (17:20). Also, the Lord had promised Hagar that her son would live in defiance of (or “over against”) all his brothers (16:12). Moses records the fulfillment of that in 25:18. The point is, God’s purpose according to His sovereign choice was accomplished.

Moses hammers home the same point in the account of the birth of Esau and Jacob. If God was going to make a great nation of Abraham through Isaac, then obviously Isaac needed to have children. But Rebekah, like Sarah, was barren. For 20 years there were no children in their marriage. But Isaac prayed and the Lord answered in accordance with His promise to Abraham.

But even in that situation, God made a choice. He told Rebekah that two nations would come from the twin sons in her womb, and that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). Esau became the father of the Edomites. Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, became the father of that nation. It was God’s purpose that Israel’s descendants, those to whom Moses was writing, fulfill God’s purpose according to His choice of Jacob, by conquering the promised land.

So everything in the text is there to make the same point--that God chooses certain people for His purpose and that His purpose according to His choice will be accomplished. All is according to the word of the God who chose Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob to inherit the land of Canaan. These verses reveal two striking things about God’s choice:

A. God’s choice usually runs counter to man’s wisdom.

If we were going to pick a man to be the father of a multitude of nations, we’d probably run the couple through a fertility test and then pick the one who looked the most promising. God picked a couple who couldn’t produce any children. Then, we’d make sure that his son and his wife were fertile. In God’s sovereignty, the son’s wife was barren. His half-brother, Ishmael, didn’t seem to have any problem producing twelve sons, but Isaac could produce only two, and that only after 20 years of pleading with God. If we had to pick between the two sons, we’d pick the oldest. He seemed to be the strongest. The youngest was a wimp and a deceiver! God picked him. That’s how God’s choice usually runs--counter to man’s wisdom. As the apostle Paul explained (1 Cor. 1:26-30):

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God.

If God chose those who were strong in themselves, they would boast in themselves and God would be robbed of His glory. If God chose those who first chose Him, they could brag about their intelligent choice. So God chooses those whom the world would never choose, those who cannot choose Him. When His purpose is fulfilled through them, He gets the glory.

B. God’s choice operates on the principle of grace, not merit.

One of the most difficult, but most rewarding, truths in the Bible to grasp is that God doesn’t operate on the merit system. He doesn’t choose those who have earned it or who show the most potential. He doesn’t choose on the basis of birth order or strength. If He did, He would have picked Ishmael over Isaac. Ishmael was tough; he grew up by surviving in a hostile desert. Isaac was a mild, blah sort of guy, not noted for much except digging a few wells. God would have picked Esau over Jacob. Esau was a man’s man, an outdoorsman. Jacob was a conniving mama’s boy.

And, contrary to popular opinion, God doesn’t choose those whom He knows in advance will choose Him. Many say that God, in His foreknowledge, looks down through history, sees who will decide for Him, and puts them on His list. But that makes the sovereign God dependent on the choices of fickle man. It assumes, contrary to Scripture, that fallen man has the ability to choose God. And it flatly contradicts what Paul states in Romans 9:11, that God determined that Esau would serve Jacob while they were still in the womb, before they did anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand. God didn’t work out His eternal plan after previewing how things would turn out. God sovereignly chose whom He chose according to grace, which is His unmerited favor.

This bothers people, because it humbles our pride and strips us of all glory, but it’s one of the most rewarding concepts in the Bible to lay hold of. It means that your salvation does not depend on you and your feeble hold on God, but on God and His firm grip on you. It means that you don’t have to perform or measure up to be accepted by God. It casts you totally on God and His sovereign grace, which is a good place to be. It floods you with gratitude as you consider His mercy in choosing you in spite of your sin.

You say, “If God has done it all, does that mean that I can kick back and do nothing?” No! While the Bible plainly teaches that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand, it also teaches that I must submit myself and commit myself to what He is doing in the world. I can either cooperate with His sovereign plan and be blessed. Or I can resist His purpose and He will set me aside and raise up others to fulfill it. While God is sovereign, He has given me the responsibility to obey Him. I can’t presume on being one of the elect and go on living for myself. Thus,

2. We must submit and commit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice.

A. We must submit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice.

I used to struggle with the doctrine of election. I would go into a tailspin thinking, “If God sovereignly chooses some to salvation, then He’s not being fair! If He ordains everything, then He’s responsible for evil.” I especially had problems with Romans 9, where Paul quotes Genesis 25:23. I thought, “It just isn’t fair of God!”

Of course that’s the very objection Paul anticipates. He asks, “There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” Then he shows how God has mercy on whom He wills and hardens whom He wills. Then he anticipates our next objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” Don’t miss the thrust of his answer: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (see Rom. 9:14-20).

What he’s saying is, “You don’t have the right to ask the question, so shut up!” There are some questions which we dare not pose to the Sovereign of the universe. The very question presumes that I have a right to sit in judgment on God, rather than bowing in fear before His sovereignty.

So the proper response is simply to submit to God and seek to obey what His Word clearly reveals, namely, that God’s sovereign purpose according to His unconditional choice will stand; and, at the same time, I am responsible to submit and obey. When I quit fighting and submitted to God in that way, the truth of divine election became very precious to me.

B. We must commit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice.

Submission means yielding in my struggle against God’s right to choose whom He wills to accomplish His purpose. But beyond that, I need to commit myself to God’s purpose according to His choice. God wants to use me in accomplishing His eternal purpose. On the surface that sounds glorious and easy. But it’s never easy in the actual process. So God’s people must commit themselves to the hardship and endurance necessary to bring His purpose into reality.

We’ve already seen the struggles of faith which Abraham had to endure. He had to wait years for God to give him Isaac. During that time, there were other tests of faith, such as his mistake in fathering Ishmael through Hagar, and the offering up of Isaac. Our text passes over what must have been a difficult trial of faith for Abraham: His son Isaac and his wife were unable to have children for 20 years. How could God make a great nation out of Abraham through Isaac when Isaac couldn’t have any children? Meanwhile, Ishmael was having sons like crazy! Finally, 15 years before Abraham’s death, Esau and Jacob were born.

There is a prominent false teaching in our day, that if you’re a faithful Christian, you’ll be spared from all suffering. If you’re sick, you can claim instant healing by faith. If you need money, ask God for it; it’s your divine right. Whatever trial you’re in, you can get out of instantly if you’ll just claim deliverance by faith. Those who teach such nonsense should read their Bibles!

The Lord didn’t wave His wand over the land of Canaan so that Israel could move in without any struggle. They had to commit themselves to God’s purpose to give them that land and they had to fight to get it. And we must commit ourselves to God’s purpose to call out a people for Himself from every tongue and tribe and nation. God’s missionary purpose requires our commitment of time, effort, and money. He will accomplish His purpose for the nations, but we must commit ourselves to see that purpose fulfilled. What happens when we submit and commit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice?

3. When we submit and commit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice, He blesses us.

Abraham is the example in our text. He submitted and committed himself to God’s purpose, and God blessed him abundantly. We read that he died “satisfied with life” (25:8). The expression is literally “full of years,” but it means more than just old. It implies that he couldn’t ask for anything more from life than God had given him. The only way you can truly die that way is if you have lived to further God’s purpose. If you live for yourself, Jesus says you’ll come up empty, but if you live for Christ and the gospel’s sake, you’ll find true life (Mark 8:35). As Jim Elliot, who was killed at age 28 trying to take the gospel to the Auca Indians, said, “He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Not only did Abraham die satisfied with life. We also read that “he was gathered to his people” (25:8). That phrase is more than a euphemism for death or burial, which the text explicitly states in addition to saying that he was gathered to his people. It is an early reference to the hope of life beyond the grave. If there is no eternity, then eat, drink, and be merry now. But if God’s Word is true (and He has a pretty good record so far, with hundreds of fulfilled prophecies and more about to be filled), then we need to live in light of His purpose as revealed in His Word. We can know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).


Someone asked a Little Leaguer how his team was doing. The boy replied that his team was doing well, but that they were behind 17-0. The man asked if he was discouraged at being so far behind. The boy replied, “Oh no, sir, we haven’t even been up to bat yet!”

Sometimes it’s easy to look at all the evil in the world and get discouraged because it seems like God’s side is losing badly. But the Book of Revelation shows that it’s going to look like that until the bottom of the ninth. Then, in one hour, the tide will turn and God will triumph mightily. Someone asked an old Christian gentleman what the secret of his triumphant outlook was. He replied, “I’ve read the last book of the Bible, so I know how the story ends. I’m on the winning side!”

The great doctrine that God will accomplish His sovereign purpose according to His choice should encourage us to submit ourselves to God and give ourselves fully to His purpose of taking the gospel to every people. When we do that we will be truly blessed by Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does the doctrine of election comfort or disturb you? Why?
  2. How do we maintain a proper balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? How can we check ourselves?
  3. Some argue that the doctrine of election discourages evangelism. Why is it just the reverse?
  4. What are some of the practical benefits of the doctrine of election?
  5. Is it being intellectually dishonest to accept Paul’s answer in Rom. 9:19-24? Why/why not?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Election, Predestination, Spiritual Life

Lesson 50: Trading Your Soul- For What? (Genesis 25:27 34; Heb. 12:16-17)

Related Media

The close of another year reminds us that we have just exchanged another year of our lives for something. Life is a process of trading one thing for another. We’re all given a certain amount of time and ability which we exchange to gain other things, such as money, food, shelter, relationships, leisure, and pleasure. The scary thing is, it’s easy to fritter away your life, exchanging your time and abilities for things that really don’t matter, or even worse, for things that cause you and others great harm. Sometimes the bad bargain you make is so pivotal that it affects the rest of your life, and even has eternal consequences.

For example, a man decides to trade family time for business success. He loses his wife and children. Bad bargain! A Christian leader decides to exchange some of his time for sexual pleasure outside of his marriage. It costs him his ministry, a lot of family pain, and greatly damages the cause of Christ. Really bad bargain! It costs far more than it provides.

Every day you’re trading your life‑your soul‑for something. The question is, For what? When it’s all over and you’ve cashed in all the time and abilities which have been allotted to you, what will you have to show for it? If you trade it in for fleeting pleasure, to gratify your immediate needs, you’ll come up empty. But if you trade your life for God’s kingdom and righteousness, to fulfill His purpose, you’ll be satisfied with that which no one can take from you.

Esau’s life is the story of a man who traded his soul for fleeting pleasure. He sold his birthright, which included not only material benefits and family privileges, but spiritual blessings as well, for a bowl of soup. It says that “he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way” (25:34). He didn’t have a second thought about what he had done. He did it, it felt good, and only much later did he come to regret it.

Someone has said that the difference between school and life is that in school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test which teaches you a lesson. A lot of times those tests sneak up on you and are over with before you realize what happened. In life, the teacher doesn’t come into the room and announce, “The next few minutes are going to be an important test. Please think carefully before answering, because the results of this test will affect you for years to come.” Instead, you’re into the test situation, you make some decisions based on your thinking and behavior up to that time, and you come out of the test without realizing immediately what just happened. Time reveals the results.

Esau’s decision to sell his birthright to Jacob was like that. My guess is that this wasn’t the first time the matter had come up. On other occasions Jacob had sounded him out: “Hey, Esau, how much would you take for your birthright?” If Esau had said flat out, “It’s not for sale for any price,” that might have ended it there. But he had left the door open a crack. Jacob could tell that it just wasn’t that important to Esau. Esau’s motto in life was, “If it feels good, do it!” He was a good times guy. His conniving brother was shrewd enough to spot that, and he used it to take advantage of him. He waited for Esau to come in from the field famished. As his brother, Jacob should have gladly given Esau a bowl of soup. But instead he used it to take away Esau’s birthright. The story shows that if you trade your soul to satisfy your flesh, you’ve made a bad deal.

Living for instant gratification will rob you of spiritual blessing.

There are four lessons that we need to think about and apply from this Scripture which was written for our instruction:

1. You can lose great blessings if you do not appreci­ate them.

Esau was born into a situation with great blessings. He wasn’t born into a pagan home, where his parents worshipped idols and abused him. He was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, grandson of Abraham, the friend of God. No doubt, during the first 15 years of Esau’s life, while Abraham was alive, his grandfather had taught him about God and His covenant promises. Surely that teaching had been reinforced by Isaac and Rebekah. Esau had great spiritual privileges. But he threw them away because he didn’t appreciate them.

Esau may have had some excuses for disregarding these privileges. He could have blamed God: “God predestined me to do it!” After all, the Lord had told his mother while he was still in the womb that the older shall serve the younger (25:23). But that would have been a cop out. While God is sovereign, men are responsible for their sin. The text assigns the blame to Esau when it says that he despised his birthright (25:34).

He might have blamed his parents for their errors in raising him. They did make some serious mistakes, although their mistakes do not absolve Esau of his wrong choice. We read, “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:28). What a tragic sentence! It covers untold grief and conflict in that home. When parents play favorites with the children, it breeds bitterness and hatred. Chapter 27 tells how Esau wanted to kill Jacob. Jacob later played favorites with his sons, so that they wanted to kill his favorite son, Joseph. Rebekah’s fondness for Jacob pitted her against her husband, Isaac, and led her to deceive him in order to help Jacob against Esau. No doubt Isaac often defended his adventuresome but godless son by telling Rebekah, “Get off his back! The boy just likes to have some fun in life.” It wasn’t a perfect home!

Two applications: First, for us who are parents. We need to realize that our sin affects our children, and we need to deal with that sin. We aren’t free to excuse it by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” If we explode at our kids, we need to confess it to the Lord and ask forgiveness from our kids. If they see us bending the truth, we need to admit our sin, and make it right by being truthful. If they see us argue as a couple, they need to see us seek one another’s forgiveness and talk through our differences in gentleness and love. If our kids don’t see genuine Christianity‑ repentance, brokenness, the fruit of the Spirit‑worked out in our daily lives, they probably won’t be eager to follow the Lord.

The second application is for us who are children (including adult children): We can’t blame our disobedience to God on the way our parents treated us. They may have acted piously on Sunday and like pagans the rest of the week. They may have been abusive. They may not have loved us as they should. They may have played favorites. But if I walk away from the Lord and the spiritual blessings He offers me in Christ, God will hold me accountable for despising my birthright.

At best, even the most godly parents are imperfect. Child rearing is not a matter of plugging in a formula. Every child, even among twins, is different from the womb. Note how different Esau and Jacob were. They looked different, even though they were twins. They had different temperaments, interests, and values. Esau liked the outdoors; Jacob liked to hang out in the kitchen. Esau liked physical activity; Jacob liked to use his head to outsmart others. Esau was impetuous and lived for the here and now; Jacob was more goal‑oriented. He thought about how to gain advantage for himself down the road.

The tricky thing for parents is that loving your children equally doesn’t mean treating them equally. It’s wrong to play favorites, but not playing favorites isn’t a matter of equal treatment, because every child is different. As a parent, you’ve got to study each child and do all you can to help each one come under the lordship of Christ. While there are solid principles for parents in the Bible, it requires a lot of wisdom. And you don’t get the experience you need for the job until the job is over!

The point is that even though our parents‑even Christian parents‑were at best imperfect or at worst wrong in the way they raised us, God holds us accountable if we despise our spiritual heritage and walk away from Him. Sinful parents need to deal with their sin, but sinful kids need to deal with their sin, too! The fact is, each of us has great spiritual privileges: We’ve heard the gospel. We have the Bible. We live in a free country where we can attend a church where the Bible is taught, where we can get to know other Chris­tians who can help us grow in our walk with God. But, like Esau despising his birth­right, we can forfeit all these spiritual blessings if we don’t appreciate them.

2. Small choices can have drastic consequences.

As I said, teachers don’t walk into the room of life and announce that the most important test of your life is about to begin. Warning signs don’t always flash. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it’s a critical moment, and your deci­sion can shape the rest of your life. Maybe it’s an offer from a friend to try drugs. Perhaps it’s an occasion to go to bed with your boyfriend, or to cheat on your marriage. It may be a chance to make a lot of money in a wrong way. Often, you’ve got to make a quick decision. The decision you make may turn around and make or break you!

Esau’s decision was impulsive, and yet it stemmed from years of disregarding spiritual things. Hebrews 12:16 calls Esau a godless (= profane) person. He lacked God’s perspective on life. He was not concerned about spiritual matters. He lived for the here and now. “Who needs a birthright?” he thought. “After all, I may be dead tomorrow. What I need now is a good meal. What good is a birthright if I starve to death?”

Those who cast off God’s moral standards often excuse it by saying that they had to meet their “need.” We’re buying into the notion that our needs take priority. In fact, I’ve heard that if you don’t love yourself first, you can’t love God and others! But Jesus says, “God knows your needs and you can trust Him to take care of them. Your real need is to seek first His kingdom and righteousness” (see Matt. 6:31‑33).

What’s frightening about Esau’s impulsive decision is the lasting consequences. Hebrews 12:17 says that “afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.” Later he felt badly about what he had given up. He could see that his decision had been foolish and hasty. But even though he felt badly, he had operated so long on the principle of living for immediate gratification, he couldn’t turn from his selfish ways to God. He later wanted what God could give him, but he didn’t want God. That would mean yielding his life to God, and that was too big a price to pay. The series of small choices over the course of his life had drastic consequences.

Some people think that God is like a shopping mall. If you decide you don’t like something, just bring it back for a full refund. They buy into living for themselves. When the thought of eternity comes up, they push it away by thinking that when their time to die comes, they’ll take all their selfish living into God’s store, ask for a refund, and buy into eternity then. But it doesn’t work that way! We all face eternity every day, and we need to make daily decisions in that light. Otherwise, we may find that, like Esau, we come to the place where we want God’s blessings, but we can’t yield our lives to God.

Thus, you can lose great blessings if you don’t appreciate them. Small choices can have drastic consequences.

3. It’s easy to mistake as essential that which really is not.

Esau thought that he needed food. That sounds like an essential need, but it isn’t. His essential need was to obey God and seek His purpose. Esau mistook as essential that which really was not, and he shrugged off as not essential that which really is. Spiritual matters were nice, but not necessary, for Esau. So he traded his soul for a bowl of soup.

The people to whom Moses was writing were in danger of doing the same thing. They had left slavery in Egypt and were headed for the promised land. God had taken them on a detour to teach them to endure hardship and warfare so that they would be ready to conquer the land. But a lot of them grumbled. They thought they needed good drinking water, food, shelter, and protection from their enemies. Those are essentials. If Moses couldn’t provide those things, they would go back to Egypt. They were willing to give up their spiritual heritage of God’s promises to Abraham in order to gain the comforts they lacked. But Moses is showing them that the essential thing is that they do the will of God, even if it’s difficult. If they will do His will, He will take care of the other essentials of life.

We get mixed up in our ideas of what is essential and what is not. To look at our hectic lives, you would think that it’s essential to make a lot of money. We work long hours to make a few extra bucks‑and ruin our families and our health in the process. We spend hours watching inane TV shows, but don’t have time to nurture our souls or serve the Lord. Some people endanger their health and even their lives through drugs, drinking, and sexual promiscuity, because they put feeling good right now as essential, but feeling good throughout eternity as secondary.

Each one of us needs to think carefully about what is really essential in life in light of God’s Word. Write it down. Then periodically evaluate your life against those few essentials. I don’t agree with everything Jerry Falwell has done, but he went up in my esteem when I read his response to the question, “What do you want to be remembered for?” He has some impressive achievements. At that time he was the head of the Moral Majority, with a $100 million budget. He is the founder and president of Liberty University, with over 5,000 students. He is the pastor of a church with over 20,000 members. He has a large TV ministry, and speaks all over the world. His answer was, “I want to be remembered as a godly husband, father, and pastor, in that order.” Those things are the essentials! The rest isn’t.

There’s a final lesson:

4. It’s easy to grab for the right things for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.

Here my focus turns from Esau to Jacob. Jacob was right to want the birthright. He was wrong to want the birthright for the personal advantages it would bring him; and, he was wrong to take it in the way he did.

I’m sure Jacob would protest: “I bought that birthright fair and square! Esau didn’t have to agree to the deal. Besides, he didn’t really want it and I did. Everything was done out in the open.” But Jacob went after the birthright for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. He took advantage of his brother’s impetuous personality and hungry condition. He should have waited on the Lord to fulfill His promises. As we’ll see in future studies, God dealt with this deceiver by giving him a dose of his own medicine. Jacob was always scheming to work things out for his own advantage. He needed to learn that God could work things out if he would trust Him.

The people Moses was writing to faced the same problem. Many of them weren’t even sure they wanted to conquer Canaan. Of those who did, my guess is that many wanted Canaan for the comfortable lifestyle it would provide them. They were willing to fight to get it, but they weren’t thinking of God’s purpose to bless all nations through Abraham’s descendants. They wanted the homes and vineyards and other amenities Canaan would provide. They wanted a right thing for the wrong reason. And some tried to obtain that right thing in the wrong way, blunder­ing ahead when God said to wait (Num. 14:39-45).

We face the same temptation. Frankly, some of you are here, not because you want to see God fulfill His purpose through His people, but rather for what being a Christian will do for you. Don’t misunderstand‑being a Christian has wonderful benefits! God gives peace and joy. He puts broken marriages together. He gives you wisdom for raising your children. There’s hardly an area of life where God’s Word will not have a positive impact if you apply it.

But God doesn’t make us happy and comfortable so that we can live for ourselves. He blesses us because He wants to use us to fulfill His purpose of blessing all nations through the Seed of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. If we’re into Christianity just for what it can do for us, then we’re grabbing a right thing for a wrong reason. We need to pray, “Lord, bless me so You can use me in Your purpose of reaching all nations.”

Even though it was God’s will for Jacob ultimately to have the blessings of the birthright, he grabbed it in the wrong way, by taking advantage of his brother. In the same way, we need to be careful to go about God’s work in God’s way. Methods are just as important as the results. American Christians, especially, are highly pragmatic. If it works, it must be right. But it’s important that we wait on God and do God’s work in God’s way.


As we face the New Year, ask yourself, “What am I living for?” If I’m living for good feelings in the short run, I’m missing God’s purpose for my life. I’m selling my spiritual birthright for a mess of pottage.

A world‑class runner entered a 10‑K race in Connecticut. On the day of the race she drove from New York City, following the directions, or so she thought, given over the phone. She got lost, stopped at a gas station, and asked for help. She knew only that the race started in a shopping mall parking lot. The attendant also knew of such a race scheduled just up the road. When she arrived she was relieved to see that there weren’t as many runners as she had anticipated.

She hurried to the registration table, announced herself, and was surprised at the race officials’ excitement at having so renowned an athlete show up for their event. No, they had no record of her entry, but if she would hurry and put on this number, she could be in line just before the gun would go off. She ran and won easily‑four minutes ahead of the first man! Only after the race did she learn that the race she had run was not the race she had entered earlier. That race was being held several miles farther up the road in another town. She had gone to the wrong starting line, run the wrong course, and won a cheap prize (told by Bruce Lockerbie, Bibliotheca Sacra [Jan.-Mar., 1986], p. 8).

We only get one shot in the race of life. We need to make sure that we’re not wasting our lives by running in the wrong race. If you’re living for what meets your immediate needs, just using God for what He can do for you, you’ll end up losing the spiritual blessings which count for eternity. You’re trading your soul for the wrong things. But if you’ll live to further God’s purpose of blessing all nations through the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ll be eternally blessed.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it legitimate to present Christ to people from the angle of what He can do for them? Support your answer from Scripture.
  2. What is the difference between “using God for self-help” and yield­ing everything to God even if I die as a martyr?
  3. Is repentance always an option, or can a person harden himself beyond repentance?
  4. Some say that we are free to choose whatever methods of evan­gelism or church growth are effective. Why is that not correct?
  5. What is the most important factor in being a Christian parent?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Failure, Rewards, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 51: How God Uses Ordinary People (Genesis 26:1-35)

Related Media

Have you ever felt that God couldn’t use you to serve Him because you were just too ordinary? When I was in seminary, I heard a parade of gifted, dynamic, successful pastors and Christian leaders. Sometimes I would think, “I’ll never be where they’re at, because I’m not that gifted.” Sometimes you wished they would bring in Joe Average, pastor of the Podunk Bible Church!

One reason the story of Isaac is in the Bible is to show us how God can use an ordinary person. Isaac was the ordinary son of a famous father, and the ordinary father of a famous son. Alexander Maclaren began a sermon on Isaac by noting, “The salient feature of Isaac’s life is that it has no salient features.” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 1:202.) Although he lived longer than Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, Isaac’s life is pretty much covered in one chapter whose most exciting feature is some squabbles over some wells. You might say that Isaac was the Calvin Coolidge of his day. As you know, “Silent Cal” wasn’t noted for much other than being quiet and sleeping eleven hours a day. When someone reported to Dorothy Parker the news that Coolidge had died, she replied, “How can they tell?”

Isaac was kind of blah. He wasn’t bold like his father Abraham, who made a daring raid against the kings of the east. He wasn’t shrewd like his son, Jacob, or a gifted leader like his grandson, Joseph. Yet God used him to work out His covenant promises. His life shows us that there’s hope in the Lord for all us ordinary people!

Moses wrote Genesis 26 mainly to show the nation Israel how God was faithfully working out His covenant promises. Isaac lagged behind God, even as his son Jacob tended to run ahead of God. Yet in spite of Isaac’s slowness—and even sin—God blessed him because of His covenant with Abraham. Abraham’s descendants would be blessed because of their relationship to him; but, like Isaac, they had to grow in faith and obedience. As God’s blessed people, they were to become a blessing to others.

Christ has promised that He will build His church. In spite of our slowness—and even sin—God will bless and use us to fulfill His purpose of blessing all nations through Christ, because of our relationship to the Father through the Son. But we need to grow in faith and obedience. So the emphasis of the chapter is on God’s working out His purpose through ordinary people who obey Him.

To accomplish His purpose, God uses ordinary people who obey Him.

1. God uses ordinary people.

Note how Isaac was an ordinary man with ordinary problems:

A. Ordinary people have ordinary trials.

Isaac had ordinary trials. Verse 1 tells us that “there was a famine in the land.” Critics argue that Genesis 26 is some editor’s confused combination of the stories about Abraham’s going down into Egypt during the famine or of his going to Abimelech (see Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18). But the text is careful to distinguish this situation from the earlier famine, and many details differ, so there’s no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of these events.

But the interesting thing is to note that there was a famine in the land. Which land? The promised land! The land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, later described as flowing with milk and honey. There was a famine in that land. While God easily could have supplied Isaac with plenty of food in spite of the famine around him, He did not do that. God’s chosen man had to suffer along with all his pagan Canaanite neighbors.

Trials are the ordinary lot of God’s people; they always have been and always will be, until Jesus returns. Isaac did not question, “God, why are You allowing this famine in the promised land?” Isaac didn’t rebuke the famine in the name of the Lord. Granted, he didn’t respond properly. But this wasn’t the first nor would it be the last trial of this sort to come on God’s people in the promised land.

Trials are the normal experience of God’s people, even when they’re right where He wants them to be. Somehow we’ve picked up the notion that if God has called us to a place or to a certain ministry, we won’t encounter any problems. Everything will be milk and honey. When the road gets rough, we wonder what’s wrong. “Maybe I’m not in God’s will.”

Former Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis, once said to his frustrated, impatient daughter, “My dear, if you would only recognize that life is hard, things would be so much easier for you.” Our Sovereign God has always used trials, even with His servants who are in the center of His will, to drive us to greater dependence on Him. I encourage you to read missionary biographies and learn of the trials that these dear saints have endured for the kingdom of God. When you read of what Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and others have gone through, it helps put your “famine in the land” in perspective. Trials are the ordinary experience of God’s people.

B. Ordinary people have ordinary fears.

Isaac had ordinary fears. What do ordinary people do when trials hit? They panic. What did Isaac do? He panicked. It would be wonderful to read, “There was a famine in the land, so Isaac sought the Lord.” But the text plainly states, “So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines.” And it’s clear that he wasn’t planning to stop there. He was heading toward Egypt, when the Lord intercepted him at Gerar.

You also see Isaac’s fear when he pawns off Rebekah as his sister (26:7), following in the footsteps of his father. Why do such a despicable thing? He was afraid for his life. And, after a section which describes repeated quarrels about wells with the local shepherds, the Lord appeared to Isaac and said (26:24), “Do not fear, for I am with you.” The Lord never says, “Do not fear” unless somebody is afraid. Isaac had many fears.

Do you have any fears? If you say “no,” you’re like the guy in a Dr. Seuss book we used to read our kids. He meets a pair of pants which walks around with no one inside them. He says, “I do not fear those pants with nobody inside them. I said and said and said those words. I said them, but I lied them.” We ought to take our fears to the Lord in prayer, and be open to ask for prayer for our fears. The people God uses are ordinary people with ordinary fears.

C. Ordinary people have ordinary sin.

Isaac had ordinary sin. I’m not implying that it’s all right to tolerate a little bit of sin in your life. We should confess and forsake all known sin. But we need to remember that the only people God uses are redeemed sinners. Sometimes the enemy gets us thinking that God can’t use us as long as we’re such a mixed up bundle of good and evil. One minute we’re in church singing “Holy, Holy,” and the next minute a horrible thought pops into our minds, and we think, “Maybe someday I’ll be holy like the preacher [yeah, right!], and then God can use me, but that day is a long way off.”

Thank God He uses us while we’re growing, before we’ve arrived! Look at the mixture of sin and obedience in Isaac’s life. He starts off for Egypt without consulting the Lord. The Lord graciously appears to him and tells him not to go any farther. He obeys. The Lord even reaffirms the covenant which He had made with Abraham, and applies it to Isaac. But the next thing Isaac does is to lie about Rebekah because he’s afraid he’ll get killed!

There’s a humorous word play in the Hebrew of verse 8, which says that the Philistine king saw Isaac “caressing his wife Rebekah.” The King James Version quaintly translates it, “sporting with his wife Rebekah.” The word comes from the same root word translated “Isaac,” which means “he laughs.” Here it clearly has a sexual connotation. Howard Hendricks said in our marriage class in seminary, “Whatever this sport was, it’s obvious that you don’t play it with your sister. And Isaac was a real pro at the sport—in fact, the sport was named after the guy!”

The nuance of the word play is not that it was wrong for Isaac to be “sporting” with his wife, but rather that his faithless behavior made a mockery of the great promise of God embodied in his name. Abraham and Sarah’s laughter of doubt was changed to the laughter of faith as God fulfilled His promise in Isaac. But now Isaac was sporting his lack of faith in God’s protection before this pagan king.

Just like his father, Abraham, before him (who did it twice), Isaac lied about his wife to protect his own hide and was rebuked by a pagan king. Critics say that it’s the same story repeated with different names. But you don’t need to look very far to see how true to life this is. Years ago I was going somewhere with our firstborn behind me in her car seat. I rounded a blind curve on the mountain road just below our house to almost rear end a car that had stopped in the road to admire the scenery. I hit the brakes and the horn and yelled, “You jerk!” From the back seat came a sweet little voice, imitating dad, “You jerk!” A knife went into my conscience! The sins of the fathers ...!

Again, the point is not that we tolerate our sin, but rather that we not despair that God cannot use us because we wrestle with sin. The ordinary people God uses are ordinary sinners just like you and me, but, as I’ll show in a moment, sinners who are working at obeying God.

D. Ordinary people have ordinary hassles.

Isaac had ordinary hassles. The chapter shows the repeated hassles he had with neighboring shepherds over his wells. The Philistines had stopped up the wells which Abraham had dug. Isaac dug them out again. He dug some new wells, only to have the Philistines hassle him by claiming that the wells belonged to them.

Do you think Isaac ever wondered as he was covered with sweat and dirt from digging out one of these wells, “What does all this have to do with the purpose of God?” The purpose of God sounds so glorious, so spiritual! But Isaac spent his time hassling with neighbors and digging out wells they had stopped up. That doesn’t seem very glorious!

Do you know how God was using these hassles? Each one forced Isaac to move a bit closer to the promised land, until finally he was so close to Beersheba that he decided to move back there again. The same night he moved to Beersheba, in the land of promise, God appeared to him and reconfirmed the promises made to Abraham (26:24). If Isaac hadn’t had any hassles in Gerar, he probably would have been content to stay there all his life. God used the hassles to move him back where he was supposed to be.

Have you ever thought about why God allows hassles in your life? Maybe it’s a hassle with your car, or with the plumbing in your house, or a hassle at work. If you’ll submit to the Lord and be teachable, you’ll discover that He uses everyday hassles to move you closer to the place where He wants you, the place of His blessing. Isaac never built an altar until the Lord got him back to Beersheba. But when he got there, after all his hassles, he built an altar and called upon the name of the Lord (26:25).

So Isaac had ordinary trials, fears, sin, and hassles.

E. Ordinary people have ordinary family problems.

Isaac had ordinary family problems. The chapter ends by telling of Esau’s marriage to two pagan women who brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah (26:34-35). These verses are inserted here to tell us the bent of Esau’s life and to prepare us for the next chapter, where Isaac stubbornly persists in his desire to give his blessing to Esau. But there are years of heartache capsulized in the few words of verse 35. Here is the chief family on the face of the earth as far as God’s purpose went, and yet they had problems. They were far from being a model family.

Again, I’m not suggesting that it’s okay to shrug off your sin. If you are sinning toward your family, you need to deal with it. But I do want to encourage those whose homes are not perfect—and that’s all of us! Many come to church every Sunday with smiles on their faces and sorrow in their hearts. We see the smiles and assume that their homes must be perfect Christian homes. But our home is hurting. So we mask our hurts and prevent the healing that could take place if we would learn to bear one another’s burdens in Christian love. The Lord shows us here that the patriarch Isaac had trials and fears and sin and hassles and family problems. Yet the Lord was pleased to use Isaac as he learned to obey the Lord.

2. God uses ordinary people who obey Him.

Isaac’s growth in obedience was slow, and it was never perfect. As an old man he was still partial to blessing Esau over Jacob, in spite of Esau’s godless ways. But, in spite of his imperfection, you can see progress in obedience, and the Lord responded to it. When the Lord first appeared to Isaac to tell him not to go to Egypt, the Lord emphasized Abraham’s obedience (26:5). The next verse reports Isaac obedience. It wasn’t automatic. Remember, there was a famine. To obey, Isaac had to trust the Lord and change his plans. But he did it. When the neighbors contended with Isaac, he didn’t fight for his rights. He sought peace by yielding his rights and moving on.

When Isaac finally moved back to Beersheba, where Abraham had lived, the Lord appeared to Isaac a second time, reconfirming His blessing and protection (26:24). The peace treaty with Abimelech and the news of water being discovered were two more evidences that Isaac was where God wanted him, in the place of obedience, where Abraham had obeyed the Lord. Beersheba means, “Well of the Covenant.” If you have been wandering from the Lord, come back to the place of obedience and the Lord will bless you and confirm His promises to you.

Maybe you’re wondering, “Why did God bless Isaac immediately after Isaac disobeyed God?” (26:12-13). There are two answers. First, it shows us that God’s covenant promises are based on grace, not on works. God wants us to obey Him, and He blesses those who obey. But at the same time, He wants us to remember that His sovereign purposes do not depend on our obedience, but rather, on His sovereign grace.

Second, note that while God blessed Isaac materially, the very blessing was also a source of chastening, because it made the Philistines envy Isaac and stop up his wells (26:14-15). This chastening served to move Isaac back toward Beersheba, where God wanted him. The main point is how God was sovereignly working to accomplish His purpose through this ordinary man, Isaac. If it had been up to Isaac, he would have been content to stay in the land of the Philistines. But God graciously used the blessing as a chastening to move Isaac to the center of His will.

3. God uses ordinary people who obey Him to accomplish His purpose.

God’s purpose is the theme of this chapter. He repeats it to Isaac in verses 3 & 4: “... I will be with you and bless you, ... and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” God’s purpose involves blessing His people and using them to bless others through the Seed of Abraham, the Savior. The wells which played such a central role in Isaac’s life were a tangible symbol of divine blessing. Abimelech, the foreign king, saw this evidence of God’s blessing in Isaac’s life, and sought peace with him so that he could share in those blessings. So this chapter shows God slowly but steadily working behind the scenes with this ordinary man who was the son of Abraham to bring about His plan of blessing the nations.

It was not an instant process. Frankly, I’m not sure how much Isaac understood concerning God’s plan for history. It would be 2,000 years before the Savior would be born as the descendant of Abraham. But through it all, God was steadily moving history forward according to His sovereign plan, using a bunch of ordinary people to bring it all about.

Today, we need to see ourselves in the stream of what God is doing in history. He has blessed us, not just so that we’ll be blessed, but so that we can become a blessing to others. We can’t bottle it up. He wants us, ordinary though we are, to be His channel for taking the message of the Savior to all nations. That sounds glorious, but all too often it involves hassles as mundane as digging wells and contending with aggressive people. God didn’t give the land to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob in one magic swoop of His divine wand. Those to whom Moses was writing had to go through the battles of taking Canaan bit by bit.

And we have to struggle inch by inch, hassle by hassle, in taking God’s message of salvation to those in Flagstaff and in every part of the earth. So remember to view the hassles of your life in light of God’s bigger plan for history. If you’ll obey Him, He will use those everyday problems that you, His ordinary child, go through, to accomplish His purpose of blessing all nations.


Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary is an extraordinary man who has had a worldwide impact for Christ. The beautiful thing is, God used an ordinary man who obeyed Him to reach Dr. Hendricks. Howie was from a broken home, raised by his grandmother in Philadelphia. He often wandered from tavern to tavern, looking for his alcoholic grandfather. A man named Walt, who taught a Sunday School class, came upon young Howie and some other boys and invited them to his Sunday School class. Howie didn’t know what Sunday School was, but since it sounded like school, he wasn’t in favor of it.

But Walt took an interest in those boys, challenged them to a few games of marbles, beat them at it, and then taught them how to play better. Eventually, there were 13 boys off the streets of Philadelphia who attended Walt’s Sunday School class. Nine were from broken homes, five were Roman Catholics.

Even though Walt never went beyond high school, 11 of those 13 boys went on to vocational Christian service, becoming pastors, missionaries, and seminary professors. God was accomplishing His purpose by using an ordinary man who obeyed Him.

God wants to use you like that. If you struggle with trials and fears and sins and hassles and family problems, you qualify, as long as you’re also growing in obedience. As God blesses you, commit yourself to be His channel of blessing to others.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where do you feel most inadequate as a Christian? How can God use you at the point of your inadequacy (2 Cor. 11:30)?
  2. Why does God’s blessing not necessarily mean a hassle-free life? Discuss in light of Gen. 26:12-21.
  3. What current hassles or problems in your life could God want to use to help accomplish His purpose through you?
  4. How can we achieve the proper balance between accepting our imperfections without excusing them?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Hamartiology (Sin), Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 52: My Way Or God’s Way? (Genesis 27:1-46)

Related Media

Frank Sinatra’s well-known song, “I Did It My Way,” was shocking for its blatant ungodliness. Of course what Sinatra stated plainly in that song, “I did it my way,” is true of every person who does not submit his life to Jesus Christ. Most people just aren’t as open as Sinatra in stating the controlling force of their lives.

In Genesis 27, four people sing Sinatra’s song. Isaac does things his way by trying to bestow the family blessing on Esau, in opposition to God’s revealed will. Esau tries to take back what he had already sold to his brother Jacob. When he is foiled, he plans to kill his brother. Rebekah deceives her aging husband into giving the blessing to her favorite son, Jacob. And Jacob lies to his father and outsmarts his brother. Rebekah and Jacob could argue that they were only trying to bring about the will of God, since God had told Rebekah that her older son would serve the younger. But I’m not persuaded by those who attribute high motives to Rebekah and Jacob. I think that what you have here are four self-centered people seeking their own advantage. They all did it their way, not God’s way. In the end they all came up empty and paid a high price for their selfishness.

Every person must have as a theme song in life either “I Did It My Way” or “I Did It God’s Way.” You would think that the lines would be clearly drawn: Every person outside of Christ would sing, “I Did It My Way”; every Christian would sing, “I Did It God’s Way.” But I find that many who profess to believe in Christ are really just living for themselves, often using God as the means to self-fulfillment. But the genuine Christian life is a matter of God’s confronting our self-centeredness and enthroning Christ as Lord in our hearts. While the process takes a lifetime, I question whether the person who is not involved in the process of dying to self is truly a child of God. Genesis 27 teaches the principle that ...

When we seek our own way, we never get what we wanted and we pay a high price.

It is presented as a drama with four characters. First (27:1-4), Isaac comes on the stage with his selfish desire, based on his appetite, to give the blessing to Esau, who goes off to comply with Isaac’s plan. In scene two (27:5-17), Rebekah, who was eavesdropping, hatches her plot to deceive Isaac and get the blessing for Jacob. In the third scene (27:18-29), Jacob successfully carries out his mother’s scheme. In the fourth scene (27:30-40), Isaac and Esau discover they have been deceived. Isaac can only give a lesser blessing to Esau. In the conclusion (27:41-46), we see the consequences: Esau plans to kill Jacob, while Rebekah plots how to divert that crisis. Each of the characters illustrates the theme: Each seeks his or her own way; each is frustrated in not getting what he sought; and each pays a high price.

The drama is marked by some undercurrents which run through the chapter. The first is haste or urgency. Isaac seems to be near death’s door when he summons Esau to his bedside. Actually, Isaac, who was 137, lived 43 more years. But you get the feeling that he has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel—Esau needs to get on with his mission. While Esau is gone, Rebekah quickly summons Jacob, and there is a flurry of activity as they prepare to deceive the blind old man before Esau returns from his hunt. Jacob barely makes it out the door before Esau comes back. There is haste in Rebekah’s urgent words to Jacob, “... arise, flee to Haran ...!” (27:43).

There is often a sense of haste when people are trying to pull off their own schemes, even if it’s under the guise of doing God’s will. If you’re not trusting God to orchestrate circumstances for you, then you work under the false impression that you’ve got to pull your own strings. So you rush around like a one-armed man putting on a show with 50 dancing marionettes, trying to keep all the strings going at the right time. There are exceptions, but generally when you’re trusting God to work things out in His time and way, you aren’t running around in eleventh hour haste, trying to rescue the situation.

A second undercurrent which runs through the drama is deception or conspiracy. In the famous words of Sir Walter Scott, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive.” There is an air of secrecy when old Isaac calls Esau to his bedside. Normally, the blessing would have been given before the entire family (see Genesis 49). It was an oral will which legally determined the disposition of all the father possessed. But Isaac calls Esau without Rebekah or Jacob. He knew that Rebekah would oppose his move; she always had favored Jacob. So Esau is sent out secretly.

But, Rebekah was secretly eavesdropping on Isaac’s meeting with Esau. So she secretly calls Jacob and works out her plot to deceive her blind husband. Later, when she thinks that Esau will kill Jacob, Rebekah schemes again by telling Isaac that she is tired of living because of Esau’s Hittite wives. If Jacob marries women like these, life will not be worth living (27:46). So without telling Isaac of the real reason, she secures his blessing on Jacob before he sends him away to Haran to find a wife from Rebekah’s relatives. Throughout the whole drama is this web of deception, conspiracy, and secrecy.

A third undercurrent is mistrust. You can’t carry on secrets and manipulative plots in a family without eroding trust. Isaac didn’t trust Rebekah or Jacob or he would have included them in the plan to give away his blessing. Rebekah didn’t trust Isaac or she wouldn’t have gone to such elaborate lengths to deceive him. Jacob knew that his father wouldn’t trust him, as seen in his comment to his mother, “Perhaps my father will feel me, then I shall be as a deceiver [mocker] in his sight; ...” (27:12). Neither Jacob nor Esau trusted each other. It was a family riddled with mistrust because it operated on the basis of deception and secrecy instead of honesty and openness.

Each character illustrates the theme: When we seek our own way, we never get what we wanted and we pay a high price.

1. The theme is illustrated with Isaac.

This is not a pretty picture of Isaac. Some try to excuse him by saying that maybe he didn’t know or had forgotten about God’s prophecy to Rebekah, that the older son would serve the younger. But surely Rebekah would have told and have frequently reminded Isaac of that prophecy, especially when she sensed Isaac’s favoritism toward Esau and wanted to assert her own favoritism toward Jacob. Isaac knew.

This is a premeditated plot on Isaac’s part to overthrow the revealed purpose of God. Sadly, Isaac’s reasons were based totally on the flesh: He had a taste for Esau’s game (25:28; 27:3-4). Here, on what Isaac thought was his deathbed, he can only think of indulging himself once more with his favorite meal prepared by his favorite son. He was gratifying his sensual desires in opposition to God’s plan. It’s a sorry picture.

The picture grows even darker when we read (in 26:34-35) that Esau had taken two Hittite wives. Abraham had been emphatic that his son Isaac should not take a wife from the Canaanites (24:3-9). He knew that those pagan women would pollute God’s plan to bless all nations through his descendants. Isaac’s charge to Jacob not to take a wife from the Canaanites (28:1) shows that he knew the importance of the heir having a godly wife. Why hadn’t he given both sons this charge years before? Yet he set aside that requirement when he made up his mind to give the blessing to Esau.

Isaac wanted his way, not God’s way. He liked Esau and his game over Jacob. No matter that Esau was a godless man, that he had despised his birthright, that he had married Canaanite wives. Isaac liked him, so he planned to give everything to Esau, as is clear from the mistaken blessing on Jacob (27:28--29, 37-38).

But did Isaac get what he wanted? Instead of wild game, he got spiced up goat. Instead of blessing Esau, he put him under a curse, because he ordained that whoever cursed Jacob should be cursed, and Esau planned to kill Jacob. His family was riddled with rivalry and his sons were separated from him. He and his wife were at odds and didn’t trust each other. Isaac sought his own way, didn’t get what he wanted, and paid a high price.

2. The theme is illustrated with Rebekah.

Rebekah wanted God’s choice (Jacob), but for selfish reasons. He was her favorite. He was her pawn in her power struggle against her husband. So even though on the surface she could claim, “I just want God’s will,” the claim was a pious fraud. Rebekah wanted her way. She was willing to deceive her blind husband and to draw her son into deception to gain her goal.

Of course, Rebekah could have rationalized: “What could I do? If I hadn’t acted as I did, God’s promise wouldn’t have been fulfilled. The whole Messianic program was at stake! You can’t just sit back and trust God at a time like that. You have to take decisive action. Besides, it worked! God’s blessing through Abraham and Isaac came to Jacob, just as God ordained.”

The fallacy in that line of thinking is that deception was the only alternative. Rebekah could have sought the Lord and then appealed to Isaac based on what he knew to be God’s purpose. Having done that, she could have left the matter with God, trusting that if He needed to, God could reverse Isaac’s wrong action.

That’s the fallacy of situation ethics. It poses a false dilemma, then tells you that you have no choice except to violate God’s moral absolutes. There’s often time pressure. I can imagine Rebekah thinking, “If I don’t act now, God’s plan will be thwarted. I don’t like lying, but I have no choice.” But, almost always, there are other choices. I will grant that, in a fallen world, there are some ethical dilemmas; but they are really rare. Almost always, there is a way not to sin.

Did Rebekah get what she was after? On the surface, yes, Jacob got the blessing. But in the end, no. What she feared (27:45) happened when she lost both her sons. Jacob fled to Haran and Esau moved to Edom. She sought to get the inheritance for Jacob, but he had to leave it behind and flee for his life. She sought to make Jacob the ruler over all that Isaac had; instead, Jacob became the indentured servant of Laban.

And what about the cost? Rebekah calculated that the whole thing would blow over soon (27:44-45): “Stay with him a few days, until your brother’s fury subsides, until your brother’s anger against you subsides, and he forgets what you did to him. Then I shall send and get you from there.” The “few days” turned out to be 20 years, and Rebekah probably never saw her favorite son again. When he returns, Isaac is mentioned, but not Rebekah. In the only other mention of her name in Genesis, Jacob on his deathbed states that they buried Rebekah in the cave of Machpelah (49:31, implying that he was not there). So Rebekah spent her final years bereft of her sons, emotionally estranged from her blind husband. She sought her own way, didn’t get what she wanted, and paid a high price.

3. The theme is illustrated with Jacob.

Again, I must disagree with commentators who exonerate Jacob. Some say that he was valuing spiritual things and, after all, he was only obeying his mother. But remember, the man wasn’t a teenager—he was probably 77 years old! He should have rebuked his mother for her deceptive scheme. Clearly, Jacob is not a spiritually-minded man. He does not fear God or His moral law; he only fears that the scheme might not work and he might get cursed instead of blessed. He wanted the wealth and advantage which went along with the blessing. Like Rebekah, Jacob was seeking his own way under the guise of seeking God’s way.

Note the extremes he was willing to take to get what he wanted. His blind old father asks, “Who are you, my son?” Jacob flatly lies, “I am Esau your firstborn; I have done as you told me” (27:18-19). When Isaac questions how he could have returned so quickly, Jacob crassly gives God the credit (27:20)! But because of Jacob’s voice, Isaac still has doubts. So he calls Jacob to him so he can feel his skin. After feeling the deceptive goatskins on Jacob’s arms, he asks again, “Are you really my son Esau?” And Jacob baldly lies again, “I am” (27:24). He caps the whole thing off with a kiss! Where is Jacob’s conscience?

Jacob’s actions seem incredible—until you get honest with yourself. If you know your heart, you can see yourself right there in Jacob’s sandals, doing the same thing. Haven’t you ever bent the truth when you were under pressure or when you thought it was for a good cause? And once you tell the first lie, it’s harder to bail out. So you dig yourself in deeper and deeper.

Did Jacob get what he was after? On the surface, yes, he got the blessing. But it didn’t quite do for him what he was expecting. He had to flee from his brother who wanted to kill him. The blessing stipulated that he would be master of his brothers (vs. 29), but before Esau bowed to Jacob, Jacob would bow before Esau and call him lord (33:3, 8). He thought the blessing would put him in a position of influence, but before that it forced him to become the indentured servant of a man who deceived him. Later the sons of this deceiver would deceive their father concerning his beloved son, Joseph, telling him that the animals had killed the boy. For 20 years he mourned for that son, thinking him to be dead before he found out the truth. So Jacob sought his own way, didn’t get what he wanted, and paid high installment payments for years to come.

4. The theme is illustrated with Esau.

While we may sympathize with Esau, there is no doubt that he was seeking his own way. Granted, he was the older brother, so the birthright and blessing should have been his. But he had made a legal agreement with his brother to sell his birthright. It was not true, as Esau laments, that Jacob took away his birthright (27:36). Esau gave it up. Here, he was in cahoots with his father’s secretive plan to get the blessing for himself; he just happened to get outsmarted. As a godless man, not concerned about the spiritual promises God had given to Abraham, Esau was clearly seeking his own way, not God’s way.

His tears (27:34, 38) may make us feel sorry for him. But remember, Esau wasn’t truly repentant, ready to turn from his self-seeking ways to follow God’s ways. He was just sorry he didn’t get what he was after. He was like the guy who heard at work that his neighbor’s house burned down. Since they didn’t get along too well, he shrugged and said, “Too bad!” Then he drove home and found out that his own house had burned down, too. If he started wailing, you wouldn’t assume that he was sorry for his neighbor or for his own bad attitude. He was just sorry for himself. Esau wasn’t truly repentant toward God; he was just sorry his scheme hadn’t worked.

Clearly, Esau didn’t get the blessing he desired. He ended up estranged from God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. He became the father of the Edomites, who lived to the east of the Dead Sea and were later subjected by several kings of Israel. They finally succeeded in casting off Israel’s rule, even as Isaac prophesied (27:40). They sided with Nebuchadnezzar in his overthrow of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and were overjoyed at its destruction (Ps. 137:7; Lam. 4:21, 22; Obadiah 10-16). Esau, like Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob, sought his own way, didn’t get what he wanted, and paid a high price.


Let me draw four concluding lessons from this drama:

(1) If we sow to the flesh, we’ll reap from the flesh. The law of sowing and reaping is as true for God’s people as it is for unbelievers. If you live for the pleasures of the flesh, you will reap from the flesh corruption (Gal. 6:7-8). If you live for the things of this world, you may get them, but you’ll be poor before God.

Some may protest: “But we’re under grace, not law!” But remember, Paul warned about sowing and reaping in the very letter where he strongly argues for the grace of God--Galatians. You can’t plant spinach and harvest sweet corn. While sin may taste sweet in your mouth, it will be bitter in your stomach and you’ll wish you had never tasted it! That’s true for believers under grace.

(2) You can’t thwart the ultimate purpose of God, so why not work with Him, not against Him? It is utter futility to fight God. It may seem as if you’re going to be able to get away with your plan. But “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4). Man’s sin can never thwart God’s purpose. It may appear that things are not under God’s control and that the forces of evil are going to turn world history to their own ends. It’s only an illusion. Even the wrath of man will bring ultimate praise to God (Ps. 76:10). God, not man, determines history. You can either smash yourself to bits trying to fight against God or you can submit to His purpose. As the apostle Paul and millions of others can tell you, life is a lot more pleasant when you don’t kick against the goads.

(3) Godly ends do not justify wrong means. Was it God’s will to give the blessing to Jacob? Yes! Was it right for Rebekah and Jacob to gain the blessing through deception? No! Methods do matter! Wrong methods don’t become right just because they work, even when they help accomplish God’s purpose. We live in a pragmatic culture, and many Christians have bought into any method that works. Just because a marketing scheme brings people into the church does not make it right. God’s work must be done in His way.

(4) The way to find your life is to lose it for Christ’s sake. Hebrews 11:20 states: “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come.” How can that be, when it seems that he was acting in the flesh? The answer is in Genesis 27:33, where a trembling Isaac realizes that he has really blessed Jacob, not Esau, as he intended. He admits, “Yes, and he shall be blessed.” At that point Isaac realized that he and Esau had been fighting against God and they had lost. God pinned him to the mat, Isaac admitted defeat, and submitted to God’s sovereign way. So Isaac gives up his theme song, “I Did It My Way.” He lost his life, only to find real life in God.

That’s the key, by the way, to family harmony—when each member dies to his own selfish way and lives for God’s way. What is God’s word to wives? “Submit to your husband.” Many Christian wives hate that word! It grates on the flesh. But it is God’s Word to wives! Before you husbands start gloating, remember God’s word to you: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” The Bible never tells husbands to get their wives to submit. It tells us to seek the highest good of our wives by dying to our own selfish ways. God’s word to children is, “Obey your parents” and you will be blessed. To parents (especially fathers) He says, “Don’t provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22-6:4).

Many Christian counselors are telling hurting people, “Assert yourself! Stand up for your rights! Don’t be codependent! You’ve got a right to some happiness in life, so go for it!” But God’s Word is clear: If you seek your own way, you won’t get what you want and you’ll pay a high price in family conflict. If you’ll die to your way and seek God’s way, He will give you the desires of your heart. You’ve got to decide which will be your theme song: “I did it my way,” or, “I did it God’s way?”

Discussion Questions

  1. Someone may fear, “If I yield my rights and go God’s way, I’ll get trampled.” How would you counsel them?
  2. Does seeking God’s way mean always doing what I don’t like and not doing what I enjoy? How do I know when I’m doing things God’s way?
  3. Can a wife be submissive to God and to her husband and yet confront him with his sin? How?
  4. Is total honesty always the best policy? What about when honesty would hurt someone’s feelings?
  5. Are there situations where we must sometimes break one part of God’s moral law in order to keep another part? If so, when?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1997, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Rewards, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 53: How God Begins With Us (Genesis 28:1-22)

Related Media

Harold Ross started The New Yorker magazine years ago in small offices and with little equipment. They operated on a shoestring budget at first. One day in a restaurant downstairs he met Dorothy Parker, one of the magazine’s first writers. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Why aren’t you upstairs working?”

“Somebody was using the pencil,” she explained, “so I came down for some coffee.” (“Bits & Pieces,” 6/84.)

Great things often start with humble beginnings. Ross Perot launched his multi-billion dollar fortune with a $1,000 investment. McDonald’s worldwide hamburger chain began with one little stand in San Bernardino. Apple Computer started in a garage with a couple of young guys who had an idea.

It’s often the same way spiritually. If we each could share how God began with us, we’d probably marvel at the ways He broke into each of our lives. Years ago, a Sunday School teacher walked into a Boston shoe store and spoke about Christ to a teenage boy who worked there. That boy accepted Christ but was so ignorant of the basic teachings of the Bible that he was refused membership in a church for a year and a half until he could gain that knowledge. His name was Dwight L. Moody; he went on to become the most powerful American evangelist of the nineteenth century.

God’s beginning with Jacob (Genesis 28) was like that. If you look at Jacob at the start, you can hardly imagine that here is the great patriarch, the father of the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel. He was a 77 year-old mama’s boy, a cheat who had to flee for his life from his angry brother. And yet by His grace, God began to work in Jacob’s life. There weren’t quick changes; the process took a lifetime. But God’s breaking into Jacob’s life made the difference.

The chapter raises a question we all need to face: How can God break into my life and begin a work in me? Some of you may not yet have trusted Christ as Savior and Lord. You wonder, “Is there any way God can begin with me, with all my problems and sin?” Thank God, there is! Those who are Christians need to ask the same question. If you have trusted in Christ, then God has already begun a work in you. But it’s easy to grow complacent in your relationship with Him. Your spiritual life is on auto-pilot. You need a new beginning with God. How can that take place? Genesis 28 shows that ...

God begins at my point of need with His grace, and I should respond to Him.

1. God begins at my point of need (28:19).

In problem solving, the first step is to recognize and define the problem. Often our problem is that we don’t clearly see the problem. We aren’t aware of our great need, so we aren’t open for God to move into our lives to begin working on the problems. Many times it takes a crisis, where we are brought to the end of our own abilities and schemes, for us to be able to see our need and be open to God’s breaking into our lives.

This is a helpful principle when you’re dealing with others, whether you’re trying to share the gospel or give counsel of some sort. Before a person will be receptive to the solution, he’s got to be deeply aware of his problem. If he’s not aware of his great need, he’s going to resist any intrusion into his life. So you have to build your relationship with the person and wait for the time when God yanks the rug out from under him and he recognizes his need. Then he’ll be ready for God’s solution.

You don’t have to read too much between the lines to see that Jacob has just had the rug yanked out from under him. Put yourself in his sandals: You’ve just lied to your blind, old father to cheat your brother out of his family blessing (“inheritance”). Your brother is so mad that he’s threatening to kill you. Even though you’re “early middle age” (Jacob was 77, but lived to 147), you’ve never been out of sight of mama’s tent. Your idea of adventure is trying out a new recipe.

But now you’re being sent off alone on a 500-mile journey through dangerous, foreign territory to a pagan city to try to find your mother’s relatives. You don’t know whether you’ll even make it there safely. Your brother would be much more suited for this kind of adventure. He’s spent many a night in the wild, stalking game. But you’ve never even camped out in your own back yard. But now you’re alone, on the road, with no motel. The sun has gone down, so you find a rock for a pillow and lay down under the canopy of the stars.

As you lay there listening to all the strange sounds of the night, you think about your past. You’re confused. You finally had finagled your way to get what you’d always wanted—your brother’s birthright and blessing. You thought that once you got that, you’d have it made, but here you are on the run, with nothing but meager supplies (32:10) and a very uncertain future. So you’re confused.

You also feel guilty. You cheated your brother. You lied to your blind, old father, used the name of his God, and even kissed him in your deception. And then, in spite of all that, he has sent you off with the true spiritual blessing of your grandfather, Abraham (28:3-4). At this point, God is the God of Abraham and He is the God of your father, Isaac (27:20). But He is not yet your God (28:21). And yet the burden of the blessing of the God of Abraham is on your shoulders. As one of the “Peanuts” cartoon characters says, “There’s no greater burden than having a great potential.” You’re loaded with guilt and anxiety about the future.

Do you see how Jacob must have felt? Until now, he has always schemed his way out of tight spots. But now he’s fresh out of schemes. He’s on his own for the first time, wrestling with a guilty, confusing past, and facing an anxious, uncertain future. It’s significant that God begins working with Jacob at this point in his life. It’s the first time the Lord got Jacob’s attention. Jacob saw his great need.

One way or another, God has to bring each of us to that point before He breaks through in our lives. Often, as was the case with Jacob, it’s when we first leave the shelter of home. I remember that even though I trusted Christ as a young child, God didn’t begin to work in my life in a significant way until I was in college. I was still living at home, but being in the environment of a secular university, where the Christian faith was under attack, made me realize that either I had to make my parents’ faith my own or I needed to discard it. It was only at that point that my relationship with Christ began to develop.

If you’re in high school or college, you’re at a critical point in life. If you realize your great need before God and turn to Him, your life will go in the right direction. But if you ignore your need for God and choose the human wisdom that is offered to you at school or in the world, you will start down the path that leads ultimately to destruction. If you’ve been raised in a Christian home, it’s vitally important for you to recognize your own great need for God and to begin to make your parents’ faith your own.

Esau never did that. He’s a pathetic figure in many ways. His mother favored his brother. His father loved him because he liked the game he hunted (25:28). Now he’s been tricked out of his father’s blessing. When he hears Isaac send Jacob off to find a wife from his mother’s relatives, he realizes for the first time (after 37 years of marriage) that his two pagan wives were not pleasing to his father.

Isaac was the classic passive father. Why hadn’t he instructed his sons concerning the proper marriage partners when they were young? Why hadn’t he talked openly to Esau years before, when he was considering taking these women as wives? And now, when Esau discovers that his marriages weren’t pleasing to his dad, he goes to Ishmael’s descendants and takes a wife, thinking that he might earn his father’s approval by marrying within the descendants of Abraham. How sad! Esau had a need, but he went about meeting that need in a worldly way, instead of seeking the Lord. And God never broke through in Esau’s life.

How about you? Are you at a place where you see your great need for God? Are you, like Jacob, out of schemes? Are you, like Esau should have been, but wasn’t, out of worldly solutions? Are you at a place where you’re confused and guilty about your past, anxious and uncertain about your future? Then maybe you’re at a place where God can break through into your life. He won’t give you magical, instant solutions, but He will begin to work when you come to the end of yourself and admit, “Lord, I have a need I can’t deal with by myself. I need You!” That’s the place where grace—God’s unmerited favor—can take effect. You’re at Bethel, the house of God, where God comes down to earth and earth’s problems are carried up to heaven.

2. God begins with His grace (28:10-15).

At Jacob’s point of need, God gave him a strange dream. God often has used dreams to communicate with people, but we need to be careful not to put too much stock in our dreams, because they are open to so many subjective interpretations (as you’ll discover if you read a few commentaries on Jacob’s dream!). In the dream, a ladder, or stairway, went from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. How should we understand this? I’m using two guidelines: (1) How would Jacob have understood it, especially in light of what God said here? (2) How is it interpreted elsewhere in the Bible?

Jacob understood this dream as God breaking into his life: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (28:16). Jacob had not personally encountered God until this point. But now this ladder into heaven, with the angels going back and forth between Jacob and God, showed him that the God of Abraham and Isaac could be his God, too. God was concerned about him in his place of desperate need, and there was a bridge of access to God to seek His help and from God to receive His help. God specifically applied His promises to Abraham and Isaac to Jacob. That’s how Jacob must have understood the symbolism of this dream.

We can gain further insight into the meaning of this ladder because of an incident recorded in John 1:45-51. Philip reported to his friend Nathaniel, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel sardonically replies, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip wisely replies, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathaniel coming and said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Also, Jesus revealed that He had seen Nathaniel under the fig tree before Philip called him. This supernatural knowledge was enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.

Jesus went on to say, “You shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus knew supernaturally that Nathaniel had been meditating on the meaning of Jacob’s ladder as he sat under that fig tree. Jesus is saying, “I am that ladder, the promised Seed of Abraham!” Jesus is the bridge between God and man. He is the one who opens the way for man, in his desperate need, to have access to God in heaven. As He would later say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).

So we can understand something Jacob may not have been able to grasp: That Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, is the Mediator between God and man. Christ is the bridge between us in our desperate need because of our sin, and God with His abundant mercy. The angels, who bring God’s help and protection to those who are needy, come to us through Christ.

In Jacob’s dream, the Lord stood above the ladder and applied the promises given to Abraham and Isaac to Jacob (read 28:13- 15). What fantastic words! Can you imagine how those words must have hit Jacob? If you had done what Jacob had done, what would you have expected God to say to you? If He had said anything, I would have expected God to have said, “Steve, I had planned to use you in My purpose of blessing all nations through the seed of Abraham. But because you’re such a deceiving crook, I’m going to have to change My plan. I can’t use you.” At the least I would have expected a severe rebuke. But God doesn’t say a word about Jacob’s failure. Instead, He assures Jacob about his future and promises him that He won’t leave him until He’s done everything He’s promised. Jacob thought he had to use manipulation and scheming to gain God’s blessing, but here God freely gives him everything while he’s asleep. That’s grace—God’s unmerited favor!

Jacob didn’t understand grace at this point. His response was fear (28:17). This was more than proper reverence; Jacob realized that he was dealing now with a God he couldn’t connive against or cheat, a God who had his number, a God who had taken him thoroughly by surprise. I wonder if John Newton had this text in mind when he wrote, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

God always deals with us in grace. This means that the primary reason you came to God was not because you decided to follow Jesus. Before you did anything, and knowing that you would only do evil if left to yourself, so that God alone could be glorified for your salvation, He chose you (Rom. 9:11). He is always the initiator. When He breaks into your life, it’s His doing, not yours. If God operated on the merit system, He would have picked Esau, who was a much nicer guy than Jacob. But God, based totally on His grace and not at all on anything we do, breaks through in our lives at a point of our great need and says, “I’m going to bless you!” God always begins at my point of need with His grace. It’s a totally humbling experience!

What am I supposed to do when God begins at my point of need with His grace?

3. When God begins, I should respond to Him (28:16-22).

Frankly, I don’t think Jacob knew what to do. He babbles on about this place being awesome, the house of God, the gate of heaven. Like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jacob felt the need to fill the dreadful silence with some kind of noise. But beyond that, Jacob responded to the Lord as best he knew how.

He got up in the morning and set up a pillar with his stone pillow and poured oil on it, as an act of consecrating it to the Lord. Then he made a vow to the Lord (28:20-22). Commentators are divided regarding Jacob’s vow. Some say that it was a wonderful response of faith. They interpret the “if” of verse 20 to mean, “since.” Others say that this is another instance of this self-seeking schemer trying to bargain for his own best interests. My understanding is that while Jacob’s response was immature at best, at least it was a response, and God met him there.

A number of factors reveal that Jacob’s response was immature (I am indebted to James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:296-299, who develops these in more detail). Jacob does not express any awareness or confession of his many sins. His focus was not on God and His purpose to bless the nations, but on himself and what he could get out of the deal. The translation “since” rather than “if” (28:20) doesn’t fit Jacob’s focus on himself here. God has just promised to do all these things for Jacob and he turns around and says, “If You’ll do what You just said, then You can be my God.” Jacob’s vow sounds like the same old pattern he used when he bargained with Esau to get the birthright. He wasn’t concerned about the other party; he was out for the best deal for himself. God isn’t too impressed with such deals!

Jacob should have responded, “You alone are God! While I deserve Your condemnation for my many sins, You have shown me Your grace! I surrender myself and everything I have totally to You!” But instead, he tells God that if He will come through as He has promised, Jacob will make Him his God, set up a house for Him at Bethel, and give Him ten percent. Big deal!

Jacob’s response shows that he doesn’t understand God’s grace. God’s promises to Jacob are all unconditional; Jacob’s promises to God are all conditional. Thank God that He deals with us on His unconditional terms, not on our conditional terms! But all this reflects where Jacob is coming from. He was used to working out deals, so he’s responding to God by trying to work out a deal. It was immature, at best, but at least it was a response.

The significant thing is, God didn’t rebuke Jacob: “You’ve got to be kidding! If you can’t accept My word, the deal is off.” Instead, God let it go and graciously kept working with Jacob. It would take 20 hard years with Laban, a night of wrestling with the angel of God, and a traumatic encounter with Esau, to knock a lot of rough edges off Jacob, but God kept at it. Though it was an inadequate response, God took it and began to shape Jacob into the kind of man he needed to be.


That’s how God begins with you and me. He begins at my point of need with His grace, and I should respond to Him. As I think back over my experience with God, I recognize how gracious He has been to take me where I was at and work with me, in spite of my inadequate faith and my self-centered response to Him. The main thing that caused me to yield my life to the Lord was that I saw a young Christian couple who had a great marriage. I said, “Lord, if You can give me that kind of marriage, I’ll give my life to You.” I realized that the best deal for me all the way around would be for me to let God control my life, since He knows what is best and He loves me.

That was selfish. It was a bargain for me. It didn’t have any regard for God’s purpose of blessing all nations through Christ. I wasn’t thinking about how my life could be used to bring glory to God. I was just out for His blessing so that I could be happy. But, praise God, He took me there, overlooked my immaturity, and said, “It’s a response.” He began to teach me about His unconditional grace and that I need to live for His glory.

God will do that with you. Wherever you’re at, He will begin at your point of need with His grace. He will say to you, “I am the Lord; ... I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go; ... I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” He wants you to respond by saying, “Yes, Lord! Begin your work in me.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some ways we can help a person who doesn’t see his need for Christ to see it?
  2. It doesn’t seem fair that God would work with a scoundrel like Jacob but not with a nice guy like Esau. Your response?
  3. How much and what kind of faith does a person need for God to save him? Give some Scriptural examples.
  4. Should a Christian under grace make vows to God? Defend your answer biblically.

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Spiritual Life

Lesson 54: God’s Boot Camp (Genesis 29:1-30)

Related Media

At 3 a.m. you’re awakened from a peaceful sleep when the lights come on and you hear a maniac screaming, “All right, you scum-bags! I want you out of the sack and in formation in five minutes! And your beds had better be made or you’ll be sea-bagging for two hours!”

Ah, the joys of boot camp! You arrive thinking of all the benefits the military has promised you, the valued recruit. When I was in boot camp, a recruit arrived with his fishing pole and water skis--the honest recruiter had told him that the base was located where you could fish and water ski. I suppose a person could do those things. But when a mean drill sergeant starts screaming in your face you learn that a recruit isn’t a person! Reality sets in quickly!

In Genesis 28, we saw God’s beginning with Jacob. At his time of great need, the Lord broke into Jacob’s life, promised to bless him and to fulfill with him all of His covenant promises to Abraham (28:13‑ 15). In 29:1, the Hebrew says that Jacob “lifted up his feet,” an expression which means that he had a new bounce in his steps as he continued his journey. God was with him, his guilt from the past was gone, his fear of Esau had subsided. Things were looking up!

What Jacob didn’t realize was that he had just entered God’s boot camp. He was in for a difficult 20-year term under God’s unwitting drillmaster, Laban. God would use these trying years to knock a lot of rough edges off Jacob. Ultimately, yes, God would bless him. But part of the process involved breaking Jacob of his selfish ways.

God promises to bless each person who trusts in Christ. Like Jacob, we say, “Sounds like a great program! Sure, I’ll let You be my God if You’ll bless me!” But we don’t read the fine print that tells us that God’s blessings always come through His discipline. To bless us and use us to bless others, God has to break us from our dependence on the flesh and shape us into the image of His Son, who learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8). So God enrolls us in His boot camp. It’s a tough program that lasts many years.

Moses’ readers were there. They had followed him out of slavery in Egypt, expecting to move right in to their luxury condos in Canaan, with milk and honey flowing from the tap. Instead, they had endured 40 difficult years in the wilderness and now faced the frightening prospect of fighting the giants who occupied those condominiums. It wasn’t quite what they had signed up for. Jacob’s story shows that ...

God graciously uses circumstances, consequences, and difficult people, over time, to shape His people.

1. God uses circumstances to shape His people.

Note the fortunate circumstances which Jacob encounters on his trip. He happens upon a well where there happen to be some shepherds, who happen to be from Haran and happen to know Laban. Just as Jacob is talking to them, Rachel happens to come along. What luck!

Or is it luck? At first you might think so, because the Lord isn’t mentioned in 29:1‑30. Unlike Abraham’s servant who went to Haran in search of a bride for Isaac, who prayed and was led by the Lord to Rebekah (24:27), there is no word that Jacob prayed. How do we know that God ordered Jacob’s circumstances?

There are three clues in the context, plus the teaching of the rest of the Bible, to tell us that God was behind all these events. First, in 28:15 God promised Jacob that He would keep him wherever he went and would not leave him. God was with Jacob even though Jacob may not have acknowledged it. The second clue is in 29:2, where “behold” occurs twice [NASB margin], indicating the amazing providence of God in leading Jacob to the very spot he needed to be at the moment he needed to be there. The third clue is in 29:31, where we read, “Now the Lord saw ....” God wasn’t asleep, even though He isn’t mentioned in verses 1‑30. He was watching, arranging the circumstances to shape Jacob into the man He wanted him to be.

Besides the context is the teaching of all the Bible, which shows that God sovereignly works out His purpose in the circumstances of history. He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). David proclaims that in God’s book were written all “the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Ps. 139:16). God ordains all our circumstances and uses them to break us of dependence on the flesh and to shape us into the image of Christ.

I can’t be dogmatic, but if I read the first part of this story correctly, Jacob is still trying to arrange his own circumstances for his own advantage, not realizing how God is superintending the whole process. Remember, Jacob is coming to his uncle with only the clothes on his back (32:10). He doesn’t have any gifts, as Abraham’s servant brought, so he needs some bargaining power. These shepherds seem somewhat lazy and passive. So Jacob sees his opportunity. When Rachel arrives, he moves into action. He rolls the large stone from the mouth of the well and waters her sheep. While she’s trying to figure out this hero, he kisses her, breaks into tears, and then introduces himself. It’s a blitzkrieg approach!

Why did Jacob weep? It was probably an overflow of emotion that hit him when he realized how well everything had worked out‑‑he was safely in Haran with his mother’s relatives, and that this particular relative happened to be a strikingly beautiful young lady. Perhaps she reminded him of his mother (“mother” occurs three times in 29:10). While Jacob may not have planned his tears, it added to his opening advantage. The point is, even though Jacob is still his old self, trying to arrange everything for his advantage, God was there behind the scenes, ordering everything. God would use these circumstances to shape Jacob in ways Jacob couldn’t yet imagine.

2. God uses consequences to shape His people.

Things went well for Jacob for one month. He fell head over heels in love with Rachel. Going to watch over the sheep with her had given the shepherding business a whole new dimension for Jacob. Life was taking a turn for the better. His past was behind him. Uncle Laban seemed to like him‑‑even called him “my bone and my flesh” (29:14). He was part of the family. Until now, it would look as if Jacob had skated away from his past sins. Rebekah’s scheme seemed to work. Jacob received the blessing. Esau’s murderous anger had been thwarted. Jacob had arrived safely in Haran and had met beautiful Rachel. And Laban was treating him like a son. Besides, God had forgiven him. So Jacob shrugged off his past.

But God never lets us sin and walk away without consequences. He forgives the eternal penalty of our sin when we trust Christ, but He doesn’t remove all the temporal consequences. If He did, we’d take sin lightly and not deal with its roots in our lives. It may take a while for the seeds we’ve sown to sprout, but they will come up.

After a month, Uncle Laban comes to Jacob with what sounds like a generous offer: “Because you are my brother, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” (29:15). But don’t be fooled! Laban is a shrewd operator who always has his eye on his own advantage. He’s actually serving notice that Jacob isn’t going to freeload indefinitely. He’s going to have to work for his keep. While the wily Laban calls Jacob his brother, he also makes it clear who is serving whom (“serve me”). Laban craftily put Jacob under his thumb!

So Jacob begins to reap some of what he’s sown. He’s never worked for anybody in his life. No doubt he had helped tend his father’s flocks and done household chores. But he was the son of a rich man. Servants had served him. If he hadn’t deceived his father and brother and fled for his life, he would have had ample resources. Like Abraham’s servant securing Rebekah for Isaac, Jacob could have offered his gifts, taken his bride, and been on his way. But because of his deception, he didn’t have anything. He would have to work for his bride.

So he tells Laban that he will serve seven years for Rachel. Laban agrees to the deal, but doesn’t tell him the catch: His seven years for Rachel will follow seven years’ work for her older sister, because they had a custom that the older girl had to be married first. So Jacob has to work seven years for a woman he wouldn’t have served seven days for if he had his choice.

Finally, Jacob’s seven years are up. He has to remind Laban of that fact (29:21). You can be sure that both men were counting (for different reasons), but Laban wasn’t going to remind Jacob if he could get a few extra days of work out of him. Jacob was ready for his wedding night (29:21), but he wasn’t ready for Laban’s treachery. The text delicately puts it, “So it came about that in the morning, behold, it was Leah!” It was dark when Jacob took her into the tent. Leah was veiled, probably dressed in Rachel’s clothes and sprinkled with her perfume. She must have been about the same size as Rachel. There is debate about what “weak eyes” (29:17) means; probably, she didn’t have the sexy sparkle in her eyes that Rachel had. But in the dark, the unsuspecting, overanxious Jacob didn’t notice the finer points. But when he rolled over in the morning to embrace his bride, he got the shock of his life!

So the deceiver is deceived! He’s met his match in Laban. There are obvious parallels between Jacob’s deception of Isaac and Laban’s deception of Jacob. Jacob deceived his blind father; he gets deceived in the dark. He deceived his father; he is deceived by his bride’s father. He cheated his brother out of the rights of the firstborn; he gets cheated because of the rights of the firstborn to be married first.

Jacob’s “reaping” doesn’t end here. Laban later would take advantage of him by changing his wages (31:41), even as Jacob had taken advantage of Esau with his birthright. Jacob deceived his father with regard to his favorite son (Esau) by covering his hands with goat skins. Jacob later would be deceived by his sons regarding his favorite son (Joseph) when they dipped his robes in the blood of a goat (37:31). Jacob had sown deception; he would reap deception. God uses the consequences of sin to shape His people.

3. God uses difficult people to shape His people.

God doesn’t just use circumstances; He uses people like Laban to be His drill sergeants. That doesn’t excuse Laban’s sin. He was a self‑centered money-grubber from the word go. Later, his two daughters, who didn’t agree on much else, agreed that their dad was using them for the financial gain he could make from them, and consuming the profits on himself (31:15).

But it’s that kind of person that God often uses in the lives of His people to sandpaper off their rough edges. It may be an employer or fellow employee, a family member, or a neighbor. He or she may or may not claim to be a believer. Laban had some knowledge of the Lord, but he also had his idols (30:27; 31:30). But God will use him to drive us to depend on Him. In His boot camp, God uses circumstances, consequences, and difficult people to shape His people. But notice also:

4. God takes time to shape His people.

When Jacob’s mother sent him away, she told him that he would be in Haran for “a few days” (27:44). Jacob wasn’t expecting a 20-year boot camp, but that’s how it turned out. For 14 of those years he didn’t earn anything except board and room and two wives, one of whom he didn’t even want. Yet God didn’t seem to be in any hurry to push Jacob ahead into His program to bless all nations through Abraham’s descendants.

God always takes whatever time He deems necessary to train His servants. Joseph spent his twenties in an Egyptian jail. Israel spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt. Moses spent 40 years tending sheep in the wilderness, and another 40 in the wilderness with a stubborn nation. David spent his twenties running from the mad King Saul. Even the apostle Paul spent about ten years after his conversion in obscurity before his ministry began to take off. God has an eternal perspective. His boot camp has no nine-week courses. It takes the long haul to shape His people into the image of Jesus Christ.

All this may sound rather gloomy, and I suppose in one sense it is. “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful” (Heb. 12:11). But even during the pain of God’s discipline, there’s a strand of grace that lightens the burden.

5. God weaves grace into the process of shaping His people.

God graciously uses circumstances, consequences, and difficult people, over time, to shape his people. God’s grace shines through in these events in Jacob’s life. There is no record of Jacob’s seeking the Lord in this passage, even though he is facing some crucial decisions. Abraham’s servant stopped to seek God’s guidance when he went looking for a bride for Isaac, and he paused to thank the Lord when he received it. But here Jacob never seeks God’s guidance, but is graciously guided to the very spot he needs to be just when he needs to be there. Jacob doesn’t bother to express his gratitude to the Lord or to praise Him in front of others, as Abraham’s servant did.

Jacob commits himself to seven years of work for Laban without asking the Lord’s will. He commits himself to marry Rachel without seeking God’s guidance on that most important decision. He accepts a polygamous situation without getting God’s approval. Later, he takes his wives’ handmaids, as Abraham had taken Hagar, without a prayer. Yet in spite of Jacob’s spiritual immaturity and self‑directed life, God graciously gave him the woman he loved, blessed him with 12 sons and some daughters (46:7), blessed him financially in spite of Laban’s tricks, and returned him safely to the land of Canaan, where his brother received him without a trace of revenge. That’s God’s grace!

Jacob’s trials were especially softened by his love for Rachel. It seems to have been a case of love at first sight. The seven years of waiting seemed like days to him because of his love for her. Although he seems to have been more attracted to her looks than to her spiritual qualities, it seems to have been a lasting love, not just infatuation. On his death bed, about 50 years after her death, Jacob recalls his sorrow at burying Rachel when he returned to Canaan. Jacob’s love for Rachel was God’s gracious provision to soften these hard years of boot camp.


Let me mention five lessons to apply this section of Scripture:

1. Recognize and submit to God’s hand in the daily events of your life. Things don’t just happen to you. You haven’t had a spell of bad luck. God arranges your circumstances to shape you into the image of Jesus Christ. We all tend to see God’s hand in the big crises, but we need to see His hand in the little irritations‑‑car trouble, the sick child who forces you to change your plans, interruptions. I find that if I will recognize God’s hand in those things and submit to Him, I can grow through it. But if I grumble, I’m “regarding lightly the discipline of the Lord” (Heb. 12:5), and I’ll miss the opportunity for growth.

2. Submit to God when you reap the consequences of your sin. God uses the consequences of our sin to shape us. He doesn’t do this to get even or because He is cruel. He does it out of love to teach us how serious our sin is. We all tend to excuse ourselves and blame others for our sin. A deceiver doesn’t think deception is all that bad‑‑until he gets deceived! Jacob is truly shocked that Laban could pull such a dirty trick on a nice guy like him! There’s nothing like a dose of our own medicine to help us see how our sin hurts others and displeases God. So God lovingly allows us to suffer the consequences of our sin so that we will see ourselves accurately and turn from our sin.

When the consequences hit, our tendency is either to accuse God of being unfair or to try to skate out from under things through some new scheme or sin. But God wants us to submit to Him. David responded properly when the child he had sinfully conceived with Bathsheba died: He worshiped the Lord (2 Sam. 12:20). Later, when David’s kingdom suffered because of his sin, he didn’t blame God or scheme to turn things around. He submitted to his affliction and to God’s sovereignty as to whether his kingdom would be restored (2 Sam. 15:25‑26, 16:11‑12). We need to be careful not to malign the Lord and to acknowledge, publicly if need be, that God is just and that we deserve all and even more than is happening to us.

3. Don’t run from the difficult people in your life until God gives you the okay. If you’re married to the difficult person, God isn’t giving the okay! But with Jacob, the day came when God told him to leave Laban and return to Canaan. Then it was okay. Before then, Jacob would have been wrong to run. We all tend to run from the difficult people God puts in our lives to shape us. A teenager gets married to escape her difficult parents. Guess what? She marries a difficult husband! Or a teenager is fed up with his parents’ rules, so he joins the army. I’ve never been able to figure out that one! If you’ve got a difficult person in your life, rather than complaining about him and running from him, ask yourself what God is trying to teach you about yourself through this person.

4. Plan to persevere over the long haul. Christianity isn’t a 100-yard dash; it’s a marathon. A lot of people want instant answers to their problems, and when they don’t get them, they bail out and go looking for some other solution. Years ago, I counseled a young mother who was a drug addict. At one point I described for her what a walk with God looks like in daily practice. I asked, “Have you ever done that?” She said, “Yeah, I tried it, but it didn’t work.” I asked her how long she had tried it. She said, “Two weeks.” She wanted easy, instant deliverance. She didn’t like the idea of a lifetime of disciplining herself for the purpose of godliness. When you become a Christian, you’re in for life, so don’t faint when you are reproved by the Lord (Heb. 12:5). Settle in for the long haul.

5. Thank God for the gracious blessings He bestows in spite of your sin. Although God was abundantly gracious in leading and protecting Jacob and in giving him the joy of love for Rachel, there is not one recorded word of gratitude on Jacob’s part (Gen. 47:9). Sure, the discipline hurts, but God only does it because He loves us as a father loves his children. With the discipline, He weaves in ample doses of grace, so that we can enjoy even the hard times.

Dr. John Hanna, one of my seminary professors told of how, when he and his wife were moving to Dallas to attend seminary, their VW caught fire. They were only able to pull to the side of the Interstate and watch helplessly as everything they owned went up in flames. What would you do at that point? He and his wife knelt down by that burned car and sang the doxology!

Instead of complaining because God doesn’t give you what you want, be thankful that He doesn’t give you what you deserve! He lovingly, graciously uses the circumstances of your life, the consequences of sin, and difficult people, over the long haul, “for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:10). It may be boot camp, but it’s a whole lot better than living apart from His gracious promises in Christ!

Discussion Questions

  1. If God uses difficult circumstances, when is it okay to try to change things for the better? Must we always be passive?
  2. Discuss: Does God ever lighten the harvest after we’ve sown to the flesh (Gal. 6:7-8)?
  3. Why is God’s usual method growth through discipline rather than instant deliverance from problems?
  4. How would you answer the charge that God condones polygamy, especially in light of this passage?
  5. Is it wrong to confront the difficult people in our lives? Must obedient Christians just be doormats?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Sanctification, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Single Prepositions With Multiple Objects In Matthew 3:11 And John 3:5: An Exegetical Argument Running Amok?

Related Media

For many New Testament professors teaching Greek, one of the joys of ministry is to show students how the understanding of Greek enhances one’s ability to correctly interpret the New Testament in a way that a study of translations of the Greek text falls short. At the same time one must caution budding Greek scholars not to press the Greek beyond what exegetical information it can yield. The latter seems to be the case with arguments that keep working their way into quality published New Testament literature by experienced scholars relating to the exegetical significance of single prepositions with multiple objects when multiple prepositions could have been used. In short the claim is sometimes made that when a New Testament writer uses one preposition with multiple objects of that preposition which are connected by καί a conceptual unity is so closely made it must refer to one event or act. This argument at least in part traces back to the article by Murray J. Harris in the Appendix of the Dictionary of New Testament Theology (DNTT), which states:

Generally speaking, a preposition tends to be repeated before a series of nouns joined by kai more frequently in biblically Gk. (under Semitic influence) than in nonbiblical Gk. . . . Sometimes therefore, the non-use of a second or third prep. in NT Gk. may be theologically significant, indicating that the writer regarded the terms that he placed in one regimen as belonging naturally together or as a unit in concept or reality. Ex hydatos kai pneumatos (Jn. 3:5) shows that for the writer (or speaker) “water” and “Spirit” together form a single means of that regeneration which is a perquisite for entrance into the kingdom of God (= birth anothen, Jn. 3:3, 7). No contrast is intended between an external element of “water” and an inward renewal achieved by the Spirit. Conceptually the two are one. Similarly the phrase en pneumati hagio kai pyri points not two baptisms (viz., the righteous with the Holy Spirit, the wicked with fire), but to a single baptism in Spirit-and-fire, that may be interpreted either as the messianic purification and judgement that would be effected by the Spirit (cf. Is 4:4; 30:28) and experienced by all, or as the outpouring of the Spirit on believers at Pentecost that would refine and inflame them.1

While the above description has been qualified with statements like generally, tends, sometimes or may, the impression is given that one can and should take this as a valid exegetical argument, and commentators have done just that.2 For example, citing DNTT (and J. Dunn) Carson in commenting on Matthew 3:11 states, “There are good reasons, however, for taking ‘fire’ as a purifying agent along with the Holy Spirit. The people John is addressing are being baptized by him; presumably they have repented. More important [emphasis mine] the single preposition ἐν (“with”) is not repeated before fire: the one preposition governs both the Holy Spirit and fire that this normally suggests a unified concept. Spirit-fire or the like.”3 Likewise, Turner in his commentary on Matthew also cites the single preposition as part of his argument that one baptism is intended instead of two, and that baptism of fire is a “purifying baptism.” He writes, “Although some scholars (e.g., Bruner 1987; 78-79; Luz 1989; 171; Ridderbos 1987:55) see two baptisms here, one in the Spirit indicating salvation and the other in fire indicating judgment, it is preferable to see only one purifying baptism. The grammar of the passage supports this, since the verb ‘will baptize’ occurs once and the preposition ἐν occurs once with ‘Holy Spirit and fire’ as a compound object.”4

In John 3:5 DNTT is cited by Belleville to make the following statement: In v 5, ὕδωρ and πνεῦμα are governed by a single preposition (ἐκ) and conjoined by καὶ, indicating that the phrase is to be viewed as a conceptual unity, viz, “water-spirit.” We are dealing there with a water-spirit source that is the origin of man’s second γένεσις (v. 3).”5 More recently Köstenburger sees John 3:5 as refering to “one spiritual birth” based in part on the same argument. He writes, “Rather than referring to water and spirit baptism, two kinds of birth or a variety of other things, the phrase probably denotes one spiritual birth (Carson 1991:194). This is suggested by the fact that ‘born of water and spirit’ in 3:5 further develops ‘born again/from above’ in 3:3, by the use of one preposition (ἐξ, ex) to govern both phrases in 3:, [italics mine] and by antecedent OT (prophetic) theology.”6

Regardless of one’s position on both of these passages, the one preposition with multiple object argument is seen to be having an influence on interpretation in ruling out certain views and arguing for others. The purpose of this paper then is to question the value of the argument based on linguistic norms and flexibility of both Semitic and Koine syntax, and more importantly New Testament usage itself. In short, it appears the presence of a single preposition with multiple objects as requiring a close conceptual unity that would not be present if two prepositions were used should not be used as an exegetical argument giving much, if any, weight in interpretive decisions in the New Testament7.

Semitic Background

Waltke and O’ Connor’s state that the normative situation in Biblical Hebrew is to repeat a preposition when there are multiple objects But they also say that it is “not rare” for one preposition to govern multiple objects, which they describe as “prepositional override.” 8An example of this is seen in 1 Sam 15:22 (Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices? [note that the preposition ב is not repeated here]):

החפץ ליהוה בעלות וזבחים (1 Sam 15:22)

Waltke and O’ Connor also note that in poetry a preposition may do “double duty” in which one preposition may have an object in one line and carry over to a second object in a second line (clause) without being repeated. An example of this is found in Isaiah 48:14 (he will carry out His good pleasure against Babylon, and His arm [will be against] the Chaldeans [note also here that the preposition ב is not repeated]):9

יעשׂה חפצו בבבל וזרעו כשׂדים (Isaiah 48:14)

The Syriac (e.g., later form of biblical Aramaic) appears to be the same as Hebrew. Nöldeke comments: “The relation of prepositions to what is governed by them is in Syriac, as in Semitic speech generally, that of the Constr. St. to the Genitive. In both cases the governed word must immediately follow the governing; although in both cases short words may by way of exception come between.”10 In other words since the governed word must immediately follow the preposition prepositions normatively are repeated to get the preposition right next to its object.

Examples in LXX as Compared to Hebrew11

Seeing how the LXX rendered some multiple-preposition phrases from Greek to Hebrew sheds a little light that the Greek may have reduced the number of prepositions or just left them in. Two examples will suffice.

Example of LXX Preposition Reduction: Exodus 9:3 behold, the hand of the LORD will come with a very severe pestilence on your livestock which are in the field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the herds, and on the flocks.]

הנה יד־יהוה הויה במקנך אשׁר בשׂדה בסוסים בחמרים בגמלים בבקר  ובצאן דבר כבד מאד׃Exodus 9:3

Exodus 9:3 ἰδοὺ χεὶρ κυρίου ἐπέσται ἐν τοῖς κτήνεσίν σου τοῖς ἐν τοῖς πεδίοις ἔν τε τοῖς ἵπποις καὶ ἐν12 τοῖς ὑποζυγίοις καὶ [Preposition omitted] ταῖς καμήλοις καὶ [Preposition omitted] βουσὶν καὶ [Preposition omitted] προβάτοις θάνατος μέγας σφόδρα

Example of LXX Keeping the Prepositions with Καί: Genesis 40:2 And Pharaoh was furious with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker.

ויקצף פרעה על שׁני סריסיו על שׂר המשׁקים ועל שׂר האופים׃ Genesis 40:2

Genesis 40:2 καὶ ὠργίσθη Φαραω ἐπὶ τοῖς δυσὶν εὐνούχοις αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τῷ ἀρχιοινοχόῳ καὶ ἐπὶ [Preposition kept] τῷ ἀρχισιτοποιῷ

One can also refer to Turner’s analysis below of the LXX in Ezekiel to see how often it has multiple prepositions (84%) versus a single when multiple objects are present. This is the highest percentage of all the literature examined including the New Testament (the next highest is Revelation at 63%). In other words, the LXX uses multiple prepositions far more than the New Testament in spite of the Semitic background of most of the New Testament authors.

Greek Background

Nigel Turner and A.T. Robertson address single prepositions with multiple objects in their advanced grammars.13 Turner is most helpful in describing the situation in biblical and nonbiblical Greek in stating that in both cases repetition and nonrepitition is common. He writes, “Both repetition and omission of the preposition before two or more phrases connected by καί is found in Ptol.pap. and NT.” 14 In nonbiblical Greek, Turner states that Polyb. [Polybius (II-III BC)] is “fond of repeating the preposition” but “by far the greater majority of instances in the Ptol. Papyri, especially in the unofficial style of writing, the preposition is not repeated.”15 Repetition occurs when each word must be emphasized separately. He cites Thucydides’ book one in which out of 25 opportunities to repeat a preposition he does so 6 times for emphasis, which makes the emphasis necessary. He then cites various books in biblical Greek showing how many opportunities the authors had in repeating the preposition and how many times they did. He gives the following chart: 16

Table 1




































Changing the data from Turner into percentages gives a good perspective of on prepositional use tendencies by author and book. One can see that Luke-Acts and Thucydides repeat prepositions much less frequently than other authors, but not that far behind are Matthew, Mark and Paul. Since one highly doubts that Thucydides was influenced by Semitisms even though the sample was small, it does give some perspective of baseline for comparative purposes pointing out what everyone agrees are some measures of Semitic influences in the New Testament.

Table 2


Percentage of Repeated Preposition with καί when opportunity was there



Ezek (B-Text)








Gospel of John


Paul (Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Pastoral Epistles)




Robertson also notes that when nouns are used with the same preposition in the New Testament, prepositions are more frequently repeated than in earlier Greek. He cites Winer’s view (see footnote 1) that the repetition only happens when the two nouns do not easily occur in the same category. But he states that this is only true within limits since there is “more freedom” in the later Greek. In other words sometimes it is true but other times not. He cautions that “one cannot insist on any ironclad rule” as he cites examples of two prepositions with nouns in the same category (e.g., Luke 27:27; e.g., Moses and the Prophets). He gives other examples noting that conjunctive combinations (e.g., καὶ . . . καὶ; τὲ . . . καὶ), disjunctive conjunctions, and rhetorical reasons may also be influencing whether one or two prepositions are used.17

Observations and Analysis

With this background as a starting point, there are several reasons not to take a single preposition with multiple objects as a good exegetical argument for conceptual unity that would not be present if two prepositions would have been used.

1. Since prepositional phrases frequently modify the verb18 and thus are adverbial in function there is always going to be some conceptual unity due to the fact that the same verb is being modified regardless of how many prepositions are used. This verb will have the same subject and direct object if there is one. For example if one says “I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” or “I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”, the subject (I), verb (baptize) and direct object (you) are the same in either case. This produces a conceptual unity on one level whether or not one or two prepositions are used. But can one say with any certainty that the single preposition is putting the both objects (e.g., Holy Spirit and fire) into one category or event while conversely two prepositions would have put them into two categories or events?

2. The very nature of natural repetition of the preposition in Semitic idiom and natural lack of repetition in Greek idiom leaves one wanting whether an author is being more influenced by his Semitic background, translation issues of the Old Testament or speech, other written sources, or just natural Koine Greek. This is the crux of the problem with using single proportions to argue for single events or categories that would not be communicated with multiple prepositions. Yet the proof is in the pudding. One must inductively look at the New Testament itself to see that the NDTT argument cannot hold up with any measure of confidence.

3. There is a clear case in the New Testament where when referring to the same event(s) that a single preposition is used with multiple objects alongside a multiple preposition construction with multiple objects.

In 1 John 5:6 John writes: οὗτός ἐστιν ἐλθὼν δι᾽ ὕδατος καὶ αἵματος, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, οὐκ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι μόνον ἀλλ᾽ ἐν τῷ ὕδατι καὶ ἐν τῷ αἵματι· καὶ τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν τὸ μαρτυροῦν, ὅτι τὸ πνεῦμά ἐστιν ἀλήθεια (This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood). Here the first reference to the one coming in “water and blood” has the single preposition δι᾽but in the second part of the same sentence the water and blood are governed by two prepositions (ἐν). Since water and blood in both cases must refer to the same event(s), a single or double preposition cannot be determinative whether a single event (e.g., the blood and water pouring out of Jesus’ side on the cross) or multiple event (e.g., Jesus’ baptism and his death) are in view. Perhaps one could say that the second case is more emphatic, but this would not change the basic outlook that the same event(s) is in view.

4. There are cases in the New Testament where the same author refers to groups as prepositional objects linked with a single preposition and also refers to the same groups with repeated prepositions.

For example in John7:45 the “chief priests and Pharisees” are linked by a single preposition: Ἦλθον οὖν οἱ ὑπηρέται πρὸς τοὺς ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ Φαρισαίους, καὶ εἶπον αὐτοῖς ἐκεῖνοι· διὰ τί οὐκ ἠγάγετε αὐτόν; (The officers therefore came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?”). However in John 18:3 the same two groups are referred to with multiple prepositions: οὖν Ἰούδας λαβὼν τὴν σπεῖραν καὶ ἐκ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ ἐκ19 τῶν Φαρισαίων ὑπηρέτας ἔρχεται ἐκεῖ μετὰ φανῶν καὶ λαμπάδων καὶ ὅπλων. (John 18:3 Judas then, having received the Roman cohort, and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.) So in John 7:45 the chief priests and Pharisees are linked by the single preposition (πρὸς) while in John 18:3 the same two groups of people are linked by two prepositions (ἐκ) with no discernable difference in meaning of linkage or nonlinkage between the groups.

Also in Luke’s reference to the divisions of the Old Testament, single or multiple prepositions can be used. In Luke 24:27 he writes: καὶ ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ Μωϋσέως καὶ ἀπὸ πάντων20 τῶν προφητῶν διερμήνευσεν αὐτοῖς ἐν πάσαις ταῖς γραφαῖς τὰ περὶ ἑαυτοῦ. Then in Luke 24:27 he writes: Εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς· οὗτοι οἱ λόγοι μου οὓς ἐλάλησα πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἔτι ὢν σὺν ὑμῖν, ὅτι δεῖ πληρωθῆναι πάντα τὰ γεγραμμένα ἐν τῷ νόμῳ Μωϋσέως καὶ τοῖς προφήταις καὶ ψαλμοῖς περὶ ἐμοῦ. (Luke 24:44 BGT).21 Here the Mosiac law and the Prophets can be grouped by Luke with either one preposition or two.

5. A case in the New Testament where the same author refers to linked geographical areas as prepositional objects with a single preposition and also refers to linked areas with repeated prepositions.

In Matthew 2:16, for example, Matthew writes: Τότε Ἡρῴδης ἰδὼν ὅτι ἐνεπαίχθη ὑπὸ τῶν μάγων ἐθυμώθη λίαν, καὶ ἀποστείλας ἀνεῖλεν πάντας τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς ἐν Βηθλέεμ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ὁρίοις αὐτῆς ἀπὸ διετοῦς καὶ κατωτέρω, κατὰ τὸν χρόνον ὃν ἠκρίβωσεν παρὰ τῶν μάγων. . . while in Matthew 4:13 he writes: καὶ καταλιπὼν τὴν Ναζαρὰ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ τὴν παραθαλασσίαν ἐν ὁρίοις Ζαβουλὼν καὶ Νεφθαλίμ· In these examples both two prepositions and one preposition are used to describe geographical areas that could be considered linked by the proximity to each other. It would be difficult to say that Zebulun and Naptali have a special conceptual unity because of the single preposition while Bethlehem and its regions do not due to the use of two prepositions. One wonders if the πᾶσι may be influencing the use of the second preposition in Matthew 2:16.

6. Cases in the New Testament where the same author refers to distinct cities as prepositional objects with a single preposition and also refers to distinct cities with repeated prepositions.

Luke in Acts 14: 19-21 writes concerning distinct cities 19 Ἐπῆλθαν δὲ ἀπὸ Ἀντιοχείας καὶ Ἰκονίου Ἰουδαῖοι καὶ πείσαντες τοὺς ὄχλους καὶ λιθάσαντες τὸν Παῦλον ἔσυρον ἔξω τῆς πόλεως νομίζοντες αὐτὸν τεθνηκέναι. . . . 21 εὐαγγελισάμενοί τε τὴν πόλιν ἐκείνην καὶ μαθητεύσαντες ἱκανοὺς ὑπέστρεψαν εἰς τὴν Λύστραν καὶ εἰς Ἰκόνιον καὶ εἰς Ἀντιόχειαν. In these examples and one preposition is used in ἀπὸ Ἀντιοχείας καὶ Ἰκονίου, while multiple prepositions are used in εἰς τὴν Λύστραν καὶ εἰς Ἰκόνιον καὶ εἰς Ἀντιόχειαν. In the first case, Jews are coming from Antioch and Iconuim; in the second statement, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Later, in Acts 16:1, Paul came to Derbe and to Lystra described with two prepositions: Κατήντησεν δὲ [καὶ]22 εἰς Δέρβην καὶ εἰς Λύστραν. καὶ ἰδοὺ μαθητής τις ἦν ἐκεῖ ὀνόματι Τιμόθεος, υἱὸς γυναικὸς Ἰουδαίας πιστῆς, πατρὸς δὲ Ἕλληνος).

7. A case in the New Testament where the two synoptic authors in a parallel account refer to the event with prepositional objects one governed with a single preposition but the other with repeated prepositions.

In Matthew 4:25, Matthew uses one preposition (ἀπὸ) to govern a long list of areas from which people are following Jesus (καὶ ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ ὄχλοι πολλοὶ ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ Δεκαπόλεως καὶ Ἱεροσολύμων καὶ Ἰουδαίας καὶ πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου. And great multitudes followed Him from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.)23 In the parallel passage in Mark 3:7-8, Mark uses multiple prepositions (ἀπὸ is used four times.) ( καὶ πολὺ πλῆθος ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας [ἠκολούθησεν], καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰουδαίας 8 καὶ ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰδουμαίας καὶ πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου καὶ περὶ Τύρον καὶ Σιδῶνα; and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and also from Judea, and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and beyond the Jordan, and the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon.)

8. Lastly, there are Trinitarian references to the Father and Son with both single and multiple preposition constructions by different authors. Paul consistently uses one preposition in his saluations, while John can be seen to use two prepositions in his writings. NDTT and Mounce try to make a theological point on Paul’s use of the single preposition in these contructions. 24

A good example in Paul can be seen in Rom 1:7 where Paul writes: χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. (Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ; cf 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2 Gal 1:1, 3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philem 3.)

However, John in 2 John 3 in the salutation uses two prepositions: χάρις ἔλεος εἰρήνη παρὰ θεοῦ πατρὸς καὶ παρὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν ἀληθείᾳ καὶ ἀγάπῃ. (Grace, mercy and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. John also uses two prepositions referring to the Father and Son in 1 John 1:3 (καὶ κοινωνία δὲ ἡμετέρα μετὰ τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ μετὰ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ) and 1 John 2:24 (καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐν τῷ υἱῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ μενεῖτε; you also will abide in the Son and in the Father). In spite of two prepositions in these constructions, John through other explicit statements sees a strong unity between the Father and Son (e.g., “I and the Father are one” [John 10:30] or, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father ‘?” [John 14:9]).


While not an exhaustive study, these examples should give one pause in assigning exegetical linkage or distinction when interpreting objects of prepositions based on single or multiple preposition constructions. Anyone who has seriously tried to translate the Old Testament into English has felt the tension between being faithful to the Hebrew or Aramaic text and the very unnatural English expression that can be created by strings of multiple prepositions. The decision to leave them all or omit some is usually due to translation philosophy and how much the natural English is strained. When omission is done it is not to create a special conceptual unity to communicate the same event or category but to express a concept in natural idiom. Even if a translator or author would have a native Semitic background he would probably want to the best of his ability get the text into natural form of the receptor language whatever it was. It is hoped that the raising of this red flag would spur further research and discussion to better understand how prepositions are used in the New Testament and what they do or do not communicate. As A.T. Robertson cautioned, freedom rather than rule seems to govern this aspect of Greek syntax.

1 Murray J. Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (4 vols.; Ed. Colin Brown; Zondervan Grand Rapids, 1986) 3: 1178. In Harris’ more recent work on Greek prepositions, he makes the same points. Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 43-44. There is a similar statement with more examples in the older grammar by Winer-Lünemann. It states there “When two or more substantives dependent on the same preposition immediately follow one another joined together by a copula, the preposition is most naturally repeated, if the substantives in question denote things which are to be conceived as distinct and independent, . . . but not repeated, if the substantives fall under a single category, or (if proper names under one common class.” George Winer and , A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament (Revised by G. Lünemann and Edited by J. Henry Thayer; Warren Draper Publishers , Andover, 1869) 419-420.

2 In Harris’ in another place writes, “The repetition of a preposition with each noun connected by καί occurs so frequently in certain NT books as to be a feature of Biblical Greek attributable to Semitic influence. Of course in itself a repeated preposition need not betray Semitic practice, for any Greek writer may repeat a preposition with several substantives in one regimen in order to highlight the distinction between them.” Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament, 37.

3 D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositors Bible Commentary (Ed. Frank E Gaebelein; 12 vols.; Zondervan, Grand Rapids) 8:105. I note that in verse 12 Carson interprets the wheat and chaff as believers and unbelievers respectively with the fire and verse 12 referring to hell. While many English translations start a new sentence at verse 12 the Greek text starts with a relative pronoun which has to be attached grammatically to the previous clause αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί·12 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ καὶ συνάξει τὸν σῖτον αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ (Matt 3:11-12).

4 Turner then goes back and forth between one baptism with two aspects or a hendiadys in which the two objects communicate a single meaning, listing OT texts that associate the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit with cleansing water and refining fire. He summarizes, “So it is best to conclude that the one eschatological outpouring of the Spirit through which Jesus will purify and judge.” This he says is pictured with the following illustration of wheat and chaff. I would note that Turner’s full discussion is a little confusing and inconsistent if one keeps reading the commentary on the wheat and chaff analogy, which he appears to take as believers (wheat) and unbelievers (chaff). Is the baptism of fire a purifying judgment of believers or a judgment of unbelievers in hell? David Turner, Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker, Grand Rapids 2008) 115-116.

5 Linda Bellevile, “Born of Water and Spirit:” John 3:5, Trinity Journal 1 (Fall 1980) 135. Carson citing Belleville concurs that the single preposition in John 3:5 favors the single birth view. D. A. Carson. Exegetical Fallacies (2nd ed.; Baker, Grand Rapids, 1996) 42.

6 Andreas J. Köstenburger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Baker, Grand Rapids 2008) 123-124.

7 Harris does give the caution that one must make allowance for an author’s stylistic variation. He writes, “the exegete should not assume . . . . that the use or nonuse of the preposition in successive phrases or parallel passages always marks a change of meaning. A writer may merely wish to avoid repetition or vary his style.” Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament, 40.

8 Van der Merve, Naude and Kroeze, essentially says the same thing using the same examples of Waltke and O Conner. Christo H.J. van der Merwe, Jackie A. Naude, and Jan H. Kroeze, A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, 2000) 240.

9 Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’ Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake Indiana, 1990) 222-223. For numerous examples on the extending of the one preposition to a second object in poetic parallelism see also F. H. W. Gesenius, Gesenius Hebrew Grammar. (Ed E. Kautzsch; Trans. A.E. Cowley; Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988) 384. Joüon adds, “In a case of enumeration, when several nouns are logically governed by a preposition, this preposition is often repeated.” Paul Joüon, S.J. and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew Part Three Syntax (Editrice Ponificio Istituto Biblioco, Rome, 1993) 484.

10 Theodore Nöldeke, Compendious Syriac Grammar (trans. James A. Crichton; Williams & Norgate, London, 1904) 191.

11 These examples were given by Joüon.

12 The τε και combination may be the reason this preposition is kept in Greek and not omitted as the following ones are.

13 Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek – Syntax (Ed. James Hope Moulton; 4 vols.; T and T Clark. Edinburgh, 1963) 3: 275. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Broadman Press, Nashville, 1934) 566.

14 Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek – Syntax, 275.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 566.

18 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 356.

19 The Byzantine manuscripts omit this preposition.

20 Perhaps the word πάντων is influencing Luke to add the second preposition here to make it a little more emphatic.

21Acts 28:23 Ταξάμενοι δὲ αὐτῷ ἡμέραν ἦλθον πρὸς αὐτὸν εἰς τὴν ξενίαν πλείονες οἷς ἐξετίθετο διαμαρτυρόμενος τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ, πείθων τε αὐτοὺς περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἀπό τε τοῦ νόμου Μωϋσέως καὶ τῶν προφητῶν, ἀπὸ πρωῒ ἕως ἑσπέρας. (Acts 28:23 BGT) In this example the use of the τε . . και combination still does not lead Luke to add the second preposition.

22 Good support for the omission of the καί comes from a few good representatives of the Alexandrian text type (a, apparently P74) and most of the Western (D, latt) and Byzantine textual traditions. Support for the text comes from other representatives of the Alexandrian textual tradition (P45, B). Internally in support of the critical text it could be an accidental omission or in support of the variant an intentional addition influenced by the double preposition in some of the Alexandrian manuscripts (e.g., a double καί construction [both . . . and]). But in any case, two prepositions are used.

23 Turner also cites this passage to show how far the stretch of a single preposition can extend into multiple objects. Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek – Syntax, 275.

24 NIDNTT states on Paul’s salutation, “The fact that ‘God our Father’ and ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ are joined together under the bond of a single prep. (apo) in all Pauline salutations (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:3) suggests that the apostle envisaged the Father and the Son as a joint source of ‘grace and people,’ rather than as distinct sources or as a source and channel (respectively). They sustain a single relation (not two diverse relations) to the grace and peace that come to believers.” Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3: 1178. Also in his first year Greek Grammar Workbook commenting on a similar construction in Galatians 1:3-4, Mounce writes, “Notice that ἀπὸ is not repeated before κυρίου. This is exegetically significant and present in Paul’s salutations. If Paul had thought of “God” and the “Lord” as two different entities, he would have had to repeat the preposition. The fact that he doesn’t shows that he views both as the same entity. It is probably pushing the grammar too far to say that Paul equates Jesus with God, but it does show that Paul views them working in absolute harmony with each other, both being a single agent of grace and peace to the Galatians.” William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Workbook (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2009) 148.

Related Topics: Grammar, Hermeneutics, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Scripture Twisting