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Lesson 34: The God Who Sees (Genesis 16:7-16)

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Dr. James Boice tells a poignant story about an incident from his childhood. In the closing days of World War II, when Boice was seven, his father was in the Air Force, stationed in Louisiana, with the family. Many servicemen were being discharged, but since there was the risk that discharge orders could be canceled if a man didn’t leave immediately after receiving them, Boice’s family had begun to pack.

When the orders came, school was in session, so James was told that the family would leave as soon as he got home that afternoon. He was so excited he could hardly wait. He jumped off the school bus, ran up the steps to his house, and found that the door was locked. Surprised and a bit subdued, he ran around to the back door and found that it was locked too. At last he found a window he knew would be unlocked, pried it open and crawled through. To his shock, the room was empty. So was the entire house. As this seven-year-old boy made his way slowly from room to room, he got the sinking sensation that in the rush of packing and leaving quickly before the orders were canceled, his family had forgotten and left him behind. Actually his parents had gone off on a last minute errand and were waiting outside in the car for him to come home from school while he was inside wandering through the empty house. But it was a sad little boy they saw backing out of the window after his tour of the abandoned house. (Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 1:295-296.)

It’s terrible to feel abandoned by your parents. It’s also tough to feel abandoned by God. Most of us have felt that way at one time or another. Maybe things were going well and suddenly the bottom dropped out of your life. In the confusion of the events, you wondered, “Where is God in all this?”

That’s how Hagar must have felt when she fled from Sarai. Things had seemed to look up for a brief moment. Her lowly status as a servant had changed when Abram, according to the custom of the day, had taken her to produce a child on behalf of the barren Sarai. But when Hagar became pregnant, she communicated an air of superiority toward Sarai, who then mistreated her. Finally, things got so bad that Hagar took off in the direction of her homeland, out through the desert. It was a dangerous thing for a woman to do. She could have been abused or taken captive by nomadic traders. Being pregnant, she could have lost her baby from the rigors of traveling in that rugged terrain. Having had to escape, probably in the night, she would have had few supplies. But somehow she made it to a spring of water in the desert and sat down exhausted.

Hagar knew about Abram’s God, the living and true God. She must have wondered if that God knew or cared about her situation. No doubt she was confused. What could a pregnant, single woman do, even if she reached her homeland? If she had family there, they would have been too poor to help her. Her future was uncertain, her past too painful to think about. She felt abandoned by everyone on earth and forgotten by God in heaven.

It’s in that context that we read, “Now the angel of the Lord found her” (16:7). What a beautiful picture of our compassionate God, who is concerned even for this poor, confused servant girl! The angel tells her what to do and then promises that he will multiply her descendants through the child she is carrying. Hagar, encouraged and awed by this experience, gives a new name to God--”El Roi,” “the God who sees.” She then returns to Abram and Sarai and Ishmael is born.

There are two dominant themes in these verses: First, God sees Hagar (16:7-12); and second, Hagar sees God (16:13-16). God saw Hagar’s affliction; as a result, Hagar saw God’s mercy and submitted to Him. Applying it to us, we can put it:

Because God sees our affliction, we can see His mercy and submit to Him.

This story is encouraging if you are suffering and feel that God has abandoned you. He has not forgotten; He sees your affliction. Because He sees, you can see His mercy, and submit to Him.

1. God sees our affliction (16:7-12).

God saw Hagar’s affliction: “The angel of the Lord found her ....” Isn’t that great! The Good Shepherd went looking for her. God is a seeking God! We may think that we found Him, but the reality is, He found us. We were lost and confused, wandering away from Him. He came looking and found us! If you know Christ as Savior, you realize that you didn’t think, “I need a little help in my life. I’ll decide to let Jesus be my Savior.” The Son of Man did not come to seek and to save those who needed a little help. He came to seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10)! It is our sinful pride that keeps us from seeing our true condition: We are lost! We must own up to that fact. But the good news is, no one, not even a lowly Egyptian servant girl, is too lost in God’s sight. The angel of the Lord found Hagar!

Who is this angel of the Lord? There is debate among scholars, but I believe that it is the Lord Jesus Christ in a preincarnate appearance. In verse 13 it is stated that it was the Lord who spoke to Hagar. (See also, Gen. 18:1-2, 17, 22, 27, 33, 19:1; 22:11-12; 24:7; 31:11, 13; 48:15-16.) So Hagar was found by and was speaking to the Lord Jesus Christ!

Hagar could flee from the presence of Sarai, but she couldn’t flee from the presence of the Lord. You can try to run from difficult circumstances, but you can’t hide from the God who put you there. Notice the irony of verse 8: The Lord knows Hagar’s name and her station in life, yet He asks her where she has come from and where she is going. Wherever in the Bible you find God asking a question, you can assume that He is not looking for information. He wants the person to think about the situation. The Lord wanted Hagar to think about two things: Where have you come from? and, Where are you going? She had come from being Sarai’s maid. As such, she was not free to flee from her duty. Where was she going? She really didn’t know. But, clearly, she wasn’t seeking after the Lord and His will.

Those are good questions to ask yourself when you’re in a difficult situation: Where have you come from? Did God allow that trial for some reason? Where are you going? Did you seek His permission to run? Our real need in a bad situation is not to escape, but to seek and to submit to the Lord. The Lord has some bad news and some good news for Hagar, and for us, at such times. First, the bad news: Hagar needed to go back and submit to Sarai. The good news: then God would bless her.

A. The “bad” news: our need in affliction is to submit to God.

We don’t like to hear that. We sputter, “But, Lord, don’t you know how I’ve been mistreated? Don’t you know how bad it is? Give me the blessing first, then I’ll submit.” But God’s way is, submit first; then He blesses. Obedience always comes before blessing.

Submit is a dirty word in our day. We Americans have a history of not submitting to anyone who oppresses us. Our country was founded because the settlers said, “The king can’t do that to us! We’ll revolt!” If we’re treated unfairly or harshly, we stand up for our rights. The very word, “submit,” makes us mad. We don’t like it.

But the Lord, who made us and who knows our real need, says, “Your number one need in a time of trial is to learn to submit to Me. And you don’t learn to submit to Me by running from the situation.” Ouch! Can’t you feel yourself wanting to fight? Don’t you want to cry out, “But, God, You don’t understand!”? But He does understand. He says to Hagar, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.”

The book of First Peter is about submission to authority in a time of trial. The Christians to whom Peter wrote were suffering, some as slaves under harsh masters, some as wives under disobedient husbands, all as citizens under an unjust government. Peter’s word to each group of victims was, “Submit” (1 Pet. 2:13, 18; 3:1). He sums it up, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6-7). Your number one need in a time of trial is to submit to God--humble yourself under His mighty hand. He is in control of the circumstances. He cares for you; don’t doubt His love. There are lessons which our rebellious nature cannot learn except by submitting to God in trials, even when we’re being treated wrongly or unfairly.

Some people never grow in the Lord because they have a habit of running from difficult situations where He has put them for their training. They had problems with their parents as teenagers, so they rebelled. They get a job and have problems, so they quit. They get married and have conflict, so they walk away from it. They seek counseling, but they don’t like what the counselor tells them, so they either quit or else look for a counselor who agrees with them. They join a church, but can’t get along with the people or don’t like something, so they find another church. But guess what? They discover that the new church has the same problems.

At some point they need to realize that they’re carrying their own baggage with them. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The problem is, they’ve never learned to submit to God and to allow Him to use the authority structures He has ordained to sandpaper off their rough edges. God sees our need in our affliction: To submit to Him in the difficult situations where He has sovereignly placed us.

While that’s a difficult word, it’s also a merciful word. As I said, Hagar may have suffered greatly or even perished if she had continued her flight into the wilderness. God often mercifully checks us in our disobedience to prevent us from even greater damage. The way of obedience is hard, but the way of disobedience is even more difficult. It was better for Hagar to be associated with Abram and Sarai, even with Sarai’s harshness, than with her native Egyptians, who worshiped false gods. It’s better for you to be in a local church, with all the imperfect people and their faults, than to be in the world, where God is not known.

Some of you may be in trying situations right now, but you haven’t submitted to God. Maybe your pattern has been to run from one difficult situation to the next, always blaming others or complaining about bad luck, but never humbling yourself under God’s mighty hand. You won’t know His blessing until submit to Him in whatever circumstances He has placed you. It’s hard news, but it’s not really bad.

B. The good news: When we submit to God in our affliction, He will bless us and our descendants.

The Lord says that He heard Hagar’s affliction, not her prayer (16:11). Whether Hagar was calling out to the Lord or not, we don’t know. But the Lord graciously hears our affliction, even when we fail to call out to Him as we should. But He not only hears and sees our affliction, He sees the future after our affliction is over. The Lord goes on to tell Hagar how He will greatly multiply her descendants. Concerning the son in her womb, the Lord tells her to name him Ishmael, which means “God hears,” because the Lord heard her affliction. Every time she called her son’s name, Hagar would be reminded of God’s faithfulness, that He had heard her affliction.

God reveals that Ishmael will be a wild donkey of a man, meaning, a strong, independent, untamed man. He will be a fighter, whose hand will be against everyone. In the last line of verse 12, the word means both “to the east of” and “over against.” Both were true; Ishmael’s Arab descendants both lived to the east of and were over against (in opposition to) Isaac’s descendants. There is a divine mystery here: God sovereignly chose Isaac and his line through Jacob while He set Ishmael and his descendants against His chosen people. And yet Ishmael and his race were responsible for their sin and rebellion against God. All we can say is, “How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33). But it was enough for Hagar to know that her son would not, like her, be enslaved, and that he would prosper. Thus it was a word of hope to her.

There’s an application here for us: God allows U-turns in the desert! Even though we’ve run from God, if we will turn around and submit to Him in our trials, His blessing will be on us and our descendants. We can be assured that He will work out His sovereign plan for us and for our children if we will make a U-turn and submit to Him.

So the first great theme in these verses is that God saw Hagar. But Hagar also saw God. When she realized that God had seen her, she responded by acknowledging that she had seen God and she named both the Lord and the spring after her experience. Then she returned to Abram and Sarai in submission to the Lord. Even so, when we realize that God sees us in our affliction, we will gain a fresh glimpse of God.

2. We see God in His mercy and submit to Him (16:13-16).

Hagar wouldn’t have seen the Lord if it hadn’t been for her trial. God often uses trials to open us up to some fresh vision of Him which we would have missed if we hadn’t been in the difficult situation. “Hagar called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God who sees’” (16:13). God sees! Not only does God see, but even better, God sees me, and in spite of my confusion and rebellion, He lets me get a glimpse of Him!

Scholars disagree about how to interpret the Hebrew of the last sentence of verse 13. It literally reads, “I have seen here after the One who saw me.” The expression is almost identical to Exodus 33:23, where God tells Moses that he will see His back, but not His face, for no one can see His face and live. So the meaning may be, “I have caught a glimpse of God.” But since there is the motif in the Old Testament that no one can see God and live, because His glory and holiness are too awesome, some understand Hagar to be marveling that she has actually seen God and is still alive. (The NASB takes this interpretation.) The well was called “Beer-la-hai-roi,” which means either, “the well of the Living One who sees me,” or, as the scholarly C. F. Keil argues, “the well of the seeing alive,” since Hagar saw God and remained alive. The idea is, Hagar saw the God who saw her need and was merciful to her in spite of her sin. In our trials, ...

A. We see God who is merciful in spite of our sin.

When God meets you in a time of trial, as He did with Hagar, and you see Him, your first thought is, “Oh, God, how can You be so merciful to me, a sinner? I’m in this mess because of my own rebellion and sin, and yet You didn’t strike me down or let me go. You directed me in the way I need to go and promised me Your blessing if I will do it. Thank You, Lord!” You gain a fresh glimpse of the mercy of God.

When that happens, it becomes a source of testimony to others. They named the well with this unusual name, Beer-la-hai-roi: “The well of the Living One who sees me,” or, “the well of the seeing alive.” When travelers asked, “How did this place ever get this name?” the story would be told again, how God met Hagar there in her time of need, told her what to do and promised His blessing. In the same way, when God has met you in your trial and you’ve seen Him in a fresh way, use it to tell others of His great mercy.

B. God’s mercy moves us to submit to Him.

“The kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). Hagar submitted to God by returning to Abram and Sarai. Submission is the proper response when we see God and His mercy toward us in Christ. The text says that Abram (not Hagar) called the name of his son Ishmael. That means that Hagar told Abram of her meeting with God and of God’s command to name the boy “God hears.” That was a gentle rebuke to Abram, who had taken Hagar as his wife because he was beginning to wonder if God did, in fact, hear. He was trying to help God out.

But in our affliction, when it seems that God has forgotten us and that He isn’t hearing our prayers, we need to learn to submit to Him, not resort to our human schemes. We need to go back and put ourselves under the authority structures God has ordained for our benefit. If you’re a teenager, you need to submit to your parents. If you’re married, you need to commit yourself to your partner, in spite of the difficulties. If you’re hopping from church to church, disgruntled with each one because of the impossible people who have wronged you, you need to commit yourself to a church where Christ is honored and His Word is preached. Stick it out and work through the problems in a spirit of submission to the leadership God has placed in that church, even though they aren’t perfect. As one wag said, “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll spoil it!”


Dr. James Dobson tells of a time when he watched his daughter’s pet hamster trying to gnaw its way out of its cage to what, no doubt, looked to the hamster like freedom. But Dobson saw what the hamster did not: the family’s pet dog, watching expectantly from a few feet away. If the hamster had worked its way free, it would have met sudden death. The cage was really its protection and blessing.

We’re often like that pet hamster. We try to break free from some confinement or trial that God has put us in, thinking that then we could really live. But God sees that our real need is to submit to Him in the trial. We need to realize that even as God saw Hagar, He sees us. He especially sees our affliction. If in our trials we will look, like Hagar, we will see God in His mercy toward us. Our response will be to submit ourselves to His loving purpose. The French writer, Paul Claudel, wrote, “Christ did not come to do away with suffering; He did not come to explain it; He came to fill it with His presence.” I pray that if you’re suffering, you’ll see the God who sees you.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is every trial from God or can trials come from Satan? Does it make any difference with regard to our response?
  2. Is it always God’s will for a Christian in a difficult trial to submit? Does submission mean not seeking a way out? When can we rightly seek a way out (e.g., of a difficult job)?
  3. Is it ever right for Christians to stand up for their rights, to rebel against their government, or to fight for the abolition of unjust social institutions, such as slavery? When? How?
  4. Is God endorsing slavery by making Hagar go back and submit to Sarai? Was God being unfair to her?

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, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 35: Why We Do Not Baptize Infants (Genesis 17 and other Scriptures)

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Since in our study of Genesis we have come to chapter 17, which is one of the main Old Testament Scriptures used in the argument for infant baptism, and since we have people who attend our church from many denominational backgrounds, and since we are having a baptism today, I thought it would be helpful to explain why we do not baptize infants, but rather baptize by immersion only those making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Few subjects arouse more controversy among Christians than that of baptism. The Quakers do not practice it at all. Lutherans, Episcopalians, Orthodox Churches, and the Roman Catholic Church officially hold that baptism is the direct means of regeneration (the new birth). Since those churches baptize infants, they believe that those babies are being saved through their baptisms. For example, in a pamphlet titled, “Why Baptize Children?” Lutheran theologian John Theodore Mueller writes, “... Holy Baptism is the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, by which the new birth is wrought” (pp. 10-11, Concordia Publishing House). Presbyterians baptize infants, but most of them stop short of saying that baptized babies are saved. They view it as introducing the children into the covenant community and as serving as the sign and seal of the new birth, which it is hoped the child will enter in the future as he grows up in that community.

I’ll say at the outset that many of my favorite theologians held to infant baptism. They were all men whose scholarship and godliness far exceed my own. I find myself agreeing with much, for example, that John Calvin writes about the meaning and significance of baptism (Institutes, IV:XV & XVI). But when he applies it to infants, I think he is utterly inconsistent with himself and with Scripture. While I strongly disagree with infant baptism, I think we must be gracious and agree to disagree with those who hold that view. But if anyone teaches that the new birth is conveyed through water baptism, whether with infants or adults, he is teaching serious heresy on that crucial point of doctrine. The Scripture is clear that the new birth comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone (John 3:1-16).

First I want to set forth fairly the arguments in favor of infant baptism; then I want to present why we do not baptize infants and show what Scripture teaches about the meaning of baptism. It is Scripture and not church tradition which is our authority on this important matter.

Why some churches baptize infants:

The main argument for infant baptism is the connection between circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New, especially as seen in the context of the covenant community. This is sometimes buttressed with the example of Noah, whose entire family entered the ark and was thus saved from the flood. First Peter 3:20-21 connects Noah’s flood with baptism. Also, in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, Paul states that all Israel was baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. Since this included the children, it is argued that they are proper subjects of baptism. But the main argument is the continuity between circumcision in the covenant community under the old covenant and baptism with us, who are under the new covenant.

In Genesis 17:7 God makes it clear to Abraham that He is establishing His covenant both with him and with his descendants (“seed”) after him as an everlasting covenant. In verse 12, the Lord stipulates that every male eight days old must be circumcised. An uncircumcised male must be cut off from his people because he has broken God’s covenant (17:14). Thus the sign of the covenant was commanded to be administered to infants. In Abraham’s case, he had already believed in God when the sign was performed; but in Isaac’s case, it was done before he was old enough to believe in God’s promise, with a view to his believing later.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul states (Col. 2:11-12), “And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Thus he connects circumcision with baptism, and so, it is argued, establishes that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant.

Also, it is argued, the household baptisms recorded in the New Testament (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16) surely included infants. In 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul refers to the children as “holy” or “sanctified” in a marriage where one partner is a believer, which is taken to mean that they are a part of God’s covenant people, presumably through baptism. The church fathers of the second and third centuries argued for infant baptism as an apostolic tradition. Since it is primarily a covenant sign and not a sign of faith on the part of the one receiving it, it is argued that we should baptize our infants into the community of faith where they will be exposed to the other means of grace. These are the main arguments for infant baptism as fairly as I can state them in the time allotted to me.

Why we do not baptize infants:

We do not baptize infants because baptism is a public confession of faith in obedience to Christ.

The clear teaching of Scripture is that all who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord should be baptized in obedience to Him. The New Testament order is always: The preaching of the gospel; faith in the gospel; then, baptism. Never once is there an example of baptism preceding faith as the norm to be followed. And there are no examples or commands concerning the baptism of the infants or yet unbelieving children of believing parents. Consider the following verses from Acts, noting the order of belief first, then baptism:

2:41: ... those who had received his word were baptized; ...

8:12: But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.

8:36-38: And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him.

While verse 37 [in brackets] lacks strong textual support in the earliest Greek manuscripts, its insertion in later manuscripts shows what the church held to be the necessary qualification for baptism.

10:44, 46b, 47, 48a: While Peter was still speaking these words [the gospel], the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.... Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

16:30-34: [The Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas] “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household. And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

If any children were baptized that night, the text is clear that they had believed. There is not a shred of support for infant baptism here.

18:8: And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with his whole household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.

Thus the abundant testimony of the New Testament is that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ precedes baptism.

What about the argument that infant baptism is the sign of the New Covenant, just as circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (based on Col. 2:11-12)? While there are some parallels between the two signs, there are many differences. The sign of circumcision was administered to the male, physical descendants of Abraham in obedience to the specific command of God. But the New Testament is clear that it is not the physical seed of Abraham who are saved, but the spiritual seed (Rom. 4:16; 9:8; Gal. 3:7). There simply is no command to administer baptism to the physical seed of Christians, male or female. If baptism is the fulfillment of circumcision, then just as circumcision was administered to the physical descendants of Abraham in the age of type, so baptism ought to be administered to the spiritual descendants of Abraham in the age of fulfillment, namely, to believers. But Jesus made it clear that the sign of the New Covenant is the Lord’s Supper, not baptism (“This cup is the new covenant in My blood ...” (1 Cor. 11:25).

Also, note that in Colossians 2 Paul is talking about believer’s baptism. He specifically states that baptism pictures being raised up from spiritual death through faith in the working of God. The parallel between baptism and circumcision concerns the picture of dying to the flesh or old life so that we can live holy lives in Christ. Paul is taking the spiritual meaning of circumcision and applying it spiritually to believers, not physically to the baptism of believers’ children.

In 1 Peter 3:20-21, Peter makes it clear that he is not referring to the physical act of baptism, but to what it symbolizes, namely, appealing to God for a good conscience, which infants who are baptized are not doing! In 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, Paul is applying the experiences of Israel spiritually to the church. Just as not all who came through the “baptism” of the Red Sea were right with God in their hearts, as evidenced by their unbelief and immorality, so not all who profess faith in Christ through baptism are necessarily regenerate. If the Corinthians think that they can claim that their profession of faith in baptism made them right with God, but continue in their ungodly living, they are greatly deceived. The text does not support infant baptism in any way; it’s just not there.

Beyond this, we can argue that infant baptism is potentially detrimental. If an adult mistakenly assumes (as it would be most easy to do if brought up under this teaching) that because he was baptized as an infant, he possesses salvation and is a member of Christ’s church, then he is sadly deceived on the most important issue of all, eternal salvation! There is no grace imparted in the physical act of baptism, apart from the faith of the one being baptized. To count on one’s baptism, whether as an infant or an adult, as the basis for standing before God is to trust in a false hope. Only personal faith in the crucified and risen Savior saves a person from sin and hell. And to baptize an infant is to rob the person of a very meaningful spiritual experience, namely, the public confession of Christ in obedience to His command after one has come to saving faith.

The meaning of baptism:

Baptism is a public confession of faith in Christ, done in obedience to His command, and as such is a picture of what salvation means. Baptism is important because Christ commanded it as a part of the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). If we neglect baptism, we’re disobeying our Lord. Since true faith always expresses itself in obedience, those who have believed in Christ and have been properly instructed about baptism will obey Christ by being baptized.

1) Baptism is the place where a believer publicly confesses Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and identifies with Christ and His church. In talking of our need to follow Him, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.... For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34, 38). Going forward or walking the aisle is not the biblical way to initially confess Christ publicly; that came into the church through a man of questionable theology and methodology, namely, Charles Finney. Baptism is the biblical way to confess faith in Christ.

The word “baptism” is a transliteration of the Greek word, baptisma, and some related words which have the meaning of dipping or immersing. Since the immersed object became totally identified with the substance in which it was placed, the idea of identification is central to the meaning of baptism. Jesus’ baptism by John publicly identified Him who was sinless with sinners in anticipation of His death and resurrection as their sin-bearer. For us baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection; our identification with Christ’s church; and, our cleansing from sin.

2) Baptism symbolizes total identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6:3-4: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Technically, we were “baptized into Christ” through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is the work whereby the Holy Spirit places a person “in Christ” at the moment of salvation. So what Paul refers to in Romans 6 is not water baptism itself, but what it pictures, namely, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. At the instant we believed, we became totally identified with Christ. His death became our death, His burial our burial, His resurrection our resurrection. Going under the water symbolizes death to our old way of life; coming up out of the water pictures the beginning of a new life, lived unto God, in Christ’s resurrection power (see also, Col. 2:11-12).

3) Baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ’s church. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul states, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” The main reference here, as in Romans 6, is to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, when He places the believer in Christ at the moment of salvation. We become members of His body, the church. Water baptism symbolizes our identification with the church which took place spiritually at the moment of salvation. In the act of baptism, a person publicly identifies himself with other Christians. He is saying, “Now I’m one of them.”

In our culture, with religious tolerance, water baptism isn’t too threatening. But in countries where Christians are persecuted, baptism separates the true believers from the phonies. You open yourself to persecution by being baptized. But even if we don’t risk persecution, baptism should represent that sort of bold, public identification with the church.

4) Baptism symbolizes cleansing from sin. This is the point of 1 Peter 3:18-21 plus several other Scriptures. Cleansing is obviously a main symbol of water. But it is not immersion in water (or sprinkling, pouring) that cleanses the heart. Peter makes that very clear. Water can only remove dirt from the flesh. It is the blood of Christ which removes the filth from our hearts, because apart from the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22).

Because baptism is done with water, and water symbolizes cleansing, it is often mentioned in close connection with salvation. In Titus 3:5, Paul refers to God’s saving us “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” But in the immediately preceding words he says that God saved us “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness.” The act of baptism cannot save anyone.

The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that salvation is by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). Both Romans and Galatians deal extensively with the theme that we are justified (declared righteous by God) through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any works of righteousness. Many Scriptures affirm what Jesus stated, “... he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24). He told the dying thief on the cross, who called out to Him in faith, that he would be with Him that very day in Paradise (Luke 23:39-43). Obviously, the man was not baptized.

At the same time, Scripture is clear that genuine saving faith results in obedience (Eph. 2:10; 2 Thess. 1:8, “obey the gospel”). Thus every true believer who is properly taught and who has opportunity will be baptized in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. But baptism is the result of salvation, not the means to it.

Immersion, sprinkling, and pouring are three common modes. Some who practice immersion do it three times forward (once for each person of the trinity). I don’t believe that the mode of baptism should be an issue worth dividing over.

But immersion is the meaning of the Greek word; it best represents the biblical truths symbolized by baptism; and, it was the method used in the early church. Immersion best represents the truth of total identification with Christ that baptism symbolizes. When the believer goes into the water, it pictures death (separation) to his old way of life. When he comes out of the water, it speaks of the fact that now he is raised to newness of life in Christ. Immersion also pictures total cleansing from sin. While it ought to be done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19), there is no indication that it requires three separate immersions. Once under better symbolizes the fact that we are placed into Christ once and for all by the Holy Spirit.


When Cortez landed at Vera Cruz in 1519 to begin his conquest of Mexico with a force of only 700 men, he purposely set fire to his fleet of 11 ships. His men on the shore watched their only means of retreat sinking to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. With no means of retreat, there was only one direction to move, forward into the Mexican interior to meet whatever might come their way.

Some of you may have put your trust in Christ, but you’re leaving your ship anchored safely in the harbor in case you decide to retreat. Baptism should be that act of setting fire to the ship. It’s a graphic reminder that you have left the old life and now are committed to go ahead with Christ. If you know Christ as your Savior but you’ve never been baptized, I urge you to do so as a confession of your faith in obedience to Christ’s command as soon as possible.

If you’ve never trusted in Christ as Savior, I hope that you will not think that because you have been baptized or that if you will get baptized, it will get you into heaven. Eternal life is the free gift God offers you based upon Christ’s death on your behalf. You can only receive it by faith in God’s promise in Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should believers’ baptism be a requirement for church membership? Why/why not?
  2. Should a person who was baptized as an infant be re-baptized when he comes to faith in Christ? What Scriptures apply?
  3. How should our view of baptism affect our daily lives?
  4. After professing faith in Christ, how long should a person wait to be baptized?

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: Baptism, Ecclesiology (The Church), Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 36: God’s Sovereignty, Our Responsibility (Genesis 17:1-27)

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A newspaper ran the following correction: “The title of a First Christian Church program in last week’s paper was written as ‘Our God Resigns.’ The actual title is ‘Our God Reigns.’” (Reader’s Digest, 9/93, p. 53.)

Due to the prevalence of man-centered theology in our day, many Christians live as though God must have resigned as the Ruler of the universe. While no sincere Christian would come out and say such, many Christians practically deny the absolute sovereignty of God. For example, I was at a funeral where the pastor, no doubt trying to comfort those who were grieving, assured us that God had not caused this tragic accident. Perhaps he was trying to draw a fine distinction between God’s causing something and His permitting it. But I didn’t find his words very comforting. If God did not ultimately cause it, then who did? If Satan caused it against God’s will, then Satan has equal or greater power than God, which isn’t a comforting thought! If the accident was due to human free will, we must ask, “Did that free will somehow thwart God’s plan?” If so, then man, not God, is sovereign, which again is not very comforting. Either our God resigns, or He reigns.

But many Christians are afraid to affirm the absolute sovereignty of God because they think it then follows that men do not have free will and that God is then responsible for evil. They explain God’s sovereignty by saying that He simply foreknew what would happen (because knows everything in advance), but He did not predetermine or ordain everything. But this makes man sovereign, because it makes God’s plan for the ages depend on what man would do, not on what God determined in advance to do.

The Bible clearly affirms the absolute, total sovereignty of God over His creation, His absolute holiness, and, at the same time, the full responsibility of human beings as moral agents under God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are true and true at the same time, but God’s sovereignty is the basis for everything else, and must therefore take supremacy and never be diminished in order to affirm human responsibility. The Westminster Confession of Faith (III:1) strikes the balance this way:

God, from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Scripture clearly affirms that God works all things after the counsel of His will, not man’s will (Eph. 1:11). At the same time and because God is sovereign, men are responsible to obey Him and submit to His sovereignty. So a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty is essential for proper obedience to Him.

We see both truths clearly in Genesis 17. Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God appears to Abram and says: “I am God Almighty [“El Shaddai”]; Walk before Me and be blameless” (17:1). God is sovereign; man is responsible to obey Him. Then God clearly spells out what He will do with and for Abraham (17:2-8). There isn’t much human free will or room for debate in these verses! God doesn’t ask Abram’s opinion, even on the personal matter of changing the 99-year-old man’s name! He simply announces, “This is the way it’s going to be; this is what I’m going to do.” Period!

There follows another command (17:9), reflecting Abraham’s responsibility to keep God’s covenant. This is followed by more divine pronouncements about what is going to happen. God changes Sarai’s name, He tells Abraham that He will give him a son by her and make her the mother of nations. When Abraham asks that Ishmael, his son by Hagar, might be God’s chosen one, God denies the request, while still assenting to bless Ishmael. But God sovereignly chooses to establish His covenant with Isaac (17:21). The chapter ends with Abraham’s obedience to God, as he and all the males in his household are circumcised. So the two major themes of this chapter are: (1) God will accomplish His sovereign purpose; (2) God’s people are responsible to keep His covenant with them. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, both in the same context. But God’s sovereignty is clearly the supreme factor, undergirding everything. We see that ...

Because God is absolutely sovereign, we must walk in obedience before Him, no matter how difficult.

1. God is absolutely sovereign.

The Bible starts with God, not with man: “In the beginning, God ...” (Gen. 1:1). Who God is has definite implications for how we should live. Here God appears to Abram and announces, “I am El Shaddai [God Almighty].” This is the first of 48 uses of this name for God in the Old Testament (31 times in Job). Though there is debate among Hebrew scholars, it probably comes from a word meaning “mountain,” thus pointing to God’s strength and stability. The Septuagint (200 B.C.) and the Latin Vulgate translated it, “all-powerful.” In the context of Genesis 17, God is clearly the sovereign One, telling Abram what He as God is going to do and how He expects Abram to obey. This name points to God as the One who has the power to carry out His purposes and promises. Abram’s response of falling on his face before God (17:3, 17) shows that Abram knew who is Lord and who is not!

God’s sovereignty is fundamental to His very nature as God. A non-sovereign God isn’t God at all. R. C. Sproul was once teaching on this. He began the class by reading from the part of the Westminster Confession I cited above, “God, from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” He stopped at this point and asked, “Is there anyone in this room who does not believe the words that I just read?” Many hands went up. He then asked, “Are there any convinced atheists in the room?” No hands were raised. He then said, “Everyone who raised his hand to the first question should also have raised his hand to the second question.” He went on to argue that if there is a single molecule in the universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled. That one maverick molecule could perhaps lay waste all of God’s plans and promises toward us. He concluded, “Without sovereignty God cannot be God” (Chosen By God [Tyndale], pp. 25-27).

A. God’s sovereignty means that He initiates, follows through, and fulfills His purpose in His timing and way.

Note the authoritative manner in which God tells Abram what is going to happen. He repeatedly states, “I will,” and “you shall” (17:2-8). God doesn’t dicker or feel Abram out for his opinion. God announces, God commands, God reveals what He has already determined to do. Abram did not set up this interview and he didn’t determine when it would end. God appears without being summoned, tells Abram what is going to happen, and (17:22), “when He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.” God’s sovereignty means that God, not man, determines the course of human history and works it out in His time-table and way, not ours.

God’s sovereignty extends over the salvation of men. It is here that many people stumble. They think that God is not fair if He saves some and not others. But Scripture is quite clear that it is God and not men who sovereignly determines who will be saved. We have already seen how God sovereignly chose Abram when he was dwelling in Ur of the Chaldees, living as a pagan. God did not choose Abram’s countrymen or neighbors. He did not choose Abram’s father or brothers. He chose Abram. Here God tells Abram that while He will bless Ishmael and his descendants in a material and temporal way, His covenant will be established with Isaac (17:20-21).

Was God unfair to Ishmael? Is He unfair to anyone who is not chosen to salvation? Only if Ishmael and those not chosen deserve to be saved. If anyone deserves to be saved and God does not save him, God is most unfair. But if all deserve His judgment and He sovereignly chooses to save some, that is His prerogative as God. As Paul argues in Romans 9:19-23, we who are clay dare not challenge the Potter’s sovereign right to do as He pleases with what He has made. Those not chosen for salvation get precisely what they deserve, namely, God’s justice. But God is not unfair to any by showing mercy to some. In fact, if God had not chosen certain ones unto salvation, none could ever be saved, because the “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14, italics mine).

Why do I emphasize this? It’s not just an abstract theological point that’s interesting to debate. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is important for a proper understanding of salvation. If you think that you are responsible for your own salvation, whether through your good deeds, your free will, or your faith, you will not despair of yourself and cast your hopeless self upon the sovereign mercy of God. But if you come to the end of yourself and realize that there is nothing in you deserving of God’s salvation, then, with the tax collector in Jesus’ story, you cry out in desperation, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13). It is then that you are saved.

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is also the foundation for a life of submission and trust, because it humbles our pride and it assures us that God will prevail and that those who oppose Him will ultimately lose. It’s at the heart of all Christian service, because it assures us that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. It enables us to endure trials and to wait upon God, even as Abraham did, because we know that in God’s perfect time, He will do what He has promised, even if we are persecuted or suffer and die. Thus God’s sovereignty means that He initiates, follows through, and fulfills His purpose in His timing and way, as seen here in His dealings with Abraham.

But, why did God make Abraham wait so long before He gave him Isaac? Why wouldn’t God let Ishmael do?

B. God’s sovereignty means that He gets all the glory and man gets none.

Abraham’s response in verse 18 shows that by this time, he was quite content with Ishmael as the promised son. In these 13 years, Abraham had grown quite attached to the boy, in spite of the jealousy between Sarah and Hagar. But God definitely rejects Ishmael and states that Sarah will bear Abraham a son and that this son will be the one with whom God will establish His covenant.

Why not Ishmael? Because Ishmael represented man’s effort helping God out (Gal. 4:29). In Ishmael, Abram could boast, because he was able to produce a son. But by the time Isaac came along, both Abraham and Sarah were humanly beyond their ability to reproduce. They could take none of the credit. All the glory went to God. God’s delay with Abraham and Sarah brought them to the end of themselves so that His grace got all the credit. If our proud flesh can grab any glory for itself, it will. That’s why God waits until we come to the end of ourselves.

Again, this is true of salvation. If we think that we can contribute anything to our own salvation, we’ll take the credit. If we think we came to Christ by our own free will, we’ll boast in our wise choice. If we think it was by our faith, we’ll boast in our great faith. If we think it was by our rational ability, we’ll boast in our great intellect. But if our salvation depends solely on God’s sovereign election, and if God chose those who were foolish, weak, and despised, then no man can boast before God (1 Cor. 1:27-31).

We struggle with the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty because it kills the flesh. We can’t take any credit for our salvation if it is totally of God and not at all from us. By the flesh, we can produce an Ishmael, and it’s good enough for us. But God doesn’t work that way. He wants to bring us all to the end of ourselves, and then He gives us Isaac as a free gift, so that we bow before Him, lost in wonder, even as Abraham laughed in astonishment at what God was going to do (17:17). The only way to come to terms with God’s sovereignty is to submit and let God be God.

But does this mean that we then kick back passively and do nothing? Not at all. A proper understanding of God’s sovereignty should motivate us to walk in obedience:

2. We are responsible to walk in obedience before Him, no matter how difficult.


It is because He is God Almighty that we are to walk before Him and be blameless (17:1). It is because He has sovereignly established His covenant and because He will carry it out that we are to keep His covenant (17:2-9). Note two things:

A. We are responsible to walk obediently.

Verse 1 may be translated, “Walk before Me and you shall be blameless.” Blameless does not mean perfection, which no believer attains in this life. This word is used to describe both Noah (Gen. 6:9) and Job (Job 1:8), yet neither man was sinlessly perfect. The meaning of the word is “whole,” or “having integrity.” It refers to a person who walks honestly and openly before God, who fears God and seeks to obey Him, and who confesses and turns away from sin. The word “walk” implies a step by step process. A walk is not spectacular and not a quick fix. But if you keep walking in the same direction, eventually you will get where you’re going. For the believer, that direction is holiness.

Sometimes, frankly, obedience is a struggle. If Abraham struggled over God’s rejection of Ishmael, there is no word in Scripture. And if he struggled over the command to be circumcised, there is not a hint of it here. His obedience was thorough and instant (17:23, 26). But it wasn’t easy.

B. We are responsible to obey even when it’s not easy.

There are several difficult things in this story that Abraham had to submit to. First was his name change. It was hard enough to be named “Exalted Father” (Abram) when he didn’t have any children. But at least with the birth of Ishmael the sting was mitigated. But now, before the birth of Isaac, God tells the 99-year-old Abram that he gets a new name: “Father of a Multitude” (Abraham)! If his name was an embarrassment before, what now? It would be like a totally bald man named Harry whom God told, “Now you’re going to be called, Bushy-headed Harry.” Abraham would have been the butt of every joke around!

Then there was this matter of circumcision. And it wasn’t just a private matter that Abraham could take care of behind closed doors. He had to do it to every male in his extended household! It wasn’t just the excruciating physical pain that was difficult to endure. This rite permanently disfigured a man at the place of his virility, where he would most want to blend in with everyone else. Why couldn’t God just make the sign of the covenant be a tattoo on the arm or an earring or something?

By submitting to God’s command for circumcision, Abraham was yielding his procreative powers totally to God. He was acknowledging his total dependence on God to produce the promised heir. It meant Abraham’s putting no confidence in his flesh, but rather trusting God totally to do what He promised to do so that all the glory goes to Him.

In the case of the men who followed Abraham, circumcision pictured the importance of sexual purity in obedience to God. It set the Hebrews apart, so that if a Hebrew young man decided to have sexual relations with a pagan woman, she couldn’t help noticing that he was different. At that point, he would be reminded that he belonged to the living God, and he would be faced with a rather awkward witnessing situation!

The application is, obedience to God is often difficult, and it sets you apart as distinct from our wicked culture, so that you may become the object of ridicule. But because our God is the sovereign God, the God who has chosen us and entered into His covenant with us, we are responsible to obey Him, even when it is difficult or embarrassing.


I believe that a major cause of the worldliness and impurity that permeates the modern evangelical church is that we have a watered-down view of the sovereignty and supremacy of our God. It was when Abraham had this vision of God as God Almighty, who sovereignly gives and keeps His covenant with a man who had messed up as often as Abraham had, that he obeyed without question. Recovering a proper vision of the Sovereign God is the basis for obedience, even when it’s not easy.

Pastor John Piper tells of a time when he felt impressed to preach on God’s greatness as revealed in Isaiah 6. Normally he would have tried to apply the text, but on this Sunday, he simply tried to lift up and display the majesty and glory of God, without a word of application. He did not realize that one of the young families in his church had just discovered that their child was being sexually abused by a close relative. They were there that Sunday and heard his message.

Piper says that many advisors to us pastors would have said, “Pastor Piper, can’t you see that your people are hurting? Can’t you come down out of the heavens and get practical? Don’t you realize what kind of people sit in front of you on Sunday?” Some weeks later he learned the story. The husband took him aside after a service and said, “John, these have been the hardest months of our lives. Do you know what has gotten me through? The vision of the greatness of God’s holiness that you gave me the first week in January. It has been the rock we could stand on.”

Piper concludes, “The greatness and glory of God are relevant. It does not matter if surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign God of grace. That is the deepest need. Our people are starving for God.” (The Supremacy of God in Preaching [Baker], pp. 10-11.)

I direct your attention to the Sovereign, Covenant-making, Covenant-keeping God. When you see Him as God Almighty, you will be able to join Abraham in walking in obedience before Him, even when it is difficult, as it often is.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the explanation that God’s election is simply due to His foreknowledge not biblically sound?
  2. How can God be absolutely sovereign and yet not responsible for sin and evil?
  3. One popular author says that God has done all He can do to bring all to heaven, and now it’s up to our choice. Why is this not biblically defensible?
  4. Some argue that if God sovereignly predetermines everything, it makes the warnings of Scripture a sham. Your response?

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, Predestination

Lesson 37: Friendship With God (Genesis 18:1-8)

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(2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23; John 14:21, 23)

When Jimmy Carter was President of the United States, on several occasions he spent the night in the homes of common Americans, picked somewhat at random. It was an attempt on his part to show that he was in touch with the average American, that he understood the way we live and the concerns we have.

I’m sure that it would be a memory of a lifetime to have the President spend the night in your home. But I’ve also wondered what kind of panic it would have created in many homes to receive a call from the White House asking if the President could stay in your home. What kinds of maintenance and repairs would you have to do to get your house ready for a presidential visit? Would it need fresh paint inside and out? How much cleaning would you have to do? Would you have to buy new furniture? What about the carpets? What about your yard? Would you want to hire a gardener to do some major landscaping or at least some weeding and bush-trimming? It could get expensive just to have the President as an overnight guest!

What if you got a call from heaven saying that the Lord Jesus Christ and a couple of angels planned to visit your home? How much lead time would you need to get it ready? You’d want to clean and paint and do the yard work. But also, what would Jesus think about the magazines and paperbacks laying around your house? What about the TV and videos that frequently play? Would you be embarrassed for the Lord to see all the stuff you’re spending your money on? Would you be comfortable for Him to see the way you normally live? Of course you’d want to warn the kids to behave perfectly while the Lord was there, or they’d catch it later! And, you and your wife would want to make sure there weren’t any flare-ups between the two of you. No doubt after your guests left, you’d all heave a sigh of relief and get back to life as usual!

But what if the Lord didn’t just come for a visit? What if He moved in as a permanent resident? Every time you come home, He is there, watching everything that takes place. Would you view it as a blessing or as a burden? As Christians, we talk about having a personal relationship with God. But, if the truth were known, many of us don’t want it to be too personal! It’s one thing to invite the Lord in for an occasional meal, when the house is in order and the kids are on their best behavior. But having the Lord move in as a permanent resident and observer of all that goes on would be a bit too much! We couldn’t let our hair down and be comfortable with His constant presence.

The extent to which we block God out of certain areas of our lives is a measure of the distance in our relationship with Him. Friends are comfortable and open with one another. Close friends don’t block each other out of certain areas. They don’t hide how they really live. A close friend feels free to drop by and catch us when the house is a mess, and we don’t feel uncomfortable with the visit. Those who are friends with the living God welcome Him into the most intimate and personal areas of life, and count it a privilege to know Him and be known by Him.

Believers are privileged to enjoy friendship with God.

This is one of the lessons that emerges from one of the most remarkable incidents in human history, recorded in Genesis 18. The Lord Jesus Christ, in human form 2,000 years before He was born to the virgin Mary, along with two angels in human form, visited Abraham (see 18:1, 10, 13, 17, 22; 19:1). The three heavenly visitors ate a meal and then the Lord revealed to Abraham and Sarah that the promise concerning a son would be fulfilled the following year. The two angels left and went toward Sodom to rescue Lot and his family before the Lord rained fire and brimstone on that wicked city. The Lord stayed behind and revealed to Abraham what He was about to do. Abraham then interceded with the Lord on behalf of Sodom.

It is based on this chapter that three times in Scripture Abraham is called the friend of God, once by God Himself* (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8*; James 2:23). There is debate as to how soon Abraham recognized the heavenly character of his guests. Some say that he didn’t know it until after the meal, when the Lord called Sarah by name (without being introduced) and repeated the promise about Isaac. The verse in Hebrews 13:2 about some entertaining angels without knowing it may lend support to this view. Others say he recognized the Lord immediately. I’m inclined to agree, because Abraham had seen the Lord before (12:7; 17:1), and it seems likely that the Lord would take the same human form in successive visits. Also, Abraham’s lavish hospitality, while perhaps typical of that culture, seems to indicate that he knew that these men were special guests. His plea that these men not pass him by (18:3) also would point to Abraham’s perception that these men were unique.

Friendship with God is something that sounds wonderful at first, until you stop to think about the implications. Remember, we’re talking about being friends with the Lord and His destroying angels, who were on their way to wipe out wicked Sodom and Gomorrah! This is the Lord who knew when Sarah laughed in her heart in unbelief, even though she was not in sight (18:12-13)! He could be a rather threatening sort of friend! Do you want that kind of friend? If we would dare to have a personal relationship with God, this chapter has some principles on how to cultivate friendship with Him.

1. Friendship with God begins when we are reconciled to God through faith.

Scripture teaches that by nature we all are children of wrath, hostile to God and alienated from Him (Eph. 2:1-3; 4:18; Rom. 8:7). This applies to those raised in the church as well as to those who have lived outwardly wicked lives. It applies to decent, law-abiding folks and to those who have committed terrible crimes. It does not matter whether or not we feel hostile toward God; what matters is how God views us. Our sin, both the sin we inherit from birth and the acts of sin we commit after birth, separates us from Him and makes us His enemies. It’s vitally important that we accept what Scripture reveals about our sinful condition rather than how we feel about ourselves, because Satan blinds the minds of those outside of Christ so that they cannot perceive their true condition or their need for the gospel (1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4). He uses false teachers to deceive people by proclaiming peace with God to them when there is not true peace (Jer. 8:11; 23:17).

Because alienation from God due to sin is the universal human condition, we must be reconciled with God through a just resolution of our sin problem before we can begin a friendship with Him. This happens when a sinner believes God concerning His provision of an acceptable substitute who paid the penalty for sin on the sinner’s behalf. Abraham believed God concerning the Son who would come forth from him who would be the Savior of the world, and God credited the work of that Savior to Abraham as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). The apostle Paul cites this verse twice in the context of arguing that we are declared righteous by God on the basis of faith, not by works (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6). James cites the same verse in the context of arguing that genuine faith always results in a life of good deeds (James 2:23). In other words, we are saved (justified) by faith in Christ alone, but genuine faith in Christ never stops there, but always shows itself in a life of progressive godliness. But the point I am insisting on as foundational is that you must trust in Christ as your sin-bearer before you can develop a friendship with God.

2. Friendship with God requires being available for it.

Friendships take time, and friendship with God is not an exception. Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent when these three heavenly visitors came by, and he wasn’t so busy that he couldn’t spend the time with them. He wasn’t rushing from one appointment to the next, with dozens of things to do crying out for his attention.

I realize, of course, that Abraham lived in a completely different culture than ours. It would be centuries before somebody invented the clock and the telephone, let alone the beeper and car phone! I’m no stranger to busyness. I have to use an appointment calendar to survive. When I was in college, the couple who worked with our church college group were mavericks who decided that the clock is our enemy. So they got rid of their clocks and wrist watches, so they wouldn’t be under such tyranny. This was nice for them, but it thoroughly frustrated all of us who had to work with them, because they somehow never managed to get to meetings before everyone else. They were always the late ones who inconvenienced the rest of us!

So I’m not suggesting that we should get rid of our appointment books or throw away our watches! But I am saying that if you want to be a friend of God, you’ve got to take the time to spend alone with Him. If you’re married and you only spend a few minutes a week together as a couple, but you spend hours of time with seductive women (or men), you won’t be doing very well in your marriage. If you’re so busy that you do not take time regularly for reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible, for prayer, for reading good Christian books, and for being with God’s people, but you’re spending hours with a world that is trying to seduce you away from God, you will not be growing in your relationship with God. You may have to put it on your daily or weekly schedule. But a friendship with God is not magic. It won’t happen if you’re not available for it.

3. Friendship with God requires being hospitable toward God.

Hebrews 13:2 uses this incident as an example of the kind of hospitality we are to show toward strangers. Hospitality is a wonderful quality we all need to work at improving. It is a qualification for a church elder (1 Tim. 3:2). A hospitable host makes his guests feel welcome and comfortable. Here Abraham entreats these visitors to stay and be refreshed (18:3-5). Matthew Henry observes, “God is a guest worth entreating.” If we covet God’s friendship, we should do everything we can to be hospitable toward Him, so that He is welcome in our lives and homes. Abraham demonstrates several ingredients of hospitality:

(1) Eagerness of hospitality--As you read these verses you are struck with the eagerness on Abraham’s part. He ran from the tent door to meet these men and earnestly entreated them to stay. When they agreed, he hurried into the tent and told Sarah, “Quickly, make some bread”; then he ran to the herd, selected a calf and gave it to the servant who hurried to prepare it. Remember, we’re talking about a man who was 100 years old and it was during the heat of the day in Palestine! All of this hurried activity shows how eager Abraham was to fellowship with his heavenly guests.

Do you have that same eagerness to fellowship with the living Lord? Or could your initial enthusiasm have died down over the years? Spending time alone with God shouldn’t be a duty; it should be a delight! In the little booklet, “My Heart, Christ’s Home,” Robert Boyd Munger compares his heart to a home where Christ has been invited to dwell as the heavenly guest. He goes room by room, showing how the Lord cleaned the dirty books off the shelves of the study, took down the filthy pictures, how He cleaned the dining room of unhealthy appetites and desires, etc.

The drawing room was a comfortable room with a quiet atmosphere. The Lord agreed to meet him there each morning for fellowship. At first, it was wonderful, as they met and the Lord would pull a book of the Bible from the book case and they would commune together. But as the pressure of outside responsibilities grew, that time with the Lord got crowded out. Soon, he was missing several days in a row.

Then one morning as he was rushing out the door, he passed the drawing room and noticed that the door was ajar. Looking in, he saw the Master sitting in there, alone. Grieved, he said, “Master, have you been here all these mornings?” “Yes,” said the Lord, “I told you I would be here every morning to meet with you. Remember, I love you. I have redeemed you at great cost. I desire your fellowship. Even if you cannot keep the quiet time for your own sake, do it for mine.”

One of the things that strikes me about Abraham’s eager hospitality is that he is totally focused on ministering to his guests--washing their feet, feeding them, seeing that they are refreshed. There doesn’t seem to be any consideration of what’s in it for himself. So often we think about a devotional time from the angle of what’s in it for me, but we fail to consider doing it for the Lord’s sake. In Acts 13:2, we read of Paul, Barnabas, and some other men “ministering to the Lord.” It’s not that the Lord is lacking anything in His perfections as God. He doesn’t need our ministry to Him in that sense. The Lord and the two angels didn’t need Abraham’s food or footwashing. But friendship is two-way, and the Lord is pleased to accept our ministry, even as He was willing for Abraham to show hospitality to Him. If you’ve lost the eagerness of meeting with the Lord, remember, it’s not just for you. He wants to fellowship with you because He loves you as a father loves his children. Like Abraham, we need to be eager to meet with the Lord.

(2) Effort of hospitality--I’m also struck by the effort Abraham put into his hospitality. He didn’t walk--he ran to get everything going to make preparation for his guests, and then he stood by as they ate, attentive to their needs. His effort showed his guests how much he desired their fellowship.

If you only spend time with the Lord when it’s convenient, when you feel like it, and it’s no trouble, you won’t be growing in friendship with Him. Some people feel as if relationships should be totally spontaneous and effortless. I agree that there is a spontaneous aspect to good relationships that keeps them fresh. But relationships also require effort. If you never give any thought or effort toward how to foster your marriage relationship, I would predict that your marriage isn’t going very well. It’s easy to get busy and let all sorts of things crowd out the relationships you really cherish. To make time for those relationships takes effort.

It’s the same with the Lord. You have to say no to some good and enjoyable things so that you can spend time with Him. You have to think about how to foster that friendship. You have to set some goals and do some hard study and reading. Again, I’m not denying the spontaneity and fun of friendship with God. I’m just saying that if you don’t put effort into it, you won’t be growing in it.

(3) Expense of hospitality--Abraham’s friendship with God wasn’t cheap. He modestly says that he will bring his guests a piece of bread (18:5) and then has Sarah bake enough bread for a small army (about 8 gallons of flour)! He kills a choice calf and adds curds and milk. He spared no expense to entertain his heavenly visitors. Hospitality is expensive.

Friendship with the Lord will cost you. Of course, it cost the Lord everything. But there’s also a price you must pay. I’ve already mentioned the time it costs. It also costs money, because as you get into God’s Word, the Lord will put His finger on your finances and say, “I want you to honor Me by being more careful about how you spend the money I entrust to you so that you can be more generous in giving to My work.” He will want you to be generous in showing hospitality to others. You also may need to invest some money in good books that will enable you to grow in your friendship with God. I’m amazed at how some Christians spend $25 or more each month to get the sewage from the TV cable pumped into their homes, but they won’t spend the money to purchase basic Bible study tools.

On one occasion, King David wanted to purchase the site of the threshing floor of a man named Araunah as a place to offer burnt offerings. Later it actually became the site for Solomon’s Temple. Araunah offered to give it to his king, but David replied, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price, for I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (1 Kings 24:24). Again, salvation is the free gift of God. You can’t buy it for any amount. But if you’ve received it, I encourage you to invest some money toward your friendship with God in the ways I’ve mentioned.

Thus, friendship with God begins by being reconciled to Him through faith in Christ. It requires being available for the relationship and being hospitable toward the Lord. Finally,

4. Friendship with God requires obedience to God.

It is significant that the Lord’s appearance here to Abraham (18:1) follows immediately on Abraham’s obedience to the sign of the covenant (17:23-27). The Lord reveals Himself to the obedient. Jesus said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him.... If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him” (John 14:21, 23). If we want God to make His home with us, we must be growing in obedience to Him.

As I said last week, Abraham’s obedience in being circumcised wasn’t an easy thing to do. It was painful. It would have invited ridicule. It probably didn’t make much sense. But Abraham did it. We’ll see in chapter 22 the ultimate test of obedience, when God commands Abraham to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. I can’t imagine a more difficult command, and yet by this time Abraham had such implicit trust in his heavenly Friend that he obeyed without question! While none of us may reach Abraham’s pinnacle of obedience, we must be growing in obedience if we want to cultivate friendship with God. It may not be easy. The Lord may be asking you to break off a relationship with an unbeliever for whom you have deep feelings. He may be asking you to go to another country to serve Him. Perhaps He is putting His finger on a sin that you love, insisting, “That has to go now!” If you’re His friend, you’ll obey.


It’s always an honor to be friends with someone important, such as a president. Around Washington, certain people are called F.O.B., which stands for, “Friend of Bill” (Clinton). But every Christian has a much higher honor, to be a Friend of God. We begin that friendship by being reconciled to God through faith in Christ and His shed blood. We cultivate the friendship by making ourselves available to God, by being hospitable toward Him, and by growing in obedience to Him. I hope that the thought of God Almighty paying your life and your home a visit wouldn’t make you uncomfortable, but that you welcome Him and commit yourself to a growing friendship.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you counsel a Christian who says he has lost the joy of fellowship with the Lord?
  2. Can a Christian be close to God without being a reader (of the Bible and of good Christian books)? How?
  3. Does being a friend with God mean being “good buddies”? Where is the balance with the fear of God (see 18:27, 30)?
  4. How do you square God’s unconditional love with John 14:21 & 23? Does God love everyone just the same?

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, Relationships

Lesson 38: Nothing Too Difficult For God (Genesis 18:9-15)

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One of life’s embarrassing moments is when you’re in a crowd and you laugh at something which no one else laughs at. About all you can do at that point is to turn your laugh into a cough to try to cover it up. At those moments, you wish you could become invisible.

Have you ever thought about how embarrassing it would be if your thoughts were uncontrollably linked to your vocal cords, so that whatever you were thinking was broadcast for everyone to hear? Instead of, “I’m pleased to meet you,” you would blurt out, “Oh, no! I’m going to miss the kickoff if I talk to him now!” Instead of, “Great sermon, pastor,” as you go out the door, you would hear yourself saying, “I thought it never would end!”

You can identify, then, with poor Sarah. She laughed when God did not. She managed to conceal her laughter, but that doesn’t work with the Lord, who knows the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts. When the Lord said, “Why did Sarah laugh?” she denied it and said, “I didn’t laugh.” But the Lord knew differently and said, “No, but you did laugh.” It wasn’t a laughing matter to the Lord.

The problem was that Sarah’s laughter reflected her unbelief in the promise of God. Unbelief is a more serious sin than most of us realize. To doubt God’s promise is tantamount to calling God a liar. It is to say that I know better than the eternal Creator. It is to demote God from His place of sovereign power and to promote myself over Him. God doesn’t take kindly to unbelief.

All of us struggle, at different levels, with the problem of unbelief. Perhaps, like Abraham and Sarah, you’ve prayed for something for years, but God has not answered. Life is passing you by while you wait. You struggle with doubt as you often wonder whether He is hearing your prayers. You may have suffered some tragedy, such as the loss of a close loved one, and you wonder, “Where was God when this happened?” Maybe it’s a family problem that has dragged on for years. You wonder, “Why doesn’t God do something? Why doesn’t He answer?” Sometimes I’ve struggled with doubt when I’ve needed some small thing that would be easy for God to provide, something which I knew would further His work, and yet in spite of my prayers, God did not answer.

The Lord’s word to Sarah speaks to all who struggle with unbelief (and that’s all of us): “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The absurdity of the question gives it its punch. How could anything be difficult for the Lord, who spoke the universe into existence? And if nothing is difficult for Him, then how can I persist in my unbelief? God goes for the jugular. He makes us confront our doubt. This story of Abraham and Sarah waiting all these years for the promised son teaches us an important spiritual lesson:

God brings us to the end of our strength so that we will trust in His ability to do the impossible.

By nature we all trust in ourselves most of the time, and in God only when we really have to. If we trust in ourselves, then we glory in ourselves. But God’s purpose is that we glory in Him alone. So through various means He graciously brings us to the place where we have no hope except in Him, so that we trust in Him and He gets the glory. The first step in this process is ...

1. God brings us to the end of our strength.

After the meal, the guests ask Abraham, “Where is Sarah your wife?” (18:9). It’s an interesting question, since they know the name of Abraham’s wife without any mention of it by Abraham. Later the Lord knows what Sarah is thinking. And yet here He asks, “Where is she?” Why does He ask this? I think the Lord asked so that Sarah, hearing her name spoken, would eaves-drop on the conversation to follow. Abraham had already heard the promise concerning Isaac (17:15-19). Surely he had told Sarah. But she was struggling with doubt. So now the Lord comes so that Sarah can hear it straight from His mouth and believe.

Note that the Lord begins by promising that which was humanly impossible: “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son” (18:10). We are informed, “Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him.” The Lord couldn’t see her from where He was standing. We’re also reminded that Abraham and Sarah were old, and that Sarah was past the age of childbearing (18:11). It was humanly impossible for her to bear a son. She was already through menopause. In her natural strength, she was barren.

That’s where the Lord wants us in our relationship with Him, to recognize our weakness so that we will trust His strength. Many people mistakenly think that the reason they struggle in their Christian lives is that they’re too weak. That isn’t so. The reason we struggle in our Christian walk is that we do not recognize our own weakness for what it is, and so we trust in ourselves rather than in the Lord. When we see our weakness and cast ourselves on the Lord’s strength, then we’re strong. God doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who are helpless. When they helped themselves, Abraham and Sarah came up with Hagar and Ishmael. When they were helpless, God gave them Isaac. Hudson Taylor used to say that when God wanted to open inland China to the gospel, He looked around until He found a man weak enough for the task.

This applies to salvation. One of the main things that keeps people from God’s salvation is the notion that they can do something to contribute to the process. They think that if they clean up their lives a bit, or if they go to church or give money or whatever, they can qualify for salvation. But Scripture is clear that Christ didn’t die for decent folks who have worked hard to put their lives in order. Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6). You can’t receive the salvation He offers until you see yourself as a sinner, quit trying to save yourself, and cast yourself upon His free and sovereign grace, crying out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” Salvation is not a matter of human ability combined with God’s ability. Salvation is totally of the Lord.

But our problem is that even after we’ve trusted in Christ for salvation, we mistakenly think that we’re competent to live the Christian life with just a little help from the Lord. And so the Lord has to bring us again and again to the point of helplessness, where we acknowledge our own insufficiency and depend His all-sufficiency. This is illustrated many times in the Bible.

Take Hannah (1 Samuel 1), for instance. She was another barren woman who desperately wanted to have a son. The Lord wanted her to have a son, too. So do you know what He did? He closed her womb! That’s a strange way to give a woman a son! Her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, who was not a godly woman, had many children. How frustrating for Hannah, crying out to the Lord for a son, to see Peninnah, who didn’t seek the Lord, with many children!

But that’s how God works with His people. He wants us to see that without Him, we can do nothing. If Hannah could have had children on her own, like Peninnah, she wouldn’t have needed the Lord. And the Lord wasn’t getting any glory from Peninnah and her brood. She could get along quite nicely by herself. But when Hannah finally had Samuel because the Lord gave him to her, she sang a song of praise and gave Samuel back to the Lord to serve Him.

God wants each of us to see that our situation is humanly impossible without Him. That way, we’ll look to Him for His power, praise Him when He delivers us, and He will be glorified through our lives. But sometimes, instead of trusting Him with our impossible situations, like Sarah, we doubt Him. What is the source of our unbelief?

2. Unbelief stems from a human perspective that leaves God out.

There is a difference between Abraham’s laughter (17:17) and Sarah’s laughter, as seen in the fact that the Lord did not rebuke Abraham for laughing, but He did rebuke Sarah. Abraham’s laughter may have stemmed from his being startled or astonished at what the Lord had just told him. He had it fixed in his mind that Ishmael would be the son of the promise (as 17:18 shows). But apparently the Lord, who knows our hearts, knew that Abraham was not doubting God’s promise to give them a son through Sarah. He was just surprised by what God had said.

But Sarah’s laughter was different. It stemmed from her unbelief which stemmed from looking at things from a human perspective. She was past the age where she could bear children. Besides, she had been barren even when she was younger. Remember, Sarah’s comment in 18:12 represents what she thought to herself, not what she said out loud. The gist of it was, “I’m too old even to enjoy sex with my husband, let alone get pregnant and bear a child!” Adding up all the human factors, she concluded that she could not in any way bear a son at age 90. But she left out one crucial factor in her calculations: the power of the omnipotent God to do that which is humanly impossible!

We’re so quick to calculate from our human perspective how God is going to be able to do His work. Before Jesus fed the 5,000, He asked Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread, that these may eat?” (John 6:5). Here were about 20,000 hungry people (including women and children) in a remote place. The disciples had already told the Lord their solution: “Send them away, so that they can buy bread” (Mark 6:36). But the Lord tested Philip by asking, “Where are we going to buy bread?” It was a humanly impossible situation.

Philip should have said, “Lord, apart from Your power, there is no way that we can come up with enough bread to feed this crowd.” But what did Philip do? He got out his calculator and determined that 200 denarii (200 day’s wages) worth of bread wouldn’t even be enough. So what? The disciples couldn’t have scraped together 200 denarii if their lives depended on it. But that’s how we think when we look at things from a human perspective. We calculate, but we leave God out of the calculation.

Perhaps you’re facing an overwhelming problem right now. Maybe it’s the salvation of a loved one, and you’ve thought, “There’s no way this person is going to come to faith in Christ. He’s just too far gone in sin. He’s been addicted to drugs for years. He’s been drinking and lying and living for self, with no possibility that he’s going to change.” No human possibility! But is anything too difficult for the Lord? With God, all things, including the salvation of the chief of sinners, is possible! Factoring God into any situation suddenly changes the equation!

As I said, we tend to shrug off our unbelief as if it’s no big deal. But God doesn’t do that. There’s a theologically staggering verse in Mark 6:5, which states that Jesus could do no miracle in His home town of Nazareth, except for healing a few sick people. The next verse adds that “He wondered at their unbelief.” Even though God is sovereign in His almighty power, He has chosen to limit His working through our faith. So He views unbelief as a serious sin, and He confronts it in His people, just as He confronted it in Sarah:

3. The Lord confronts our unbelief so that we will see things from His perspective.

The Lord’s confrontation got Sarah to face her sin and to look at things from His perspective. Isn’t it interesting that the Lord first confronted Abraham about Sarah’s sin (18:13)? The Lord viewed Abraham as spiritually responsible for his family (18:19), so He asked him, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Again, how ironic that the Lord who in His omniscience knew that Sarah, behind Him inside the tent, laughed (the text says she did it silently, “within”), asks, “Why did Sarah laugh?” He wanted Abraham and Sarah to think about that question. The answer was, “Sarah laughed because she didn’t believe the Lord.”

As I said, unbelief is sin because in effect it calls God a liar and me the truthful one. It says, “I know better than the omniscient, all-powerful God, what He can do or not do!” It implies either that God doesn’t know what He’s talking about or He isn’t able to do it. So the Lord asks a second question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” Is there anything you can think of which would make the Lord exclaim, “I’m not sure I can pull it off!”?

Unbelief is also serious because invariably it leads to other sins. Sarah denied that she did what the Lord says she did: “I didn’t laugh.” The text adds that she was afraid. But how foolish to think that we can hide our sin from the Lord who knows every thought in our heads! The Lord didn’t let Sarah off the hook. He confronted her with the truth: “No, but you did laugh” (18:15). He got her to face her sin of unbelief and to think about things from His perspective with the rhetorical question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”

The most loving thing the Lord can do is to make us face our sin of unbelief: “No, you did doubt Me. Admit the truth yourself, because I know your heart.” Then He lovingly gets us to consider things from His almighty perspective: “I could never be in any situation which would be too difficult for the Lord to work.”

Think about it: Is there any problem you’re facing that is too hard for God? Is there a family problem that just got so bad that the Lord would have to say, “Now it’s too tough for Me to handle”? Are any of your circumstances outside of His control? Do you suppose He’s in heaven, wringing His hands, and saying, “Oh no! I didn’t expect that to happen! I can’t deal with it now!”? Can you dare to think that there is some sin which you have committed or some awful habit to which you are enslaved which the Lord is not able to forgive and deliver you from? Is anything in your life too difficult for the Lord?

A woman once came up to the famous Bible teacher, G. Campbell Morgan, and asked, “Dr. Morgan, should we pray about the little things in our lives, or only the big things?” In his British manner, Dr. Morgan drew up and said, “Madam, can you think of anything in your life that is big to God?”

The Lord’s rebuke brought Sarah to faith. Hebrews 11:11 states, “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.” In fact Sarah received more than faith. Her reward was faith, laughter, and the Lord’s commendation (as James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:156-157, points out).

4. When we trust God to do the humanly impossible, He rewards us.

Because she faced her sin of unbelief and thought about things from God’s perspective, Sarah received the faith to conceive Isaac. Faith is a gift God is ready to give us the moment we will turn from our unbelief and see Him for who He is: the God for whom nothing is too difficult.

Also, Sarah received laughter. Her laughter of doubt (18:12) was replaced with the laughter of joy when Isaac was born (21:6). In fact, Isaac’s name means “he laughs.” Since that was the name God gave the boy, it means that God wanted to give Abraham and Sarah the right laughter of His blessing in place of the wrong laughter of doubt. God has a way of turning our sin, when we repent, into that which brings praise to Him and joy to us.

And Sarah received commendation from God. In 1 Peter 3:6 the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to use Sarah as an example of a holy woman who submitted to her husband by calling him “lord.” The only place in the Bible it is recorded that Sarah called Abraham “lord” is in Genesis 18:12, right as she was laughing at God’s promise. The Lord, in His grace, looked beyond Sarah’s doubt and picked out her submission to her husband and held it up as an example.

In the same way, the Lord is gracious, ready to forgive us and meet our every need when we turn from our unbelief and trust in His mighty power. He may not give us an instant answer. As with many of those in Hebrews 11, the great chapter on faith, we may die without receiving the fulfillment of His promises this side of heaven (Heb. 11:13, 39). But that doesn’t undermine the faithfulness or power of our great God, the God with whom all things are possible. We may not understand His ways and the reason for His delays. But we dare not doubt His goodness toward His chosen ones or His power to fulfill His purpose with them in His time and way.


Jeremiah the prophet was a godly man who faithfully spoke God’s word to a disobedient people who rejected both him and his message. For years he warned them of coming judgment if they did not repent, but they didn’t want to hear it. They mocked him, threw him in a muddy pit, and listened to the false prophets who told them what they wanted to hear, that God wouldn’t judge them for their sin. Finally, just as Jeremiah had warned, the powerful Babylonian king Nebuhadnezzar came and besieged Jerusalem. Jeremiah was thrown into prison by the wicked Jewish king Zedekiah because he was predicting a Babylonian victory.

In that bleak situation, a strange word came to him from God. The Lord told him to buy a field from his cousin because he was the closest relative with a right of redemption. This would be like telling someone to buy a house in Sarajevo when it was under siege. It was obvious that the country was about to fall to a foreign king, who would confiscate all property. So you would be throwing away your money. But God told Jeremiah to buy it as a testimony of the Lord’s faithfulness to His promise to restore His people to the land. So Jeremiah obeyed God and handed over the precious little money he had to purchase this field. In that context Jeremiah prayed, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You” (Jer. 32:17). The Lord confirmed Jeremiah’s prayer by answering, “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jer. 32:27).

If God has you in a humanly impossible situation, it is to bring you to the end of your own strength so that you will trust in His ability to do the humanly impossible. You may not ever see the answer in your lifetime. But you can trust in Him and give glory to Him, knowing that His Word of promise will stand, and that He has not forgotten His promise to you. In Genesis 18:10, the Lord says to Abraham and Sarah, “I will surely return to you ....” God’s Word to us is always surely, even when circumstances shout, “No way!” Remember God’s question, “Is anything too difficult for Me?” and trust Him to do what is humanly impossible. May He bless you as you wait on Him!

Discussion Questions

  1. What would you tell someone who said, “I want to believe, but I just don’t have the strong faith you have”?
  2. How can we know whether God’s delay means “no,” or whether we should keep seeking Him for the answer we desire?
  3. Sometimes Christians say that we need a certain amount of self-confidence. Is this biblically sound? Why/why not?
  4. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to trust God for? Why was it so difficult?

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: Faith, Rewards, Spiritual Life

Lesson 39: Prevailing With God (Genesis 18:16-33)

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A bank president was standing in front of the automatic teller in the lobby one day while it performed a transaction rather slowly. After a brief wait, he was heard to say, “Come on--it’s me!

Automatic tellers treat bank presidents the same as everybody else. But what about God? Can I expect Him to respond to my prayers in a special way because it’s me? While it’s true that God is no respecter of persons, it’s also true that some are friends of God in a special sense. They know God and they see answers to prayer more consistently than others. The old saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know, that counts” is true. Connections make a difference. Being the friend of God is the ultimate connection.

Abraham was the friend of God (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23). In Genesis 18 we see him entertaining the Lord and two angels who appeared in bodily form. After he served them a meal, they told him and Sarah that the next year the promised son would be given, as Sarah would bear Isaac. Then the men arose, looked down toward Sodom, and began to walk in that direction, as Abraham accompanied them. The Lord spoke so that Abraham could overhear Him, and let Abraham know about the impending judgment of Sodom. Then, as the two angels proceeded toward Sodom, Abraham stayed alone with the Lord and engaged in the first instance of intercessory prayer recorded in the Bible.

It’s a remarkable scene, as Abraham takes the role of a defense attorney for Sodom, arguing before the bench of divine justice. He gets God to agree that if there are 50 righteous people in Sodom, He will stay the execution. Then he cautiously moves to 45. God agrees. Abraham dares to move to 40, then 30, 20, and finally to ten. There Abraham rests his case, having prevailed with God. While God did not find ten righteous people in Sodom, He did honor Abraham’s prayer by rescuing Lot and his family before destroying that region and all its inhabitants (Gen. 19:29). We learn that ...

God wants His friends to prevail with Him as the righteous and merciful Judge of all the earth.

The passage reveals the role of God’s people as the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). Because of Abraham, God would have been willing to spare Sodom if only ten righteous people could have been found in it. Wicked societies tend to despise righteous people, and yet it is because of the righteous that God’s judgment is often withheld. There are times in history when God declares that a wicked nation has filled up the measure of their sins (see Gen. 15:16). When that occurs, even the godly cannot deliver that people from judgment (Ezek. 14:14, 20). But until that point of no return is reached, God’s people are the safeguard of a nation, as they pray and live righteously before God.

Sodom and Gomorrah had gone over the brink. God had determined to judge those evil cities and hold them up as a warning to all future generations of His coming final judgment. Since that day is drawing near, this passage applies to us all. God wants us, as His friends, to prevail with Him concerning His plan of righteousness and justice for all nations. As we pray, God will be pleased to save many before that great and awful day. The first thing we learn is that ...

1. God reveals His plan of righteousness and justice to His friends.

Verse 19 can be translated as either “I have chosen him,” or “I have known him.” H. C. Leupold translates it, “For I acknowledge him to be My intimate friend” (Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 1:544). The Lord shares His secrets with His friends. Jesus told His disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Abraham here is shown to be God’s friend, as the Lord reveals the divine plan to him.

A. God’s plan of righteousness and justice is to be spread to all nations, beginning with the family.

Abraham was God’s chosen channel of blessing to all the nations (Gen. 12:3). The fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham centered in Jesus Christ, the Savior, Abraham’s descendant through Isaac. God’s purpose is to bless all the nations through Abraham’s seed, but not to save all from judgment, as seen here with Sodom. Verse 19 shows the interplay between God’s covenant and Abraham’s responsibilities in light of that covenant. While God’s promises to Abraham were unconditional, at the same time Abraham’s training his family in God’s ways was an essential part of the fulfillment of those promises.

Note the importance of the family in God’s plan. God states that He had known Abraham as His friend “in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (18:19). Fathers (the biblical commands for training children are most often directed to fathers, not mothers) are responsible to instill the Lord’s way, which involves righteousness and justice, upon their children.

Righteousness refers to conduct which conforms to the ethical or moral standard stemming from God’s character. Justice points to the administration of God’s righteousness in human affairs, such as government and society, through honest and consistent application of the law. In other words, we are to teach our children through both example and instruction how to live so as to please God both as individuals and in society.

The context of verse 19, where Abraham pleads with God concerning the impending judgment of Sodom, implies that we are to show our children the importance of prayer, especially prayer for a lost world that faces God’s judgment. One tool I have found useful is Frontier Fellowship’s “Global Prayer Digest” (1605 Elizabeth St., Pasadena, CA 91104, available in our narthex), which gives a story and prayer need of a different people group for each day of the month. As parents, we should be praying both for and with our children frequently, especially for the lost.

A Senator was speaking at a church men’s dinner when the subject of prayer in public schools came up. The Senator asked the men how many of them believed in prayer in the public schools, and almost every man raised his hand. Then he asked, “How many of you pray daily with your children in the home?” Only a few hands were raised!

The family is at the heart of God’s plan to bless all the nations through Abraham’s descendant, the Lord Jesus Christ. Pray for your children and train them so that they grow up with a vision of taking the gospel to those who have not yet heard. To do that, we must understand God’s plan of righteousness and justice:

B. God’s plan of righteousness and justice means that no sin escapes His notice and judgment.

The Lord tells Abraham, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave” (18:20). When Cain killed Abel, the Lord said, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). Sin cries out to God. Just as right now there are many sounds surrounding us which we can’t hear without a radio to tune them in, so we are not aware of all the sins around us; but God is. It cries out to Him for His righteous judgment. In speaking to Abraham, God adopts human language in reference to Himself (18:21), but He’s making a point: Whenever He inflicts judgment, He does it on the basis of His perfect knowledge and justice.

The world rejects the notion of God’s judgment. Sodom had a taste of it 15 years before, when the kings of the east conquered the city and captured all the people and their goods. But Abraham had rescued them and restored all their possessions. Most of them shrugged off the incident as bad luck and continued full bore with their sin. But it should have served notice, that they needed to repent of their sin before it was too late.

In Sodom, everybody got up that final morning assuming that it would be like any other day. If you had asked the man on the street, “How’s it going?” he would have replied, “Great! The stock market’s up, the city’s not at war, I’ve got a good job, life is good!” And yet 24 hours later, he and everyone else were dead and the city was destroyed. To the pagans living nearby, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was an unfortunate natural disaster. If it had happened in our day, there would be footage on the evening news, along with explanations by geologists about how this sort of thing occurs. But no one would be saying, “The holy God of heaven has judged a wicked people.”

While God’s judgment always comes suddenly, it never comes without ample warning. These examples have been given to warn us, so that we won’t be deceived into thinking that because God’s judgment is delayed, it’s not coming. I believe the current AIDS epidemic is God’s merciful warning that an even more terrible judgment is going to follow. Our world glibly shrugs it off with the optimism that we’ll find a cure. Meanwhile, make sure that you protect yourself in your immorality by using condoms! You may be safe in your immorality and escape AIDS. But AIDS is mild compared to the terrors of hell! God’s plan of righteousness and justice means that no sin escapes His notice and His judgment. When you stand before God, either your sin will be upon Christ because you have fled to the cross, or you will stand condemned by the holy God.

God has revealed His plan of righteousness and justice to us, His friends. What are we to do with this knowledge? We’ve already seen that we are to do righteousness and justice and teach our children the same. But also,

2. God wants His friends to prevail in prayer with Him.

The two angels start off on the path toward Sodom. The Lord hasn’t directly told Abraham that He is going to judge that wicked city, but Abraham puts two and two together. So he cautiously approaches the Lord and argues his case. Here we see both the heart of God, who delights in the prayers of His people, and the heart of Abraham, who pleads God’s mercy for these sinful people.

There are four principles of prevailing prayer in these verses:

A. To prevail with God we must draw near to His presence.

Abraham was still standing before the Lord and then he came near (18:22-23). Only those who are close to God can intercede with Him on behalf of others. Abraham was separate from Sodom; Lot was living in it and caught up in its sinful ways. It was Abraham, not Lot, who interceded for it. There is a distinct contrast between Abraham, living peaceably in his tent, where he entertains the Lord and the angels, and Lot, living in a house (which Abraham never had), in the fast lane of wicked Sodom.

Donald Grey Barnhouse observes, “The longer one remains in the presence of God, the more proper perspective he gains on the world and all that is therein” (Genesis [Zondervan], p. 158). How true! You don’t have to wallow in the mud of the world to understand it. The Bible gives us an adequate understanding of sin and its consequences. If we walk in holiness before God and meditate on His Word, we’ll have enough insight on the world and on people, so that we can pray for and counsel them properly.

B. To prevail with God we must appeal to His Person.

Abraham appeals to God based on who God is, namely, the just “Judge of all the earth” (18:25), and that He is merciful. Since He is merciful, Abraham could ask that He spare the whole wicked city on behalf of the few righteous. And yet He is just: He will not ultimately treat the righteous and the wicked in the same manner. When we pray, we must keep both aspects of God’s character in view. In Paul’s words, we must remember both the kindness and severity of God (Rom. 11:22), and pray accordingly.

Underlying this is Abraham’s concern for God’s reputation, or glory. He’s concerned that if God wipes out the righteous with the wicked, others will question His justice. Abraham was not quite right, in that sometimes God’s temporal judgment falls on both the righteous and the wicked (Luke 13:1-5). God always does right, no matter how it appears to sinful men. But Abraham’s motive was right, to appeal to the reputation of God and to desire that God look good (= “be glorified”) in the world.

When we pray, we should appeal to Him on the basis of His glory and His person, as revealed in His Word, especially the balance between His mercy and His judgment. Sometimes people will ask me to pray for a loved one who is ill. When I ask, “What should I pray?” they’re taken aback. They assume that we should pray that the person be healed. But the illness may be God’s way of bringing the person to repentance and faith. Our prayers should be in line with God’s glory and His merciful and yet holy person.

C. To prevail with God we must maintain a right perspective.

Abraham displays a reverent boldness toward the Lord, but never presumption (see 18:27, 30, 31, 32). In verse 27, he uses the word “Adonai,” meaning Lord or Master. He is quick to acknowledge that he is but dust and ashes. Note that the Lord doesn’t correct Abraham by saying, “You need to boost your self-esteem!” John Calvin points out “that the nearer Abraham approaches to God, the more fully sensible does he become of the miserable and abject condition of men” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:490). God has told us to come boldly before His throne in prayer, but only that we may receive mercy and grace (Heb. 4:16). We draw near only as unworthy sinners who appeal to Him on the merit and worthiness of Jesus Christ.

Abraham also maintained the proper perspective toward those for whom he prayed. There is no hint that he thought of himself as better than those in Sodom. He knew many of these people from the time he rescued them from the kings of the east. He easily could have looked down on them: “I risked my neck for these no-good bums and now look at them! When are they going to wise up?” But Abraham prayed for Sodom with the very real awareness of his own sinfulness. We need that same perspective in our prayers. We need a reverent boldness in coming before the Lord and arguing our case. But we need to remember at all times that we’re unworthy sinners who have found mercy. As Leupold comments, “A man who has himself received mercy seeks to secure mercy for others” (1:549).

To prevail with God we must draw near to His presence; appeal to His person; maintain our perspective; and,

D. To prevail with God we must persevere in our pleading.

Abraham continued on from point to point, daring to ask God for more, until he went as far as he dared. Someone has said that Abraham ceased asking before God ceased giving. My opinion is that Abraham sensed that he was at the limit at ten, and that if he went further he would no longer be pleading according to God’s will. God answered Abraham by rescuing Lot and his family before destroying Sodom. We need to remember that prayer is not getting God to do my will, but rather His will.

And yet Jesus taught that we need to persist in prayer. He told the parable of the man whose friend came late at night asking for bread. The man and his family were already in bed, but this “friend” kept banging on his door. Jesus applied it to our need to keep knocking on heaven’s door (Luke 11:8-10). He also told of the judge, who would not listen to the repeated pleas of the widow. But finally, to get some relief, he gave her what she wanted. How much more, said Jesus, will God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him (Luke 18:4-8). Persevere in prayer!


If we could read a transcript of our prayers over the past week, I have a hunch that many of them would be for personal needs: “Lord, help me with this exam, help me get a job, heal me of this disease,” etc. These are legitimate topics for prayer, of course. But in the Lord’s prayer, the first item of business is the honor and purpose of the Father: “Hallowed be Your name; Your kingdom come, Your will be done” (Matt. 6:9-10). After that comes prayer for our needs. Our prayers, like Abraham’s, should center on what God is doing in the world. Pray for God to be glorified by showing mercy to lost family members, lost friends and neighbors. Pray for lost nations and the missionaries who are seeking to reach them with the gospel. Pray for this church, that God would be glorified here. Pray for our lost city and nation, that God would stay His hand of judgment and that many would turn from their sin and trust in Him.

Years ago, the China Inland Mission discovered that the number and spiritual strength of the converts at one station far exceeded anyone’s expectations and could not be accounted for by anything exceptional about the missionary personnel there. The mystery remained unsolved until Hudson Taylor visited England. There, at the close of Taylor’s message, a man from the audience stepped forward to greet him. In the ensuing conversation, Taylor learned that the man had detailed knowledge of this station.

“How is it,” asked Taylor, “that you are so conversant with the conditions of that work?” “Oh,” he replied, “for four years I have corresponded with my missionary friend there. He has sent me the names of inquirers and converts, and I have daily taken these names to God in prayer.” Taylor realized the answer to the puzzle: the daily, specific, prevailing prayer of this man had brought eternal fruit for God’s glory. God wants us, His friends, to prevail with Him concerning His plan of righteousness and justice for the nations.

Discussion Questions

  1. If God is going to accomplish His sovereign plan, why do we need to pray about it?
  2. Some say that since there is no biblical command or example of praying for someone’s salvation, we should not do so. Your response?
  3. Why is God not unjust if the righteous suffer along with the wicked? How would you answer a skeptic?
  4. How can we know when to persevere in prayer and when God is saying “no”?
  5. What do you find most difficult about maintaining a consistent prayer life? What has helped you most in your prayer life?

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: Prayer, Spiritual Life

Lesson 40: The Tragedy Of Worldly Believers (Genesis 19:1-29)

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Pastor John MacArthur tells of reading a book that told of a pastor who had been sent to prison for robbing 14 banks to finance his numerous engagements with prostitutes. The author of the book was convinced that the man was a true Christian. MacArthur writes, “Call me old-fashioned, but I think it is fair to raise the question of whether someone who regularly robs banks to pay for illicit sex is truly saved!” (Faith Works [Word], p. 127.)

As you read the story of Lot in Genesis 19, the same question arises: Was Lot truly saved? If all we had to go on was the Genesis record, I would vote no. But, the Apostle Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, calls him a righteous man, “oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men,” whose “righteous soul” was “tormented day after day with their lawless deeds” (2 Pet. 2:7, 8). God, who alone knows the hearts of every person, knew that Lot had been justified by faith (as Abraham was, Gen. 15:6). Even though he was greatly tainted by Sodom’s wickedness, he did not participate in it. Apparently Lot’s conscience troubled him at what he saw around him, although not enough to cause him to flee on his own. He tried to restrain the evil men from their intended sin against the heavenly visitors. Although he had to be dragged from the city to escape its destruction, he did obey by not looking back. But he suffered tragic consequences for his conformity to this evil world. Lot’s life teaches us that ...

When believers live in conformity to this corrupt world, tragic consequences result.

Lot had moved to Sodom to pursue the good life (Gen. 13:10). He had done well financially. He had a house in a prosperous city (Ezek. 16:49). He may have had a seat on the city council, as seen in his sitting in the gate (comparable to city hall). But he ends up escaping with the clothes on his back, losing his wife, and hiding in a cave with his two daughters who make him drunk and commit incest with him so that they can have children. Lot is a sad picture of a man who sought to gain his life, but lost it. He was saved by the grace of God, but saved so as through fire (1 Cor. 3:15)--singed, stripped of every-thing, traumatized by the severe discipline of the Lord.

I fear that there are many believers in our day who are vainly trying, like Lot, to live for the best of both worlds. They have been told by modern evangelists what Jesus will do for them in the here and now: He will help you overcome your personal problems, reach your goals, succeed in business, in marriage, and all of life. They also throw in heaven as an added bonus, although it doesn’t sell as well as the lure of success. So people sign up for success with Jesus, not realizing that He promised trials and hardships in this life. In the Bible, the main reason for trusting in Christ is that He delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10), of which God’s judgment on Sodom is mild by comparison. If we would see the world for what it is, we might not be so quick to live for the vain things it offers.

1. The world is thoroughly corrupt.

Sodom shows us the world without God. On one level, it is an ugly, repulsive picture. It was a city where it wasn’t safe to be on the streets after dark, where not only the young men, but even the old (19:4) were living to satisfy their lusts, even if it meant homosexually raping two visitors. But on another level, Sodom, like our society, had its attractive side. It was sophisticated and prosperous. “She and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, ...” (Ezek. 16:49). The apostle John says that the world entices us with “the craze for sex, the ambition to buy everything that appeals to you, and the pride that comes from wealth and importance” (1 John 2:16, Living Bible). So even though we know from the Bible that the world is corrupt and under God’s judgment, it still has its appeal.

Both Isaiah and Jeremiah condemn Israel for acting like Sodom, in that they not only indulged in evil, but they openly encouraged it and didn’t even try to conceal it (Isa. 3:9; Jer. 23:14). When a society openly flaunts sin, it has become thoroughly corrupt. When it openly accepts and practices homosexuality, it is a sign that God has given that society over to degrading passions (Rom. 1:26-27). It is in the final stages of corruption. Even when the angels struck them blind (the Hebrew word means a temporary, confused daze), instead of repenting, they wearied themselves stupidly trying to persist in their sin (19:11). They remind me of our wicked society which, when struck by the AIDS plague, encourages everyone to have safe sex, but continues full bore in its sin without a thought of God or repentance.

What we need to keep in mind is that though this corrupt world has its enticing side, it is doomed for destruction even as Sodom was. Lot was living in and was conformed to this corrupt world. But before we point our finger at Lot, we need to realize that ...

2. Many Christians live in conformity to our corrupt world.

Like Lot, much of the American church has moved into downtown Sodom. We’re so surrounded by its stench that we don’t notice it any more. W. H. Griffith Thomas observes, “A ship in the water is perfectly right, but water in the ship would be perfectly wrong. The Christian in the world is right and necessary, but the world in the Christian is wrong and disastrous” (Genesis: A Devotional Commentary [Eerdmans], p. 174.)

The solution is to recognize the signs of corruption and “don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within” (Rom. 12:2, Phillips). To recognize and resist the signs of corruption and to be renewed in our minds, we’ve got to saturate ourselves with God’s Word. While there are many marks of conformity to the world, our text reveals six. You can test yourself, to see how much water you’ve let into your ship, perhaps without even knowing it.

Signs of conformity to the world:

(1) You’re living for the same goals as the world. Lot moved to Sodom for the same reason other people moved to Sodom: to get ahead financially. He didn’t go there to reach Sodom for God. He went there to get rich just like everyone else. But Paul warned: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction (1 Tim. 6:9). Wrong goals!

Tom Sine has observed that often the only difference between Christians and their pagan neighbors is that we hang around church buildings a little more. We’ve reduced Christianity “to little more than a spiritual crutch to help us through the minefields of the upwardly mobile life. God is there to help us get our promotions, our house in the suburbs, and our bills paid. Somehow God has become a co-conspirator in our agendas instead of our becoming a co-conspirator in His” (Christianity Today [3/17/89], p. 52). Each of us needs to ask, “How are my goals in life different than those of the guy next door who doesn’t know Jesus Christ?” The Lord said that unbelievers eagerly seek for material prosperity, but His followers are to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:31-33).

So check out your goals. If, like everybody else in the world, you’re just living to become financially secure, to make a comfortable living, you’re being conformed to the world. If you’re living for the world’s goals, sooner or later you’ll be tainted by the world’s moral corruption.

(2) You’re expedient in morals. At first, it looks as if Lot has avoided the moral pollution of Sodom. When the men of the city try to force the two visitors outside, Lot goes out and says, “Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly” (19:7). But what he says next is unbelievable: He offers them his two virgin daughters to rape as they please (19:8)! He was trying to prevent one awful sin by suggesting another! He was setting aside morality because of a pressing emergency. He wouldn’t normally sacrifice his daughters, but what else could he do? His daughters learned from him (19:31-38); once they saw their situation in the cave as an emergency, then getting their father drunk and getting pregnant by him was not a moral problem. What else could they do in such a predicament?

It’s easy to have moral standards when the pressure is off. But what about when the pressure is on? Then it’s easy to make up excuses for why what formerly was wrong is now O.K. What is wrong for everyone else is all right for you, because of your unique situation. Look out! If you change your morals to adapt to the situation, you’re blending in with the world!

(3) You’re more concerned for your status than for your family. Lot was willing to sacrifice his daughters to save his guests because there was a strong social custom which said that you had to protect those who came under your roof as guests. But in Sodom, there wasn’t much social stigma connected with sexual immorality. So to protect his status in the community, Lot tried to protect his guests at the expense of his daughters.

I’m sure none of us would do what Lot did, but we often do other things to protect our status at the expense of our families. We work long hours to try to succeed financially, even though it means neglecting the family. Why do we do that? We want the status that comes from success. What do you think of when you hear that someone is successful? That he raised his family to fear the Lord or that he made it financially? Success with your family just doesn’t carry the same weight in our culture as financial success. When we buy into that view of status, we’re being conformed to the world.

(4) You’re not respected by the world for your beliefs. In all these years that Lot had lived in Sodom, there may have been a few times when he had tried to tell them about God. But now when he weakly tries to tell the Sodomites they’re wrong, they don’t respect him (19:9). He doesn’t even have any credibility with his future sons-in-law, who think he’s joking about God judging Sodom (19:14). The reason they didn’t believe him was that it was so out of character for him to get alarmed about spiritual matters. For years he had lived quietly in Sodom, pursuing the same goals as everyone else. So when he “gets religion,” nobody believes him.

Of course, there always will be mockers in the world. No committed Christian will win a popularity contest on the job. But there’s a difference between being liked and being respected. When the world doesn’t respect you for your Christian stand, it may be because you’ve lived like them for so long that it seems out of character for you to suddenly be so concerned about God and morality. The world may not like your viewpoint, but if you live consistently before them, usually they will respect you.

(5) You’re not sure you want to give up the world, even when it’s going to cost you your life. Lot had to flee so that he wouldn’t be destroyed with that wicked city. And yet he hesitated (19:15- 16)! He couldn’t have saved anything if he had remained behind. He would have lost even his own life; and yet he hesitated. It reminds me of the gag Jack Benny used to do, where a robber sticks a gun in his face and says, “Your money or your life!” Jack hesitates. The gunman snarls, “Well?” Jack says, “Don’t rush me! I’m thinking about it.”

Why did Lot hesitate? Because, as Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). Your heart always follows your treasure. If your treasure is in your things, then you won’t want to give them up, even if it costs you your life to hang on to them. The doctor may tell you that if you keep working at the pace you’re going at now, you’ll have a heart attack. But you’re not sure you want to slow down, even though it will cost you your life, because you want all the things you can get with your money. That’s a sign of conformity to the world.

(6) You attempt to keep a little bit of sin in your life, even when God is dealing severely with you. Lot and his wife and two daughters reluctantly leave Sodom, dragged out by the two angels. The angels urgently tell him to flee for his life, and incredibly, Lot wants to barter with them to keep a bit of his old way of life intact. He thanks them for their mercy in saving him, but then he protests that he can’t flee to the mountains as they tell him to do. That would be just a bit too much. Instead, he wants permission to go to a small town nearby, the implication being that since the town was small (Zoar means “small”), its sins won’t be too bad. Derek Kidner observes, “Not even brimstone will make a pilgrim of him: he must have his little Sodom again if life is to be supportable” (Genesis [IVP], p. 135). Note that God didn’t prevent him. The Lord will let you hang onto your sinful way if you insist on it.

It’s easy to do as Lot did. You become a Christian, and God begins to confront you with things in your life that have to go if you want to follow Him. You can find yourself scrambling to preserve as much of the old life as possible, even while God is in the process of stripping you of it: “Lord, I’ll go to church on Sunday morning; just let me spend the rest of my week as I choose. I’ll even give 10 percent, just so I can spend 90 percent as I please. I’ll be outwardly moral; just let me indulge in my mental sins. I’ll give up Sodom; just let me move to Zoar.”

What happens when believers live like the world?

3. When believers live in conformity with the world, it takes a terrible toll.

Who can say what would have happened if Lot had moved to Sodom with a missionary mind-set instead of with a monetary mind-set? Perhaps God would have worked a revival and many in Sodom could have been saved (Matt. 11:23). But as it was, Sodom was destroyed. Lot lost everything he had been working for--his house, his flocks, and his wealth all was destroyed in an instant. Not only that, he lost his wife. Probably she lingered behind, her heart not ready to let go of the good life in Sodom. Overcome by the fumes, she was instantly encrusted with the mineral deposits that fell from the sky, much like the people of Pompeii were entombed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

It is possible that Lot lost other sons and daughters who did not follow him out of the city. The two daughters who were dragged out by the angels had been irreparably tainted by Sodom’s moral corruption, as seen by their incestuous degradation with their father. So Lot, who tried to gain it all, lost it all. By the grace of God and by the skin of his teeth, Lot was saved. But his life and his family’s lives were wasted from an eternal point of view.

This section of the story ends with a poignant scene. Abraham returns to the place where he had pled with the Lord. He looks down and silently gazes on the smoke rising from Sodom’s destruction. We aren’t told what he thought as he looked. Except for the fact that the story of Lot is in the Bible, we don’t know whether Abraham ever found out whether his prayers for his wayward nephew were answered, so that Lot was rescued before destruction fell. But as Abraham stood there and looked at this once-prosperous city laid waste by the just judgment of God, he must have thought, “What a waste!”


A Presbyterian pastor reported that he was talking with a colleague about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. She said, “Well, if that’s the way God really is, then I’m not going to believe in Him!” That’s strange logic! If God is a holy God who pours out His wrath on unbelieving sinners, then we had better believe in Him!

You may not like the idea of a holy God who judges unrepentant sinners. But your not liking it doesn’t change who God is! The fact is, you cannot believe in Jesus Christ, even as merely a good teacher, and not believe in the awful terrors of hell, because Jesus spoke often and plainly about it. In fact, Jesus used this story of Sodom’s destruction, which overtook them as they went about their daily routines, to warn us of God’s final judgment. He said, “But on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.... Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:29-30, 32).

Jonathan Edwards, in a sermon on the text, “Remember Lot’s wife,” points out the numerous descriptions of hell given in Scripture: blackness of darkness, a never-dying worm, a furnace of fire, a lake of fire and brimstone, etc. He explains that the reason so many metaphors are used is because none of them are sufficient to represent the awful misery of that place. He then states,

You have therefore much more need to make haste in your escape, and not to look behind you, than Lot and his wife had when they fled out of Sodom; for you are every day and every moment in danger of a thousand times more dreadful storm coming on your heads, than that which came on Sodom, when the Lord rained brimstone and fire ... out of heaven upon them; so that it will be vastly more sottish in you to look back than it was in Lot’s wife. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:66.)

There were probably many in Sodom who said, “If that hypocrite Lot is a believer, then I don’t want any part of it.” They perished in their sin. Perhaps others thought, “I’m a better person than that phony Lot,” and maybe they were better. But they perished that awful day. Others said, “I believe in a God of love, not a God of judgment.” They found out that their belief didn’t change who God is. They perished. The only ones who were saved were those who were the objects of God’s compassion (19:16), who heeded the urgent warning of the angels and fled for their lives.

I once preached a funeral service where the family had printed on the memorial bulletin John 3:16. But it was printed as follows: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” But they left out some crucial words: “whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Either you have eternal life through faith in Jesus or you shall perish! I urge you as the angels urged Lot, “Escape for your life!” Flee to Jesus Christ and you will not perish in the day of God’s judgment!

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it wrong to pursue wealth (consider 1 Tim. 6:9)? How should a Christian balance seeking career success with Matthew 6:33?
  2. Should Christians seek to move from an especially wicked city? How can we raise godly children in our corrupt society?
  3. Are there two classes of believers, the “carnal Christian” and the spiritual? What errors have resulted from this teaching?
  4. Should we warn unbelievers of hell when we tell them of the gospel? How urgent should we be in our appeal to them?
  5. Can a worldly Christian have assurance of salvation?

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, Failure, Rewards, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 41: A Father Who Failed (Genesis 19:30-38)

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A few years ago, I read of a pastor who left his wife to marry his secretary, who left her husband. That’s bad enough, but then they both murdered their former mates! The pastor, disguised as a robber, shot his lover’s husband with her help in full view of the man’s children! To top it off, the pastor and his new wife were planning to move to another state and set up a counseling ministry!

Whenever you hear of professing Christians who have fallen into gross sin, you ask yourself, “How did they ever get to this low level?” If the people involved had made no claim of being Christians, it would be one thing. But when they claim to know God and then commit the worst kind of sins imaginable, you wonder what’s going on.

Lot’s story is like that. If Lot were not a believer, you would say, “That’s the way this evil world is.” But Peter emphasizes that Lot was a righteous man (2 Pet. 2:7-8). So when you read about his two daughters getting him drunk and committing incest with him, you wonder how a believer could get to that low point.

Lot’s terrible sin should make us realize that just being a believer isn’t enough. Christians can fall into sins that are just as bad as those committed by unbelievers. Though Lot was a believer, he failed miserably with God and as a father. I want to examine why, so that none of us will fail the Lord and our families as Lot did.

The reason Lot failed is illustrated by an event that happened on June 5, 1976. On that day, under clear skies, without warning, the massive Teton Dam in southeastern Idaho collapsed, sending a torrent of water surging into the Snake River basin. There was extensive property damage and loss of life. It seemed to happen so quickly. Some workers on the dam barely had time to run for their lives.

But it really didn’t happen suddenly. Beneath the water line, a hidden fault had been gradually weakening the entire structure. It started with just a tiny bit of erosion. But by the time it was detected, it was too late. No one had seen the little flaw; no one got hurt by it. But everyone saw the big collapse, and many were hurt (adapted from Luis Palau, Heart After God [Multnomah Press], p. 68).

That’s what happened to Lot. He allowed little sins in his life to go unchecked. They weren’t major, shocking kinds of sins--just “little” sins. But they were steadily eroding his moral character, until finally the sordid incident recorded here burst the dam. It teaches us that,

A father fails his family when he allows little sins to go unchecked until they result in big sins.

I’m using the words “little” and “big” from the human perspective. By little sins I mean sins that people don’t consider serious, sins that we all tend to tolerate. By big sins, I mean sins like murder, adultery, homosexuality, rape, incest, child abuse, etc., sins that raise eyebrows and make us recoil in shock, sins that destroy families and reputations, leaving a trail of destruction. By the way, the problem of incest (which occurs in our text in a reverse way, with the daughters initiating it) is a major hidden, but devastating problem, in many professing Christian homes. How do such big sins ever happen?

1. Big sins always begin with little compromises.

Lot’s downward path began with the choice to take the best land for himself (Gen. 13:1-13). It was a choice based on selfishness and greed, with no regard for Abraham or for the will of God. It resulted in Lot moving his tents near the wicked city of Sodom. In making this move, Lot was acting on the same goals as those in the world: he was trying to get ahead financially, with no concern for furthering God’s purpose.

About this time, the Lord gave Lot a warning which should have jarred him into re-thinking his priorities. Four kings from the east swept into Sodom and captured everyone, including Lot, his family, and all his possessions. He should have gotten the message, that to pursue the things of this world is to chase a soap bubble. But he didn’t listen. As soon as Abraham rescued him and (to Lot’s shock) refused all the spoils of Sodom, Lot moved back to Sodom.

We next find him sitting in the gate and living in a house in Sodom (Gen. 19:1, 2). Things have gone well for Lot; he’s achieving his financial goals. He has provided a comfortable lifestyle for his family. But we also find that his moral standards have become blurred, as he offers his two daughters to the perverted men of the city, in an attempt to protect his two angelic visitors. Because he had invested in Sodom, Lot was hesitant to leave, even when the angels warned that he would be swept away in the judgment of the city.

But the angels dragged him and his family out of the city and urged him to flee to the mountains. Even then Lot wanted to preserve as much of the old life as he could, bartering with the angels about fleeing to a small city nearby, even as the brimstone was about to fall from heaven. His wife, who could not quite pull herself away from the things she left behind, perished. Lot and his two daughters fled, first to Zoar, then to a cave in the mountains. Everything he had lived for in Sodom was gone.

So Lot’s final degradation with his daughters was really just the cumulative result of many little compromises with the world that he had been making for years. Greed had led him to Sodom and kept him there in spite of God’s warning. In the Bible, greed is often mentioned next to sexual immorality, because it’s a sin of desiring the things of the flesh. So Lot’s children readily learned the greed and sexual sins of Sodom.

Lot had always been a passive man, who made his choices based on what looked good (Gen. 13:10). He just went with the flow of the world, rather than making hard choices based on the will of God. So his debauched final scene, where his daughters get him drunk and then get themselves pregnant by him without his awareness, fits the pattern of his whole life: Go with the flow. Why not have a little more wine? Why not have sex?

Two observations: First, note the connection between alcohol and sexual immorality. If Lot had refused the wine, he probably would have refused the immorality. Isn’t it interesting that even though the family had just lost everything, they managed to have plenty of wine! People enslaved to alcohol may not have rent money, but they manage to buy their booze! If you choose to drink, you need to know that you’re playing with a dangerous weapon, which Satan has used repeatedly to destroy people. Nobody chooses up front to become addicted to alcohol. They begin by drinking a little; it helps them relax. They would never have a problem if they didn’t start in the first place.

Second, note that when a father is passive, his family members often get frustrated and move in to take the leadership he should have been exercising. Often they go in a wrong direction. Lot’s daughters were frustrated because, due to their father’s passivity and sin, they found themselves sitting in a cave with no prospects for marriage in sight. So they decided on this shameful method of having children. If you are a passive father, just letting your own and your family’s spiritual life drift, you are creating frustration in them that is likely to result in them taking charge of the situation and moving in the wrong direction. So big sins always begin with little compromises.

2. Big sins always follow previously unconfessed sins.

At first glance, when Lot moves from Zoar to the mountains, you might think he was obeying God. The angels had first told him to flee to the mountains, but he got them to agree not to destroy Zoar, where he fled. But here we read that he moved to the mountains. Was he now obeying God? I don’t think so. While I cannot be dogmatic, it seems that Lot was continuing his pattern of disobedience and refusal to confess his sins. In fact, it is likely that by going to the mountains at this point, Lot was deliberately refusing to confess his sins.

You have to ask, Why didn’t Lot return to Abraham? He no longer had too many livestock to live near Abraham; all his possessions had been wiped out in the destruction of Sodom. When the angels told him to flee to the mountains, it is likely that they would have pointed in the direction of the mountains to the west, where they had just come from their visit with Abraham. That was the land God had promised to give to Abraham. Lot had lived there before. Abraham would be a good spiritual influence on Lot.

But we read that Lot’s daughters named their sons Moab and Ben-Ammi, because they were the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites (19:37, 38). If we assume that Lot was living in a cave in the mountains of the region that later would be the territory of Moab and Ammon, then it means that he had gone to the east of Zoar, not to the west. He had moved deliberately in the opposite direction from which the angels had told him to go, in the opposite direction from where Abraham lived.

Why did Lot do that? Because if he returned to Abraham, he would have to confess his sin and face up to the wrong choices he had made over the last 15 or 20 years. He would have to humble his pride and receive help from Abraham. Lot would rather live destitute in a cave, without admitting his sin, than to confess his sin and dwell with Abraham’s abundance.

A lot of people refuse to come to God for salvation for the same reason. They don’t want to humble themselves and confess their sin. If they would do that, they could enjoy all the abundance Christ offers, just as Lot could have feasted at Abraham’s table. But like Lot, they go in the opposite direction and live in a cave, destitute and fearful, but clinging to their pride.

When you keep a little bit of sin in your life and refuse to obey God, fear results. There is no security or peace or rest, when your trust is in this world. Lot probably was afraid that Zoar would be destroyed for its sins, just as Sodom had been. He didn’t have to fear that, because he had the angels’ promise that he would be safe there. But when you don’t confess your sins, you can’t trust God, so you are hounded by fears of your own making. As Isaiah 57:21 says, “‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’”

If Lot had just confessed his sins, he would have been safe in Abraham’s company, not cowering in fear in a cave in the mountains of Moab. His refusal to confess his sins led directly to the gross sins which culminate his sordid story. It’s so much better to confess your sins. Proverbs 28:13 states, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.”

Big sins always begin with little compromises and they always follow previously unconfessed sins.

3. Big sins are often rationalized away.

Lot’s daughters dishonor their father by making him drunk and then add the sin of immorality through incest. It wasn’t accidental; they carefully planned their strategy. And it wasn’t enough that one would sin in this manner; they collaborated together and both committed this terrible sin. But note how they not only justify their sin (19:31-32), but they repeat their reason before the second sister commits her sin (19:34), to convince themselves that it’s okay.

First they create a false crisis, a worst case scenario: “There aren’t any men on earth we can marry!” It shouldn’t have been all that difficult to match the caliber of the men in Sodom! But they’re pushing the panic button. Then they add a noble reason to make it sound spiritual: “We need to preserve our family line.” But they’re just rationalizing gross sin.

Of course they had learned that trick from their father. He had engaged his daughters to men of Sodom. “Where else will I find husbands for them?” he probably asked. He was ready to give his daughters to be raped by the evil Sodomites to spare his guests from the same fate. It was a noble cause, and besides, what else could he do? He disobeyed God by bartering with the angels to stay in Zoar with the excuse that he would die if he fled to the mountains. Never mind that God said he would be safe there. And besides, Zoar was just a little town; its sins wouldn’t be too bad. Lot had a pattern of rationalizing his sin. His daughters had learned well.

It never occurred to them that they could pray and wait on God to provide them the husbands they desired. They never mention the Lord. They had never seen their father seek the Lord for anything. They had never seen him wait on God in prayer. He hadn’t sought the Lord about the decision to move to Sodom or, more recently, to the mountains. He never sought the Lord for any decisions in his life. So his daughters learned from him how to make up excuses for doing what you want to do, and to make it sound spiritual in the process.

A few years ago a well-known author and Bible teacher left his wife and moved in with a younger woman, whom he subsequently married. A speaker at our men’s retreat said that he had seen this man, whom he knew, at a taping of a television show. When he spoke to the man about his sin, the man said that everyone has an area of weakness, and his just happened to be women. And, the other man shouldn’t judge him, since he had his own areas of weakness, too! He was rationalizing his sin!

Big sins begin with little compromises; they follow previous unconfessed sins; they are often rationalized away.

4. Big sins always spread and persist.

Lot’s sin spread to his daughters. So did his fears. He feared staying in Zoar; they feared that they wouldn’t find husbands. But isn’t it interesting that nobody feared the Lord, in spite of what they had just witnessed with regard to Sodom! The older daughter, who should have been an example, instead led her younger sister into sin (19:31). The result was Moab and Ammon, two perpetual enemies of Israel. Moab’s king would later hire Balaam who counseled them to seduce Israelite men with their women (Numbers 25). The Ammonites worshiped a god named “Molech.” Part of their religious devotion involved sacrificing their children to their god by throwing them into a raging fire. Israel itself was judged by God for following this detestable practice. Unconfessed sins spread and persist, sometimes for generations.

If you’re not continually confronting your life, beginning with your thoughts, by the holy standard of God’s Word, you begin to evaluate your behavior as Lot’s daughters did, “after the manner of the earth” (19:31). Compared to what they were used to seeing in Sodom, drunkenness and incest were no big deal, especially if it served a noble purpose! By degrees, a culture that is living after “the manner of the earth” degenerates into increasingly abhorrent corruption, but it doesn’t regard it as bad!

When I grew up, my parents would not allow me to attend movies or go to school dances, because they thought these activities were opposed to Christian standards. If you know anything about the movies from the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, you know that now you can find far worse language, sexual perversion, nudity, violence, and evil plots on network TV any night of the week than those movies contained. Hollywood keeps pushing the limits of corruption. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they introduce something “new,” like cannibalism or incest or child molestation.

Three years ago, it was reported that a San Francisco State psychology professor serves as an advisor to a Dutch journal that advocates pedophilia. He told Newsweek [11/1/93] that pedophilia is “not intrinsically” wrong and that U.S. views are skewed by cases of adults preying on children: “Are we going to let the sickos run society? Are we going to deny children, and adults, freedom to enjoy in life what could benefit them?” He said that his interest in the journal is “purely academic.” If you throw out God’s standards, who is to say that the man is wrong?

Little sins that are not dealt with spread into big sins. Big sins spread to others and persist for years. Lot’s daughters succeeded all too well in “preserving their family” through their father. They not only preserved their father’s family, but also their father’s sins!


If you want to honor God and avoid the failures that ruined Lot and his family, you’ve got to confront your sin on the thought level. Concerning lust, Jesus said that if your eye “makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29)! Those are extreme words! He’s saying that we must get radical in judging our sin, starting on the thought level. Unjudged sins like lust, pride, bitterness, and greed are like cracks below the water line in the dam. You can put up a good front for a long time, but you’re heading for a major disaster, both personally and with your family. As Paul put it, we must take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Luis Palau writes,

Immorality begins with tiny habits sown in your youth. Little things, little attitudes, little habits. Maybe some casual petting on a date, maybe some pornography that fell into your hands, maybe a fascination with sensual novels and stories. Little things. Yet if you don’t crucify them--if you don’t bring them to judgment--if you don’t face up to them for what they are--SIN--they can destroy you. They can blur your moral judgment at a critical, irreversible juncture in life....

Nobody falls into sex sin by chance. Nobody commits fornication, adultery, or homosexuality out of one sudden blast hitting him from somewhere. It builds slowly, slowly, slowly. Falling is just the effect of the cumulative bundle of temptation and passion that has been piling up and has not been crucified. (ibid., pp. 68-69.)

So my word to all, but especially to fathers, is: Deal with the little sins, the ones nobody else can see, before they result in big sins which everyone sees, sins which destroy you and your family. Repair the cracks beneath the surface before the dam bursts!

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree that nobody falls into major sin suddenly? Why/why not?
  2. Is it possible to be blind to certain sins that could be eroding one’s spiritual life? How can we keep blind spots from leading to our downfall by surprising us?
  3. What elements are involved in confessing our sin? Must we feel sorry for our sins?
  4. How would you answer someone who said, “God isn’t fair to make children suffer for their parents’ sins”? How can children recover from the sin and abuse of their parents?

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: Fathers, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 42: Besetting Sins (Genesis 20:1-18)

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Four ministers got away for a retreat. As they sat around the fire talking, one pastor said, “Let’s all share our besetting sins. I’ll go first. My besetting sin is that every so often I slip away from the office to the race track and bet on the horses.”

The second pastor volunteered, “My besetting sin is that I keep a bottle of wine down in my basement. When I get really frustrated with my deacons, I sneak down there and have a nip of wine.”

The third pastor gulped and said, “My besetting sin is that I keep a punching bag at home. When I get mad at somebody in the church, I go home and think about that person as I hit the punching bag.”

They all turned to the fourth pastor and asked, “Well, what is your besetting sin?” He hesitated, but they coaxed him. Finally, he said, “My besetting sin is gossip, and I can’t wait to get home!”

We all struggle with besetting sins. They’re like a piece of furniture that you keep hitting your shin against. At some point, you would think you would learn to avoid it. But when it’s been a while and you aren’t thinking about it--Whack! You do it again.

Genesis 20 shows us Abraham, the father of faith, whacking his shin on the same piece of furniture. He does the same stupid thing here that he did in chapter 12: He claims that Sarah is his sister, and she is taken into the harem of a king. Liberal critics argue that these two accounts (and chapter 26, where Isaac does the same thing) are really the same story, which a not-too-smart editor mistakenly put in several places. But there are a number of obvious differences between the three accounts, and there is no reason to doubt their historicity. They are true to life and show us that certain sins plague us throughout life, and that they are often passed on to our children.

After the high point of Abraham’s fellowship and prayer (chap. 18), you wouldn’t think that this could happen. If the Bible was a fairy tale, it wouldn’t. But the Bible is a realistic book that shows us the humanness of all its heroes. Abraham’s weak areas show us the struggles in the life of faith and give us hope for ourselves. If God could work with a sinner like Abraham, then He can work with me!

There are two main themes in this chapter: the failure of Abraham; and, the faithfulness of God. Yes, Abraham sinned, but God didn’t cast him off. He dealt with His erring child and followed it up by fulfilling the long-awaited promise of a son (chap. 21). That’s grace! The chapter shows that ...

While we are prone to besetting sins, God is marked by holiness and grace.

There’s a fine balance here. If the text only portrayed Abraham’s sin and God’s grace, we might be inclined toward license: “Don’t worry about your sin, because God is gracious.” But the chapter won’t allow that wrong application. God’s holiness and the damage our sin causes is balanced with His grace, so that we won’t take our sin lightly.

Before we look at the passage in more detail, let me deal with a question you may have, namely, why would Abimelech be interested in marrying a 90 year-old woman? Pharaoh took Sarah into his harem when she was about 65 on account of her great beauty. But 90? Was Sarah really that stunning?

Part of the answer involves the longer lifespans of people in that day. Abraham lived to 175 and Sarah to 127. Thus at 65, she would be just past the halfway point of her life, certainly not too old to retain her beauty. At 90, she would be comparable to a woman of 53 who lived to 75, so she still could be attractive, although past her youth. But the text never mentions her beauty in chapter 20. Probably Abimelech wanted her in his harem to cement an alliance with the wealthy and powerful Abraham, who posed as her brother. Later, Abimelech did enter into an alliance with Abraham (21:22-34). Thus while Sarah was not in the flower of her youth, she was an attractive woman whose family ties could help Abimelech politically.

A second question is, Why did God appear to Abimelech, but not to Abraham? Why didn’t God stop Abraham from his foolish action? I think the reason is that God sometimes allows us to fail to teach us that our salvation depends totally on His sovereign grace, and not at all on ourselves. This event took place on the verge of Sarah’s becoming pregnant with Isaac. That couldn’t have happened if she was in Abimelech’s harem. In his attempt to protect himself, Abraham almost spoiled God’s promise to give him a son through Sarah the next year (18:10). This serious failure, right on the verge of the promise’s fulfillment, showed Abraham again that if God’s promise was to be fulfilled, it would be totally because of God and not at all because of Abraham. Abraham’s sin shows us that ...

1. We all are prone to besetting sins.

If Abraham had one, you can be sure that we all have them! Often, like Abraham, we fail in the everyday worries and fears of life, not in the major crises. Abraham had this long-standing fear for his safety. Back before he left his father’s house, he devised this “white” lie and got Sarah to agree to it in an attempt to protect himself (20:13). If God had called him to go, God would protect him. So this scheme was unnecessary, illogical, and it didn’t even work the two times he tried it. But it was a weak area with Abraham, and he fell into it when he got into these situations. Five observations about besetting sins:

A. Besetting sins are always a danger.

I don’t mean that we can’t experience consistent victory over them. By God’s grace and power, we can. But I do mean that there will never be a time when we’re so strong spiritually that we don’t have to be on guard against them. If you ever get to thinking, “I’ve finally got that problem licked once and for all,” look out! “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Abraham had walked with God for years, but he fell into the same sin that had defeated him twenty years before.

Some branches of Christianity teach that we can reach a state of sinless perfection in this life. How I wish it were so! The Bible teaches that we can have consistent victory over sin, but it also teaches that even the strongest saints are always vulnerable to temptation. As long as we remember that we’re weak, so that we walk in the Spirit, we’ll be strong in His strength. But the minute we forget it, or start thinking we’re strong in ourselves, we’re in trouble.

We need to be careful to avoid situations which expose us to danger. There is no indication here that Abraham sought the Lord about his move to Gerar (20:1). Since the land of Canaan was so crucial in God’s plan for Abraham and since God had blessed Abraham in his years by the oaks of Mamre, I can’t believe that it was right for him to pack up and move without consulting the Lord, especially into a situation that exposed him to his old weakness.

If you know that you’re easily tempted in certain situations, avoid those situations! If you’re tempted by drinking, don’t go near bars. If you’re tempted by lust, don’t go to bookstores where pornography is sold; don’t go to movies with sex scenes. If you’re tempted when you travel alone, make arrangements to be accountable and plan your free time with things that will build you in the Lord. Knowing that we’re vulnerable, we need to plan not to sin!

B. Besetting sins are rooted in the love of self.

If Abraham had been loving God, would he have tarnished God’s name (which was associated with Abraham) by lying? If he was loving Sarah more than himself (as every husband should do; Eph. 5:25), would he have been willing to let her be taken from his side and exposed to adultery? Why did Abraham do such a thing? Because he was afraid that he would be killed (20:11). He loved himself more than he loved God or Sarah.

I have read statements by “Christian psychologists” to the effect that most of our problems stem from feelings of low self worth. I read an article recently explaining that one reason pastors commit adultery is low self esteem. But the Bible teaches that most of our sins stem from the fact that we love ourselves more than we love God and more than we love others. Any man who commits adultery is loving himself more than he loves God, his wife, his children, and even more than he loves the other woman. If you try to overcome sin by loving yourself more, you’re simply feeding the source of the problem! The answer to overcoming sin is to deny yourself, not to love yourself (Luke 9:23).

C. Besetting sins always hurt others.

We tend to think of our besetting sins as basically harmless. Abraham probably thought, “This is just a white lie. No one will get hurt.” And yet his sin risked losing Sarah to another man. It must have hurt Sarah’s feelings to be used as Abraham’s buffer to protect his hide. And it caused Abimelech and his household to get sick and be on the verge of death (20:3, 7). We never have the luxury of sinning in private. Our sin always hurts others.

God prevented Abimelech from his unintentional sin, but God wouldn’t heal him apart from Abraham’s prayer (20:7, 17-18). That put Abraham in the position of having to pray that another man’s wife and concubines would not be barren, a prayer that he had asked for his own wife for over 25 years! In chapter 18, Abraham had learned to pray for those who were under judgment for their own sins. Here he learns to pray for those who had been damaged by his sin.

We can’t always undo the damage our sin has caused. But we can pray for those who have been hurt by our sin. We should ask forgiveness, and make restitution when we can. But we need to remember that our sin always hurts others, and thus avoid sinning.

Besetting sins are always a danger; they stem from self-love; and, they always damage others.

D. We tend to excuse besetting sins, not confess and forsake them.

I’d like to be able to report that Abraham confessed his sin and put it out of his life. Maybe he did, but the Bible is silent on it. What we see him doing here is making excuses for it, not confessing it. God uses a pagan king to confront His sinning prophet. Abraham says he thought there would be no fear of God in this place (20:11), and yet the men of that place feared greatly when they heard of God’s potential judgment on them (20:8), whereas Abraham had feared them more than he feared God.

Abraham has three excuses for his sin. First, he says that the situation forced him to do it. Ever since God had “caused him to wander” from his father’s house, he had been afraid he would be killed, and so he had planned this lie (20:13). What else could a man do in such a situation? But how could Abraham really be in danger of losing his life, if God had called him to go into Canaan and had promised to make a great nation out of him? There is no situation where God puts you where sin is no longer sin because of the circumstances.

Abraham’s second excuse was to justify a half-truth as the truth, to say that Sarah was his sister. But though technically true, it was intended as a lie. The important fact in this case wasn’t that she was his sister, but that she was his wife. You can bend the facts or limit them in such a way as to promote falsehood. That’s lying, even if it is technically true. The motive is what counts. Abraham calls his lie a “kindness” (20:13). But a lie is never a kindness or “a little white lie.” It’s always sin.

The third excuse was, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” (20:13). He and Sarah had agreed to do it this way years before. “Don’t take it personally, Abimelech! This is just what we’ve always done.” But just because we’ve always done it doesn’t make it right. Maybe we’ve always sinned!

This story shows us how “a little white lie” can mushroom into a severe problem which hurts many. We’d all be a lot better off if we’d call our sin what it is--SIN--confess it and turn from it.

Thus besetting sins are always a danger; they stem from love of self; they hurt others; and, we tend to excuse them, rather than confess them. A fifth observation:

E. Besetting sins always dishonor God.

Just think what would have happened if Abimelech had consummated his relationship with Sarah! The birth of Isaac, and of Isaac’s descendant, Christ, would be forever under a cloud. Abraham wouldn’t have known if Isaac was his child in fulfillment of God’s promise or Abimelech’s child. Since Isaac was the link in God’s plan to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed, the whole Messianic program was jeopardized by Abraham’s foolish lie.

God was made to look bad through Abraham’s sin. Abimelech must have thought, “If this guy is God’s prophet, I’m not sure I want to know this God!” Abimelech, a pagan, has more integrity here than Abraham, God’s prophet. All sin dishonors God. If Abimelech had committed adultery with Sarah, it wouldn’t have primarily been a sin against Abraham. God says, “I kept you from sinning against Me” (20:6). While our sin hurts others, it always dishonors the God whom we represent.

While we are prone to besetting sins, there is another theme of this chapter that gives us great encouragement:

2. God is marked by holiness and grace.

These two seemingly opposite traits are in perfect balance. God never sacrifices His holiness for grace, nor His grace for holiness.

A. God is marked by holiness.

In His holiness, God struck Abimelech and all his household with some disease which prevented them from conceiving children and would have killed them, if Abimelech had not restored Sarah to Abraham. That’s pretty severe! But it shows how highly God values marriage and sexual purity within marriage.

The text also reveals God as the source of all holiness. God tells Abimelech that the reason he didn’t sin was because God prevented it (20:6). We can never boast in our holiness, because any holiness we have is derived from the Lord. He is a holy God who takes sin seriously. Even though it would have been accidental from Abimelech’s point of view, it would have been sin from God’s perspective. God is holy and separate from all sin. But also...

B. God is marked by grace.

As the psalmist declares, “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4). God’s grace should never lead us to license, but to fear Him and to fear sinning.

We see here God’s grace toward Abimelech. He was a relatively good man, as far as Canaanite kings in that day went. But he was a sinner, just like everyone else. God justly could have killed him to deliver Sarah. But He showed him grace.

We also see God’s grace toward Abraham and Sarah. Sarah wasn’t as responsible as Abraham, since she didn’t devise this plan. But she consented to it. While it’s right for a wife to submit to her husband, it’s not right for her to submit to him in doing wrong. But in spite of their sin, God graciously blessed Abraham and Sarah, financially through Abimelech’s gifts, and with the birth of Isaac (21:1-7). God graciously was willing to be associated with Abraham, even in his sin, by calling Abraham his prophet. If I were God, I’d want to keep it quiet that Abraham knew me until this thing blew over. But God didn’t disown Abraham for this failure. In the many other references to Abraham in the Bible, God mentions his faith often, but He never mentions this sin. Amazing grace!

Thank God that He doesn’t deal with us according to our sins! Because the Lord Jesus Christ bore the penalty we deserved, God is now free to deal with us in grace. Just as God sovereignly chose Abraham and blessed him in spite of his sins, so He has sovereignly chosen us and blesses us in spite of our sins. That shouldn’t make us be sloppy about our sin. It should make us want to be holy in order to please the God who loved us and gave Himself for us!


Juan Carlos Ortiz has captured the balance between God’s grace and our good works nicely. He writes (Leadership, Fall, 1984, p. 46.),

Watching a trapeze show is breathtaking. We wonder at the dexterity and timing. We gasp at near-misses. In most cases, there is a net underneath. When they fall, they jump up and bounce back to the trapeze.

In Christ, we live on the trapeze. The whole world should be able to watch and say, “Look how they live, how they love one another. Look how well the husbands treat their wives. And aren’t they the best workers in the factories and offices, the best neighbors, the best students?” That is to live on the trapeze, being a show to the world.

What happens when we slip? The net is surely there. The blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, has provided forgiveness for all our trespasses. Both the net and the ability to stay on the trapeze are works of God’s grace.

Of course, we cannot be continually sleeping on the net. If that is the case, I doubt whether that person is a trapezist.

Some of you may be on the net, discouraged by besetting sins. Look to God’s grace, confess your sin, accept His forgiveness, and get back on the trapeze. Or in the words of the author of Hebrews, after telling of the faith of Abraham, Sarah, and many others, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).

Discussion Questions

  1. Does God eradicate our sin nature? What does the Bible mean when it says we are dead to sin (Rom. 6:11; Col. 2:20; 3:3)?
  2. How would you answer the argument that if we can’t lose our salvation by sinning, then it will encourage us to sin more?
  3. How can we emphasize grace without encouraging licentiousness?
  4. Is it ever okay to lie (e.g., to protect someone else)?

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, Confession, Grace, Hamartiology (Sin)

Lesson 43: The Joy and Pain of a Life of Faith (Genesis 21:1-21)

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A couple was expecting their first child. The wife was given a test that would reveal the baby’s sex. The doctor asked the mother-to-be if she wanted to be called with the news. “Just mail it,” she said. “My husband and I want to share this moment together.” A few days later an envelope from the doctor arrived. The couple made a special evening of it and dined at their favorite restaurant. Finally they opened the letter. It was the doctor’s bill (Reader’s Digest [5/93]).

We’ve all faced the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. It’s a main reason people drift from the Lord. They came to Christ because they heard that He could solve their problems, but their problems have only grown worse. They heard that the Christian life would give them peace; but they have inner conflicts that they never knew before.

Isn’t the Christian life supposed to be one of great joy? Yes, it is! There is no joy greater than that of knowing Jesus Christ, of being assured that your sins are forgiven and that you’re going to heaven. There is great joy when God answers prayer, or uses you to lead a person to Christ or to help him with his problems. But while the Christian life results in great joy, the path to that joy often leads us through great pain. We need to be realistic in our expectations of what the life of faith entails.

A life of faith in God yields ultimate joy, but involves great pain.

The pain comes as God prunes from our lives the things that do not honor Him. We all bring into the Christian life the baggage of the old life, what the Bible calls the flesh. The flesh is what I can do in my own power, apart from dependence on God. It includes sins, such as pride, immorality, anger, and selfishness. But the flesh also produces things that are outwardly good--deeds of service, giving money, helping the needy, etc. But if those good deeds stem from my flesh, they are offensive to God because they feed my pride and often are an attempt to balance out my sin and guilt, which can only be dealt with at the cross. So God has to tear away those deeds of the flesh, both good and bad, so that I learn to depend totally on Him for all that I do. It’s a painful process.

In Genesis 21 Abraham experiences the joy and the pain of the life of faith. Isaac is finally born in fulfillment of the promise, and Abraham and Sarah laugh for joy. But the birth of Isaac threatens Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar. For 13 years, he has been the sole heir, the focus of his father’s attention, the hope of his father’s dreams. But now he is set aside in favor of this newcomer. So the tension in Abraham’s family begins to grow. It climaxes at the feast held for the weaning of Isaac, probably when he was about two or three years old. Ishmael mocks Isaac and Sarah lays down an ultimatum: “Drive out this maid and her son [Sarah won’t even use their names], for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac” (21:10). Abraham is plunged from the heights of joy to the depths of grief because of his love for his son.

After all, Abraham loved Ishmael. He was every bit as much Abraham’s son as Isaac was. He would now be 15 or 16, on the edge of manhood. Abraham had spent years teaching him the skills of life. They had spent many happy hours together, watching over the flocks, talking about life’s questions. And Abraham had a fond spot in his heart for Hagar, the boy’s mother. Even if they had only had relations that once, still they had produced a son together. Hagar had been in the family for years. But now Sarah was insisting that Hagar and Ishmael had to go. Abraham was torn as these competing loves fought on the battleground of his heart.

He faced the most difficult decision of his life. Should he make Sarah face reality and learn to live with Hagar and Ishmael? Or should he consent to her request, which clearly was based on jealousy, and send Hagar and Ishmael away? At this point the Lord intervened and told Abraham to do what Sarah had said (21:12). Frankly, this is a bit startling. From Hagar’s and Ishmael’s perspective, it seemed unfair. Hagar had not had a choice in the matter of conceiving Ishmael with Abraham. Ishmael hadn’t asked to be born into that situation. His jealousy toward Isaac is understandable for a teenage boy. While Sarah’s attitude was also understandable, it was not commendable. So why did God take Sarah’s side?

God’s reason is stated: “for through Isaac your descendants shall be named” (21:12). God wasn’t endorsing Sarah’s jealousy, but in His sovereign purpose, God had chosen Isaac to be the one through whom His blessing would flow to all nations. Since He is God, He has the right to make such sovereign choices without giving us His reasons (see Romans 9). But in this case, I think we can discern the reason behind God’s choice.

Isaac represents that which only God can do. Sarah had always been barren. Now, due to age, Abraham and Sarah were physically unable to produce a child. So Isaac was the result of God’s power, apart from human ability. But Ishmael represents what man can do without God. Abraham and Hagar produced Ishmael by natural means. In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul says that this story has a spiritual lesson behind it. Ishmael was born according to the flesh, but Isaac was born according to the Spirit (Gal. 4:23, 29). Abraham and Sarah could not boast in Isaac, but could only glorify God for him. But Abraham could boast in Ishmael, because he produced him.

God chose Isaac so that we would know that the life of faith requires total dependence on God, so that all the fruit comes from Him. That which stems from our flesh, which we can do apart from God, can never please Him. It exalts human pride and robs God of His glory. That which the Spirit produces in and through us brings God the glory due His name. So even though it seems unfair that Hagar and Ishmael be expelled, it was necessary for God’s purpose and glory.

This story teaches us that the joy of the life of faith comes from obtaining what only God can do; the pain comes from separating from what I can do in my own power. Let’s first look at the joy and then at the pain.

1. The joy of a life of faith comes from obtaining that which only God can do (Isaac, 21:1-7).

When Isaac was born, there was great joy and laughter. God told Abraham to name the child Isaac (17:19), which means, “he laughs.” While Abraham laughed in shock and Sarah laughed in unbelief when they were told that Isaac would be born the next year, their laughter was changed to the laughter of joy as they held the child of promise in their arms.

Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (21:6). When God does great things for you, you laugh with joy and others rejoice with you. Laughter ought to be a part of every Christian home and church, as we see God do great things for us and as we enjoy His gifts to us. The poet, Thackeray, said, “A good laugh is sunshine in a house.” I hope you enjoy your children as God’s precious gifts to you and laugh often with them.

Too often Christian homes and churches are uptight and rigid. The great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, used humor in the pulpit, which wasn’t often done in his day. Once when a woman objected to some humorous remark, Spurgeon replied, “Madam, if you had known how many others I kept back, you would not have found fault with that one, but you would have commended me for the restraint I had exercised.”

There are three aspects to the joy that comes from obtaining what only God can do:

A. There is joy in knowing that what God promises, He does.

Note verse 1: “Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised.” God always keeps His promises! The Christian life is a process of discovering, unwrapping, and enjoying the many promises of God that are scattered throughout His Word. It’s like looking for hidden treasures. The apostle Paul wrote, “For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him [Christ] they are yes” (2 Cor. 1:20).

Do you fear death and judgment? God promises eternal life to those who put their trust in His Son. Do you struggle with guilt? God promises forgiveness of all our sins in Christ. Are you anxious about some situation? He invites us to cast all our anxieties on Him because He cares for us. Are you fearful? He promises His protection. You can count on these promises and more and have great peace and joy, knowing that what God promises, He does!

You may be thinking, “Well, that’s nice to say. But I’ve been asking God for some things for years, but He hasn’t come through.” That’s the second aspect of this joy:

B. There is joy in knowing that what God promises, He does in His time.

Note verse 2: “So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him.” God doesn’t work according to our timetable, but His. With us, 25 years (the time Abraham and Sarah had to wait for Isaac) seems like forever. With God, a thousand years is as a day. Clearly, God is not in any hurry to bring about His plan!

It would be 2,000 years until the promised seed of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ, would be born. That’s a long time! Many generations went to their graves longing to see the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Savior. Was God late in bringing Christ into the world? The Holy Spirit writes through Paul, “But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son ...” (Gal. 4:4).

Maybe you’ve been waiting on God for years to fulfill some promise. You may even go to your grave without seeing it fulfilled. But you can have great joy in knowing that what God has promised, He will do in His time. You ask, “Why does He make me wait?” There are a number of reasons, some of which we may never know. But one reason is clear in our text:

C. There is joy in knowing that what God promises, He does when we reach the end of ourselves.

Verse 5 mentions Abraham as being 100 years old. Verses 2 and 7 repeat the fact that it was in his old age. The point is that God provided Isaac for Abraham and Sarah when they had reached the end of their ability to produce a son. If they were going to receive the promised son, it would have to be totally God’s doing. It was, and they rejoiced in seeing God do the impossible on their behalf.

God wants each of us to come to that point of casting ourselves completely on Him so that He gets all the glory for the results in our lives. That doesn’t mean that we are passive. Here we see Abraham actively obeying God by naming the boy Isaac and by circumcising him (21:3-4), as God had commanded (17:9-12, 19). Coming to the end of ourselves doesn’t mean that we passively sit back and do nothing. It means that we actively obey God, depending totally on Him for the power and the results.

I experience something of this each week in my ministry. I feel totally inadequate to be a pastor and to prepare sermons that will feed God’s flock. That’s a great place to be, because the minute I start thinking I can do it, I’m relying on myself. Paul put it, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). But at the same time, I don’t sit around waiting for a sermon to float down from heaven. I work hard to understand the biblical text and to know how to apply it, but I’m aware that if God doesn’t come through, I’m in big trouble!

Our independent, fallen nature makes us prone to fall back on our own schemes and power. Abraham had trusted the Lord for Isaac. But he still had Ishmael. If anything happened to Isaac (as in chapter 22), Abraham could always fall back on Ishmael as the standby. So God said that Ishmael would have to go. That’s where the pain of the life of faith comes in, when God knocks out those human props we’ve been leaning on or keeping in storage.

2. The pain of a life of faith comes from separating from that which I do in my own power (Ishmael, 21:8-21).

This was the most difficult thing God had told Abraham to do in his 100 years. Although the text doesn’t say, I don’t think I’m off base when I picture Abraham with tears streaking down his weathered cheeks as he sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. As far as we know, this was the last time Abraham saw his son whom he had loved for 16 years. I don’t care how much you trust God, something like this hurts deeply. And you don’t get over it in a few days or even in a few years. Even though there was great joy over the birth of Isaac, Abraham suffered ongoing pain over the loss of Ishmael.

I can’t begin to cover these verses in detail. But I want to point out three lessons which stem from the separation from Ishmael:

A. There will always be conflict between what I can do in my own power and what only God can do.

The birth of Isaac not only resulted in joy; it also resulted in conflict. Ishmael mocked Isaac. Paul applies the spiritual lessons of this event: “But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh [Ishmael] persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit [Isaac], so it is now also” (Gal. 4:29). The Judaizers, who gloried in their own “righteousness,” persecuted those who gloried in Christ and put no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3). And, as Paul says in Galatians 5:17, “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, ...” The Christian life involves conflict, both with those who are religious, but do not understand dying to self and living to glorify God; and, conflict within, as my prideful self dies a slow death as I learn to trust more fully in God.

B. The only way to resolve the conflict is to put away that which I can do in my own power.

Peaceful coexistence is not possible. Whatever stems from my old life has to go. Ishmael had been Abraham’s pride and joy, his hope. When God promised to give him Isaac, Abraham said, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You” (17:18). But God said that Ishmael had to go.

In practical terms, this involves the painful obedience of saying no to myself and yes to God. It means denying my pride, my sinful desires, and all that stems from my old self, and consciously depending on God’s Spirit to produce His fruit in me. It is an ongoing process of submitting to God’s pruning my flesh so that He can accomplish His purpose through me. It hurts, and often I won’t understand. But my part is to obey. I’m sure Abraham didn’t understand God’s reason for sending Ishmael away, just as later he didn’t understand God’s reason for sacrificing Isaac. But he obeyed without questioning God.

Elisabeth Elliot, whose first husband, Jim Elliot, was one of the five missionaries killed by the Auca Indians in 1956, and whose second husband died of cancer, tells of visiting a shepherd in the mountains of North Wales. One by one, he would grab the rams by their horns and fling them into a tank of antiseptic. They would struggle to climb out, but the sheep dog would snarl in their faces to force them back in. Just as they were about to climb up the ramp, the shepherd would catch them by the horns with a wooden implement, spin them around, and force them under again, holding them completely under for a few seconds. The sheep didn’t have a clue about what was happening.

Mrs. Elliot observes, “I’ve had some experiences in my life that have made me feel very sympathetic to those poor rams--I couldn’t figure out any reason for the treatment I was getting from the Shepherd I trusted. And He didn’t give me a hint of explanation.” (World Vision, 4/77.)

There will always be conflict between my flesh (what I can do in my power) and the Spirit (what only God can do). The only way to resolve the conflict is obediently to put off the deeds of the flesh.

C. When we obey, God graciously softens the pain of parting with the old life.

Even as God tells Abraham that Ishmael must go, He tenderly reassures him, “And of the son of the maid I will make a nation also, because he is your descendant” (21:13). God takes us through painful times, but He always does it with compassion. We also see His compassion toward Hagar and Ishmael. She has abandoned him, thinking that he’s about to die. She begins sobbing. But in verse 17, it says that God heard, not Hagar, but the lad crying. He then calls to Hagar and points her to the well of water which she had not yet seen.

The point is, we often think we’re the only ones who care for our loved ones who are in distress. We cry out to God. But God has heard their cry before He hears our cry! He cares for them more than we do! Even in those difficult times of pain, God graciously softens the pain for those who call out to Him.


We all enjoy watching the Olympics. The high point is watching the beaming faces of the winners as they stand to receive their medals. We vicariously rejoice with them. But we sometimes forget the years of pain that led up to that moment of joy. Behind the scenes they spent the better part of the last few years going through grueling daily work outs. Many days they didn’t feel like practicing, but they did it anyway. Why were they willing to endure the pain? Because they were going for the ultimate joy of winning the Olympic medal.

The life of faith yields great joy, but the path is often through great pain. Some of you are going through painful trials. You may be confused and disappointed and grieving. You didn’t expect the Christian life to be like this. God may or may not let you understand why He’s doing what He’s doing. But He does want you to submit obediently to his pruning process and to trust Him that by yielding to the pain, you’ll ultimately experience the joy of obtaining that which only God can do with your life.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you have felt if you had been Abraham? Sarah? Hagar? Ishmael? Who had the hardest time trusting God?
  2. Why didn’t Abraham supply Hagar and Ishmael with plenty of supplies and servants?
  3. How can we know if our efforts for God stem from the flesh or from His power? Does His power make it easy?
  4. Was God unfair to choose Isaac and send Ishmael away? Did His choice show approval of Sarah’s jealousy? 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: Faith, Rewards, Suffering, Trials, Persecution