Lesson 43: The Joy and Pain of a Life of Faith (Genesis 21:1-21)Related Media
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.
- How would you have felt if you had been Abraham? Sarah? Hagar? Ishmael? Who had the hardest time trusting God?
- Why didn’t Abraham supply Hagar and Ishmael with plenty of supplies and servants?
- How can we know if our efforts for God stem from the flesh or from His power? Does His power make it easy?
- 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
Lesson 44: Faithful God of the Ordinary (Genesis 21:22-34)Related Media
Sometimes when you read the Bible, you get the feeling that God majors in the spectacular. He spoke and the universe was created. He rained down fire and brimstone to destroy wicked Sodom. He sent the plagues on Egypt and parted the Red Sea. He provided manna in the wilderness and brought water from a rock. We could go on and on recounting the mighty deeds that God has done.
All these things are true and wonderful. But the problem is, most of us don’t live in the realm of the spectacular. We live with the daily, ordinary routines that characterize the greater part of our lives: getting ready for the day, rushing off to work, getting the kids off to school, shopping for groceries, paying bills, mowing lawns, and maintaining the household. Sometimes we may wonder, “How does God fit in with the ordinary?”
The question extends beyond how does God fit in with our ordinary schedules to, “How does God fit in with ordinary people?” After all, in the history of the church, not many of God’s people have been able to speak to packed stadiums around the world, like Billy Graham. Most of God’s people have been simple, ordinary folks who are not famous or politically powerful. They’re people who live rather ordinary lives, except for one significant fact--their lives count for eternity because they are used by God to help fulfill His purpose.
As you think about Abraham’s life, you realize that he was a fairly ordinary man, except that he was a man of extraordinary faith and obedience to God. His life wasn’t made up of one spectacular event after another. Most days, he got up, made sure his animals were being cared for, dealt with problems like sick or straying animals, servants who had squabbles, and finding enough water and food for his flocks and family. The one great miracle in his life was the birth of Isaac in his old age. But other than that, Abraham’s life was fairly routine. And yet he was used in God’s great purpose of blessing the nations through Abraham’s seed, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Genesis 21:22-34, we see Abraham in a scene from his ordinary life. Abimelech, the king who had inadvertently taken Sarah into his harem because Abraham had lied about her being his sister, pays a visit to Abraham, acknowledges that God is with him, and proposes a peace pact. Abraham uses the occasion to complain to Abimelech about a well which his men have taken from Abraham’s servants. They formalize the peace agreement, Abimelech leaves, Abraham plants a commemorative tree, worships the Lord, and life goes on.
When you come to a passage like this in the Bible, the question is, Why did God include this in sacred Scripture? It seems to me that the answer is, It shows the faithfulness of God in the ordinary. It shows how God faithfully provided all that Abraham needed apart from Abraham’s schemes. Throughout Abraham’s story run two great promises which God made to Abraham: a son, through whom Abraham would become a great nation, and through whose descendants all the nations would be blessed; and, the land of Canaan, where his descendants would live. In seeking to bring about both of these promises, Abraham resorted to human schemes to help God out: with the son, he went in to Hagar and produced Ishmael; with regard to the land, his fears of being wiped out by the inhabitants of the land prompted him to lie about Sarah being his sister, not his wife.
In the immediately preceding verses, God has provided Isaac and dismissed Ishmael, so that Abraham would learn that God’s promises do not depend on human schemes and effort for their fulfillment. Now, without Abraham’s initiative or schemes, Abimelech comes and proposes this peace agreement, so that Abraham receives from God what he previously had tried to get through his deceptive scheme. Now Abraham and his descendants can dwell securely in the land. And, God provides for his need for water through this well. It is a beautiful illustration of how ...
God faithfully provides everything we need for life and godliness so that we can fulfill His purpose.
1. God faithfully provides security and protection.
One of Abraham’s deeply rooted fears when God called him to leave his homeland and go to the land of Canaan was that the people of the land would see his wife and kill him in order to take her. Because of that fear, before they left Haran, he and Sarah had worked out a deceptive scheme to pawn her off as his sister (20:13). It hadn’t worked the two times they tried it. But Abraham still struggled with this fear long after he had been living in the land.
Here God shows Abraham that not only would the people of the land not take his wife, they wouldn’t even take his well. If he would walk with God, so that it was evident to others, Abraham had nothing to fear. Though he was surrounded by pagans who had no scruples about murdering and plundering a wealthy man’s belongings, Abraham could live securely because of God’s faithful protection, apart from any schemes on Abraham’s part.
One of the most comforting doctrines of Scripture is the truth that God providentially protects His children. A believer is invincible until it is his time to go. As David wrote, all our days were written in God’s book before we even were born (Ps. 139:16)! We are secure in His providential care.
A few years ago, a Christian worker was scheduled to fly from New York to Chicago for some meetings before returning home to Los Angeles. His flight from New York was first delayed and then cancelled, so that he would have missed his meetings. So he changed his plans and flew home to L.A. Two days later, he heard on the news that a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles had crashed, killing everyone on board. Checking his ticket which he hadn’t used, he realized that if his earlier flight to Chicago had not been cancelled, he would have been on that flight.
On the flight that crashed was a godly pastor from Southern California. His plane from Pennsylvania had been late, and a friend who had accompanied him to the Chicago airport said that he last saw him dashing through the terminal to make his flight home. But in his case, it was his final home, in heaven.
Why was one Christian man spared while the other was killed? We won’t know God’s purpose until we’re in heaven. But we can have the comfort of knowing that both men were under God’s providential care. When we lived in California and would take our young children to the beach, there wasn’t a second while they were playing in the waves that they were not under our watchful gaze. Even so, as believers, we know that every second of our lives is under the watchful care of the heavenly Father. As the psalmist proclaims, “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope for His loving kindness, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine” (Ps. 33:18-19).
2. God faithfully provides for our basic physical needs.
Abraham took the occasion of Abimelech’s visit to bring up the matter of a well which Abimelech’s servants had seized from Abraham’s servants. Abimelech claimed no prior knowledge of the matter, and the covenant the two men ratified stipulated that the well belonged to Abraham (21:30). In that desert land, a well was essential for survival, both for a man’s flocks and for his family. Because Abimelech wanted this covenant to apply, not only to himself, but to his posterity (21:23), it secured this source of water not only for Abraham, but for his descendants. Isaac would later have to clear up some matters over several wells with Abimelech (chap. 26), but through this treaty, God was faithfully providing for Abraham’s basic physical needs.
Jesus taught us to pray each day for our daily bread. Most of us in our land of plenty don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. Shortly after World War II, a woman went into a grocery store and asked for enough food to provide Christmas dinner for her children. When the owner asked how much she could afford, she replied, “My husband was killed in the war. Truthfully, I have nothing to offer but a little prayer.”
The grocer, who was not a believer, was unmoved by her need. He sarcastically said, “Write your prayer on a piece of paper and you can have its weight in groceries.” To his surprise, she pulled a folded note out of her pocket and handed it to him. “I already did that during the night while I was watching over my sick child,” she replied. Without even reading it, he put it on one side of his old-fashioned scale. “We’ll see how much this is worth,” he muttered. He put a loaf of bread on the other side of the scale, and to his surprise, nothing happened. He added some more items, but to his consternation, still nothing happened. Finally he blurted out, “Well, that’s all it will hold anyway. Here’s a bag. You’ll have to put these things in yourself.” With a tearful “thank you,” the woman took her groceries and left.
The grocer later discovered that the scale was out of order. As the years passed, he often wondered if it was just a coincidence. Why did the woman have the prayer already written before he asked for it? Why did she come at exactly the time the mechanism was broken? Whenever he looks at the slip of paper that contains her prayer, he is amazed, for it reads, “Please, dear Lord, give us this day our daily bread.” (“Our Daily Bread.”)
That was an extraordinary way that God provided for His children. But we also need to see that His ordinary provision of our daily food is an example of His faithfulness. When we give thanks at the dinner table, we need to be truly thankful, and not just mumbling a ritual prayer before we say, “Please pass the potatoes.” God faithfully provides for our protection and for our provision. But He doesn’t just provide for our needs so that we can live comfy lives for our own happiness.
3. God faithfully provides so that we can fulfill His purpose.
Genesis 12:1-3 sets forth God’s purpose to make of Abraham a great nation, to bless him and make his name great so that he would be the channel of God’s blessing to all the families of the earth. This blessing would come through Abraham’s descendant, the Lord Jesus Christ. For these promises to be fulfilled, God had to provide Abraham with a son, which He did in an extraordinary way in the birth of Isaac. He had to provide protection and give him the land, which He begins to do in a rather ordinary way through this peace agreement. But it is significant that God’s blessing on Abraham is evident even to this pagan king, Abimelech, who tells Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do” (21:22). In an initial way, God is using Abraham to fulfill His purpose of blessing all the nations as he is blessed.
We don’t know how much Abimelech knew about the one true God, but he at least knew enough to see clearly that God made a difference in Abraham’s life. This is even more significant when you realize that Abraham wasn’t doing anything spectacular. He was just living the ordinary, hum-drum, day-to-day existence of a nomad with his flocks and herds. He was God’s number one man on earth, but he wasn’t holding miracle services. He wasn’t a TV evangelist. He wasn’t building a sprawling complex of buildings to house his international ministry. He wasn’t traveling all over the globe. His calendar wasn’t full of speaking engagements. He wouldn’t have had much exciting news to report in his monthly fund-raising letter. He was simply living his daily life as the friend of God before the watching world. That world could tell that God was with him in all he did!
This is also remarkable in light of Abraham’s past dealings with Abimelech. You’ll recall that he had been deceptive, pawning off Sarah as his sister. Because Abimelech had taken Sarah into his harem, God struck him and all his household with some illness and threatened to kill them if he didn’t return Sarah to Abraham. When Abimelech confronted Abraham about things, Abraham was rather uncomplimentary, saying that his reason for deceiving him was that he assumed that there would not be any fear of God among such people (20:11). Yet in spite of Abraham’s sins and insensitivity, Abimelech here seeks him out because he recognized God in Abraham’s life!
That leads me to ask, “Does the world see God in your everyday life?”
A. For God’s purpose to be fulfilled through us, the world should see God in our everyday lives.
(1) The world is watching the lives of believers. We don’t always think about it, but if the world knows that we’re Christians, they watch us to see if we’re different than everyone else. They watch our attitudes, our words, and our actions. Are we cheerful and pleasant, even when we’re mistreated, or do we grumble and complain like everyone else? Do we badmouth the boss or other workers behind their backs? Do we work hard or slack off? Are we honest, even in small matters? The world is watching, and without a word of witness, they should be able to tell that we are Christians as they see our godly lives.
Maybe you’re sinking into sudden depression, because you’re thinking, “I’m not perfect!” Stay tuned:
(2) For the world to see God in our lives we don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes we think that we’ve got to be perfect before God can use us as a witness. Since we’re not perfect, we do one of two wrong things. Some try to convey that they are perfect. They cover or deny their sin and try to make it look like they’ve got it all together. The trouble is, people can see that it isn’t true. So they conclude that Christians are hypocrites, and they fail to see God in our lives.
Another wrong thing happens: An imperfect Christian concludes that he had better not say anything about his faith until he gets all his problems solved. The trouble with this approach, of course, is that we never get to that place. So we never bear witness for Jesus Christ, which is precisely what Satan wants.
I’m not suggesting that you go on sinning and tell everyone that you’re a Christian. If you’re not dealing with your sin and seeking to live a life pleasing to God, then you’d be better off not to let anybody know that you claim to be a Christian. But what I’m saying is that sinlessness isn’t the requirement to bear witness for Christ. Just because you’ve blown it with someone in the past doesn’t mean that you can’t be used later to influence that person toward God. Asking their forgiveness is often the first step in that process. In spite of Abraham’s past deception, Abimelech recognized God in his life. Why?
B. For God’s purpose to be fulfilled through us, we have to walk with God.
Abraham was the friend of God. He walked in daily communion with God. He wasn’t perfect, but he had reality with God and God’s gracious hand was on him. One way Abimelech knew that Abraham walked with God is that Abraham had prayed that God would heal Abimelech and his family, and God answered that prayer (20:17-18). Perhaps Abimelech had heard of how God had given Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age. Abimelech could sense that in spite of Abraham’s previous failure in the incident with Sarah, he was a man who walked with God.
Another step in Abraham’s walk with God is seen in verse 33, where he plants a tree and calls “on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.” Planting the tree was an act to remind Abraham of God’s faithfulness, especially in the everyday matter of providing the well which supplied the water for this tree to grow. It also signified a tranquil, settled life, under God’s providential care. The new name of God bore witness to God’s unchanging faithfulness and to the fact that Abraham’s faith was not in Abimelech nor in the treaty between them, but in the eternal God who was his dwelling place. Even in this ordinary incident, Abraham acknowledged God’s faithful care for him.
The point is, as God faithfully provides protection and for our daily needs, and as we walk with Him and give Him the credit for His care for us, as Abraham did, He uses us in the ordinary matters of life to bear witness to a world that desperately needs to turn to Him. You don’t need a theological education to bear witness by your walk with God. Your neighbor may have a Ph.D. and you may be a blue collar worker. But if you have the reality of a walk with the faithful God of the ordinary, your neighbor will know that you’ve got something he lacks.
I read about a successful man who was on a business trip. He normally didn’t attend church, but he was troubled about some matters and went to church, hoping to find some relief. The music and the sermon were okay, but didn’t really help. As he was leaving, a young man walked up and quoted John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The businessman didn’t see how such a thing could be true and he didn’t understand the connection between God’s giving His Son and a person having eternal life. The man was educated and he articulately expressed his objections. Each time, the young man, who was retarded and knew only this one verse, responded simply by quoting John 3:16.
After this had gone on for several times, the businessman suddenly was struck with the simple truth of that verse. God burned the words into his heart and gave him the faith to believe. He got down on his knees and wept in gratitude. God used the only Scripture this retarded young man knew to give eternal life to this sophisticated businessman (told by Martin & Deidre Bobgan, Competent to Minister [EastGate], pp. 45-46).
If you know the Savior, as you walk with Him and enjoy His faithful provision, God wants to use the ordinary events in your life to fulfill His purpose of blessing all the nations through the Seed of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. What a privilege to be used by the Eternal God as we live our ordinary lives on this earth!
- Where’s the balance between taking measures for our own safety versus trusting God to protect us?
- How much specialized training (if any) do Christians need to be effective witnesses for Christ?
- How can we turn everyday situations into opportunities for telling others about Christ? How aggressive should we be?
- What for you is the most threatening aspect about telling someone about Christ?
Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation
Lesson 45: Ultimate Surrender (Genesis 22:1-24)Related Media
One of the features on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio show is spoof advertisements. One that always makes me chuckle, although I haven’t heard it recently, is “The Fearmonger’s Shop,” whose motto is, “Serving all your phobia needs since 1954.”
Keillor is poking fun at the fact that we all have fears about life. Some fears are relatively trivial, although for the one doing the fearing, any fear seems substantial. One of the most common fears, believe it or not, even greater than the fear of death, is the fear of public speaking. More formidable are the fears we have from time to time about the loss of a job, the loss of our health, the loss of a loved one, or our own death.
My greatest fear is the fear of losing one of my children. We expect to lose our parents at some point in life. About half of us who are married will lose a mate in death. But we assume that our children will be around when we die. Our hopes are bound up with our children. And so the loss of a child hits us with greater force than perhaps any other loss.
Because of this, God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, is one of the most moving stories in the Bible. If we could approach it as if for the first time, it would hit us with shock, confusion, and perhaps even anger toward God. It would be hard enough if God took Isaac from Abraham; but it seems inconceivable that God would command Abraham to kill his own son! It seems opposed to God’s loving nature. It seems like an impossible, unreasonable, and illogical demand. And Abraham’s unquestioning response staggers me! How could he obey without a word of protest?
Abraham’s obedient surrender is the high point of faith in all history. It stands like Mt. Everest above where most of us have been. I can only stand below and point up to its heights, aware of how my own faith falls far short. Next week I want to focus on how this story reveals God’s provision for us in the Lord Jesus Christ. But this week I want to look at what it teaches about surrender to God:
God blesses the one who obediently surrenders everything to Him.
Like it or not, where God took Abraham is where He seeks to bring each of us.
1. God’s goal is to bring us to the point of ultimate surrender to Him (22:1-2).
That sounds scary; but two things ease the fear:
A. Ultimate surrender involves a process.
Thankfully, it doesn’t all happen the moment we trust Christ as Savior, or none of us would begin! When we trust Christ, we begin a lifelong process of surrendering to Him.
We read (22:1), “Now it came about after these things,” that is, after the events of chapters 12 through 21. While this new trial of faith hit Abraham suddenly, it also was the culmination of years of God’s dealings with him. Abraham’s life was a process of God stripping him of all that he clung to, until finally he held to God alone. God’s first command was for Abraham to leave his country, his relatives, and his father’s house (12:1). Over the years, God stripped Abraham of his schemes and efforts to help bring about God’s promises. This reached an apex when Abraham painfully sent away Hagar and Ishmael.
Perhaps Abraham thought that separating from Ishmael was the final test of his life. After that came the peaceful years in Beersheba. He rejoiced as young Isaac, the son of the promise, grew to manhood. The old man must have often looked fondly on the boy and given thanks to God. What a shock when God said suddenly, “I want you to offer Isaac as a burnt offering!” But it was the next step in the process of ultimate surrender to God.
At age 21, Jim Elliot, who was martyred in Ecuador seven years later, wrote, “One does not surrender a life in an instant. That which is life-long can only be surrendered in a lifetime.” (Shadow of the Almighty [Zondervan], p. 91.) The Christian life is a process of yielding all of myself that I know to all of God that I know. As my self-knowledge grows, I discover areas of my life that I thought were given over to the Lord; but they were not. At that point I must yield that new area to Him. And I will perceive new facets of God which require me to yield new areas of myself.
So God begins the process of pulling out from under us all the props we lean on, until He alone is left. It hurts. It may seem cruel of God. But a second fact eases the fear:
B. Ultimate surrender stems from God’s love.
When the King James Bible says that God tempted Abraham, it is better rendered, God tested Abraham. God does not tempt us to do evil (James 1:13), but He does test our faith to prove it (James 1:3, 12). If we pass the test it reveals the quality of our faith. If we fail the test, it shows us where we need to trust Him more. But every test stems from the love of God, who knows that we will be the most blessed when we trust Him the most.
Yet we struggle with God’s command to Abraham to kill his son. It seems unloving. If fact, God later forbids His people to imitate the heathen, who sacrificed their children to their idols. So how can God command Abraham to do this terrible thing He later forbids?
First, this was a one-time command, never given before or since. It was designed to illustrate in type what God Himself would do with His Son on the cross. So instead of being against God’s love, it rather demonstrates His love in an unforgettable way which every parent can identify with. I never really knew how much my own father loved me until I became a dad. Then it hit me: My dad loved me as much as I love my child, and God loves me more than that! As Paul wrote, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).
One scholar, Bishop Warburton, suggested that Abraham had desired to know the manner in which all the families of the earth would be blessed in him. So God imposed this command chiefly with the design of teaching Abraham by action, not words, how the nations would be blessed through the sacrifice of God’s own Son. By taking Abraham up to the very point of killing Isaac, the Lord allowed him to enter, as closely as any mortal could, into God’s experience in sacrificing His only Son (in George Bush, Notes on Genesis [Klock & Klock reprint], 2:2). So God’s strange command actually reveals His own great love for us in sending His own Son, His only Son, to die for our sins. God was not asking Abraham to do anything He Himself would not do. The way God gives the command (22:2) shows that He is sympathetic to Abraham’s feelings: “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, ...”
Another consideration is that God is the author and giver of life. Our children and our own lives do not belong to us, but to Him. To charge God with cruelty is to dare to assert that we have ultimate sovereignty over our lives.
“Yes,” you say, “God has a right to take a life whenever He wants. But it is a different matter for Him to command a parent to take his own child’s life!” True, but a final consideration may help us understand. In Abraham’s culture, child sacrifice was a fairly common thing. Abraham had probably witnessed Canaanite fathers offering their firstborn on the pagan altars. God had not yet given any commandments against it, as He later would do. Gene Getz explains, “To Abraham, then, the experience was culturally related. If pagan deities who were nonexistent demanded such love, was it asking too much for the true God of heaven to require the same?” (Abraham: Trials & Triumphs [Regal Books], pp. 138-139).
And so while God will not ask us to kill our children, He does want us to offer those children back to Him. He takes us through the process of surrendering to Him everything that is precious to us, until we lean on Him alone. While it’s painful, we can be assured that it always stems from His love, not from cruelty. How should we respond?
2. Ultimate surrender is seen in unflinching obedience to the difficult commands of God (22:3-10).
A. This was a most difficult command.
As I said, it would have seemed illogical and opposed to God’s love. Think of Abraham’s love for Isaac! I’m sure that, like any parent, Abraham would rather have sacrificed himself than his son. But even more, Isaac represented the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. God had said that through Isaac He would bless Abraham’s descendants. If Isaac died, the hope for the promised Savior died; the hope for all the nations died!
So Abraham was faced with a seeming contradiction: He knew that God loved him and that Isaac was the promised heir. He also knew that God was now telling him to kill Isaac. Do you know how Abraham resolved this? Hebrews 11:19 tells us: “He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead.” So he went ahead in obedience to this incredibly difficult command!
We all come up against hard truths in Scripture where we think that God is being illogical or contradictory. What do you do at a time like that? A lot of people write God off and do what they want. Or they make up excuses: “You can’t take the Bible literally.” Or, “That command doesn’t apply to us; it was just for that culture.” So they skate around the difficult doctrines and commands of Scripture. But that’s not surrender.
There are many things in the Bible that I wish were not there. Life would be easier. I could blend in better with our culture. But the real test of surrender isn’t when I obey commands I like. If I say to my kids, “Eat your ice cream,” it’s not a good test of how well they obey me. The true test is when I ask them to do something difficult.
B. Unflinching obedience shows true surrender.
If Abraham debated this in his mind, the text doesn’t record it. It shows him as simply obeying God. He obeyed promptly: he “rose early in the morning.” He made the necessary preparations. He conveniently could have “forgotten” to take the wood or the fire, and then made up an excuse for his disobedience. But he didn’t do that. He could have made excuses about Mount Moriah being too far away. Abraham had what Eugene Peterson has called, “a long obedience in the same direction.” He followed through even though it wasn’t convenient or easy.
How did he do that? There are several answers. As I’ve already mentioned, this was the next step in a lifelong process of yielding obediently to God. He had long since given himself over to follow the Lord; so at this point, there was no turning back. But two things stand out.
(1) Abraham obeyed unflinchingly because he saw this as an act of worship (22:5). His focus was not on his great sacrifice, but on his great God. He wasn’t patting himself on the back for being so dedicated. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself for all he was giving up for the Lord. He wasn’t self-focused at all. Rather, he was awed by the majesty and worthiness of God, realizing that no gift is too great to give Him. If we hesitate to obey the difficult commands of God, it may be that we have lost sight of God’s greatness and have become focused on ourselves. Worship is at the heart of unflinching obedience.
(2) Abraham obeyed unflinchingly because of his unwavering confidence in God. He says, “I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you” (22:5). He planned on coming back with Isaac! When Isaac sensed that something was wrong, he asked his father where was the lamb for the sacrifice (22:7). Abraham’s reply shows both sensitivity toward Isaac and great confidence in the Lord: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (22:8). He knew that God could not be unfaithful. God had repeatedly given His word that Isaac was the son of the promise, so Abraham knew that if God required him to kill Isaac, then God would raise him from the dead.
Unflinching obedience to the difficult commands of God always stems from such confident faith. When you come to know God as your loving Heavenly Father, who cares for you more than any earthly father ever could, you can give Him everything in your life and know that He will not abuse you, in spite of how circumstances may appear.
God wants to bring each one of us to the place where we surrender everything to Him and trust Him totally with all that is precious to us. It’s what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). When you’ve surrendered all to Him as Lord, then you’ll obey Him unflinchingly, even when He asks you to do that which is most difficult.
You may be thinking, “Why would anyone want to go that far with the Lord? Isn’t it better just to play it safe and give Him a little bit of my life, instead of the whole thing?” But remember Lot! That was his approach, and his life was a tragedy. It’s as Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25).
3. God blesses the one who surrenders all to Him (22:11-24).
As soon as Abraham revealed the intent of his heart, God called to him and prevented him from carrying out the sacrifice of Isaac. He showed him the ram caught in the bushes as the substitute. God then repeated His promised blessings and even intensified matters with an oath. Abraham joyfully returned to Beersheba with Isaac. The chapter concludes with news from Abraham’s family back in Haran, mentioning Rebekah, who was God’s provision of a wife for Isaac. The theme of this section is that God is the one who sees our needs and thus provides for them. He is called, “Jehovah Jireh,” which means, “the Lord who sees” (in the sense of seeing to provide). The text shows three ways God blesses us:
A. God blesses us by providing the things which He demands of us.
God required sacrifice; He provided the sacrifice. To satisfy the demands of His holiness and justice, God demands the death of the sinner. But that is precisely what He has provided for every sinner in the death of His Son, who is our substitute. When Jesus told the Pharisees, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56), I think He was referring to this incident. Abraham was able to look ahead and see how God would provide salvation in the person of His Son.
B. God blesses us by providing assurance of His promises.
God here says, “By Myself I have sworn” (22:16) in affirming the promises which He has already given to Abraham. It is unusual for God to speak with an oath. The author of Hebrews picks this up, saying, “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply you’” (Heb. 6:13-14). Abraham’s supreme act of obedience drew forth God’s supreme assurance of blessing. If you lack assurance of God’s promises to you, obey Him! He gives His greatest assurance to those who obey Him most fully.
C. God blesses us by providing for our future needs.
That’s the point of the final verses giving the news of Abraham’s family. No doubt Abraham had wondered where he would find a wife for Isaac, so that his son would not be absorbed into the Canaanite culture. God had already taken care of the matter in the person of Rebekah. When we obey God fully, we can trust that He is looking farther ahead than we are. He is already taking care, not only of our future needs, but also of the needs of our children!
One night, a family of five was crammed into a Volkswagen, inching along in a heavy rainstorm. Suddenly they saw a man and woman walking along the highway in the pouring rain. They pulled over and asked if they could help. They saw that the woman was carrying a baby. She said that they lived in a town several miles back, but the lightning had caused a short in the wiring of their house, starting a fire that had burned it to the ground. They had barely escaped with their lives and were walking to the next town seven miles away to stay with her sister until further provision could be made.
Feeling sorry for the family and realizing that there was no room in the VW, the man pulled out $20, gave it to the woman, and drove off. A couple of miles down the road, he stopped the car and asked his family, “How much money do you have?” They pooled everything and came up with just under $100. He drove back to where the couple was still walking. “Do you have the money I gave you?” he asked. Surprised, the woman said, “Yes, we do.” “Then give it to me.” Perplexed, she reached into her pocket, pulled out the $20, and handed it to him. He combined it with the money he had and handed it all to her saying, “Here, our family would like you to have this.”
This story illustrates how God often treats us. He gives us so many wonderful gifts, and then He comes to us and says, “I want them all back--every one of them.” He does this so He can combine them with His unlimited resources and give them all to us (in Disciples are Made, Not Born, by Walter Hendrichsen [Victor Books], pp. 28-30).
When we see God’s great love for us as seen in His not sparing His own Son, but giving Him up for us all, our response should be, as Isaac Watts put it, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Give yourself and all that is precious to you to the Lord. He will bless you and give you great joy.
- How would you answer the person who claimed that God told him to do something contrary to the Bible and based it on God’s telling Abraham to sacrifice his son?
- If you have an impression to do something “illogical,” how can you know whether it is God prompting you, the devil tempting you, or just a crazy impression?
- What would you say to a person who was afraid to yield himself to God for fear that God would require him to do something he didn’t want to do (like go to the mission field)?
- What is the most difficult area you’ve had to surrender to God?
Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation
8. God's Judgment Is Removed (Zephaniah 3:14-20)Related Media
Zephaniah (part eight)
God's judgment against unrighteousness is terrifying and severe, but it is not everlasting. It will come to an end once He has turned this upside-down world right-side up again. After God judges the nations that He used as instruments against Judah, He will remove His judgment. He will then rule over His people during an age of righteousness. His people will enjoy peace and prosperity as they shout for joy under the reign of their divine King. In return, their loving God will shout for joy over His righteous people. All things will be as they should.
Lesson 46: The Lord Who Provides (Genesis 22)Related Media
We’ve lost touch over the years, but I used to know a man who met Christ while he was doing five years to life in Tehachapi prison on drug charges. He later found out that at the very moment he went into the prison chapel and cried out to God for salvation, his mother was at home on her knees beseeching the Lord to save her wayward son. He often said, “I was forgiven much, so I love Jesus much.” He would tell every stranger he met how Jesus had forgiven all his sins.
At first I was bothered by his referring to that passage of Scripture, because I thought, “I was raised in a Christian home. I never committed terrible crimes, like he did. So does that mean I can’t love Jesus as much as he does?” But then I realized that Jesus’ point was not that some are forgiven more than others, but that some are so self-righteous that they don’t see their need for God’s forgiveness, and so they do not love God very much. Others, even those who are outwardly good, see how desperately wicked their hearts are. The more they see their own depravity in the sight of God, the more they love the Savior who rescued them from a horrible pit.
In my estimation, one of the major problems in the evangelical church today is that we have watered down the gospel message by minimizing the desperate need of lost sinners and thereby minimizing the greatness of God’s salvation. We’ve told people that Jesus can help them with their problems and give them an abundant life. They’re doing reasonably well in life, but they could use a little help now and then, so they try Jesus to see if He will boost their happiness quotient. Like well-fed people at a feast, they sample a little of the “Jesus” appetizer, to see if they like it, but they don’t feel a great need for the Savior. Forgiven little, they love Jesus little.
But that’s not the gospel! The gospel is that apart from Christ, people are under the wrath of the holy God, and that unless they flee to Christ, they will perish in their sins. They are hopelessly, helplessly lost. Unless Christ saves them from their sins, they will suffer God’s eternal condemnation. Somewhere in the process of God’s dealings with us, He must bring us to the point of recognizing our great need for His salvation. For some it happens before conversion; for others (and I fit here), it happens after. But only when we see how desperate our need is, will we see how great God’s provision of the Savior is. Seeing how much we’ve been forgiven, we will love much.
When God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, He allowed Abraham to go to the very brink, where he would see his desperate need for the substitute which God provided. Out of gratitude, Abraham named that place, “The Lord Will Provide” (22:14). This story illustrates the salvation that God later provided for the world in the death of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Last week we looked at this story from the perspective of what it teaches us about surrendering all to God. Today I want to look at it from the angle of God’s provision:
The Lord has provided a great Savior for our great need.
The first thing we must grasp is that ...
1. We have a great need.
If God had merely asked Abraham to go and sacrifice one of his lambs, he wouldn’t have felt the desperate need he felt when God asked him to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved (22:2). This was a life and death matter. Of course, Isaac felt his great need, too! He would have died if God had not intervened. God allowed Abraham to get to the point of raising the knife to slay his son, to show him his desperate need for a substitute.
This drama teaches us some important truths about salvation:
A. Man can only approach God through the shedding of blood.
This was not the first time Abraham and Isaac had learned this. Isaac had been with him on other occasions when he had sacrificed one of their animals. This fact lies behind his question as they proceeded up the mountain, “... where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (22:7). Isaac knew that to approach God there had to be the shedding of blood.
God had made this plain from the time of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden. They had tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves, but God provided animal skins for them. I think God explained to them the significance of that shed blood and of His provision for their sin.
Their sons, Cain and Abel, knew this. When Cain brought a sacrifice of fruit, which represented his attempt to approach God in his own way, God did not accept it and told him to do well. God would only say that if Cain knew the proper way of approach. Later, God would ordain through Moses the sacrificial system by which Israel was to approach Him. The point is, from the earliest times God made it clear that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. God cannot just brush our sin under the rug, or He would compromise His holiness and justice. He has ordained that the penalty for sin is death, and He must exact that penalty.
B. Man can only approach God through the shed blood of an acceptable substitute.
By accepting the death of animals, God showed people from Adam and Eve on that He would accept the death of a proper substitute as payment for a person’s sins. It could not be just any animal; it had to be a male, without spot or blemish, because it pointed ahead to the sinless Son of God who would offer Himself as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world. By requiring the death of Isaac, God was going a step further in His revelation to man. He was showing that man’s sins required not only the death of an animal substitute, but that ...
C. Man can only approach God through the shed blood of an acceptable human substitute.
Only man can atone for the sins of man. Furthermore, that man who must die as the substitute must be a son, an only son, a beloved son (22:2). So Isaac and the ram together represent the sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross. The ram represents the aspect of substitution; Isaac represents the humanity and sonship of the Savior. Abraham pictures the Father, who loved the Son, but who sacrificed Him on our behalf.
Think about how Abraham must have felt as he lifted the knife to kill his beloved son! He must have felt overwhelmed by his desperate need before God. He must have thought, “Oh, God, why couldn’t it be a lamb? Why couldn’t it be me? Why must it be my son, my only son, whom I love? Is my sin so great that only Isaac will suffice?” And think of how Isaac must have felt! Unless God provided a substitute, he would die!
God has to bring us all to that place of realizing our great need. Our sin is so great that nothing other than the death of God’s own Son would suffice. The death of lambs could never atone for sin. They only pointed forward to the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. Through the command to sacrifice Isaac, and through the ram which God substituted at the last minute (which shows that God was not endorsing child sacrifice), the Lord was impressing on His people the greatness of their need for the Savior He would provide. Donald Barnhouse observes, “God was instilling a reflex in the minds of His people so that every time they thought of sin they would think of death, for sin means death. It means the death of the sinner or the death of the Savior.” (Genesis [Zondervan], 1:203.)
I wish you all could read the autobiography of the great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. His father and grandfather were preachers in Victorian England. Outwardly, Charles was a moral, well-behaved boy. But from age 10 to 15, he went through deep conviction of sin before he came to faith in Christ. God had to show him his great need so that he would appreciate God’s great provision in Christ. He spends over 20 pages describing his inward struggles. Here’s a brief sample:
For five years, as a child, there was nothing before my eyes but my guilt, and though I do not hesitate to say that those who observed my life would not have seen any extraordinary sin, yet as I looked upon myself, there was not a day in which I did not commit such gross, such outrageous sins against God, that often and often have I wished I had never been born....
Before I thought upon my soul’s salvation, I dreamed that my sins were very few. All my sins were dead, as I imagined, and buried in the graveyard of forgetfulness. But that trumpet of conviction, which aroused my soul to think of eternal things, sounded a resurrection--note to all my sins; and, oh, how they rose up in multitudes more countless than the sands of the sea! Now, I saw that my very thoughts were enough to damn me, that my words would sink me lower than the lowest hell, and as for my acts of sin, they now began to be a stench in my nostrils so that I could not bear them.... I reckoned that the most defiled creature, the most loathsome and contemptible, was a better thing than myself, for I had so grossly and grievously sinned against Almighty God... (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:58-59).
A few pages earlier (p. 54) he suggests that the “flimsy piety” of his day arose from the fact that too few people had gone through deep conviction of sin. Then he states,
Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Saviour. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.
While I have never gone through anything as deep as Spurgeon went through, the more I have grown as a Christian, the more I have come to realize how holy God is and how sinful I am. When I first put my faith in Christ, I knew that I was sinful and that God is holy, but I had no idea of “the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary.” That may be one danger of being raised in a Christian home, that we may not realize how much we’ve been forgiven, and thus not love the Savior as greatly as if we had felt “the rope around our neck.” The modern church is going overboard to tell us how to love ourselves and esteem ourselves. But the Bible shows us the depth of our great need as sinners so that we will appreciate God’s great provision in the Savior.
2. God has provided a great Savior.
A. Only God can provide a Savior for our great need.
Abraham’s desperate situation showed him that only God could meet his need. If God had not intervened at the precise moment He did, Isaac would have been killed. Abraham offered the ram God provided “in the place of his son,” so that Isaac was spared (22:13). As the apostle Paul wrote, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).
The place where this sacrifice took place is significant. God could have told Abraham to sacrifice his son somewhere closer to Beersheba, where he was living. But He directed him to the land of Moriah, to one of the mountains there. The only other place in the Bible where Moriah appears is 2 Chronicles 3:1, where it is stated that Solomon built the temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. In Abraham’s day, this spot was uninhabited. But it later would be the place where sacrificial lambs would be offered at the temple. I can’t prove it, but I believe that Mount Moriah is the same as Mount Calvary, where God’s Son would die as the sacrifice for our sin some 2,000 years later.
A proverb sprang up concerning this story, “in the mount of the Lord it will be provided” (22:14). The idea is that in our time of extremity, when all human help is gone, God will see our need and provide deliverance for us. The mount of the Lord is, supremely, Mount Calvary, because our greatest need is to be reconciled to God. Like Abraham, we must come to the place God has appointed, to the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross God provided everything the sinner needs to be reconciled to Him. All we can do is thankfully receive by faith what He provided.
B. The Savior God has provided is His only Son whom He loves.
The ram provided by God represents Christ, who died in our place. But Isaac is also a type of Christ. Whereas Isaac was spared death, Christ actually died in our place. But God allowed Abraham to go right up to the point of killing Isaac to illustrate the fact that He would one day sacrifice His own Son for the sin of the world.
Just as Jesus would one day bear His own cross up that same hill, so Isaac bore the wood for the sacrifice on his shoulders. Just as Jesus willingly gave Himself in obedience to the Father (John 10:17-18; Eph. 5:2), so Isaac willingly submitted to his father. We don’t know how old Isaac was, but he was at least old enough to carry the wood. Probably he was strong enough to resist his elderly father, if he had tried. But his willing submission shows his trust both in God and in his father. In Abraham’s mind, Isaac was as good as dead for three days (22:4), before he was raised from that altar, just as Jesus was actually in the tomb three days before He was raised.
Just as Abraham carried the fire and knife, the implements of death, and would have plunged the knife into the heart of his own son, so there is a sense in which God the Father put His own Son to death. Isaiah wrote of Christ that He was “smitten of God,” and that “the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, ...” (Isa. 53:4, 10). John 3:16 makes it clear that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. Just as Abraham loved Isaac, and it pained him deeply to think of killing him, so the Father loved the Son, but offered Him up for us all (John 10:17; 15:9; 17:23, 24).
Why? “God so loved” us that He gave His Son to die in our place! Probably no one appreciates what that means like Abraham did after he received Isaac back from the altar. Nothing was more precious to Abraham than Isaac. Nothing could have cost the Father more than to give His sinless Son as the penalty for our sin.
Years ago, a missionary in India named David Morse had developed a close friendship with a pearl diver named Rambhau. Morse had spent many hours trying to tell his friend of God’s great and free gift of salvation in Christ, but the Indian man could not accept it. It seemed too easy; he insisted that a man must work for and earn his place in heaven.
As Rambhau grew older, he told the missionary that he needed to make preparations for the life to come. He had decided to spend his final days crawling to Delhi on his knees to make atonement for his sins and earn his spot in heaven. With alarm, the missionary tried to dissuade him and show him that God had provided all that a sinner needs in His Son, Jesus Christ. But the old man could not accept it.
One day just before he left on his pilgrimage, Rambhau invited Morse to his house. He brought out a strongbox, and explained that he kept only one thing in it, something very precious to him. He surprised the missionary by explaining that he had a son. With moist eyes, he told of how his son had been the best pearl diver on the coasts of India. He always dreamed of finding the best pearl ever found in those parts. One day he found it, but he had stayed under too long. He brought up that pearl, but he lost his life doing it. All these years, the father had kept that pearl. But now, since he did not plan to return, he wanted to give it to his best friend, the missionary. He opened the box, and Morse gasped as he stared at the biggest, most perfect pearl he had ever seen, a pearl worth thousands of dollars.
Suddenly, a thought came to the missionary. He said, “Rambhau, this is a marvelous pearl. Let me buy it. I will give you $10,000 for it.” The old man was stunned: “What do you mean?” “I’ll give you $15,000 for it, or if it takes more, I’ll work until I pay it off.”
Rambhau was indignant. “This pearl is beyond all price to me. My son gave his life to get this pearl. I would not sell it for a million dollars. But I will give it to you, my friend, as a gift.”
“No, Rambhau, I cannot accept it as a gift. Maybe I am proud, but I must work for it and pay for it or I cannot take it.”
Rambhau was offended beyond words. David Morse, with choked voice, took his hand and said, “Don’t you see that what I’m saying to you is just what you have been saying to God? God provided for your salvation by offering His own Son. Your pride in thinking that you could earn it or deserve it shows your great need as a sinner. But the fact that God provided His Son for sinners shows His great love. All you can do is thankfully receive God’s great provision for your sin.”
By now, tears were streaming down the cheeks of the old Indian man. He understood at last that salvation is not something man can earn, but only something that God can provide. He trusted in Christ as God’s provision for his sin.
If you have never seen it before, I hope that today you see that as a sinner, you have a great need for a Savior. Without Christ, you will perish in your sins. I hope you see that God has provided the Savior in His own Son, Jesus Christ, and that you trust in Him as your substitute sin offering. If you’ve trusted in Christ, I hope you remember always the great provision that God has made for your great need, and that, remembering, you will love Him, trust Him, fear Him, worship Him, and obey Him with all your heart. As sinners, we have a great need; but God has provided an even greater Savior!
- Must a person feel convicted of sin before he trusts in Christ? Are we too quick to lead a person to salvation before he senses his desperate need?
- Some say that we should not emphasize God’s judgment and man’s sin, but rather God’s love and the benefits of salvation. Agree/disagree?
- Some say that to be increasingly aware of how sinful we are is not good in that it leads to poor self-esteem. Why is that bad theology?
- How can we help people who are spiritually complacent see their great need for Christ?
Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 47: How Believers Deal With Death (Genesis 23:1-20)Related Media
No subject is more difficult for us to face than that of death. Writer Somerset Maugham said, “Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it” (Reader’s Digest [1/80]). But, of course, we can’t dodge it. We all have loved ones and friends who have died or will die. And we must die. But it’s still difficult to think about.
Author William Saroyan, just five days before his death from cancer, issued this statement: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” (Reader’s Digest [12/81]). He was probably being facetious, but underneath he was probably voicing a fear that has haunted most of us: How are we to think about and deal with death, be it the death of loved ones, or our own death?
That question has caused some confusion among God’s people. Some have said that since Christ defeated death, we’re supposed to be joyful and victorious through it all. They deny the process of grieving. Others are quick to explain how God will work it all together for good, which is true. But we still grieve and feel the pain.
Genesis 23 provides some answers to the question of how believers should deal with death. Abraham, the man of faith, loses his wife, Sarah. His response reflects both realism and faith. It is interesting that only two verses deal with Sarah’s death and Abraham’s grief, whereas 18 verses deal with his negotiations to secure a burial plot. You have to ask, why is so much space devoted to that which, at first glance, seems insignificant? The answer is given in Hebrews 11:13-16, which talks about Abraham and Sarah’s faith:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
It is significant that just preceding the death of Sarah is the news from Abraham’s homeland of the children born to his brother Nahor. In that day, it was important that a person be buried in his native land. It would have been easy for Abraham, with news from the family in the homeland, to have thought when Sarah died, “I must take her back there to bury her.”
But God had called Abraham to the land of Canaan and promised to give it to him and his descendants. Verse 2 states that Sarah died “in the land of Canaan.” Verse 19 states that it was “in the land of Canaan” that Abraham secured the burial site for her. So the point of emphasizing Abraham’s efforts in securing a burial plot in the land of Canaan is to show his faith in God’s promise as he dealt with Sarah’s death. The field and cave of Machpelah was the only piece of real estate in Canaan Abraham ever owned, and he had to pay the going price for it. But in so doing, he was saying, “I believe that God will do as He promised.” Abraham dealt with Sarah’s death realistically, but with solid faith in God’s promises concerning the future. That’s how we must deal with death:
Believers deal with death with realism, but with faith in God’s promises.
1. Believers deal with death with realism.
Death is the ultimate test of our faith. Being a faithful Christian doesn’t exempt us from death, unless we are living when Christ returns. We can’t escape it or postpone it when it’s our time to go. As Christians, we need to view death realistically.
That means that we recognize death for what it is: an enemy that entered the human race as God’s curse on our sin. It is not, as some say, a natural part of life. It is our enemy. When the Bible says that Christ abolished death (2 Tim. 1:10), it means that He broke its power over believers. Christ’s resurrection triumphed over death, but that victory will not be fully realized until He returns to give us resurrection bodies like His own. Until then, death is our enemy, a painful reminder of God’s judgment on our rebellion against Him. We are not supposed to smile and say it doesn’t hurt. Death brings hard realities.
A. Death brings emotional realities.
There is the reality of loss and grief. Even though Sarah lived a relatively long life (she is the only woman in the Bible whose age at death is given), Abraham mourned and wept when she died. It’s never easy. There is nothing unmanly or unbiblical about tears in a time of grief. Jesus Himself wept at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:35). Paul tells us to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). We should not make people who are grieving feel uncomfortable or unspiritual about their tears. I once preached the funeral for a man who had died in his thirties. Afterwards, I was consoling his widow when her former pastor from another town came up and tried to get her to stop crying by saying, “Well, praise the Lord! Scott’s in glory now!” I wanted to punch him in the nose! Let her weep!
There is also the reality of loneliness, as the loved one is no longer with us. Twice Abraham repeats the phrase, “bury my dead out of my sight” (23:4, 8, NASB; not in NIV). This may be just a Hebrew way of expressing burial, but it suggests the pain of separation which death brings. Before death, a loved one is in our sight often. We delight to see the person. In the case of lovers, even in old age, the beauty of her face, the warmth of her smile, the twinkle in her eyes, all make your heart glow. But death instantly changes all that.
Abraham and Sarah had shared their whole lives together. She had been with him when he left Ur of the Chaldeans by faith. She had shared his anxieties as they moved into the land of Canaan. She had waited with him over the years as they longed for God’s promised son. Together they had seen that son grow into a man (now 37). So when Sarah died, Abraham was left with a gaping hole in his life. While he had Isaac, and he had the Lord, and he later remarried, nothing could fill up the hole left when Sarah died. Death brings the pain of loneliness into our lives.
Note that the Lord did not appear to Abraham or give a special word of comfort at this point in his life. I’m not suggesting that God abandoned him, or that Abraham did not find comfort in the Lord. But there is no indication of any special revelation at this difficult point in Abraham’s life. Sometimes we give pat comfort when we tell a grieving person that God will be especially close to them in their loss. Maybe He will. But there is no indication that God was especially close to this great man of faith at his time of loss. The picture is rather of a lonely man grieving and taking care of the necessary arrangements to bury his wife. Death brings the hard emotional realities of loss and loneliness, even to a man who is the special friend of God. It’s okay to say, “Even with God, it’s going to be hard!”
B. Death brings financial realities.
Perhaps you thought that the expensive cost of funerals was a recent American phenomenon! But 4,000 years ago, Abraham was faced with the high cost of burying his wife. He had to take care of this business in the midst of his grief.
Maybe it’s from the Lord that we must take care of such business in a time of grief. If we didn’t have to rise from our grief (23:3) and deal with some of the practical matters of living, we might be overwhelmed. The duty of work and taking care of the business side of life helps us not to grieve beyond what is healthy and to get on with the process of establishing a new life for ourselves after our loss.
This story gives us an inside look at the way business was carried on in this ancient culture. There are a lot of nonverbal, culturally-understood signals going on here, but the basic issue being decided is whether this resident alien, Abraham, will gain a permanent foothold or not by becoming a land owner. The flattering words of verse 6 were probably an attempt to get him to remain a landless dependent. Abraham’s rejoinder, where he names Ephron, “made skilful use of the fact that while a group tends to resent an intruder the owner of an asset may welcome a customer” (Derek Kidner, Genesis [IVP], 1:145).
Ephron offers to give Abraham not only the cave, but the field attached to it (23:11). On the surface, that sounds like a generous deal. But the offer to give it to Abraham was probably a culturally courteous way of saying, “Name your price.” No one with honor would actually take up such an offer. It was kind of like our asking a dinner guest at 11 p.m. to stay for one more cup of coffee. It gives the person the polite opportunity (hopefully) to say, “No thank you, I’ve had a wonderful time, but I must be going now.”
In offering to throw in the field along with the cave, Ephron wasn’t being generous. Under Hittite law, if he retained ownership of the field, in modern parlance, he would have to pay the taxes on it. But if he sold the larger portion with the cave, the obligation passed on to the new owner. Abraham agreed to this extended package, so all that is left is establishing the price.
Ephron is subtle in this matter as well. He persists as if he is willing to give the property to Abraham, but he attaches a market value to his “gift.” This allows Ephron to mention the value of the land as he sees it, and it implies that if Ephron is so generous as to give Abraham this land, how could Abraham be so petty as to dicker over the price? Abraham accepts the price, pays the money, and the transaction is legally witnessed (23:16-18, 20). Note also that Abraham had enough money in hand to pay for this need. I believe that God’s people should have enough in either a savings account or life insurance so that you don’t have to go in debt to cover the cost of a funeral.
Let me say a practical word on the expense connected with funerals. The key should be moderation. Some people are extravagant in buying the most expensive caskets and floral arrangements. Sometimes they feel guilty about their relationship with the deceased. Sometimes they feel the need to impress those who attend the funeral. But in my opinion, it is not good stewardship of the Lord’s money to be extravagant at a funeral.
On the other hand, we don’t need to get by as cheaply as possible. Christians are divided over the issue of cremation. I’m not bothered by it theologically, in that whether a corpse is burned or decays in the ground is no problem to God in the day of resurrection. But cost shouldn’t be the only factor in deciding. It’s important that you feel right about the funeral in terms of the honor given to the deceased within the boundaries of moderation. There may be some benefit to succeeding generations to have a grave site, which cremation usually doesn’t provide. While I do not believe in putting flowers on a grave site or that the dead person enjoys a grave with a nice view, there can be value in having a place where people can go to see the grave marker and reflect on the life of the dead person.
When we were in Macau, we visited the only Protestant cemetery there, where Robert Morrison and his wife, the first missionaries to China in the modern era, are buried. It was sobering to walk around that cemetery and notice that most of the women died in their twenties or thirties, and the men in their thirties and forties. They paid a high price to take the gospel to China in those days before modern medicine. To see their graves was a solemn reminder of the godly pioneers of the faith who carried the torch faithfully in their generation and a challenge to imitate their faith.
It’s important that the funeral be a time of publicly expressing the hope of the gospel. It’s fine to mention some of the person’s strengths and reflect on the lessons of his life. But the main focus ought to be to make those present think about the reality of death for them and the hope of the gospel if they will trust in Christ. Whoever you ask to officiate at the funeral of your loved one, make sure that he promises to give the gospel clearly. A funeral is no time to beat around the bush about the truth of the gospel.
To come back to the point of our text, death involves financial realities and those who are grieving often are faced with the practical matters related to the death of the loved one. But there is a much greater point here, namely, Abraham’s great faith in God’s promises. While believers need to face the reality of death, both emotionally and financially, we also need to face death with faith in God’s promises.
2. Believers deal with death with faith in God’s promises.
The point of this extended story of Abraham’s securing the burial plot is to show his strong faith in God’s promise to give this land to his descendants. Moses was writing to people on the verge of entering that land to conquer it from some frightening enemies. Many of them weren’t so sure it was a good idea. As reports of the giants in the land spread through the camp, slavery in Egypt didn’t sound too bad! Moses is showing how their forefather Abraham paid for legal title to this burial ground because he believed what God had promised. Not only Sarah, but Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob were buried in that cave as a testimony of their faith in God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to their descendants. Genesis ends with Joseph dying in Egypt, away from the promised land, but charging his sons to take his bones with them when God led them back there. So now Israel must go in and claim the land God had promised.
All of these were testifying that they believed in more than a piece of real estate. They believed that God’s promises do not end with this life. God is going to do far more than He has done for us in this life. As the author of Hebrews says, they were desiring “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). Abraham was “looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). His faith looked beyond the grave to the promises of God to send the Savior, and through Him to bless all nations.
Just as Abraham said that he was a stranger and sojourner (23:4), so God told Israel, “the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). David acknowledged to God, “For we are sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were” (1 Chron. 29:15). In the psalms, he cries, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with You, a sojourner like all my fathers” (Ps. 39:12). Even when Israel was in possession of the land, these men of faith confessed that their true home was not here, but in heaven (Heb. 11:13-16).
That’s how believers face death. They say, “God, you’ve promised me something that I haven’t yet realized. You’ve promised more than this life. You’ve promised me and my loved one who trusted You eternal life with You. You’ve promised a new, resurrection body. You’ve promised a day when all tears and pain and sorrow will be wiped away for Your people. And so, in this moment of despair, when death has claimed my loved one, when death stares me in the face, when I am lonely and I hurt inside, I trust in Your promises. Your promises are my hope in the face of death.”
Joseph Parker, a famous London preacher in the last century, experienced this. At one point in his life he began to dabble with some of the liberal theology of his day. Many scholars were undermining the truth of the Scriptures, and as Parker read their books and attended their meetings, he began to lose his grip on the foundational truth of salvation through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
Then he was hit with the worst sorrow he ever had to bear. His wife, whom he loved dearly, became ill and died in a matter of hours. He was unable to share his grief with others. He paced back and forth in the empty rooms of his house, his heart breaking. In his misery, he felt for some footing in the liberal theology he had been embracing, but he found no comfort or hope. As Parker later told it publicly,
And then, my brethren, in those hours of darkness, in those hours of my soul’s anguish, when filled with doubt and trembling in fear, I bethought myself of the old gospel of redemption alone through the blood of Christ, the gospel that I had preached in those earlier days, and I put my foot down on that, and, my brethren, I found firm standing. I stand there today, and I shall die resting upon that blessed glorious truth of salvation alone through the precious blood of Christ. (In H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies [Loizeaux Brothers], pp. 56-57.)
Parker faced the death of his wife with realism concerning the pain, but also with faith in the promises of God.
Death, even for believers, brings hard realities. It always hurts, it always leaves us with a lonely spot in our hearts. It often brings hard financial realities. The Lord does not spare us these things just because we believe in Him. But with the pain, which reminds us of our sin as the reason death entered this world, He gives us the hope of His promises. Christ died for us, so that the sting of death is gone. Yes, we grieve at the death of loved ones, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope. He has gone to prepare a place for us. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have fallen asleep in Jesus!
If you have not come to Christ and trusted in His death as the payment for your sin, the Bible says that you have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). But you don’t need to be there. God promises that whoever believes in Jesus Christ “shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). You can trust Him right now and go to bed tonight with the confidence that if you should die, you have eternal life because God promised it.
- What is proper grief for a Christian? When is it excessive?
- What should you say and not say in trying to comfort a grieving person?
- Critics sometimes accuse Christianity as being “pie in the sky when you die.” Is this true? How would you answer the charge?
- How can we know that our hope in God’s promise of eternal life is not just wishful thinking? What guarantees our hope?
Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 48: Knowing God’s Guidance—Especially in Choosing A Mate (Genesis 24:1-67)Related Media
A flight attendant spent a week’s vacation in the Rockies. She was captivated by the mountain peaks, the clear blue skies, and the sweet smelling pines. But she also was charmed by a very eligible bachelor who owned and operated a cattle ranch and lived in a log cabin. At the end of this week, Mr. Wonderful proposed. But it had all happened so quickly that the woman decided to return home and to her job, feeling that she would somehow be guided.
The next day, in flight, she found herself wondering what to do. To perk up, she stopped in the rest room and splashed some cool water on her face. There was some turbulence and a sign lit up: PLEASE RETURN TO THE CABIN. She did--to the cabin back in the mountains (Reader’s Digest [1/81], p. 118)!
I don’t recommend that method! But many Christians wonder, How can I know God’s guidance, especially in the crucial decision of whom I should marry? Our text speaks to this issue. Genesis 24 is the longest chapter in Genesis, but since it is a unit, it’s tough to break it down into several messages. We could treat the whole from several angles. We could learn about serving the Lord from the fine example of Abraham’s servant. We could learn about faith and service from Rebekah. We could study the chapter as an illustration of God the Father (Abraham) sending the Holy Spirit (the servant) to seek a bride (Rebekah = the church) for His Son (Isaac) who had just been through death and resurrection (chapter 22).
But I’m going to approach the text by gleaning some principles of divine guidance. Since it deals with God’s guidance as it pertains to finding a mate, I’m going to apply it that way. If you’re already married, please don’t decide that you made a mistake in discerning God’s will in your marriage and decide to try again! You can apply the principles to other areas of guidance.
Moses wrote Genesis to a people who were poised to conquer the land of Canaan which God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. They were a rebellious bunch who were not inclined to endure the hardship necessary to fulfill God’s purpose. They put comfort for themselves ahead of obedience to God’s will. The point of this story in its context is to show Israel the importance of maintaining their purity as God’s people when they entered Canaan. They must not forget God’s purpose to give them that land and they must not intermarry with the corrupt people there. If they would obey God and commit themselves to His purpose, He would faithfully guide them and provide for them, just as He providentially led Abraham’s servant to Rebekah as a wife for Isaac.
If you’re single, it’s crucial to seek God’s guidance and to obey Him in choosing a mate, because except for trusting Christ as Savior, whom you marry is the most important decision you’ll make in life. The overall principle of our text is that
God will guide us when we walk with Him and are committed to His purpose.
Under that overall theme, I want to give five principles on how to know God’s guidance. These are not comprehensive and they are not a formula to plug into your computer. But I think they will help.
1. To know God’s guidance we must be unswerving in our commitment to God and His purpose.
Both Abraham and his servant had an unswerving commitment to the Lord and His purpose concerning the land of Canaan. Abraham calls his unnamed servant and commissions him to find a wife for Isaac, but not from among the Canaanites. The servant asks a practical question: “Suppose the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land; should I take your son back to the land from where you came?” (24:5). Abraham strongly warns him against doing that and repeats God’s call and promise to give him the land of Canaan. So the servant swears to do what Abraham has said (24:6-9).
To know God’s guidance we must put aside our own will and seek the will of the God who has called us. That is the basic principle in determining the will of God in any situation--to empty yourself, as much as you are able, of your own will and to commit yourself to seeking and obeying God’s will. As you seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, He will reveal the specific steps you need to take as you need to know them. But if you claim to want to know God’s will, but you’re not willing to do it unless it agrees with your will, you’re kidding yourself. All you really want is God’s approval of your plans. But you’ll never know God’s direction that way. God reveals His will to those who are committed to doing it.
Often it is more difficult to go this route than it is to operate on the basis of human wisdom. For Abraham’s servant, it meant a 500-mile journey across difficult terrain. It involved a lot of planning, expense, and hassle. “Why be so fanatical about this, Abraham? Surely there are some nice girls somewhere in Canaan!” But Abraham saw that it was crucial for his son to marry a woman who would share his commitment to the Lord and His purpose concerning the land.
Seeking first God’s kingdom is the primary factor in finding the right marriage partner. If you’re committed to doing what God wants, He will give you a partner who wants to do His will as you wait on Him. That unity of purpose builds unity in marriage, as the two of you work together in serving the Lord.
But be forewarned! Just as it was more of a hassle for Abraham to secure a wife for Isaac from his own people rather than from the Canaanites, so it will be more difficult for you to find a mate who is committed to God’s purpose. Let’s face it, there are a lot of nice, good-looking single pagans out there. And there are a fair amount of nice, good-looking church-goers who are living for themselves, not for Christ. But it can be pretty slim pickin’s to find a nice, good-looking (there’s nothing wrong with good looks--Rebekah is described as “very beautiful” [v. 16]), godly single person. And as you watch other Christian singles marrying those who aren’t so committed to the Lord, it’s easy to begin thinking, “Maybe I’m being too rigid. Maybe there are some nice Canaanite girls (or guys) around.” But if you want God’s guidance for a marriage partner, you must be unswerving in your commitment to God and His purpose.
2. To know God’s guidance we must move out in obedience accompanied by common sense.
Abraham’s servant didn’t sit in his tent praying for a wife for Isaac. He prayed a lot, but when Abraham told him to go to Haran and find a wife for Isaac, he arose and went (24:10). He moved out in obedience and he used common sense by taking the gifts needed to secure a bride in that culture.
Sometimes we get super-spiritual about this matter of determining God’s will, especially as it pertains to finding a mate. In college I heard speakers say that we should just trust God for a wife. I felt like if I went to a Christian gathering to look for a Christian girl to date, I was really carnal! I bought that for a while. But I remember one time after I hadn’t had a date for about two years, I was on my knees pleading with God for a wife when I realized that He wasn’t going to bring her floating through the window like the old Hertz rent-a-car ads. The Lord was saying to me, “At least go where there are some prospects!”
That’s what Abraham’s servant did. He didn’t start hanging out at the local bars or discos in Canaan. He went where he could find a godly young woman from Abraham’s relatives, as Abraham had told him to do. So obey God and use the common sense He gave you. You won’t find a godly mate in bars. Don’t go there! You may find a godly mate at church. Go there! That’s not super-spiritual. But I think it’s biblical!
3. To know God’s guidance we must seek and expect it, while submitting to His sovereign ways.
Abraham told his servant that he could expect God’s angel to go before him and lead him to the right young woman for Isaac (24:7). So the servant went in obedience, called to God for guidance, and God gave it to him (24:11-14).
So often we don’t experience God’s guidance because we get so caught up doing our own thing that we fail to stop and ask God to reveal His will to us. Or we get into our established routine, and it takes a catastrophe for God to get our attention so He can let us know what He wants us to do. So if you want God’s guidance, stop and ask Him for it, expect Him to give it, and wait long enough to listen to what He might have to say. “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).
But what if God doesn’t say anything? Maybe you’re waiting for the wrong kind of communication. Note here that there was no voice from heaven, no miracle, no visible angel, no display of God’s glory, no sign in the sky. In fact, there was no guarantee of success. Both Abraham and the servant recognized that they might not succeed (24:5, 8, 49, 58). So how did he know what God’s will was in this situation?
The answer is that when you seek and expect God’s guidance, and remain submissive to God’s sovereign ways, He providentially orchestrates circumstances in such a way as to confirm His will. Before the servant was done praying, God brought Rebekah along and the circumstances fit together in such an unmistakable way that the servant knew God had led him.
You need to be aware that God’s providential ordering of circumstances does not always work out in storybook fashion with a happy ending. Sometimes He providentially leads you into a relationship where you get your heart broken. I went through two major and one minor heartbreak romances before the Lord led me to Marla. While such experiences are not fun, the Lord does have important lessons to teach you if you submit to His sovereign ways. But if you think, “I trusted God and got burned, so I’m going to take matters in my own hands,” you’re not going to know His guidance. You’ll only bring more pain and discipline into your life.
In the case of Abraham’s servant, God did confirm His will through the circumstances. But however it works out, to experience God’s guidance, we must seek and expect it, while submitting to His sovereign ways.
4. To know God’s guidance we must apply God’s wisdom.
Some think that Abraham’s servant was putting out a fleece when he laid out the terms of how he would know which young woman was right for Isaac (24:14). But there’s a big difference between what he did and what Gideon did in putting out his fleece. God had clearly told Gideon what His will was; the fleece was Gideon’s way of catering to his weak faith. God graciously consented to it, but it’s not a model for determining God’s will.
But here, the servant wasn’t dictating to God what to do or doubting what God had already made clear. Rather, he was trying to provide a basis upon which he could know that his prayer had been answered. The test he proposed shows that he was applying God’s wisdom to this situation.
It would have been customary for any young woman to have given a stranger a drink. But to draw water for ten thirsty camels, each of which could drink about 20 gallons, and to do so without being asked, required a woman who was not self-centered, but who had a servant’s heart. Since self-centeredness is the root of most marriage conflicts, the servant was going to the very heart of what Isaac needed in a bride to have a happy home life. He applied God’s wisdom in seeking God’s will.
Note how Rebekah’s normal thoughtfulness and willingness to serve paid off for her. She didn’t know who this stranger was. She wasn’t putting on her best “date” behavior to impress him. She was simply living as she always did, thinking of the needs of others and giving herself to meet those needs. God used that to make her the wife of Isaac, the mother of Israel (Jacob).
Note four aspects of God’s wisdom for the choice of a mate:
1) Look for godly character qualities above all else in a prospective mate. Beauty is okay (24:16), but godliness is essential. Especially look for someone who denies self and is focused on loving God and others. Look for a person who bases his or her life on obedience to God’s Word, who is growing in the fruit of the Spirit. If you marry a beautiful woman who is focused on herself or a hunk who thinks the world revolves around him, you’re in for a miserable ride in marriage!
2) Finding the right person depends on being the right person. Because Rebekah had a servant’s heart, she found Isaac. If she had thought, “Who is this old man asking me for water?” and had gone on her way, she wouldn’t have met Isaac. You’ve got to be the kind of person the kind of person you want to marry would want to marry. If you want a kind, loving, godly mate, you’ve got to become a kind, loving, godly person.
3) Seek the wisdom of your parents. You probably didn’t want to hear that! But it’s an unmistakable principle in the Bible. Abraham, through his servant, picked Isaac’s wife. Although Rebekah had some say in the matter, it was her parents who really approved it. Even though we don’t have our parents arrange our marriages, we still need to listen to their counsel. If your parents are not believers, their counsel may not be as valid as that of godly parents. But if your parents have a strong objection to your fiancé, you need to listen to them and think carefully about what they say. They often have wisdom you lack, especially when you’re in the passion of romantic love.
4) Marriage is the foundation for love; love is not the foundation for marriage. Isaac and Rebekah married; then we read that Isaac loved her (24:67). Don’t misunderstand; I believe in romantic love. But if you build a marriage on romantic love, what do you do if conflicts develop and you don’t feel in love any more? But if you build love on the foundation of the marriage commitment, then you can weather the inevitable storms. In the Bible, we are commanded to love our mates whether we feel in love or not; the feelings follow if we obey.
To know God’s guidance we must: (1) Be unswerving in our commitment to God and His purpose. (2) Move out in obedience accompanied by common sense. (3) Seek and expect it, while submitting to His sovereign ways. (4) Apply God’s wisdom. Finally,
5. To know God’s guidance we must bathe the whole process in prayer and constant fellowship with God.
The servant didn’t meet Rebekah and say, “You’re Rebekah? No kidding! What a coincidence! This must be my lucky day!” He knew it wasn’t luck because he had sought the Lord in prayer. I think Abraham and Isaac were praying, too (see v. 63). The story reveals that this servant walked in fellowship with God. So when God worked the circumstances out, he worshiped the Lord and then was careful to tell Rebekah and her family the whole story of how God had led him. When he got done and asked whether they would permit Rebekah to go with him, they could only answer, “The matter is from the Lord; what can we say? ... Take her and go ... as the Lord has spoken.” (24:51-52).
The longer I’m a Christian, the more I believe that finding God’s will isn’t a matter of some formula. It’s a matter of walking in constant fellowship with the Lord, taking everything to Him in prayer. When you know that prayer is behind your circumstances, then that which otherwise may seem to be a coincidence turns out not to be a coincidence at all. Your steps are ordered by the Lord. When you walk with Him and are committed to His purpose, He will work quietly behind the scenes of your life, leading you through potential hazards, not always leading as you might have hoped, but still leading, putting all the pieces together. The process becomes a beautiful blending of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty and of our obedient trust in Him.
I’d like to conclude by telling you how God led me to Marla. After my third brokenhearted romance, I was more lonely than I had ever been. I spent a lot of time crying out to the Lord for His provision for a wife. One time several months after the third relationship had ended, that girl called me to ask my counsel on an important matter and to share her own confusion about God’s will for herself concerning marriage. I hung up the phone and fasted and prayed for three days, entreating the Lord to give her to me for my wife. But He didn’t seem to hear me.
Some time before that, my former roommate had been hiking in the local mountains. He told me that he had met three Christian girls. A few weeks later, Mark, a mutual friend of ours, started dating a girl, and when he showed my roommate her picture, he said, “That’s one of the girls I met hiking!” Mark’s girlfriend roomed with another of those three girls, and he lined me up on a blind date with her. She was a nice girl, but she wasn’t my type.
Then Mark and some of my friends met the third girl. They all told me that she was my type. Mark asked if he could set me up with her. I said no, it wouldn’t be cool after dating her friend. But he kept pestering me. Finally, I said, “Okay, set up something where she will be there, and I’ll show up.” He called back and said, “It’s on for Saturday night.” Out of duty I went and met Marla. I thought, “She’s kind of nice.” So I didn’t mess around--I asked her out for the next night. After that night I thought, “I like her!” And she even seemed to like me! Glory! We saw a lot of each other that week and by the end of the week we knew that we wanted to get married. We spent almost every waking moment together, and in less than three months we were married. It was kind of like Hezekiah’s revival, where the people rejoiced over what God had done, “because the thing came about suddenly” (2 Chron. 29:36). I’ve been rejoicing for almost 23 years now!
It might not work out quite like that for you. But if you’ll “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” and “in all your ways acknowledge Him,” then “He will direct your paths” for His glory and for your good. Walk daily with Him; be committed to His purpose. He will guide you in all your ways.
- What is the most difficult aspect for you in determining God’s will?
- Why doesn’t God normally speak to us in an audible voice? Why is determining His will so vague and subjective at times?
- Does God’s will contradict common sense: Usually; Often; Seldom; Never? Discuss.
- Have we overemphasized the role of romantic love in choosing a mate? How should it be any different?
- What is right (if anything) and wrong with the American way of dating in looking for a mate?
Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 49: God’s Purpose, God’s Choice (Genesis 25:1-26)Related Media
Few biblical doctrines have caused as much controversy as that of divine election, the truth that God’s sovereign choice lies behind our salvation. The story is told of a church that got into a squabble over this issue. As the debate grew more heated, they separated to two sides of the auditorium. One poor man didn’t know what to do, so he wandered into the predestination side. Someone asked him, “Who sent you here?” He replied, “No one, I came of my own free will.” They couldn’t tolerate that, so they pushed him across the aisle. Someone in the free-will camp asked him why he had come over there. He replied, “I had no choice; I was forced over here!” At this point, the poor man had no where to go!
I don’t want to stir up controversy, but I must teach what the Bible says, even when it presents difficult doctrines. If you don’t agree with me, I ask that you have a teachable heart and be a Berean, examining the Scriptures to see if what I say is true. I believe you will discover that at the heart of the Bible is the truth that God sovereignly works all things, including the salvation of His elect, according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). The apostle Paul cites Genesis 25:23 in his defense of this doctrine in Romans 9:10-12. So we need to think carefully about this important doctrine and how it applies to us.
Genesis 25 is the kind of passage a lot of preachers would skip. It begins by telling of other sons whom Abraham had by Keturah; it gives notice of Abraham’s death and burial; it runs through a list of Ishmael’s descendants; and, it describes the birth of Esau and Jacob. Although I don’t own a copy to consult, this is the kind of passage the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible could easily compress into just a few verses. Frankly, it doesn’t seem very relevant to where we all live.
When you come to a passage like this, you need to ask, What was Moses’ purpose in writing it? From there we can discover how it applies to us. Moses was writing to a people about to go in and conquer the land promised to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. The previous generation had the opportunity to conquer that land, but they died in the wilderness because of their unbelief. Now this generation had an opportunity to obey God in His redemptive plan of giving the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. God’s purpose as promised to Abraham will be fulfilled. The question is, will this generation be used of God to fulfill it, or will they, too, be set aside?
The point Moses was trying to impress on his readers was that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. God is sovereign; what He says, He will do. But even so, His chosen people must submit and commit themselves to His purpose if they want His blessing.
Since God’s purpose according to His choice will stand, we must submit and commit ourselves to His purpose if we want His blessing.
1. God’s purpose according to His choice will stand.
Whenever a great man, who has founded a work or a movement, dies, there is concern for who will carry on. But with God’s program, there need be no such concern. His purpose is greater than any man. Although Abraham was the father of our faith, it was only because God chose Abraham, called him, and promised to make a great nation of him, to give him the land of Canaan, and to bless him and all nations through his descendants. The most certain thing in this world is that God will do what He has said. Nothing can thwart His purpose.
This section of Genesis shows that God keeps His promises. That’s the point of listing Abraham’s sons through Keturah. There is debate about when Abraham took her as his wife. If it was after Sarah’s death, then God miraculously had to extend Abraham’s physical ability to produce children after the birth of Isaac. Because of Abraham’s age and the fact that Keturah is called a concubine (25:6; 1 Chron. 1:32), some prefer the view that Abraham took her while Sarah was alive. The problem with that view is that it doesn’t seem consistent with Abraham’s character or his commitment to Sarah. So take your pick!
But the point is, God had promised to make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations (17:4). The list of Abraham’s sons through Keturah, several of whom grew into nations, shows the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even though we don’t recognize most of these names, Israel did. The existence of these nations was a demonstration to Israel that what God promises, He does.
The text goes on to make the point that Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac (25:5). While he gave some gifts to Keturah’s sons, he sent them away. They were not given the promises of blessing and the land which Isaac received. Isaac was God’s choice, and thus He blessed him after Abraham’s death (25:11). As Isaac’s descendants, Moses’s readers needed to see their part as God’s chosen means of fulfilling His promises to Abraham, and they needed to obey God in taking the promised land.
Then Moses lists the generations of Ishmael (25:12-18). Why? To make the same point--that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. Abraham had asked God that Ishmael might live before Him (17:18). God denied that request because He had chosen Isaac, but He promised Abraham that Ishmael would become the father of twelve princes, and that He would make him into a great nation (17:20). Also, the Lord had promised Hagar that her son would live in defiance of (or “over against”) all his brothers (16:12). Moses records the fulfillment of that in 25:18. The point is, God’s purpose according to His sovereign choice was accomplished.
Moses hammers home the same point in the account of the birth of Esau and Jacob. If God was going to make a great nation of Abraham through Isaac, then obviously Isaac needed to have children. But Rebekah, like Sarah, was barren. For 20 years there were no children in their marriage. But Isaac prayed and the Lord answered in accordance with His promise to Abraham.
But even in that situation, God made a choice. He told Rebekah that two nations would come from the twin sons in her womb, and that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). Esau became the father of the Edomites. Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, became the father of that nation. It was God’s purpose that Israel’s descendants, those to whom Moses was writing, fulfill God’s purpose according to His choice of Jacob, by conquering the promised land.
So everything in the text is there to make the same point--that God chooses certain people for His purpose and that His purpose according to His choice will be accomplished. All is according to the word of the God who chose Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob to inherit the land of Canaan. These verses reveal two striking things about God’s choice:
A. God’s choice usually runs counter to man’s wisdom.
If we were going to pick a man to be the father of a multitude of nations, we’d probably run the couple through a fertility test and then pick the one who looked the most promising. God picked a couple who couldn’t produce any children. Then, we’d make sure that his son and his wife were fertile. In God’s sovereignty, the son’s wife was barren. His half-brother, Ishmael, didn’t seem to have any problem producing twelve sons, but Isaac could produce only two, and that only after 20 years of pleading with God. If we had to pick between the two sons, we’d pick the oldest. He seemed to be the strongest. The youngest was a wimp and a deceiver! God picked him. That’s how God’s choice usually runs--counter to man’s wisdom. As the apostle Paul explained (1 Cor. 1:26-30):
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God.
If God chose those who were strong in themselves, they would boast in themselves and God would be robbed of His glory. If God chose those who first chose Him, they could brag about their intelligent choice. So God chooses those whom the world would never choose, those who cannot choose Him. When His purpose is fulfilled through them, He gets the glory.
B. God’s choice operates on the principle of grace, not merit.
One of the most difficult, but most rewarding, truths in the Bible to grasp is that God doesn’t operate on the merit system. He doesn’t choose those who have earned it or who show the most potential. He doesn’t choose on the basis of birth order or strength. If He did, He would have picked Ishmael over Isaac. Ishmael was tough; he grew up by surviving in a hostile desert. Isaac was a mild, blah sort of guy, not noted for much except digging a few wells. God would have picked Esau over Jacob. Esau was a man’s man, an outdoorsman. Jacob was a conniving mama’s boy.
And, contrary to popular opinion, God doesn’t choose those whom He knows in advance will choose Him. Many say that God, in His foreknowledge, looks down through history, sees who will decide for Him, and puts them on His list. But that makes the sovereign God dependent on the choices of fickle man. It assumes, contrary to Scripture, that fallen man has the ability to choose God. And it flatly contradicts what Paul states in Romans 9:11, that God determined that Esau would serve Jacob while they were still in the womb, before they did anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand. God didn’t work out His eternal plan after previewing how things would turn out. God sovereignly chose whom He chose according to grace, which is His unmerited favor.
This bothers people, because it humbles our pride and strips us of all glory, but it’s one of the most rewarding concepts in the Bible to lay hold of. It means that your salvation does not depend on you and your feeble hold on God, but on God and His firm grip on you. It means that you don’t have to perform or measure up to be accepted by God. It casts you totally on God and His sovereign grace, which is a good place to be. It floods you with gratitude as you consider His mercy in choosing you in spite of your sin.
You say, “If God has done it all, does that mean that I can kick back and do nothing?” No! While the Bible plainly teaches that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand, it also teaches that I must submit myself and commit myself to what He is doing in the world. I can either cooperate with His sovereign plan and be blessed. Or I can resist His purpose and He will set me aside and raise up others to fulfill it. While God is sovereign, He has given me the responsibility to obey Him. I can’t presume on being one of the elect and go on living for myself. Thus,
2. We must submit and commit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice.
A. We must submit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice.
I used to struggle with the doctrine of election. I would go into a tailspin thinking, “If God sovereignly chooses some to salvation, then He’s not being fair! If He ordains everything, then He’s responsible for evil.” I especially had problems with Romans 9, where Paul quotes Genesis 25:23. I thought, “It just isn’t fair of God!”
Of course that’s the very objection Paul anticipates. He asks, “There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” Then he shows how God has mercy on whom He wills and hardens whom He wills. Then he anticipates our next objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” Don’t miss the thrust of his answer: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (see Rom. 9:14-20).
What he’s saying is, “You don’t have the right to ask the question, so shut up!” There are some questions which we dare not pose to the Sovereign of the universe. The very question presumes that I have a right to sit in judgment on God, rather than bowing in fear before His sovereignty.
So the proper response is simply to submit to God and seek to obey what His Word clearly reveals, namely, that God’s sovereign purpose according to His unconditional choice will stand; and, at the same time, I am responsible to submit and obey. When I quit fighting and submitted to God in that way, the truth of divine election became very precious to me.
B. We must commit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice.
Submission means yielding in my struggle against God’s right to choose whom He wills to accomplish His purpose. But beyond that, I need to commit myself to God’s purpose according to His choice. God wants to use me in accomplishing His eternal purpose. On the surface that sounds glorious and easy. But it’s never easy in the actual process. So God’s people must commit themselves to the hardship and endurance necessary to bring His purpose into reality.
We’ve already seen the struggles of faith which Abraham had to endure. He had to wait years for God to give him Isaac. During that time, there were other tests of faith, such as his mistake in fathering Ishmael through Hagar, and the offering up of Isaac. Our text passes over what must have been a difficult trial of faith for Abraham: His son Isaac and his wife were unable to have children for 20 years. How could God make a great nation out of Abraham through Isaac when Isaac couldn’t have any children? Meanwhile, Ishmael was having sons like crazy! Finally, 15 years before Abraham’s death, Esau and Jacob were born.
There is a prominent false teaching in our day, that if you’re a faithful Christian, you’ll be spared from all suffering. If you’re sick, you can claim instant healing by faith. If you need money, ask God for it; it’s your divine right. Whatever trial you’re in, you can get out of instantly if you’ll just claim deliverance by faith. Those who teach such nonsense should read their Bibles!
The Lord didn’t wave His wand over the land of Canaan so that Israel could move in without any struggle. They had to commit themselves to God’s purpose to give them that land and they had to fight to get it. And we must commit ourselves to God’s purpose to call out a people for Himself from every tongue and tribe and nation. God’s missionary purpose requires our commitment of time, effort, and money. He will accomplish His purpose for the nations, but we must commit ourselves to see that purpose fulfilled. What happens when we submit and commit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice?
3. When we submit and commit ourselves to God’s purpose according to His choice, He blesses us.
Abraham is the example in our text. He submitted and committed himself to God’s purpose, and God blessed him abundantly. We read that he died “satisfied with life” (25:8). The expression is literally “full of years,” but it means more than just old. It implies that he couldn’t ask for anything more from life than God had given him. The only way you can truly die that way is if you have lived to further God’s purpose. If you live for yourself, Jesus says you’ll come up empty, but if you live for Christ and the gospel’s sake, you’ll find true life (Mark 8:35). As Jim Elliot, who was killed at age 28 trying to take the gospel to the Auca Indians, said, “He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Not only did Abraham die satisfied with life. We also read that “he was gathered to his people” (25:8). That phrase is more than a euphemism for death or burial, which the text explicitly states in addition to saying that he was gathered to his people. It is an early reference to the hope of life beyond the grave. If there is no eternity, then eat, drink, and be merry now. But if God’s Word is true (and He has a pretty good record so far, with hundreds of fulfilled prophecies and more about to be filled), then we need to live in light of His purpose as revealed in His Word. We can know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
Someone asked a Little Leaguer how his team was doing. The boy replied that his team was doing well, but that they were behind 17-0. The man asked if he was discouraged at being so far behind. The boy replied, “Oh no, sir, we haven’t even been up to bat yet!”
Sometimes it’s easy to look at all the evil in the world and get discouraged because it seems like God’s side is losing badly. But the Book of Revelation shows that it’s going to look like that until the bottom of the ninth. Then, in one hour, the tide will turn and God will triumph mightily. Someone asked an old Christian gentleman what the secret of his triumphant outlook was. He replied, “I’ve read the last book of the Bible, so I know how the story ends. I’m on the winning side!”
The great doctrine that God will accomplish His sovereign purpose according to His choice should encourage us to submit ourselves to God and give ourselves fully to His purpose of taking the gospel to every people. When we do that we will be truly blessed by Him.
- Does the doctrine of election comfort or disturb you? Why?
- How do we maintain a proper balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility? How can we check ourselves?
- Some argue that the doctrine of election discourages evangelism. Why is it just the reverse?
- What are some of the practical benefits of the doctrine of election?
- Is it being intellectually dishonest to accept Paul’s answer in Rom. 9:19-24? Why/why not?
Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 50: Trading Your Soul- For What? (Genesis 25:27 34; Heb. 12:16-17)Related Media
The close of another year reminds us that we have just exchanged another year of our lives for something. Life is a process of trading one thing for another. We’re all given a certain amount of time and ability which we exchange to gain other things, such as money, food, shelter, relationships, leisure, and pleasure. The scary thing is, it’s easy to fritter away your life, exchanging your time and abilities for things that really don’t matter, or even worse, for things that cause you and others great harm. Sometimes the bad bargain you make is so pivotal that it affects the rest of your life, and even has eternal consequences.
For example, a man decides to trade family time for business success. He loses his wife and children. Bad bargain! A Christian leader decides to exchange some of his time for sexual pleasure outside of his marriage. It costs him his ministry, a lot of family pain, and greatly damages the cause of Christ. Really bad bargain! It costs far more than it provides.
Every day you’re trading your life‑your soul‑for something. The question is, For what? When it’s all over and you’ve cashed in all the time and abilities which have been allotted to you, what will you have to show for it? If you trade it in for fleeting pleasure, to gratify your immediate needs, you’ll come up empty. But if you trade your life for God’s kingdom and righteousness, to fulfill His purpose, you’ll be satisfied with that which no one can take from you.
Esau’s life is the story of a man who traded his soul for fleeting pleasure. He sold his birthright, which included not only material benefits and family privileges, but spiritual blessings as well, for a bowl of soup. It says that “he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way” (25:34). He didn’t have a second thought about what he had done. He did it, it felt good, and only much later did he come to regret it.
Someone has said that the difference between school and life is that in school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test which teaches you a lesson. A lot of times those tests sneak up on you and are over with before you realize what happened. In life, the teacher doesn’t come into the room and announce, “The next few minutes are going to be an important test. Please think carefully before answering, because the results of this test will affect you for years to come.” Instead, you’re into the test situation, you make some decisions based on your thinking and behavior up to that time, and you come out of the test without realizing immediately what just happened. Time reveals the results.
Esau’s decision to sell his birthright to Jacob was like that. My guess is that this wasn’t the first time the matter had come up. On other occasions Jacob had sounded him out: “Hey, Esau, how much would you take for your birthright?” If Esau had said flat out, “It’s not for sale for any price,” that might have ended it there. But he had left the door open a crack. Jacob could tell that it just wasn’t that important to Esau. Esau’s motto in life was, “If it feels good, do it!” He was a good times guy. His conniving brother was shrewd enough to spot that, and he used it to take advantage of him. He waited for Esau to come in from the field famished. As his brother, Jacob should have gladly given Esau a bowl of soup. But instead he used it to take away Esau’s birthright. The story shows that if you trade your soul to satisfy your flesh, you’ve made a bad deal.
Living for instant gratification will rob you of spiritual blessing.
There are four lessons that we need to think about and apply from this Scripture which was written for our instruction:
1. You can lose great blessings if you do not appreciate them.
Esau was born into a situation with great blessings. He wasn’t born into a pagan home, where his parents worshipped idols and abused him. He was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, grandson of Abraham, the friend of God. No doubt, during the first 15 years of Esau’s life, while Abraham was alive, his grandfather had taught him about God and His covenant promises. Surely that teaching had been reinforced by Isaac and Rebekah. Esau had great spiritual privileges. But he threw them away because he didn’t appreciate them.
Esau may have had some excuses for disregarding these privileges. He could have blamed God: “God predestined me to do it!” After all, the Lord had told his mother while he was still in the womb that the older shall serve the younger (25:23). But that would have been a cop out. While God is sovereign, men are responsible for their sin. The text assigns the blame to Esau when it says that he despised his birthright (25:34).
He might have blamed his parents for their errors in raising him. They did make some serious mistakes, although their mistakes do not absolve Esau of his wrong choice. We read, “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:28). What a tragic sentence! It covers untold grief and conflict in that home. When parents play favorites with the children, it breeds bitterness and hatred. Chapter 27 tells how Esau wanted to kill Jacob. Jacob later played favorites with his sons, so that they wanted to kill his favorite son, Joseph. Rebekah’s fondness for Jacob pitted her against her husband, Isaac, and led her to deceive him in order to help Jacob against Esau. No doubt Isaac often defended his adventuresome but godless son by telling Rebekah, “Get off his back! The boy just likes to have some fun in life.” It wasn’t a perfect home!
Two applications: First, for us who are parents. We need to realize that our sin affects our children, and we need to deal with that sin. We aren’t free to excuse it by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” If we explode at our kids, we need to confess it to the Lord and ask forgiveness from our kids. If they see us bending the truth, we need to admit our sin, and make it right by being truthful. If they see us argue as a couple, they need to see us seek one another’s forgiveness and talk through our differences in gentleness and love. If our kids don’t see genuine Christianity‑ repentance, brokenness, the fruit of the Spirit‑worked out in our daily lives, they probably won’t be eager to follow the Lord.
The second application is for us who are children (including adult children): We can’t blame our disobedience to God on the way our parents treated us. They may have acted piously on Sunday and like pagans the rest of the week. They may have been abusive. They may not have loved us as they should. They may have played favorites. But if I walk away from the Lord and the spiritual blessings He offers me in Christ, God will hold me accountable for despising my birthright.
At best, even the most godly parents are imperfect. Child rearing is not a matter of plugging in a formula. Every child, even among twins, is different from the womb. Note how different Esau and Jacob were. They looked different, even though they were twins. They had different temperaments, interests, and values. Esau liked the outdoors; Jacob liked to hang out in the kitchen. Esau liked physical activity; Jacob liked to use his head to outsmart others. Esau was impetuous and lived for the here and now; Jacob was more goal‑oriented. He thought about how to gain advantage for himself down the road.
The tricky thing for parents is that loving your children equally doesn’t mean treating them equally. It’s wrong to play favorites, but not playing favorites isn’t a matter of equal treatment, because every child is different. As a parent, you’ve got to study each child and do all you can to help each one come under the lordship of Christ. While there are solid principles for parents in the Bible, it requires a lot of wisdom. And you don’t get the experience you need for the job until the job is over!
The point is that even though our parents‑even Christian parents‑were at best imperfect or at worst wrong in the way they raised us, God holds us accountable if we despise our spiritual heritage and walk away from Him. Sinful parents need to deal with their sin, but sinful kids need to deal with their sin, too! The fact is, each of us has great spiritual privileges: We’ve heard the gospel. We have the Bible. We live in a free country where we can attend a church where the Bible is taught, where we can get to know other Christians who can help us grow in our walk with God. But, like Esau despising his birthright, we can forfeit all these spiritual blessings if we don’t appreciate them.
2. Small choices can have drastic consequences.
As I said, teachers don’t walk into the room of life and announce that the most important test of your life is about to begin. Warning signs don’t always flash. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it’s a critical moment, and your decision can shape the rest of your life. Maybe it’s an offer from a friend to try drugs. Perhaps it’s an occasion to go to bed with your boyfriend, or to cheat on your marriage. It may be a chance to make a lot of money in a wrong way. Often, you’ve got to make a quick decision. The decision you make may turn around and make or break you!
Esau’s decision was impulsive, and yet it stemmed from years of disregarding spiritual things. Hebrews 12:16 calls Esau a godless (= profane) person. He lacked God’s perspective on life. He was not concerned about spiritual matters. He lived for the here and now. “Who needs a birthright?” he thought. “After all, I may be dead tomorrow. What I need now is a good meal. What good is a birthright if I starve to death?”
Those who cast off God’s moral standards often excuse it by saying that they had to meet their “need.” We’re buying into the notion that our needs take priority. In fact, I’ve heard that if you don’t love yourself first, you can’t love God and others! But Jesus says, “God knows your needs and you can trust Him to take care of them. Your real need is to seek first His kingdom and righteousness” (see Matt. 6:31‑33).
What’s frightening about Esau’s impulsive decision is the lasting consequences. Hebrews 12:17 says that “afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.” Later he felt badly about what he had given up. He could see that his decision had been foolish and hasty. But even though he felt badly, he had operated so long on the principle of living for immediate gratification, he couldn’t turn from his selfish ways to God. He later wanted what God could give him, but he didn’t want God. That would mean yielding his life to God, and that was too big a price to pay. The series of small choices over the course of his life had drastic consequences.
Some people think that God is like a shopping mall. If you decide you don’t like something, just bring it back for a full refund. They buy into living for themselves. When the thought of eternity comes up, they push it away by thinking that when their time to die comes, they’ll take all their selfish living into God’s store, ask for a refund, and buy into eternity then. But it doesn’t work that way! We all face eternity every day, and we need to make daily decisions in that light. Otherwise, we may find that, like Esau, we come to the place where we want God’s blessings, but we can’t yield our lives to God.
Thus, you can lose great blessings if you don’t appreciate them. Small choices can have drastic consequences.
3. It’s easy to mistake as essential that which really is not.
Esau thought that he needed food. That sounds like an essential need, but it isn’t. His essential need was to obey God and seek His purpose. Esau mistook as essential that which really was not, and he shrugged off as not essential that which really is. Spiritual matters were nice, but not necessary, for Esau. So he traded his soul for a bowl of soup.
The people to whom Moses was writing were in danger of doing the same thing. They had left slavery in Egypt and were headed for the promised land. God had taken them on a detour to teach them to endure hardship and warfare so that they would be ready to conquer the land. But a lot of them grumbled. They thought they needed good drinking water, food, shelter, and protection from their enemies. Those are essentials. If Moses couldn’t provide those things, they would go back to Egypt. They were willing to give up their spiritual heritage of God’s promises to Abraham in order to gain the comforts they lacked. But Moses is showing them that the essential thing is that they do the will of God, even if it’s difficult. If they will do His will, He will take care of the other essentials of life.
We get mixed up in our ideas of what is essential and what is not. To look at our hectic lives, you would think that it’s essential to make a lot of money. We work long hours to make a few extra bucks‑and ruin our families and our health in the process. We spend hours watching inane TV shows, but don’t have time to nurture our souls or serve the Lord. Some people endanger their health and even their lives through drugs, drinking, and sexual promiscuity, because they put feeling good right now as essential, but feeling good throughout eternity as secondary.
Each one of us needs to think carefully about what is really essential in life in light of God’s Word. Write it down. Then periodically evaluate your life against those few essentials. I don’t agree with everything Jerry Falwell has done, but he went up in my esteem when I read his response to the question, “What do you want to be remembered for?” He has some impressive achievements. At that time he was the head of the Moral Majority, with a $100 million budget. He is the founder and president of Liberty University, with over 5,000 students. He is the pastor of a church with over 20,000 members. He has a large TV ministry, and speaks all over the world. His answer was, “I want to be remembered as a godly husband, father, and pastor, in that order.” Those things are the essentials! The rest isn’t.
There’s a final lesson:
4. It’s easy to grab for the right things for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.
Here my focus turns from Esau to Jacob. Jacob was right to want the birthright. He was wrong to want the birthright for the personal advantages it would bring him; and, he was wrong to take it in the way he did.
I’m sure Jacob would protest: “I bought that birthright fair and square! Esau didn’t have to agree to the deal. Besides, he didn’t really want it and I did. Everything was done out in the open.” But Jacob went after the birthright for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. He took advantage of his brother’s impetuous personality and hungry condition. He should have waited on the Lord to fulfill His promises. As we’ll see in future studies, God dealt with this deceiver by giving him a dose of his own medicine. Jacob was always scheming to work things out for his own advantage. He needed to learn that God could work things out if he would trust Him.
The people Moses was writing to faced the same problem. Many of them weren’t even sure they wanted to conquer Canaan. Of those who did, my guess is that many wanted Canaan for the comfortable lifestyle it would provide them. They were willing to fight to get it, but they weren’t thinking of God’s purpose to bless all nations through Abraham’s descendants. They wanted the homes and vineyards and other amenities Canaan would provide. They wanted a right thing for the wrong reason. And some tried to obtain that right thing in the wrong way, blundering ahead when God said to wait (Num. 14:39-45).
We face the same temptation. Frankly, some of you are here, not because you want to see God fulfill His purpose through His people, but rather for what being a Christian will do for you. Don’t misunderstand‑being a Christian has wonderful benefits! God gives peace and joy. He puts broken marriages together. He gives you wisdom for raising your children. There’s hardly an area of life where God’s Word will not have a positive impact if you apply it.
But God doesn’t make us happy and comfortable so that we can live for ourselves. He blesses us because He wants to use us to fulfill His purpose of blessing all nations through the Seed of Abraham, the Lord Jesus Christ. If we’re into Christianity just for what it can do for us, then we’re grabbing a right thing for a wrong reason. We need to pray, “Lord, bless me so You can use me in Your purpose of reaching all nations.”
Even though it was God’s will for Jacob ultimately to have the blessings of the birthright, he grabbed it in the wrong way, by taking advantage of his brother. In the same way, we need to be careful to go about God’s work in God’s way. Methods are just as important as the results. American Christians, especially, are highly pragmatic. If it works, it must be right. But it’s important that we wait on God and do God’s work in God’s way.
As we face the New Year, ask yourself, “What am I living for?” If I’m living for good feelings in the short run, I’m missing God’s purpose for my life. I’m selling my spiritual birthright for a mess of pottage.
A world‑class runner entered a 10‑K race in Connecticut. On the day of the race she drove from New York City, following the directions, or so she thought, given over the phone. She got lost, stopped at a gas station, and asked for help. She knew only that the race started in a shopping mall parking lot. The attendant also knew of such a race scheduled just up the road. When she arrived she was relieved to see that there weren’t as many runners as she had anticipated.
She hurried to the registration table, announced herself, and was surprised at the race officials’ excitement at having so renowned an athlete show up for their event. No, they had no record of her entry, but if she would hurry and put on this number, she could be in line just before the gun would go off. She ran and won easily‑four minutes ahead of the first man! Only after the race did she learn that the race she had run was not the race she had entered earlier. That race was being held several miles farther up the road in another town. She had gone to the wrong starting line, run the wrong course, and won a cheap prize (told by Bruce Lockerbie, Bibliotheca Sacra [Jan.-Mar., 1986], p. 8).
We only get one shot in the race of life. We need to make sure that we’re not wasting our lives by running in the wrong race. If you’re living for what meets your immediate needs, just using God for what He can do for you, you’ll end up losing the spiritual blessings which count for eternity. You’re trading your soul for the wrong things. But if you’ll live to further God’s purpose of blessing all nations through the Lord Jesus Christ, you’ll be eternally blessed.
- Is it legitimate to present Christ to people from the angle of what He can do for them? Support your answer from Scripture.
- What is the difference between “using God for self-help” and yielding everything to God even if I die as a martyr?
- Is repentance always an option, or can a person harden himself beyond repentance?
- Some say that we are free to choose whatever methods of evangelism or church growth are effective. Why is that not correct?
- What is the most important factor in being a Christian parent?
Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Lesson 51: How God Uses Ordinary People (Genesis 26:1-35)Related Media
Have you ever felt that God couldn’t use you to serve Him because you were just too ordinary? When I was in seminary, I heard a parade of gifted, dynamic, successful pastors and Christian leaders. Sometimes I would think, “I’ll never be where they’re at, because I’m not that gifted.” Sometimes you wished they would bring in Joe Average, pastor of the Podunk Bible Church!
One reason the story of Isaac is in the Bible is to show us how God can use an ordinary person. Isaac was the ordinary son of a famous father, and the ordinary father of a famous son. Alexander Maclaren began a sermon on Isaac by noting, “The salient feature of Isaac’s life is that it has no salient features.” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 1:202.) Although he lived longer than Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, Isaac’s life is pretty much covered in one chapter whose most exciting feature is some squabbles over some wells. You might say that Isaac was the Calvin Coolidge of his day. As you know, “Silent Cal” wasn’t noted for much other than being quiet and sleeping eleven hours a day. When someone reported to Dorothy Parker the news that Coolidge had died, she replied, “How can they tell?”
Isaac was kind of blah. He wasn’t bold like his father Abraham, who made a daring raid against the kings of the east. He wasn’t shrewd like his son, Jacob, or a gifted leader like his grandson, Joseph. Yet God used him to work out His covenant promises. His life shows us that there’s hope in the Lord for all us ordinary people!
Moses wrote Genesis 26 mainly to show the nation Israel how God was faithfully working out His covenant promises. Isaac lagged behind God, even as his son Jacob tended to run ahead of God. Yet in spite of Isaac’s slowness—and even sin—God blessed him because of His covenant with Abraham. Abraham’s descendants would be blessed because of their relationship to him; but, like Isaac, they had to grow in faith and obedience. As God’s blessed people, they were to become a blessing to others.
Christ has promised that He will build His church. In spite of our slowness—and even sin—God will bless and use us to fulfill His purpose of blessing all nations through Christ, because of our relationship to the Father through the Son. But we need to grow in faith and obedience. So the emphasis of the chapter is on God’s working out His purpose through ordinary people who obey Him.
To accomplish His purpose, God uses ordinary people who obey Him.
1. God uses ordinary people.
Note how Isaac was an ordinary man with ordinary problems:
A. Ordinary people have ordinary trials.
Isaac had ordinary trials. Verse 1 tells us that “there was a famine in the land.” Critics argue that Genesis 26 is some editor’s confused combination of the stories about Abraham’s going down into Egypt during the famine or of his going to Abimelech (see Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18). But the text is careful to distinguish this situation from the earlier famine, and many details differ, so there’s no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of these events.
But the interesting thing is to note that there was a famine in the land. Which land? The promised land! The land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, later described as flowing with milk and honey. There was a famine in that land. While God easily could have supplied Isaac with plenty of food in spite of the famine around him, He did not do that. God’s chosen man had to suffer along with all his pagan Canaanite neighbors.
Trials are the ordinary lot of God’s people; they always have been and always will be, until Jesus returns. Isaac did not question, “God, why are You allowing this famine in the promised land?” Isaac didn’t rebuke the famine in the name of the Lord. Granted, he didn’t respond properly. But this wasn’t the first nor would it be the last trial of this sort to come on God’s people in the promised land.
Trials are the normal experience of God’s people, even when they’re right where He wants them to be. Somehow we’ve picked up the notion that if God has called us to a place or to a certain ministry, we won’t encounter any problems. Everything will be milk and honey. When the road gets rough, we wonder what’s wrong. “Maybe I’m not in God’s will.”
Former Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis, once said to his frustrated, impatient daughter, “My dear, if you would only recognize that life is hard, things would be so much easier for you.” Our Sovereign God has always used trials, even with His servants who are in the center of His will, to drive us to greater dependence on Him. I encourage you to read missionary biographies and learn of the trials that these dear saints have endured for the kingdom of God. When you read of what Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, and others have gone through, it helps put your “famine in the land” in perspective. Trials are the ordinary experience of God’s people.
B. Ordinary people have ordinary fears.
Isaac had ordinary fears. What do ordinary people do when trials hit? They panic. What did Isaac do? He panicked. It would be wonderful to read, “There was a famine in the land, so Isaac sought the Lord.” But the text plainly states, “So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines.” And it’s clear that he wasn’t planning to stop there. He was heading toward Egypt, when the Lord intercepted him at Gerar.
You also see Isaac’s fear when he pawns off Rebekah as his sister (26:7), following in the footsteps of his father. Why do such a despicable thing? He was afraid for his life. And, after a section which describes repeated quarrels about wells with the local shepherds, the Lord appeared to Isaac and said (26:24), “Do not fear, for I am with you.” The Lord never says, “Do not fear” unless somebody is afraid. Isaac had many fears.
Do you have any fears? If you say “no,” you’re like the guy in a Dr. Seuss book we used to read our kids. He meets a pair of pants which walks around with no one inside them. He says, “I do not fear those pants with nobody inside them. I said and said and said those words. I said them, but I lied them.” We ought to take our fears to the Lord in prayer, and be open to ask for prayer for our fears. The people God uses are ordinary people with ordinary fears.
C. Ordinary people have ordinary sin.
Isaac had ordinary sin. I’m not implying that it’s all right to tolerate a little bit of sin in your life. We should confess and forsake all known sin. But we need to remember that the only people God uses are redeemed sinners. Sometimes the enemy gets us thinking that God can’t use us as long as we’re such a mixed up bundle of good and evil. One minute we’re in church singing “Holy, Holy,” and the next minute a horrible thought pops into our minds, and we think, “Maybe someday I’ll be holy like the preacher [yeah, right!], and then God can use me, but that day is a long way off.”
Thank God He uses us while we’re growing, before we’ve arrived! Look at the mixture of sin and obedience in Isaac’s life. He starts off for Egypt without consulting the Lord. The Lord graciously appears to him and tells him not to go any farther. He obeys. The Lord even reaffirms the covenant which He had made with Abraham, and applies it to Isaac. But the next thing Isaac does is to lie about Rebekah because he’s afraid he’ll get killed!
There’s a humorous word play in the Hebrew of verse 8, which says that the Philistine king saw Isaac “caressing his wife Rebekah.” The King James Version quaintly translates it, “sporting with his wife Rebekah.” The word comes from the same root word translated “Isaac,” which means “he laughs.” Here it clearly has a sexual connotation. Howard Hendricks said in our marriage class in seminary, “Whatever this sport was, it’s obvious that you don’t play it with your sister. And Isaac was a real pro at the sport—in fact, the sport was named after the guy!”
The nuance of the word play is not that it was wrong for Isaac to be “sporting” with his wife, but rather that his faithless behavior made a mockery of the great promise of God embodied in his name. Abraham and Sarah’s laughter of doubt was changed to the laughter of faith as God fulfilled His promise in Isaac. But now Isaac was sporting his lack of faith in God’s protection before this pagan king.
Just like his father, Abraham, before him (who did it twice), Isaac lied about his wife to protect his own hide and was rebuked by a pagan king. Critics say that it’s the same story repeated with different names. But you don’t need to look very far to see how true to life this is. Years ago I was going somewhere with our firstborn behind me in her car seat. I rounded a blind curve on the mountain road just below our house to almost rear end a car that had stopped in the road to admire the scenery. I hit the brakes and the horn and yelled, “You jerk!” From the back seat came a sweet little voice, imitating dad, “You jerk!” A knife went into my conscience! The sins of the fathers ...!
Again, the point is not that we tolerate our sin, but rather that we not despair that God cannot use us because we wrestle with sin. The ordinary people God uses are ordinary sinners just like you and me, but, as I’ll show in a moment, sinners who are working at obeying God.
D. Ordinary people have ordinary hassles.
Isaac had ordinary hassles. The chapter shows the repeated hassles he had with neighboring shepherds over his wells. The Philistines had stopped up the wells which Abraham had dug. Isaac dug them out again. He dug some new wells, only to have the Philistines hassle him by claiming that the wells belonged to them.
Do you think Isaac ever wondered as he was covered with sweat and dirt from digging out one of these wells, “What does all this have to do with the purpose of God?” The purpose of God sounds so glorious, so spiritual! But Isaac spent his time hassling with neighbors and digging out wells they had stopped up. That doesn’t seem very glorious!
Do you know how God was using these hassles? Each one forced Isaac to move a bit closer to the promised land, until finally he was so close to Beersheba that he decided to move back there again. The same night he moved to Beersheba, in the land of promise, God appeared to him and reconfirmed the promises made to Abraham (26:24). If Isaac hadn’t had any hassles in Gerar, he probably would have been content to stay there all his life. God used the hassles to move him back where he was supposed to be.
Have you ever thought about why God allows hassles in your life? Maybe it’s a hassle with your car, or with the plumbing in your house, or a hassle at work. If you’ll submit to the Lord and be teachable, you’ll discover that He uses everyday hassles to move you closer to the place where He wants you, the place of His blessing. Isaac never built an altar until the Lord got him back to Beersheba. But when he got there, after all his hassles, he built an altar and called upon the name of the Lord (26:25).
So Isaac had ordinary trials, fears, sin, and hassles.
E. Ordinary people have ordinary family problems.
Isaac had ordinary family problems. The chapter ends by telling of Esau’s marriage to two pagan women who brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah (26:34-35). These verses are inserted here to tell us the bent of Esau’s life and to prepare us for the next chapter, where Isaac stubbornly persists in his desire to give his blessing to Esau. But there are years of heartache capsulized in the few words of verse 35. Here is the chief family on the face of the earth as far as God’s purpose went, and yet they had problems. They were far from being a model family.
Again, I’m not suggesting that it’s okay to shrug off your sin. If you are sinning toward your family, you need to deal with it. But I do want to encourage those whose homes are not perfect—and that’s all of us! Many come to church every Sunday with smiles on their faces and sorrow in their hearts. We see the smiles and assume that their homes must be perfect Christian homes. But our home is hurting. So we mask our hurts and prevent the healing that could take place if we would learn to bear one another’s burdens in Christian love. The Lord shows us here that the patriarch Isaac had trials and fears and sin and hassles and family problems. Yet the Lord was pleased to use Isaac as he learned to obey the Lord.
2. God uses ordinary people who obey Him.
Isaac’s growth in obedience was slow, and it was never perfect. As an old man he was still partial to blessing Esau over Jacob, in spite of Esau’s godless ways. But, in spite of his imperfection, you can see progress in obedience, and the Lord responded to it. When the Lord first appeared to Isaac to tell him not to go to Egypt, the Lord emphasized Abraham’s obedience (26:5). The next verse reports Isaac obedience. It wasn’t automatic. Remember, there was a famine. To obey, Isaac had to trust the Lord and change his plans. But he did it. When the neighbors contended with Isaac, he didn’t fight for his rights. He sought peace by yielding his rights and moving on.
When Isaac finally moved back to Beersheba, where Abraham had lived, the Lord appeared to Isaac a second time, reconfirming His blessing and protection (26:24). The peace treaty with Abimelech and the news of water being discovered were two more evidences that Isaac was where God wanted him, in the place of obedience, where Abraham had obeyed the Lord. Beersheba means, “Well of the Covenant.” If you have been wandering from the Lord, come back to the place of obedience and the Lord will bless you and confirm His promises to you.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Why did God bless Isaac immediately after Isaac disobeyed God?” (26:12-13). There are two answers. First, it shows us that God’s covenant promises are based on grace, not on works. God wants us to obey Him, and He blesses those who obey. But at the same time, He wants us to remember that His sovereign purposes do not depend on our obedience, but rather, on His sovereign grace.
Second, note that while God blessed Isaac materially, the very blessing was also a source of chastening, because it made the Philistines envy Isaac and stop up his wells (26:14-15). This chastening served to move Isaac back toward Beersheba, where God wanted him. The main point is how God was sovereignly working to accomplish His purpose through this ordinary man, Isaac. If it had been up to Isaac, he would have been content to stay in the land of the Philistines. But God graciously used the blessing as a chastening to move Isaac to the center of His will.
3. God uses ordinary people who obey Him to accomplish His purpose.
God’s purpose is the theme of this chapter. He repeats it to Isaac in verses 3 & 4: “... I will be with you and bless you, ... and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” God’s purpose involves blessing His people and using them to bless others through the Seed of Abraham, the Savior. The wells which played such a central role in Isaac’s life were a tangible symbol of divine blessing. Abimelech, the foreign king, saw this evidence of God’s blessing in Isaac’s life, and sought peace with him so that he could share in those blessings. So this chapter shows God slowly but steadily working behind the scenes with this ordinary man who was the son of Abraham to bring about His plan of blessing the nations.
It was not an instant process. Frankly, I’m not sure how much Isaac understood concerning God’s plan for history. It would be 2,000 years before the Savior would be born as the descendant of Abraham. But through it all, God was steadily moving history forward according to His sovereign plan, using a bunch of ordinary people to bring it all about.
Today, we need to see ourselves in the stream of what God is doing in history. He has blessed us, not just so that we’ll be blessed, but so that we can become a blessing to others. We can’t bottle it up. He wants us, ordinary though we are, to be His channel for taking the message of the Savior to all nations. That sounds glorious, but all too often it involves hassles as mundane as digging wells and contending with aggressive people. God didn’t give the land to Abraham, Isaac or Jacob in one magic swoop of His divine wand. Those to whom Moses was writing had to go through the battles of taking Canaan bit by bit.
And we have to struggle inch by inch, hassle by hassle, in taking God’s message of salvation to those in Flagstaff and in every part of the earth. So remember to view the hassles of your life in light of God’s bigger plan for history. If you’ll obey Him, He will use those everyday problems that you, His ordinary child, go through, to accomplish His purpose of blessing all nations.
Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary is an extraordinary man who has had a worldwide impact for Christ. The beautiful thing is, God used an ordinary man who obeyed Him to reach Dr. Hendricks. Howie was from a broken home, raised by his grandmother in Philadelphia. He often wandered from tavern to tavern, looking for his alcoholic grandfather. A man named Walt, who taught a Sunday School class, came upon young Howie and some other boys and invited them to his Sunday School class. Howie didn’t know what Sunday School was, but since it sounded like school, he wasn’t in favor of it.
But Walt took an interest in those boys, challenged them to a few games of marbles, beat them at it, and then taught them how to play better. Eventually, there were 13 boys off the streets of Philadelphia who attended Walt’s Sunday School class. Nine were from broken homes, five were Roman Catholics.
Even though Walt never went beyond high school, 11 of those 13 boys went on to vocational Christian service, becoming pastors, missionaries, and seminary professors. God was accomplishing His purpose by using an ordinary man who obeyed Him.
God wants to use you like that. If you struggle with trials and fears and sins and hassles and family problems, you qualify, as long as you’re also growing in obedience. As God blesses you, commit yourself to be His channel of blessing to others.
- Where do you feel most inadequate as a Christian? How can God use you at the point of your inadequacy (2 Cor. 11:30)?
- Why does God’s blessing not necessarily mean a hassle-free life? Discuss in light of Gen. 26:12-21.
- What current hassles or problems in your life could God want to use to help accomplish His purpose through you?
- How can we achieve the proper balance between accepting our imperfections without excusing them?
Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.