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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The world is thoroughly corrupt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs of conformity to the world:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens when believers live like the world?

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

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

Related Topics: Discipleship, Failure, Rewards, Spiritual Life, Temptation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Big sins always begin with little compromises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Big sins always follow previously unconfessed sins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Big sins are often rationalized away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Big sins always spread and persist.

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. We all are prone to besetting sins.

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

A. Besetting sins are always a danger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Besetting sins always hurt others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E. Besetting sins always dishonor God.

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

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

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

2. God is marked by holiness and grace.

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

A. God is marked by holiness.

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

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

B. God is marked by grace.

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

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

Related Topics: Character of God, Confession, Grace, Hamartiology (Sin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

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

Related Topics: Faith, Rewards, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 44: Faithful God of the Ordinary (Genesis 21:22-34)

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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.

Please observe:

(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.

Conclusion

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!

Discussion Questions

  1. Where’s the balance between taking measures for our own safety versus trusting God to protect us?
  2. How much specialized training (if any) do Christians need to be effective witnesses for Christ?
  3. How can we turn everyday situations into opportunities for telling others about Christ? How aggressive should we be?
  4. 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

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Empower, Spiritual Life

Lesson 45: Ultimate Surrender (Genesis 22:1-24)

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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!

Conclusion

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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)?
  4. 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

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Rewards

From the series: Zephaniah PREVIOUS PAGE

8. God's Judgment Is Removed (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

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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.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Eschatology (Things to Come), Hamartiology (Sin), Kingdom, Prophecy/Revelation, Soteriology (Salvation), Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 46: The Lord Who Provides (Genesis 22)

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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.

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

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

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

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