19. Marks of Maturity (Genesis 18:1-33)
I grew up in deer country and, as a young lad, I liked to hunt. We country people were always disturbed by those city folks who would come out to shoot our deer, the ones that had been eating in our orchards and nibbling in our vegetable gardens all year long. I heard of one city slicker who knew so little about hunting that he stopped at a local store to ask what one looked like. If you cannot believe this, I heard of a farmer who was so concerned about his cattle being shot during hunting season that he actually painted, in large letters, COW on his cattle.
The loss of a cow to a city dude is pathetic but not earth shaking. Many Christians, however, are pursuing the goal of maturity who fail to comprehend the marks of maturity. Some believe it is in knowledge while others equate it with a particular experience, or by the following of some kind of rules, or of the application of formulas. While such things as knowledge and experience are important, these alone are not the mark for which we are to strive.
In our study of the life of Abraham, we found him at a very low ebb in chapter 16. There, pressured by his wife, Abram’s faith failed momentarily and he attempted to produce what God had promised through human effort. A child was gotten through Hagar, but not the child of promise. Only heartache resulted for Abram, Sarai, and Hagar, because of their sin. So far as the Bible informs us, it was thirteen years until God once again spoke to Abram. Then, in Genesis chapter 17, God broke this silence and reiterated His covenant with Abraham and promised the birth of the child through Sarah in a year.
In contrast to chapter 16, chapter 18 is one of the high water marks of Abraham’s life. While his faith was not flawless, it had grown. His attitudes and actions serve as an example of maturing faith. The description of Abraham’s faith which we find in chapter 18 provides a backdrop for the failure of Lot in chapter 19, the seeds of which were sown in chapter 13. That story we save for our next lesson, but the contrast between the two men in these two chapters is clearly seen.
Let us look more closely, then, to Abraham and the marks of his maturity as they are seen in Genesis 18.
The Heavenly Trio
and Abraham’s Hospitality
While this is not the first appearance of our Lord to Abraham, it is certainly unique. Previously, God had spoken directly (12:1-3; 13:14-17), through a spokesman (14:19-20), by a vision (15:1ff), and in an appearance, one which may have been accompanied with glory and splendor (17:1ff). Now, God comes to Abraham appearing as an ordinary man, accompanied by two others who eventually are identified as angelic beings (compare 18:2,22; 19:1). We are told nothing which would distinguish these three ‘travelers’ from any others:
Now the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; … (Genesis 18:1-2a).
Abraham, in typical eastern fashion, sat by the door of his tent in the heat of the day. Those of us in Dallas, after 40 days of 100 degree or higher temperatures, know the wilting effect of the sun at noontime. The time of day made the need for hospitality even greater, for these guests would be thirsty and weary from the heat. Abraham’s hospitality would be put to the test, for his ‘siesta’ must come to a halt in order to serve his guests.
While such hospitality is still a part of the culture of the east, Abraham’s zeal for his task is obvious:
… and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.’ And they said, ‘So do, as you have said.’ So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes.’ Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant; and he hurried to prepare it. And he took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate ( Genesis 18:2b-8).
Abraham’s duty was performed in no perfunctory or haphazard way. He minimized the provisions and the trouble it would take to prepare them—a little water, a piece of bread, a short rest, and a moment to wash their feet. But what was provided was a sumptuous meal. A large quantity of bread was freshly baked;171 a choice calf was butchered and prepared, curds and milk were served. No simple meal was this! And Abraham refused to sit with his guests, but stood by to serve them.172
Any of us would gladly have prepared such a feast if we had known the identity of the guests, but it would seem quite certain that Abraham was, as yet, in the dark. No doubt the writer to the Hebrews spoke of this when he wrote:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).
What a scene this must have been! Abraham, standing by and serving his heavenly visitors, unaware of their identity. At the same time, beyond and below were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with riot and revelry, enjoying their last day of the season of sin, and Lot somewhere therein, as yet unaware of what this day would bring forth.
Confirmed, Yet Questioned
Nowhere are we told the precise moment it occurred to Abraham his visitors were not of this world, but we do know that by verse 27 this fact was known.
I believe that the promise reiterated in verses 9-15 identified these guests by linking them with the revelation in chapter 17.
Then they said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ And he said, ‘Behold, in the tent.’ And he said, ‘I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh saying, “Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?” Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.’ Sarah denied it however, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. And He said, ‘No, but you did laugh’ (Genesis 18:9-15).
It was customary in those days, as in some cultures today, for the women to be neither seen nor heard while male guests were entertained. Sarah thus prepared the bread out of the sight of the men (cf. verse 6), and now she remained inside the tent as they ate. While she carefully kept out of sight, her curiosity got the best of her. She may have peeped through the folds of the tent, though this is nowhere stated. Nevertheless she did have her ear to the door, anxious to hear the conversation outside. I doubt that any of us could have avoided such temptation either.
When asked where Sarah was, Abraham replied that she was inside the tent. The Lord then assured Abraham that Sarah would have a son next year. The substance of this promise differed little from that revealed previously as recorded in chapter 17 (verses 19,21). For Abraham, this must have clinched the identity of his guests.
It seems as though Abraham either failed to mention this previous promise to Sarah, or he failed to convince her of its certainty. I believe the words of our Lord were intended more for Sarah’s benefit than Abraham’s. It was vital that she, too, have faith in God’s promise.
Sarah’s response differed very little from her husband’s,
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ (Genesis 17:17).
And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ (Genesis 18:12).
Humanly speaking, a child was out of the question, for either Abraham or Sarah. Their laughter, I believe, was a combination of surprise, shock, sheer joy, and unbelief. How could such a thing be? Nevertheless even in such an absurd moment, Sarah thought of her husband with respect.173 One wonders if Sarah’s laughter was not heard outside the tent. Omniscience would have known of it, but such may not have been necessary.
Notice that a gentle rebuke is directed, at first, toward Abraham, not Sarah. “And the Lord said to Ahraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh … ’” (Genesis 18:13).
Had Abraham deliberately kept God’s promise from her? Was his faith so weak that he could not convince his wife? Somehow he must give account for his wife’s response. I find it most interesting that Sarah’s response mirrored Abraham’s. He had provided the example for her.
The words of our Lord speak as loudly to Christians today as they did to Abraham, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14a).
Here is the bedrock issue. The only reason for such unbelief is a failure to comprehend the extent of God’s ability to work in and through us.
The other side of the coin is this: were the matter of having a son not impossible, the glory for such a miracle would not have been given to God. The delay in the birth of Isaac was intended both to necessitate and to nurture the faith of Abraham and Sarah.
In addition to reassuring Abraham and (perhaps) informing Sarah of the promised child’s birth, the words of the Lord in verses 10 and 14 served to confirm the identity of the third guest as the Lord Himself. In chapter 17 the Lord had promised Abraham a child through Sarah in the first person (17:15-16,19,21). In chapter 18 the promise is again stated in the first person (verses 10, 14). In addition, this “visitor” was able to know the inner thoughts of Sarah as she laughed to herself in the tent (verse 13). No question now remained concerning the identity of the One and His two fellow travelers.
Sarah seems to have come out of the tent when Abraham was questioned concerning her unbelief. In her fear, she denied laughing. Interestingly, she did not deny her thoughts as reported by the Lord. Her denial was quickly brushed aside as untrue.
Confided in Abraham
Abraham’s hospitality was a magnificent act of Christian generosity, but it is not (in my estimation) the highest expression of Christian service in this chapter. The high point of Abraham’s spiritual life is seen in his intercession with the Lord for the sparing of the righteous in Sodom.
Some might conclude that the sparing of the righteous was the result of Abraham’s fervent petition. I do not think so, as noble as his efforts were. I believe that God purposely revealed his intention to judge these cities in order to prompt Abraham to intercessory prayer. The account, I believe, will bear this out.
The Lord and the two angels made their way down toward Sodom, escorted part way by Abraham. It would seem that the Lord turned to the two angels as He asked, almost rhetorically,
… Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:17b-19) .
The intimacy of the relationship between God and Abraham served as the motivation for God’s disclosure of His purposes for Sodom. Further, the Abrahamic Covenant provided the foundation on which that relationship was based. In verse 19 the necessity for Abraham’s faith to be communicated and continued by his offspring is stressed.174 While God’s purposes will be realized, His people are responsible to keep His commands.
In contrast to the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants is the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.
And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18:20-21).
Verses 20 and 21 dramatically portray the sin of Sodom and the righteous response of a holy God to it. The sin of the city is so great that it virtually cries out to heaven for retribution (verse 20). God’s personal interest and focused attention is depicted as ‘going down’175 to deal with it. The text does not mean to undermine the omniscience of God, for God does know all. God is not ‘going down’ to learn the facts, but to take personal interest in them and to rectify the matter. So it is that Abraham discerned that God was about to destroy the city, although it was not stated specifically.
Abraham Intercedes with God for Sodom
The two angels went on toward Sodom, leaving our Lord and Abraham alone, overlooking the city (cf. 19:27,28). While speaking reverently, Abraham manifested a boldness with God never seen before.
And Abraham came near and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?’ (Genesis 18:23-25).
Undoubtedly Abraham’s primary concern was for Lot and his family. While this is not stated, it is implied (19:27-29). His appeal is based upon the justice of God. Justice would not allow the righteous to suffer the punishment due the wicked (verse 25). Abraham appealed for the sparing of Sodom in order to spare Lot,176 not so much out of concern to save the city or the wicked. Nevertheless it is possible Abraham might have hoped that with Lot spared along with the wicked, that they might come to faith in God in time.
We must admit Abraham stated his case forcefully, but I do not believe this is why God assured him that his petition would be honored.
The approach Abraham took with God was that surely, in justice, He could not treat the righteous and the wicked alike. The righteous did not deserve to perish with the wicked. So an appeal was made to spare the wicked and the righteous if a sufficient number of the righteous were to be found. Once granted, the bargaining began over how many righteous it would take to save the city.
God agreed to spare the city if 50 righteous could be found (verse 26). Abraham must have doubted that such a number could be found, and so he began to plead for a lower figure.
And Abraham answered and said, ‘Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there’ (Genesis 18:27-28).
Abraham waxed eloquent in these verses. A promise had been given concerning 50 righteous. The question now was whether or not this figure was firm. Abraham tested this by reducing it by five. Notice that he worded his case such that destruction brought on the city of Sodom with 45 righteous condemned the 45 because of the absence of five righteous citizens. For the lack of five the 45 would be destroyed. God granted this request, but not because of Abraham’s oratorical skillfulness.
From here, Abraham was encouraged to attempt to further reduce the minimum number of righteous required to spare Sodom. First it was 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10. We almost sigh with relief here, for one might fear that God would lose His patience with Abraham. Personally, I believe the heart of God was warmed by Abraham’s compassion and zeal. This was no selfish petition, but intercession for others.
Why, then, did Abraham stop with ten? Why would he not have gone on to five or even one? Some may think that he did not dare to press God farther. Perhaps so, but I do not believe that Abraham would have ceased until he were confident that Lot and his family were safe from the wrath of God.
The number ten should have provided the protection of Lot with a margin of safety. After all, it would seem that Lot’s family alone was large enough to meet this number. With Lot and his wife, his two unmarried daughters, his married daughters and sons-in-law, and perhaps sons also (cf. Genesis 19:12), ten righteous surely could be found. Abraham seemed satisfied, and perhaps, too, others had come to trust in God through Lot’s witness.
As we know from chapter 19 Abraham’s hopes exceeded reality. This would have resulted in tragedy were it not for a great divine truth: God’s grace always exceeds our expectations. In the final analysis there were only three righteous in Sodom, Lot and his two daughters. Some might well question the righteousness of the daughters from their actions in the next chapter. Regardless, God did remember Abraham’s petition. While He did not spare the city of Sodom, He did spare the righteous. He is able and willing to do far beyond what we ask or think, as the Scriptures elsewhere teach (cf. Ephesians 3:20).
This passage gives us much insight into the matter of Christian maturity. As we look once more through these verses, several marks of maturity seem to emerge.
(1) The mature Christian becomes less dependent upon spectacular manifestations of God and more involved in intimate day-to-day fellowship. Previously, God had disclosed Himself to Abraham in more splendor and glory. This time God would not have been known, except through previous knowledge of Him and the eyes of faith. God was known by His promises, His word, rather than through a spectacular presence or splendor.
What more intimate fellowship can there be than the sharing of a meal with God?
And when the hour had come He reclined at table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:14-15).
And it come about that when He had reclined at table with them, he took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight (Luke 24:30-31).
Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any one hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me (Revelation 3:20).
Is it any wonder that one of the highlights of the Christian’s week to have fellowship with His Lord at His table (I Corinthians 11:23-26)? We should not always seek to find God in the spectacular, but in the more routine affairs of life (I Kings 19:11-14). Such is a sign of maturity.
I think we see this illustrated in marriage. When we first find ‘the woman of our dreams’ we want to take her to the finest restaurant or do something exciting. Sooner or later we find that we have just as much pleasure in walking in the park or sitting on the porch. The thrill is not in the place or the activity, but in the intimacy shared between two in love in whatever we do. So it is with Christian maturity.
(2) Christian maturity shifts our attention from self to others. Lot was one who continually thought of himself. Abraham’s finest hour in this chapter was devoted to serving others, first of all in the hospitality given to these ‘strangers,’ and then in the intercession he made for Sodom. Love of God must reflect itself in a concern for others (cf. Matthew 23:37-39).
(3) Christian maturity balances activity and passivity. Before in this study of Genesis we have talked about the problem of when to work and when to wait. There are times to be active and times to be passive. Abraham should not have gone into Egypt when the famine came to Canaan. Abraham should not have devised the scheme to protect his life by lying. Abraham was passive in following Sarah’s plan to produce a son.
In verses 1-8 Abraham was active in offering hospitality to the three strangers, and rightly so. This was something he could and should do. In the matter of Sodom, some might have tended to be passive. God had spoken; the city was to be destroyed; what could Abraham possibly do? He could do what you and I can do when we can do nothing else—pray. Nothing is ever beyond God’s ability to perform (18:14). If Abraham appealed according to the will of God and His character, nothing would be impossible. When any situation is beyond our control, it is not beyond God’s. Mature Christians are those who do not fail to petition God when circumstances look dark.
This, of course, does not imply that we should pray only in impossible situations. We should pray always. But mature Christians pray with the confidence that God will act according to His character, and with infinite power, and in response to our petitions. When we are helpless, we are not hopeless, for the prayers of the righteous accomplish much (cf. James 5:16).
(4) Mature Christians view prophecy as an incentive to diligent prayer and service, not a matter of mere intellectual curiosity. All too often today Christians are fascinated by prophecy as though it were a matter only to tickle our intellect rather than to touch our hearts. God’s prophetic purposes are given to incite men to action. This is the response of the mature Christian (cf. Daniel 9; II Peter 3:11-12).
(5) Mature Christians have a clear grasp of two eternal truths: the greatness of God, and the goodness of God. These truths undergird the 18th chapter of Genesis. The first is found in the question of our Lord in verse 14, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The second is the basis for Abraham’s intercession in verse 25, “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth deal justly?”
The first truth rebukes all worry and lack of prayer, for “with God, nothing is impossible” (Luke 1:37). Every time we worry about the future we reject the truth that God is all-powerful.
The second truth provides an answer for life’s most distressing and perplexing problems. The God who is all-powerful is also loving, kind, just, merciful, and so on. Infinite power is joined with infinite purity.
Our first child and only son died when he was 3 1/2 months old. Several years later, while I was in seminary, the question of what happens to infants who die came up in class. Several passages were suggested, but some did not find them sufficient. Finally I shared the assurance that we found when we lost our son. While it was comforting to have scriptures to comfort us, we did not need a text to answer our every question. God is far greater than all that is revealed about Him in Scripture. The Judge of all the earth will deal justly. That was our confidence. Have you lost a loved one about whose salvation you are doubtful? Are there problems and circumstances you cannot understand? Then rest in this: our God is all powerful; nothing is impossible with Him. And furthermore, this power is always employed in justice, truth, mercy, and love. What a comfort! What an encouragement to pray!
(6) Finally, Christian maturity is evidenced when our thoughts are like God’s. Abraham did not change the mind of God; he demonstrated it. God did not suddenly alter His purposes; He informed Abraham of His purposes so that he could evidence His mercy and justice and compassion. The revelation of God’s activities in Sodom and Gomorrah was given so that Abraham’s faith could be manifested in the magnificent act of intercession. Because Abraham knew God so well, he knew that He could not destroy the wicked and the righteous together. Maturity is that point where our thoughts and actions become more like God’s.
… until we attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
Lest we begin to feel guilty at the realization that we do not measure up to Abraham, let alone our Lord, we must remember that this maturing process took many years. Let us also keep in mind that Abraham is soon to make another serious mistake (chapter 20). Nevertheless, let us press on, in God’s strength, toward maturity.
171 “In the Orient bread is never prepared at any other time than immediately before it is eaten. So bread must be prepared by Sarah for these guests. Though the guests number only three, the simple food offered will be presented in lavish abundance. “Three measures” have been computed to make four-and-a-half pecks (Skinner). What is left over can be disposed of with ease by the servants of so large an establishment as the one Abraham had.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 538.
172 “The idiom ‘stand by,’ (‘madh ‘al), implies to stand by to be of service, and could even be rendered ‘and he served them.’ Cf. I Sam. l6:22; I Kings l:2; I Kings l7:l, in the expression ‘stand before.’” Ibid, p. 539.
175 We should first realize that Abraham’s tent was pitched on a high place which overlooked the valley in which Sodom and Gomorrah were located (cf. 19:27,28). In this sense the two angels ‘went down’ to Sodom and Gomorrah. I do not believe that this is the primary meaning of our Lord’s words here, “I will go down now and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:21). First of all, only the two angels actually entered Sodom, not our Lord (cf. l9:1ff). Also, there was no need for God to inspect Sodom in order to learn the facts. God’s omniscience has no limits created by distance. The solution to this problem is found (to my satisfaction) in the other uses of the expression ‘to go down.’ In Genesis 11:5,7 it is used of God’s involvement with Babel and the confusion of languages. In Exodus 3:8 it spoke of God’s intervention in Egypt to deliver His people. In all these instances ‘to go down’ conveys the idea of ‘becoming personally involved’ or of ‘personal intervention.’ This God did, without physically entering Sodom, Babel, or Egypt.
176 Initially all the cities of the valley were to be destroyed (cf. 19:17, 20-21,25). God spoke to Abraham of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20). But Abraham appealed only for Sodom, ‘the city’ (18:24,26,28).
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