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Promise and Intercession

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)

Part X

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 28, 1999

Genesis 18:1-33

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Genesis 18:1-33

Promise and Intercession

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 18. In Genesis 17 our gracious God appeared and established a covenant sign in order to assure Abraham of His good purposes toward him and to strengthen Abraham's flagging faith. Sarah, in that passage, in that chapter, is specifically designated as God's chosen instrument for the birth of Isaac. And at the end of that chapter Abraham responds in obedient faith, trusting obedience, by having his household circumcised. Tonight we turn to Genesis 18 the whole chapter where God conveys again the assurances of His good purposes, but this time with Sarah in mind. And where also we see Abraham show his heart for the lost. So let's hear God's holy word here in Genesis 18:

Genesis 18:1-33

What a contrast between this chapter and the chapter to come. The noonday meeting between God and these angels with Abraham - light. And the blackness of God's reigning judgment in Genesis 19 in the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah. What a contrast between these two chapters. Derek Kidner says it this way: "The noon encounter in this chapter and the night scene in the next are in every sense a contrast of light and darkness. The former quietly intimate and full of promise, is crowned by the intercession in which Abraham's faith and love show a new breadth of concern. The second scene (in Genesis 19) shows confusion and ruin, moral and physical, ending in a loveless squalor which is even uglier than the great overthrow of the cities."

But you know even more than that contrast, when we come to this chapter, Genesis 18, with its account of God's divine visitation of Abraham in his tent, we are reminded again just how far God is willing to go to assure His people and just how glorious is His condescension in communing with us. There are many things that we can lock on in this passage. But I'd like to focus on the two parts of this narrative.

I. God is a friend to those who trust Him and treats us as such.

First, in verses 1 through 15 where a promise, the same promise that has been given to Abraham is reiterated to Sarah and where we see Sarah's struggle to believe. That's the first part of this passage, verses 1 through 15. And then in verses 16 through 33, we see God reveal what He is going to do to Abraham, and we see Abraham respond to God with a prayer of intercession that shows us his heart for God, and his heart for the lost. I'd like to look at these two sections with you tonight.

First, as we look at verses 1 through 15 and we see this promise that is made, and it's intended for Sarah. And as we see her struggle to believe, let's remember this truth. God is a friend to those who trust in Him and He treats us as such. God is a friend to those who trust in Him, and He treats us as such. As we look at this story, those of you who are familiar with the hospitality practices of those from the near east, from the orient, will recognize many points of contacts between activity and hospitality that still goes on today amongst the Bedouins and how Abraham responded to these men. It was the noonday siesta and Abraham is resting under the shade of a tree. Many of you who are familiar with the farm fields here in Mississippi can recognize the welcome shade of a good well-placed tree in the midst of a hot, cotton-raising Mississippi summer. At any rate, Abraham is resting there and these men come at an inopportune time, right in the middle of his early afternoon nap. And he springs to his feet and he invites them in and he says, ‘Let me just give you a little piece of bread.’ And of course he goes and he slays the fatted calf and he has his wife cooking and the servants cooking, and the little piece of bread that he ends up bringing out is a sumptuous meal, a feast. And he shows them great honor and hospitality. He treats their visit as if it's a very providence from God. He shows tremendous hospitality. And this is so typical of Bedouin hospitality; a royal welcome at an inconvenient time. The assurance to those visitors that it is an honor that they would be present with him, that it was a providence of God that they should show up, the provision of washing of their feet. He calls this lavish meal ‘a morsel of bread.’ He stands, Abraham stands while these men eat, and all of these show the type of hospitality so common in the east.

But as we see this and as we know who one of these men is, we are struck with the appropriateness of all the fuss of Abraham's hospitality. Derek Kidner says, "The reader can see how appropriate beyond all imagining this deference was; the New Testament goes on to show that there is more than coincidence here." Let me remind you of two passages. First in Hebrews, chapter 13, verse 2 where we hear these words. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it." It was literally the case with Abraham in his tent that day. And again there are Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 25, verse 35 when He says: "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited Me in." Here, this hospitality of Abraham was literally extended to God. And it's a reminder to us that so also our hospitality as believers in accordance with the word ought to be extended.

Now I'd like to zero in on just two or three things in this rich passage. The first thing is I'd like you to see that God has visited Abraham in this instance in order to strengthen Sarah's faith. In Genesis, chapter 17, God had repeated His promises to Abraham. He had given Abraham a sign to strengthen his confidence in those promises. But now God Himself comes to visit in Abraham's tent with the agenda of assuring Sarah of these promises. He wants to strengthen Sarah's faith.

And verses 12 through 15 here in Genesis 18 show how important that was. Sarah's faith was at just as low an ebb as Abraham's was at the beginning of chapter 17. I don't know why. I don't know whether Abraham didn't talk with Sarah about what God had said to him in Genesis 17. It would be just like a man. Have you ever come home and been greeted with, "You didn't tell you that so-in-so was in the hospital." "Sorry, I forgot." I don't know whether Abraham forgot to tell Sarah about what the Lord had said to him, or I don't know whether Sarah was so low that she just had a hard time believing that in her elderly years she would bear a son to Abraham. But whatever the case was, verses 12 through 15 make it very clear that Sarah's faith needed strengthening. And so the Lord comes to do precisely that. Hebrews 11:11 makes it very clear that the Lord's purposes in this visit were successful. For by faith Sarah indeed bore Isaac, as the author of Hebrews tells us. God is concerned to build up our faith, because faith is the primary grace of our Christian experience. The grace of faith coordinates and cooperates with every other grace, and so God not only wants Abraham to be assured of his promises, He wants Sarah, His instrument, too, to be assured of His promises.

God is concerned that both Abraham and Sarah respond in faith to the promises of His word. And He is still concerned for couples to do that today. You know it really strikes me again that the Lord comes individually to each member of this family. And we can again imagine the stress that had been on both of them. We talked for a while about how Abraham's name itself would have been an embarrassment to him, as friends came through and said, "Your name is Abram? How many sons do you have?" "Well, I don't have any." "Your name is exalted father and you don't have sons?"

And then his name is given Abraham, father of a multitude, father of many nations. And he's asked how many sons do you have? Well, I have one by my wife's maid servant. So we've talked about how Abram's faith would have struggled, but we haven't talked much about the struggle that Sarah would have gone through. The Lord in His love and in His concern for Abraham and Sarah ministers to them both by His word in order to strengthen their faith. And it's a glorious picture of how the Lord works in the lives and in the marriages of God's people.

It's interesting that the visitors do something that was out of accord with the protocol of near eastern cultures. They are sitting there, they are eating the meal and suddenly they ask Abraham where is Sarah, your wife? Now there are several things going on here. In those days the women and the men did not sit down and eat together. The women may have been right on the other side of the tent curtain in the tent listening in on the conversation, but they wouldn't have been present. And no polite visitor would have dared to call his host's wife by her name. That would be entirely too familiar, even if he knew her name. And so by asking, ‘Where is your wife, Sara?’ the visitors are tipping us off that this visit was intended for Sarah, and they are also tipping us off to the fact that they are more than simply human visitors. And so we see Sarah in response to the assurance, the promise of the statement of this visitor, when he says ‘This time next year I will return and Sarah will have a son.’ She responds with laughter to herself. We are told specifically, if you will look with me here in verse 12, that Sarah laughed to herself. Apparently, this was not a laugh out loud. I don't even know whether it came out as a ‘hmmm.’ But in her heart, Sarah is cynical about this statement, and she is not able to take it in. And she laughs to herself, a laughter of derision.

And God responds to her in verse 14, with a statement that is the very foundation of faith: "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" That's the second thing that I'd like you to see in this great passage. That God roots his call for Sarah to believe on the fact that He can do anything, and that He has spoken this promise in His word and that, therefore, her faith can literally rest assured that He will bring it to pass. Until we are absolutely convinced of the sovereignty of God, we will never, ever be able to make sense out of God's call for faith. Until we are absolutely trusting that God is in control of everything, it makes no sense for us to trust in Him completely. But when we understand that there is nothing too difficult for the Lord, then we have had the seeds of the basis of faith sown in our hearts. Now Sarah's denial of her laughter doesn't deter the Almighty. The Lord knows her heart, and when she laughs to herself at this statement, the Lord knows. He knows everything. He knows even the thoughts of her heart. Now Sarah perhaps did not want to be inhospitable to these guests. And it would have been inhospitable to laugh derisively at something that these guests had said, but apparently Sarah thought that she could do this laugh without anybody catching on. After all it was a laugh in her own heart. And so since she had only done this to herself, she immediately responds by saying, "Well, I didn't laugh." And the Lord says, "Oh yes, you did, Sarah." The Lord knows Sarah's heart and the Lord knows our hearts, and He condescends to come and eat a meal in the tent of His servant in the wilderness near Hebron in order to assure Sarah.

Now stop for a minute, friends, and think of the significance of that. God Himself comes for a meal at Abraham's tent just so that Sarah might be assured of His promises. Do you see how serious God is about assuring His people? Do you see how concerned He is for us, that He would condescend to come and sup with us to assure us? But you know this picture of God coming and being served in Abraham's tent is not even the most glorious picture of God supping with us that we have. Yes, there is that picture of the table spread for us, the table of the Lord. But even that table of the Lord points forward to what Luke speaks of in Luke, chapter 12, verse 37 when he says that at the marriage supper of the lamb, the Lord Jesus Himself will serve you. The Lord Jesus will take the place of Abraham, standing while you are fed in the marriage supper of the lamb. So concerned He is to minister to His people. It's not easy to live by grace, and so the Lord announces the good news once more to Abraham and his wife. This is what we see in the first part of this chapter. God, as a friend to those who trust in Him, and treating us as such.

 

II. God is righteous in judgment and His people know it.
And then in verses 16 through 33 we see a picture of God's closeness, His intimacy with Abraham and we see what walking with God has done with Abraham's heart because Abraham clearly has a heart for God. He knows who He is, he knows what He's like, he knows what He does and he has a heart for the lost as well. And we learn in verses 16 through 33 this: That God is righteous in His judgment and His people, they know it. It's very interesting here in verses 16 through 33 that before Abraham intercedes, the Lord reveals His knowledge of Sodom's wickedness and His closeness to Abraham. This is probably the incident which earned Abraham the title "Friend of God." Look at verse 19. "For I have chosen him." The language there is literally I have known him which has been correctly rendered in this passage I have chosen him. But it also could be rendered this way. I have made him my friend.

God, by His grace, makes us His friends. That is the doctrine of election, and we see it very clearly here in verse 19. God reaching out and calling Abraham His friend. And that is why in 2 Chronicles 20:7 and in James 2:23, and in Isaiah 41:8 Abraham will be called the friend of God. God knew him, God shared with him His secret counsel. But I want you to see that before Abraham lifts up this intercession on behalf of the city that God is going to judge, that God Himself had prepared the way. I say that because I don't want you to get the idea that Abraham's spirit was more generous than God. God was in fact prompting Abraham to engage in this spirit of prayer. Listen to what Derek Kidner says: "The initiative in this great intercession was with God, in the sense that He broached the subject Himself, He waited for Abraham's plea, and He chose the point at which the conversation would end." Below the surface, too, Abraham's spirit of love and justice is surely brought about from God striving with him.

So Abraham's intercession on behalf of these people in Sodom and Gomorrah, these wicked people in Sodom and Gomorrah, is a reflection of his heart for God and indeed it's a reflection of God's heart who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and is yet a God of perfect holiness and justice. Again, Kidner says: "This is Abraham's second intervention for Sodom. He anticipates the blessing of the whole world. The blessing that the world was to enjoy through Him, and something of the self-giving which must be its means." Many of the liberals come to this passage and they say, "You know, this can't be true because this is not the attitude that the Israelites had towards Sodom." Isn't that precisely the point? Abraham didn't have a heart for Sodom. He didn't have a heart for the lost because it came naturally to him. He had a heart for the lost because he knew his God and he had seen the end of the wicked. And because he knew his God and because he knew what the wicked deserved, his heart was moved to intercede.

Many of the men will remember John Blanchard at the Mid-South Men's Rally last year beautifully describing prayer to us. And he used the image of a carrier pigeon from one of C.H. Spurgeon's sermons where Spurgeon says "Prayer is like a carrier pigeon. God sends the pigeon out with a message. It lights in our homes, and then we send it back.." And so prayer starts from the heart of God and it goes out and it captures our heart and then we send it back to God. Well the same thing has happened with Abraham here. Abraham knows his God. God has revealed to Abraham the destruction of this wicked people. And his heart, because he knows God's heart, is moved and he begins to intercede with the Lord. Not simply for the sparing of his relatives, but for the sparing of this city. Yes, humanly speaking this makes no sense that Abraham, the Hebrew, would care anything about the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. But his heart had been captured by the heart of his God. And so he lifts up a prayer, and this burden for the loss begins with a heart for God.

When we know Him and when we realize His judgment, we care. I want you to see here that Abraham's appeal to God was based upon his knowledge of God's righteousness. Look at verse 25: "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?" Abraham is absolutely convinced that his God is going to do what's right. And so he lifts up a prayer that God would spare the wicked on the basis of the presence of the righteous.

By the way, don't we see a hint there at the principle of representation and substitution already in the book of Genesis. Where the wicked are spared because of the presence of the righteous. And is this not a foreshadowing of a greater substitution which is to come? Where the righteous one, the only righteous one, bears the sins of all the wicked who trust in him. We see a foreshadowing of it indeed. It may be observed here that intercessory prayer is only effective when one realizes how awesome the judgment of God is. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pray effectively for lost souls if one is not convinced that lostness will ultimately result in literal, eternal punishment. A few years ago, John Macleod, a journalist in Scotland wrote an article on the subject of hell, of all things, in the Glasgow Herald, the largest newspaper in Scotland. He ended that article in these words: "I have never doubted in the reality of such a place. The hell of deep and lasting darkness. But I have never thought of it in popular terms, as a nasty boiler room run by little men in red tights. Hell is ultimately a negative, a place of nothing but anguish. It is a place without God and without anything of God, without light, without warmth, without friendship and without peace. No racks, no pinchers, no claws, only the fires of an awakened conscience. The burning thirst of a frustrated ego. The wicked ones of history, they will be there. The killers and the exploiters, they will be there. Libertines and gossips, rapists and drunkards, they will be there. Those whose Gods were sex, or money, or ambition or power. They will be there. Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians. If only their faith was religiosity who had nothing for eternity but denominational adherence. They will be there. And in the darkest, thickest corner of all the nice ministers, the benevolent bishops who told people that it was heaven for all and that love was all that mattered, and this I believed. And I believed, too, that there is only one escape. By flight to Christ and faith in His finished work. Living in His service, but never looking to such toils for my salvation. But there is the final paradox. To believe in this latter end of all things, and to live and walk in a world that must one day melt in fervent heat, to walk among the living dead with my bright smile and polite talk and never to challenge and never to warn. When we have seen our God in His righteousness and we have seen the wickedness of humanity, we know the end that must come. But the one who knows the heart of God has the heart of God, and it is not the heart of God that the wicked should perish but that they would turn and repent and find salvation." Abraham had that burden from the people of Sodom. People with whom he had nothing in common. And only the love of God in his heart could have brought about that burden. Do we have that kind of burden for people who have nothing to offer us, who are totally different from us. It strikes me that the very report tonight, the report of the ministry at Desire Street is such an example of how we ought to reach out to those who are not like us, who have nothing to offer us, and yet we know our God, an we know the judgment that is to come and our hearts are burdened that all would come to Him. Let us pray.

Amen.

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