A Spiritual Wake-Up Call

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:9-16 ESV

In an attempt to encourage the Ephesian believers, Paul paraphrased a verse from one of King David’s psalms.

You ascended on high,
    leading a host of captives in your train
    and receiving gifts among men… – Psalm 68:18 ESV

As a former Pharisee and a student of the Hebrew scriptures, Paul knew that this passage was written by David as a praise song to God, thanking Him for His divine assistance against Israel’s many enemies. In verse 18 of David’s psalm, he describes gifts being given to God as an expression of gratitude and praise for His divine intervention in their military affairs. But Paul takes this Old Testament passage and repurposes it to drive home his point about God having given the gift of grace to all who believe in His Son (Ephesians 4:7).

“Paul made a valid application of Christological significance to the Old Testament passage. On the one hand, according to Psalm 68:18, God ascended Zion as a victorious king worthy of being the recipient of gifts of homage. On the other hand, according to Ephesians 4:8, Jesus also ascended to the heavenly Zion as the victorious Lord who lovingly bestowed on His church the gifts of ministry essential to her future well-being.” – Bibliotheca Sacra 148:591 (July-September 1991):335-36

In Paul’s application of this verse to the Ephesian context, he portrays Jesus as the one who, having accomplished a mighty victory over the enemy, ascended back into heaven. But rather than receiving gifts from men, Jesus poured out the gift of the Spirit on His church. This gracious outpouring of the Spirit resulted in the provision of divinely-enabled gifts to assist the church in its ministry. Paul mentions just a few of those gifts in verse 11 and explains their purpose.

…he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV

In his other letters, Paul provided a series of lists that contain other gifts provided to the church. They include the speaking gifts such as apostleship, prophecy, teaching, evangelism, exhortation, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. But he also lists gifts of service that include leadership, helps, mercy, giving, faith, healing, and miracles. Paul fully believed that Jesus had provided His church with everything it needed to not only survive but thrive.

Paul was reminding his readers that Jesus, the Son of God, had descended from on high and taken on the role of a lowly servant. He had left His rightful place at His Father’s side and chosen to take on the form of a man. Paul eloquently described the “descent” of Jesus in his letter to the church in Philippi.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
   he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT

And as a result of His incarnation and crucifixion, God raised Jesus from the dead and “elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9 NLT). And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and equip His followers with the power to use their God-ordained gifts and display the fruits of a righteous life – all so that the body of Christ might be built up or edified. In his letter to Timothy, Paul described the church as the household of God and “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NLT). Jesus poured out gifts on the church so that all of its members might be adequately taught and prepared to carry out His mission on earth.

And, according to Paul, the goal of this “work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12 ESV) is the spiritual maturity of every believer. It will continue unabated and uninterrupted until “we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). This is a lofty and seemingly impossible goal. But Paul’s point is that it is the work of the Spirit, not the flesh. God sent His Son so that sinful humanity might be restored to a right relationship with Him. But Jesus sent the Spirit so that redeemed men and women might have the power they needed to experience the full potentiality of their new nature. Their spiritual transformation was to be ongoing and evidenced by an ever-increasing capacity to thrive in a hostile and often harmful earthly environment. 

In verse 14, Paul telegraphs where he is headed with this line of reasoning. He is preparing his readers to receive a stern but loving lecture regarding false teachers. And he does so by reminding them that their ongoing spiritual maturity is both non-optional and extremely vital. When the members of Christ’s body are growing effectively, they “will no longer be immature like children…tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching,” and they won’t be easily deceived by those who try to trick them “with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT).

This was all intended as a set-up for Paul’s main point. He is preparing the Ephesian believers to receive his not-so-flattering assessment of their current spiritual condition. In a sense, Paul is describing them as immature children who are being tossed about by every wind of new teaching. Rather than growing up in their salvation, they have remained like helpless and defenseless children who lack discretion and discipline.

According to Paul’s assessment, the Ephesian church was not where it needed to be spiritually. The leaders of the church were not effectively doing their job of equipping “God’s people to do his work” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And, as a result, God’s people were not edifying one another and strengthening the body of Christ. Paul calls them to course correct, demanding that they “speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). They needed to express their love for one another by being honest in their assessment of one another. There is a sense in which love must be hard and unforgiving, pointing out the flaws and failings of one another so that the body of Christ might be healthy and whole. Paul is recommending the truth found in Proverbs 27:6: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” He is echoing the sentiment expressed by King David in another one of his psalms.

Let the righteous man strike me; let his rebuke be an act of loving devotion. It is oil for my head; let me not refuse it.

Paul’s heartfelt desire was that the Ephesians would experience all the gifts that Christ had poured out on their behalf. He wanted them to experience the unity that Christ had died to make possible. He longed for them to display the spiritual maturity that the Spirit made available. And he prayed continually that their lives would reflect the character of Christ that God’s grace had made attainable. As far as Paul was concerned, there was no reason for the Ephesians to be living in doubt, fear, immaturity, disunity, or impurity. God had provided everything they needed. He had done His part. He had sent His Son and His Son had sent the Spirit. Now, it was up to them to live out what God had ordained for them.

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. – Ephesians 4:16 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Why Is This Happening?

19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.”

24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.  Genesis 25:19-28 ESV

Ultimately, the book of Genesis traces the history of a single man, Abraham, and his subsequent descendants. But along the way, the author has provided an essential background story to Abraham’s life by chronicling God’s creation of mankind and the entrance of sin into the plotline. It was the ubiquitous and all-pervasive presence of sin that led God to destroy the world with a flood. But in His grace and mercy, God spared one man, Noah, and his family, charging them with the divine mandate to multiply and fill the earth. The following chapters of Genesis reveal that from that one man and his family came a multitude of nations that spread over the face of the earth. But sadly, as they spread, so did sin. So, God chose a man named Abram, who lived in the land of Mesopotamia and promised to make of him a great nation. God called Abram out of his homeland and led him to the land of Canaan, which He promised to give to him as an inheritance.

But by this time in the story, Abraham has died and his son, Isaac, is married but childless. The “great nation” that was to have come through Abraham’s line consists of one man. Yet, Ishmael, Isaac’s disinherited stepbrother has fathered 12 sons. Even Abraham fathered six more sons after the birth of Isaac, but they would not share in the inheritance with their step-brother. It seems that the non-elect nations of the earth were continuing to grow and spread, while the elect line of Abraham remained stalled and facing yet another case of barrenness that would result in more fruitlessness.

Everything about this story screams futility and failure. Yet, behind the scenes, God is working His sovereign plan. While, at first glance, it may appear like that plan has hit another roadblock, these verses reveal that God is in full control. Yes, the patriarch of the family is dead, and Isaac, the sole heir of the family inheritance remains childless. To make matters worse, his wife Rebekah is barren. And this sad state of affairs will remain unchanged for 20 long years. For two decades Isaac and Rebekah would long for the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham.

“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:6-8 ESV

“Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV

God had kept His word and Isaac had been born. But 60 years later, Isaac and his wife were still waiting to have a child of their own. Where was the offspring that God had promised? How was Isaac to share the inheritance of the land if he and his wife could have no children?

It is essential to understand the futility of Isaac’s circumstances. He was living in the land of Canaan, the land God had promised as an inheritance to Abraham’s descendants. But Isaac was still living a nomadic lifestyle, just as his father had. He owned no land, occupied no cities, and remained an insignificant minority surrounded by much larger clans, tribes, and nations. And, year after year, the seasons would come and go and Isaac’s flocks would bear new lambs, but he remained childless.

And how did Isaac handle the repeated disappointment of childlessness? The text indicates that he prayed. And it seems unlikely that this was a one-time occurrence. Isaac repeatedly and passionately pleaded with God.

Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. – Genesis 25:21 ESV

He knew what the problem was, and he took it straight to Yahweh. Moses doesn’t divulge the content of Isaac’s intercessions, but it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what this man prayed year after year. With each new spring, he must have called out to God, asking for Him to open Rebekah’s womb. Isaac would have known the miraculous nature of his own birth. His father and mother had waited years before God stepped in and caused Sarah to conceive.

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. – Genesis 21:1-3 ESV

But while Isaac was familiar with the story, he still longed to see his own wife’s battle with barrenness broken. He desperately desired to have a son. And for 20 years Isaac prayed and waited. And God heard those prayers. He was not ignoring Isaac or punishing him for some sin he had committed. He was simply following His preordained timeline. And, one day, at just the right time, God answered Isaac’s prayer.

And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. – Genesis 25:21 ESV

God opened Rebekah’s womb. To Isaac, this would have appeared to be a 20-year delay. But to God, it was all according to His providentially prepared timeline.

The news of Rebekah’s pregnancy must have thrilled Isaac. He would have been beside himself with joy and eager anticipation as he waited for the nine months to pass and the baby to be born. But things took a turn for the worse. Rebekah ended up having a difficult pregnancy. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was carrying twins, and the two babies “struggled together within her” (Genesis 25:22 ESV). The pain must have been unbearable, leaving Rebekah concerned about the viability of the baby and worried about her own health. She took the matter to God, asking, “why is this happening to me?” (Genesis 25:22 ESV). She couldn’t understand what was going on. Her joy had turned to fear and apprehension. Thoughts of losing the baby must have crossed her mind. But God reassured her.

“The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son.” – Genesis 25:23 NLT

God informed Rebekah that she was carrying two sons. This news must have thrilled her and helped to calm her fears. And God went on to explain that the “struggle” taking place within her womb was a sign of the future struggle that would take place between her two sons. In a sense, Rebekah was bearing two future nations that would end up in a perpetual state of conflict and acrimony.

This announcement from God must have left Rebekah as perplexed and confused as ever. While she was comforted to know that her difficult pregnancy was the result of twins and not a serious medical problem, she would have been displeased to hear that the relationship between her two sons was destined to be adversarial.

God was informing Rebekah and Isaac that they would be used to produce two nations through whom He would accomplish His divine plan of redemption. God could have blessed this couple with a single child but He had other plans. At this point, His purpose for placing two sons in Rebekah’s womb remains obscure and difficult to ascertain. And His plan for those two sons to result in two nations that stand diametrically opposed to one another remains a mystery.

Rebekah and Isaac are given little in the way of explanation. So, they simply had to wait and see what God was going to do. It’s not clear from the text just how much of God’s message Rebekah shared with Isaac. Other than the news that she was carrying twins, she might have withheld the details concerning the prophecy concerning sibling rivalry.

But the day finally came when Rebekah gave birth, and just as God had said, she delivered two healthy boys. But there was something unique about this delivery. The two babies, while twins, appeared to be nothing alike.

The first one was very red at birth and covered with thick hair like a fur coat. So they named him Esau. – Genesis 25:25 NLT

Not exactly a flattering description. And it doesn’t appear that Moses was using hyperbole in describing the baby’s appearance, because Isaac and Rebekah named him Esau, which means “hairy one.”

And when the second baby appeared, hanging on to one of Esau’s hairy heels, they named him, Jacob, which means “God will protect.” But in Hebrew, Jacob sounds similar to the word for “heel.” So Jacob would earn the nickname of “heel-grabber.”

With the births of these two boys, the scene is set for the next phase of the story. And Moses fast-forwards past the early days of their lives and straight to their adulthood. And the differences between the two young men become increasingly more pronounced with time. Esau became an outdoorsman and a hunter, while Jacob was more of a homebody. They displayed different temperaments and dispositions. Over time, they looked and acted less and less like siblings. No one would have ever guessed that they were twins. And even their relationships with their parents reveal a growing familial conflict brewing.

Isaac loved Esau because he enjoyed eating the wild game Esau brought home, but Rebekah loved Jacob. – Genesis 25:28 NLT

The stage is set. God has established the next set of players in His grand drama and the story is about to take yet another dramatic and decisive turn. And as the events unfold, the readers of this story will echo the words of Rebekah: “Why is this happening?”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

And the Lord Did As He Had Promised

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Genesis 21:1-7 ESV

Moses opens this epic chapter with the simple, yet profound words, “the Lord visited Sarah.” After all that has transpired in the preceding chapters, they come across as rather anticlimactic. This is the moment for which Abraham and Sarah have long-awaited and about which they had their fair share of doubts. God had repeatedly promised that Sarah would bear a son, and now the time had come. The long wait was over. The promise was to be fulfilled. And while Moses’ words may lack an air of excitement, they display a strong sense of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. And three separate times in the first two verses, Moses emphasizes the faithfulness of God.

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said

…the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised

And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son…of which God had spoken to him

That simple statement, “and Sarah conceived” is (excuse the pun) pregnant with meaning. God had done the impossible. He had performed a miracle by creating life in Sarah’s lifeless womb. The odds had been against Sarah. When Moses first introduced her in chapter 11, he had declared her unfortunate condition.

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. – Genesis 11:30 ESV

Yet, in the very next chapter, God had issued His call to Abraham and announced His promise to produce through him and Sarah a great nation. Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65 at the time. And 25 years later, God had reconfirmed His promise to Abraham.

Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. “How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?” – Genesis 17:17 NLT

So, now Sarah’s barrenness was complicated by the curse of fruitlessness that accompanies old age.

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. – Genesis 18:11 NLT

And Sarah seemed to believe that her long struggle with infertility had been God’s doing.

So Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has prevented me from having children.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT

Yet, at just the right moment, according to God’s sovereign plan, Sarah conceived and bore a son. Against all odds and contrary to everything we know about human anatomy and physiology, a 90-year-old barren woman became impregnated by her 100-year-old husband and carried that baby for nine months. And Moses makes it clear that this pregnancy was the work of God. He had done what He had promised to do and He had done it according to His divine timeline. The 25-year delay had been a part of the plan. At no point along the way had God been exasperated by Sarah’s inability to get pregnant. He had not made a mistake in choosing Abraham. Sarah’s barrenness had not been an oversight on God’s part. Even when Sarah and Abraham kept attempting to come up with alternate plans to fulfill God’s promise, He kept reiterating His intentions to use the two of them.

God displayed His power and confirmed His covenant faithfulness through the miracle of Sarah’s pregnancy and her baby’s eventual birth. A year earlier, God had predicted that this moment would come and He had even provided a name for the son who would be born to Abraham and Sarah.

“Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV

When Sarah had heard this promise from God, she had reacted with disbelief and scorn, saying, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” (Genesis 18:12 NLT). And God had calmly and patiently responded, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14 NLT).

Now, God had answered His own question with an irrefutable demonstration of His power that should have clearly ended all speculation regarding His faithfulness. Sarah’s barrenness proved to be no problem for God. Yes, it had caused Sarah great pain and left her questioning the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God. It had frustrated Abraham, causing him to consider and, at times, implement other strategies for becoming the father of a multitude of nations. Both Sarah and Abraham wanted what God had promised, but her barrenness seemed to be an insurmountable barrier to achieving their desire. And a quarter-century of waiting only made matters worse.

But at just the right moment, according to God’s sovereign timeline, the Creator spoke into the darkness of Sarah’s despair and brought about life. And with that life, a light broke into the darkness that permeated Abraham’s world. It would be through this child that God would fulfill His promise to Abraham.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” – Genesis 12:2 ESV

God had clearly promised to do something significant through the offspring of Abraham. He had added, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). This boy was destined for great things. And while he would bring great joy and comfort to Abraham and Sarah, he would become the hope of the nations. Through Isaac would come another son, whose birth would also come about through miraculous means. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah would predict the coming of this child.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

And Isaiah would go on to describe the circumstances in which this child would be born.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil. – Isaiah 9:2-3 ESV

The birth of Isaac brought great joy and hope to Abraham and Sarah. And in a similar, yet even more significant way, the birth of this future offspring of Abraham would bring joy to the entire world.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:6-7 ESV

At the moment of Isaac’s miraculous birth, the 90-year-old Sarah and her 100-year-old husband found themselves basking in the joy of that momentous and long-awaited occasion. Sarah’s derisive and scornful laughter had been transformed into joyful hilarity at the sight of her miracle baby. As she held her bundle of joy in her arms, she exclaimed, “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse a baby? Yet I have given Abraham a son in his old age!” (Genesis 21:6-7 NLT). And the grin on Abraham’s face must have stretched from ear to ear.

What a sense of relief and gratitude this elderly couple must have felt. And you can sense Abraham’s thankfulness in the way he faithfully subjected his newborn son to the God-ordained rite of circumcision.

Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. – Genesis 21:4 ESV

God had done His part, now it was Abraham’s turn. In circumcising Isaac, Abraham was dedicating his son to God. This rite was meant to be a sign of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham’s descendants.

“This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you.” – Genesis 17:10-11 NLT

And God had made it clear that all those who remained uncircumcised would have no part in His future blessings.

“All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.” – Genesis 17:13-14 NLT

Abraham wasn’t taking any chances. He wasn’t about to curse his newborn son to a lifetime of alienation from God. He had waited too long for this moment and he knew that Isaac was the key to all that God had promised.

“I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!” – Genesis 17:6 NLT

And though Abraham had no way to comprehend the significance of this promise, the gospel of Matthew provides the future fulfillment to which it pointed.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Matthew 1:1 ESV

Isaac would be a means to an end. He would be the conduit through which God would bring the ultimate blessing to the nations: Jesus Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

A Barren Faith

1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”

14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Genesis 20:1-18 ESV

With the opening of chapter 20, Moses returns the focus of his narrative to Abraham. And, despite God’s repeated acts of faithfulness and His assurances that Sarah will bear Abraham a child, we find Abraham has reverted to his old ways. This story bears a striking resemblance to the one found in chapter 12. In the early days of his time in Canaan, a famine plagued the land. So, this prompted Abraham to seek refuge in Egypt. But when he arrived in the land of the Pharoahs, he feared that Sarah’s beauty would attract the interest of the Egyptians, so he came up with a plan.

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” – Genesis 12:11-13 ESV

Abraham’s fears were justified because the Pharaoh himself found Sarah attractive, and he offered Abraham a bride price to make her a part of his harem. But while Abraham’s plan had been successful in sparing his own life, he had put Sarah in a very uncomfortable predicament. And it was only by the grace of God that she was spared humiliation at the hands of Pharaoh. The Almighty intervened and delivered Sarah back to Abraham. It had been a close call, but a valuable lesson was learned. Or so you would think.

Fast forward to chapter 20 and we find Abraham reliving one of his least flattering moments. He has journeyed from Hebron to Gerar and, once again, he has decided to spread the rumor among the inhabitants that Sarah is his sister. As before, he is telling a half-truth. Sarah is Abraham’s half-sister. But she is also his wife and the woman through whom God has promised to deliver a son. Yet, everywhere Abraham went, he declared of Sarah, “She is my sister” (Genesis 20:2 ESV). It seems likely that the motivation behind this charade was the same as it had been in Egypt. Abraham was out to protect his own skin. Because he was a stranger entering into potentially hostile territory, he feared that his wife’s beauty would attract the interest of the locals. If they discovered she was Abraham’s wife, they might decide to kill Abraham so that they might have a legal claim on her as a widow. Even in the pagan cultures of Canaan, marriage was a respected institution.

But what is amazing to consider is that Sarah is 90-years-old. We would find it difficult to imagine that anyone would find a woman of that age particularly attractive. But Sarah must have been striking, even at her advanced age, because the story goes on to say that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, took Sarah. The woman whom God had chosen to bear the offspring of Abraham was now relegated to the role of a concubine in the harem of a pagan king. Abraham’s plan had backfired again, producing a potentially devastating outcome.

Yet, just as before, God intervened. He came to Sarah’s rescue and turned Abraham’s ill-conceived and ill-fated ploy into a blessing instead of a curse. Nothing was going to prevent God’s sovereign plan from taking place.

Abimelech, oblivious to the truth concerning Sarah, received a disturbing vision from God, in which he was told, “you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife” (Genesis 20:3 ESV). As proof of God’s providence and His divine protection of Sarah, Moses reveals that Abimelech had not laid a hand on her. And the panicked king pleads his innocence before God.

“Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” – Genesis 20:4-5 ESV

How could he have known that Sarah was Abraham’s wife? He had been lied to and, therefore, had done nothing wrong. He had not intended to take another man’s wife.

This entire exchange is fascinating because, as a pagan, Abimelech would have had no prior knowledge of Yahweh, the God of Abraham. This was likely his first encounter with the Almighty, but he knew that he was dealing with a divine being of great power. And God let Abimelech know just how omnipotent and omniscient He was. He revealed to the frightened monarch that He was fully aware of what had happened and had actually prevented Abimelech from doing any harm to Sarah.

“Yes, I know you are innocent. That’s why I kept you from sinning against me, and why I did not let you touch her. – Genesis 20:6 NLT

Abraham had lied. Abimelech had lusted. But God had the last say. He was in full control of the entire situation and had been divinely orchestrating the outcome. A fearful and faithless Abraham and a lustful and godless king would not prevent God from accomplishing His plan. This story illustrates the truth of the proverb: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21 ESV). This same thought is expressed in Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

If anyone is guilty in this story, it is Abraham. He knew that God had promised to give him a son through Sarah, and he should have understood that God would not allow anything to prevent that promise from being fulfilled. No harm was going to come to Abraham or Sarah. But Abraham was still having a difficult time believing that God was powerful enough to pull off this unlikely miracle. God had set the date for Sarah’s delivery and even provided a name for the son she would bear, but Abraham was still operating in fear and displaying a lack of faith. But God continued to display patience to Abraham, and even referred to him as His prophet. He commanded Abimelech to do the right thing and return Sarah to her husband.

“Now return the woman to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet. Then you will live. But if you don’t return her to him, you can be sure that you and all your people will die.” – Genesis 20:7 NLT

As soon as Abimelech woke up from his disturbing nightmare, he shared the Lord’s message with his servants. Then he ordered Abraham to be brought into his presence and proceeded to vent his well-justified frustration.

“What crime have I committed that deserves treatment like this, making me and my kingdom guilty of this great sin? No one should ever do what you have done!  Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?” – Genesis 20:9-10 NLT

Abimelech was livid and rightfully so. Abraham’s deception had almost resulted in the annihilation of Abimelech and his people. This man’s little half-truth could have resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. But, rather than apologize, Abraham attempted to justify his actions and even blamed his behavior on his circumstances.

“I thought, ‘This is a godless place. They will want my wife and will kill me to get her.’ And she really is my sister, for we both have the same father, but different mothers. And I married her. When God called me to leave my father’s home and to travel from place to place, I told her, ‘Do me a favor. Wherever we go, tell the people that I am your brother.’” – Genesis 20:11-13 NLT

Abraham reveals that this strategy had been in place since the very beginning. He had implemented it in Egypt and had continued to use it wherever he went. This seems to be an admission that Abraham had been lying about Sarah the entire time he had been in Canaan. He had displayed a habit of deception that had been motivated by doubt and fear. Only on two occasions did Abraham’s lie produce negative consequences. But even those “close calls” did not stop him from relying on deceit rather than trusting in God.

Yet, despite Abraham’s revealing admission, God chose to bless him. Not only did God return Sarah unharmed, but He also directed Abimelech to give Abraham “some of his sheep and goats, cattle, and male and female servants” (Genesis 20:14 NLT). Not only that, he offered Abraham his choice of land in Gerar and provided him with 1,000 pieces of silver as a form of compensation for the indignity shown to Sarah.

This pagan king showed great discernment and integrity. And his behavior stands in stark contrast to the “righteous prophet” of Yahweh. As a prophet of God, Abraham should have been a source of light in the darkness of Gerar, but instead, he had almost brought down the wrath of God on the unsuspecting citizens of that community.

Verses 17-18 reveal an interesting detail about this story. It appears that God had struck all the women of Gerar with barrenness. When Abimelech had taken Sarah as his concubine, he had inadvertently and unknowingly doomed his city to a future of fruitlessness. The disability that had plagued Sarah her entire adult life was visited upon the women of Gerar. Moses makes it clear that “the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife” (Genesis 20:18 ESV). And it wasn’t until the doubtful and deceptive Abraham prayed for them, that God lifted the curse.

Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. – Genesis 20:17 ESV

Think about the irony of that moment. The man who had continually doubted God’s ability to provide him a son through his barren wife was praying for God to heal the barren women of Gerar. And God heard and answered that prayer. What a powerful lesson this must have been for Abraham and Sarah. God has just rejuvenated the wombs of an entire city of barren women. So, could He not do the same for Sarah? And, as the next chapter will reveal, that is exactly what God was preparing to do.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Mask of Zoar

12 Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. 13 For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” 14 So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up! Get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

15 As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” 16 But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. 17 And as they brought them out, one said, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.” 18 And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords. 19 Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die. 20 Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” 21 He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. 22 Escape there quickly, for I can do nothing till you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar. Genesis 19:12-22 ESV

As the crowd of blinded deviants groped helplessly outside Lot’s door, his angelic guests warned him of the seriousness of the situation. They wanted him to know that the most pressing problem he faced was not his sex-crazed neighbors but the wrath of a holy God.

“…we are about to destroy this city completely. The outcry against this place is so great it has reached the Lord, and he has sent us to destroy it.” – Genesis 19:13 NLT

Despite Abraham’s aggressive negotiation efforts and God’s promise to spare the city for the sake of 10 righteous residents, destruction was coming. The moral situation in Sodom was so bad that there was less than half that number of righteous individuals living in the city.

The angels ordered Lot to gather his family and prepare to leave the city before the wrath of God fell. It is interesting to note that they posed this command in the form of a question.

“Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. – Genesis 19:12 ESV

As messengers of God, they would have known exactly who was on the divine list of designated survivors. Yet, they give Lot an opportunity to choose those whom he would consider worthy of salvation. And Lot included the two Sodomite men to whom he had betrothed his daughters. Considering Moses’ earlier revelation that “the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:13 ESV), and that “the men of the city…to the last man, surrounded the house” (Genesis 19:4 ESV), it is difficult to believe that Lot’s two son-in-laws-to-be were righteous. And when he attempted to warn them of God’s pending judgment, they refused to take him seriously.

As the morning sun broke over the horizon, the angels pleaded with Lot to take his wife and two daughters and escape for their lives. For the second time, they warned Lot of the looming judgment of God. The entire city and all its inhabitants were to be completely destroyed. “But he lingered” (Genesis 19:16 ESV). Consider the gravity of that three-word sentence. And to truly appreciate its implications, one must take into account their meaning in Hebrew. The word “lingered” is מָהַהּ (māhah), and it carries the idea of reluctance or doubtful hesitation. This wasn’t a case of Lot delaying his exit so he could pack another bag. It’s almost as if he too found the words of his two guests to be a bit hyperbolic and overblown. Or perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to believe that God would actually destroy all his friends and neighbors. But whatever his reasons, Lot’s hesitation revealed a reluctance to obey the word of the messengers.

So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. – Genesis 19:16 ESV

Once again, consider the implications of that sentence. In the face of divine judgment, Lot hesitated. He couldn’t bring himself to accept the gravity of the moment or the veracity of the warning. So, in His mercy, God had the two angels drag Lot and his family out of Sodom. We’re not told how the angels managed to navigate their way through the city streets undetected and unmolested. But there is a hint of the miraculous in this scene. And for the Jewish audience to whom Moses had written this book, the salvation of Lot would have reminded them of the liberation of their ancestors from Egypt.

When Moses declares that the angels “brought him out,” he uses the Hebrew word יָצָא (yāṣā’), which means “to bring out” or “to lead out.” It is the very same word that God had spoken to Moses when He delivered His plan to redeem Israel from their captivity.

“Look! The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out (yāṣā’) of Egypt.” – Exodus 3:9-10 NLT

The other word Moses used was יָנַח (yānaḥ), a word that means “to cause to rest.” Lot and his family were led to a place of rest and security – outside the city walls and away from the pending judgment of God. They had been delivered from imminent danger and destruction and awarded with redemption and rest.

Standing outside the gates of the city, Lot found himself in a strange predicament. One doesn’t get the impression that he felt a sense of peace or rest. He had just packed up his belongings, dragged his wife and two daughters out of their home, and was now facing an uncertain future. And, once again, the angels were forced to deal with Lot’s continued reluctance to leave Sodom behind.

“Run for your lives! And don’t look back or stop anywhere in the valley! Escape to the mountains, or you will be swept away!” – Genesis 19:17 NLT

Their message was crystal clear. Lot was not safe as long as he remained anywhere in the vicinity of Sodom or Gomorrah. He may have been standing outside the gate but he remained well within the impact zone of God’s judgment. Time was running out and it was time for Lot to run for his life. God had done His part by mercifully delivering Lot out of harm’s way. But now Lot needed to leave Sodom behind.

Lot found himself facing the most important decision of his life. He had been saved by God, but now he needed to live out that salvation by taking advantage of the freedom he had been graciously given. His situation is similar to that of every Christ-follower. The apostle Paul provides a powerful admonition that could have proved beneficial to Lot.

…throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. – Ephesians 4:22 NLT

Lot could have used the word of warning that Paul gave to his young protege, Timothy.

Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts. – 2 Timothy 2:22 NLT

But rather than running for the hills, Lot delayed his departure once again by running his mouth. He chose to bargain with his rescuers. Instead of taking their advice and seeking refuge in the mountains, Lot expressed his preference for a less primitive and desolate destination. He had grown accustomed to the city life and feared that exile to the mountain wilderness would be the death of him.

“You have been so gracious to me and saved my life, and you have shown such great kindness. But I cannot go to the mountains. Disaster would catch up to me there, and I would soon die. See, there is a small village nearby. Please let me go there instead; don’t you see how small it is? Then my life will be saved.” – Genesis 19:19-20 NLT

What Lot failed to realize was that the same God who had just rescued him was fully capable of protecting and providing for him in the wilderness. Lot had grown comfortable living in the city, where all his needs could be easily met. He found the thought of returning to his former nomadic lifestyle unappealing and unacceptable. So, he bargained for an alternative landing place. And the angel of the Lord agreed to Lot’s request.

All right,” the angel said, “I will grant your request. I will not destroy the little village. But hurry! Escape to it, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” (This explains why that village was known as Zoar, which means “little place”). – Genesis 19:21-22 NLT

Lot got his wish. But there is a profound lesson to be found in Lot’s little victory. He had chosen a small village as his final destination. He even emphasized its diminutive size. It wasn’t really a city, it was just a small, insignificant village. But there lies the lesson. Through his bargaining to escape to Zoar, Lot was relegating himself to a life of insignificance. In Hebrew, the name, Zoar, comes from a root word that means “to be brought low, to grow insignificant.” By choosing Zoar over the mountains, Lot was dooming himself to irrelevance. By refusing God’s will for his life, Lot would never experience the power and provision of God for his life. To Lot, the mountains had appeared unattractive and foreboding. But the little village of Zoar seemed to offer just enough of the pleasures and comforts he had grown to love and appreciate. But God’s people were not meant to live lives of insignificance in Zoar. And it would be just a matter of time before Lot learned the painful reality of that truth.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Nothing Is Too Hard For God

1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” Genesis 18:1-15 ESV

This next encounter between God and Abraham took place not long after Abraham had been given a new name from God, as well as instructions to institute the rite of circumcision. Abraham had also received a divine confirmation that Sarah, his wife, would bear him a son, and God had been very specific about the timing.

“I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” – Genesis 17:21 ESV

When God made this commitment to Abraham, Sarah had been nowhere in sight. And there seems to be no indication that Abraham ever shared this good news with his barren wife. In fact, when Abraham had heard this promise from God, he had laughed to himself in disbelief.

“How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old? – Genesis 17:17 NLT

But rather than punish Abraham for his doubt and disbelief, God simply restated His intentions for Sarah to give birth to a son, and He even provided a name for this miracle baby: Isaac. Yet, not long after Abraham received God’s promise of an heir, and after he and the male members of his household had healed from their circumcisions, God visited him again.

Abraham was still living in the region of Hebron, by the oaks of Mamre. This was the spot where he had settled after he and his nephew Lot had parted ways (Genesis 13:14-18). On that occasion, Abraham had attempted to settle a dispute between himself and Lot by allowing his nephew to choose any of the land of Canaan for himself. As a result, Lot had chosen the well-watered Jordan Valley. But despite Abraham’s generous offer to Lot, God had assured him that all the land would be his.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession.” – Genesis 13:14-15 NLT

In gratitude, Abraham had built an altar, so that he might call on the name of Yahweh. And this very spot would be where Abraham received yet another divine visit and further confirmation concerning God’s intentions to provide him an heir through Sarah.

This time, God appears to Abraham in the form of a theophany, a visible manifestation of His presence, but in human form. As Abraham sat by the door of his tent, he looked up and saw three men in the distance. Due to the isolated nature of his location, visitors would have been a few and far between. And there must have been something that led Abraham to believe that these men were dignitaries of some kind. It is difficult to assess whether Abraham immediately understood this to be a divine manifestation or whether he assumed these to be three men of importance passing through his land. But either way, Abraham went out of his way to welcome them and offer them food and shelter.

“My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.” – Genesis 18:3-5 NLT

What makes this passage so fascinating is the way the conversation is recorded by Moses. It is clear that there are three men. And as Abraham converses with them, it appears as if all three speak in unison. When Abraham offered to provide them with water and food, the text reads, “So they said, ‘Do as you have said’” (Genesis 18:5 ESV). A few verses later, Moses records another question that seems to come from all three men: “They said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife’” (Genesis 18:9 ESV). And yet, in the very next verse, Moses records a statement that he attributes to the Lord.

The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” – Genesis 18:9 ESV

It seems that this trio of visitors was made up of the Angel of the Lord and two other angelic beings. There are many who believe this Angel of the Lord was actually a Christophany, a manifestation of the pre-incarnate Christ. But there is no way to prove this with any certainty. But Moses seems to be indicating that all three of these visitors spoke on behalf of God and had full authority to act as His agents. At what point Abraham discerned their divine status is difficult to ascertain.

After greeting his guests and offering them his hospitality, Abraham entered his tent and ordered Sarah to prepare food. Then he instructed one of his servants to slaughter and cook a calf. When the food was ready, Abraham served his guests but did not join them. He treated them with utmost dignity and honor, refusing even to recline at the table with them. But as he stood nearby watching them eat, Abraham was probably a bit surprised when they asked the whereabouts of Sarah. He must have been shocked that these strangers knew his wife’s name. But he simply replied that she was in the tent. At this point, Abraham heard those very familiar words, “I will return to you about this time next year, and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!” (Genesis 18:10 ESV). It was probably at this point that Abraham recognized the divine nature of his visitors. Those were the very same words God had spoken to him just days earlier.

So, why was God making a special point to reiterate this promise yet again? The rest of the verse provides the answer.

Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent. – Genesis 18:10 NLT

Sarah was eavesdropping. Her curiosity had gotten the best of her and she couldn’t resist the temptation to hear what was going on between her husband and these three visiting dignitaries. But what she overheard left her incredulous. She had no idea who these men were, but she found the content of their news to be not only highly improbably but totally impossible. And Moses records why.

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. – Genesis 18:11 NLT

It seems apparent that Abraham had not shared with Sarah the previous promise he had received from God. Perhaps he knew her well enough to know that she would not take the news well. For Sarah, who had waited decades to experience the joy of childbirth, any promise that she might finally bear a son would ring hollow and be nothing more than another painful reminder of her helpless and hopeless condition. So, when she heard the words spoken outside the folds of her tent, she mirrored the response of her own husband. She treated this too-good-to-be-true news with disbelief and scorn.

“How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” – Genesis 18:12 NLT

Sarah was 90-years-old and her body was well beyond the point of being able to conceive a child. Over the years, she and Abraham had faithfully attempted to get pregnant, but with no success. It was painfully clear that she was barren and incapable of ever having a child. That was the reason behind her decision to give her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate or stand-in. She had hoped that this might be an acceptable workaround to God’s seemingly failed promise to provide Abraham with an heir.

But here was God restating His commitment to do things His way – despite Sarah’s well-reasoned doubts and the seemingly impossible odds that were stacked against her and Abraham. They were old, but God was powerful. The outlook looked grim, but God was great. The prospect of Sarah becoming pregnant appeared impossible, “but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). And that is exactly what God communicated to Sarah as she hid behind the folds of her tent and cowered behind fears and doubts of her heart.

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, ‘Can an old woman like me have a baby?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord.” – Genesis 18:13-14 NLT

Notice that the Lord addressed Abraham and not Sarah. God had overheard her response, but He addressed His question to her husband. It is almost as if God was holding Abraham responsible for his wife’s incredulity and insolence. He had failed to pass on God’s earlier promise and had left his wife struggling with doubt and disbelief. Abraham’s confidence in God’s word had not been strong enough to convince him to tackle his wife’s lingering apprehension and uncertainty.

Like Adam, who stood by and watched his wife succumb to the temptation of the serpent in the garden, Abraham had allowed his wife to wallow in her pity and self-doubt. Rather than encouraging her to trust in the faithfulness of God, he had withheld the promise of God, and her resentment and refusal to believe withered like her womb. Her faith had become as impotent as her body. She had allowed her doubts to turn to disbelief and her disbelief, if left unchecked, would eventually turn to disobedience. And God was holding Abraham, her husband, responsible.

Sarah, still believing that she was hidden from view within the confines of her tent, denied the accusation that she had laughed. She refused to acknowledge her doubt and disbelief. But the all-knowing, all-seeing God refuted her claim and declared, “No, but you did laugh” (Genesis 18:15 ESV). God knew and He understood. He was well aware of Sarah’s physical disability and fully cognizant of the paralyzing disbelief it had produced. Her infertility had produced incredulity. But God wanted her to know that neither her barrenness nor her disbelief would prove too difficult for Him to overcome.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Walking With and Waiting On God

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him. Genesis 17:15-27 ESV

This has proven to be a momentous day for the 99-year-old Abram. His most recent encounter with God has resulted in him receiving a new name and the newly established rite of circumcision. No longer will Abraham be allowed to live his life as he sees fit, simply waiting for God to come through and fulfill His covenant commitments. This entire chapter reveals God’s determination that Abram and his descendants will be expected to live their lives in keeping with their status as His chosen people. God has assured Abraham time and time again that He will be faithful to fulfill His covenant promises. Now, God demands that Abraham conduct his life in a manner that displays his set-apart status. And as a not-so-subtle reminder, God commanded Abraham and his male descendants to seal their commitment with the costly and painful “sign” of circumcision. This “visible” sign would be hidden and unknown by everyone except the one who bore it and the all-seeing God who had ordered it. Only a man’s parents, his wife, and Yahweh would know whether he had been circumcised.

This hidden sign helps explain God’s earlier command to Abraham: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1 ESV). God was giving Abraham and his male descendants a sign that would be virtually invisible to all. Yet, God would know. His all-seeing eyes would be able to tell if a man had chosen to live a blameless or upright life, wholly committed to God’s will and ways.

On that very same day, God informed Abraham that his wife Sarai would receive a new name as well. She would now be called Sarah. Both names mean “princess,” so it would appear that God altered the spelling of her name to signify a break with the past. Things were going to be different from this point forward. And God confirms this new future by assuring Abraham of Sarah’s role in His plan to bless the nations.

“I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” – Genesis 17:16 ESV

God had always intended for Sarah to be the “princess” who would become the “queen mother” of a great nation. Despite her old age and barrenness, God was going to bless her and make her fruitful.

But this “good news” was difficult for Abraham to accept. While he seemed to believe that God could provide him with more descendants than there are stars in the sky, he couldn’t see how Sarah would play a role in making it happen. And, as he reverently bowed before the Lord, he silently scoffed, saying, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17 ESV). For Abraham, God’s promise was believable, but it was His plan that was questionable. And this is when he reveals his stubborn belief that the son Hagar had born to him would be a more logical alternative.

“Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” – Genesis 17:18 ESV

Abraham was campaigning for Ishmael, and attempting to convince God that Sarah’s Plan B was not only workable but preferable. Abraham was asking God to alter His plan and bless the son Hagar had already delivered, rather than hopelessly waiting for the son Sarah seemed incapable of bearing. But God would have none of it, and He delivered His firm and unwavering ultimatum to Abraham.

“No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. – Genesis 17:19 ESV

Sarah’s old age was not going to be a problem for God. Her barrenness would not stand in the way of the all-powerful, sovereign God of the universe. The God who created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), would have no trouble producing a child from an elderly woman with a barren womb. This would be a miracle child who would be the key to God fulfilling His supernatural plan for mankind’s redemption.

God confirms that Ishmael will be fruitful and produce many nations. But he would not be the son of the covenant. That privilege was reserved for the child that had not yet been conceived or born. But that child already had a name: Isaac. And, throughout the rest of his life, every time Abraham heard that name, he would receive a painful reminder of that day when he scoffed at God’s promise of a son through Sarah. Isaac’s name means “he laughs,” and God would use the birth of this child to turn Abraham’s derisive laughter into heartfelt expressions of joy and delight.

God made it clear that Isaac, the son not yet born, would be the one through whom the covenant promise would be fulfilled.

“I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” – Genesis 17:19 ESV

And God assured Abraham that Sarah would miraculously deliver this son within a year’s time. God committed Himself by putting it on the calendar. And then He departed. So, for the next 12 months, Abraham was going to have to wait and see if God would do what He said He would do. And each day, Abraham would be faced with the unwavering reality that not only were he and Sarah growing older but that her barrenness remained. It seems logical to assume that, during that 12-month delay, Abraham and Sarah would have continued to try and produce a son. But month after month would pass without any change in their circumstance. And as time passed, their doubt and despair would have intensified. That year would have passed by with excruciating slowness, and all Abraham and Sarah could do was worry and wait.

But Moses reveals that Abraham obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males in his household. And he points out that Abraham underwent the rite at the age of 99. Even Ishmael, the son of an Egyptian maidservant, was circumcised at the age of 13. The doubter was still diligent to do what God had commanded him to do.

That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.” – Genesis 17:26-27 ESV

For the next year, Abraham, Sarah, and the members of their household would be expected to walk before God and be blameless. But as Thomas L. Constable makes clear, “Blameless does not mean sinless but with integrity, wholeness of relationship. God requires a sanctified life of those who anticipate His promised” (Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis). Over the next 12 months, other sons would be born into Abraham’s household. His slaves and servants would bear sons, and each of them would need to be circumcised. And every time a child was born and underwent the rite of circumcision, Abraham and Sarah would receive a painful reminder that they remained barren and childless. Their integrity would be challenged. Their faith in God’s promise would be tested. And with each passing day, His call to walk in wholeness of relationship with Him, despite their doubts and despair, would become increasingly difficult to obey.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

God of the Impossible

And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”  Genesis 15:7-21 ESV

Abram “believed the Lord” (Genesis 15:6 ESV). In other words, he trusted that God would fulfill the promise He had made. Abram’s attempt to number the stars in the night sky had been quickly followed by God’s bold assertion, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 ESV).  And Abram had taken God at His word.

Then, after declaring His plan to give Abram innumerable descendants, God reiterated His promise to provide Canaan as their future homeland.

“I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” – Genesis 15:7 ESV

God was simply reminding Abram of the promise that He had earlier made.

“Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 NLT

But while Abram believed that God could and would fulfill those promises, he was still filled with apprehension and nagging doubts. As a finite human being, he couldn’t help but look at the circumstances surrounding his life and wonder how God was going to pull off what appeared to be an impossible feat. From Abram’s limited perspective, it appeared as if the odds were against him. He was old and his wife was barren. And, while he had successfully defeated the armies of the four kings of Mesopotamia, he knew the land of Canaan was occupied by more nations than he could ever hope to defeat with his small militia. In fact, God would even accentuate the impossible odds that Abram faced when He later declared, “To your offspring I will give this land…the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:19-21 ESV). 

That’s a formidable list of potential foes that will have to be defeated before Abram can occupy the land. And, according to Genesis 14:14, Abram had only 318 trained fighters at his disposal. The deck was stacked against him. And add to that the problem of Sarai’s infertility, and it is no wonder that Abram had questions for God.

“O Sovereign Lord, how can I be sure that I will actually possess it?” – Genesis 15:8 NLT

Abram needed proof. It wasn’t that he no longer believed God, it was just that he desperately needed a tangible sign to help fortify and solidify his belief. Abram’s struggle was normal and natural, and he was not the only God-follower who needed a sign to bolster their faith. Moses, the man who was recording the life of Abram, knew what it was like to struggle with doubts. When he had received his call to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, Moses had declared his doubts that the people would believe he had been sent by God.

“What if they won’t believe me or listen to me? What if they say, ‘The Lord never appeared to you’?” – Exodus 4:1 NLT

In response, God told had Moses to take his shepherd’s staff and throw it on the ground. When Abram obeyed, the staff transformed into a snake. Then, God told Moses to pick the snake up by the tail. Once again, Moses did as he was told.

So Moses reached out and grabbed it, and it turned back into a shepherd’s staff in his hand.” – Exodus 4:4 NLT

This “sign” was meant to provide Moses with faith and it was to serve as proof to the people of Israel that Moses had been sent by God.

“Perform this sign,” the Lord told him. “Then they will believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—really has appeared to you.” – Exodus 4:5 NLT

Belief and unbelief can actually coexist at the same time. And nowhere is this idea better illustrated than in the gospel of Mark. He records an encounter between Jesus and a man whose son was possessed by a demon. In Jesus’ absence, the disciples had attempted to cast out the demon but had failed. So, Jesus asked the father how long the boy had been possessed. To which the father replied, “From childhood…it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:21-22 NLT). This man was desperate. He wanted to see his boy set free from this devastating and life-threatening disorder. And he hoped that Jesus might be able to do what the disciples had failed to do.

While the man had sought out the rabbi from Nazareth, believing that He had the power to heal and cast out demons, Jesus sensed the man’s lingering doubt. In earshot of the man, the disciples, and the rest of the crowd that had assembled, Jesus declared, “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23 NLT). To which the father immediately responded, “I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24 NLT).

This honest statement from a grieving father represents the heart cry of every child of God. Saddled by a finite perspective and equipped with a faith that is burdened down by a sinful nature that is predisposed to doubt and disobey God, every believer finds himself struggling with unbelief. But God the Father, just like God the Son, is always willing to bolster unbelief. And so, rather than chastising Abram for his request for a sign, God patiently and powerfully obliged His reluctant servant.

But God didn’t simply perform a miracle like He had with Moses. Instead, He involved Abram in the process, by ordering him to gather “a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9 NLT). After checking off all the items on his God-ordained shopping list, Abram brought the animals to God and proceeded to prepare them for sacrifice.

God was commanding Abram to prepare a covenant ceremony. This would have been a common occurrence in Abram’s day that was meant to seal a bilateral covenant between two parties. The animals were killed then split down the middle. The two halves were then separated, forming a pathway between them. To seal their agreement, the two parties would walk together between the lifeless bodies of the sacrificed animals, signifying their commitment to remain faithful to the covenant agreement or face the same fate as the animals. It was a blood covenant.

But after completing his assignment, Abram had to spend the next hours fending off the birds of prey that were attempting to consume the carcasses of the sacrificed animals. Exhausted by the effort, Abram eventually fell asleep. His attempts to drive off the “unclean” scavengers proved too much for him. And this failure to preserve the sacrifice was meant to reveal Abram’s complete dependence upon God. As Abram slept, “a terrifying darkness came down over him” (Genesis 15:12 NLT). Even in his unconscious state, Abram sensed a feeling of dread. Something terrible was about to happen. He had fallen asleep with the disturbing image of the dismembered animals being attacked by ravenous birds seared in his brain. And this seemed to conjure up a foreboding sense of dread.

“…Abram driving off the birds of prey from the dismembered pieces portrays him defending his descendants from the attacks of foreign nations. Genesis itself tells of a number of attacks by foreigners against the children of Abraham and it already looks forward to the sojourn in Egypt.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis

In the midst of Abram’s fitful and fearful sleep, God spoke to him, affirming that his feelings of dread were well justified. There were difficult days in store for His descendants. God’s fulfillment of the promise to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants would be delayed by a seeming tragedy.

“You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. – Genesis 15:13 NLT

This was probably not the sign Abram had been seeking. It only seemed to confirm his lingering doubts and fears about the promises of God. But God followed this dose of bad news with a confident assurance of a glorious outcome.

But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.” – Genesis 15:14-16 NLT

God was letting Abram know that His plans and His promise were long-term in nature, and their fulfillment was not up to Abram. In fact, as Abram slept, God ratified the covenant between them. In a normal covenant ceremony, both parties would have walked together between the carcasses, forming a bilateral agreement. But this covenant was unilateral in nature. When the sun went down and darkness descended on the land, “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Genesis 15:17 ESV). The presence of God, symbolized by smoke and fire, passed along the pathway and ratified the covenant. God was holding Himself accountable to keep the covenant He was making with Abram and his descendants. And this imagery of smoke and fire would become a recurring theme for the Israelites as God led them from Egypt to the promised land by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day (Exodus 13:21).

God gave Abram a glimpse into the future. And while it would have its fair share of dark days, Abram could rest in the knowledge that God was in full control of the outcome. It would all happen according to His sovereign will and by virtue of His unwavering faithfulness. None of it hinged on Abram’s faith. God was going to do what He promised to do. His plan was perfect and infallible. The promise of a seed and an inheritance would be fulfilled, whether Abram believed or not. The covenant ceremony was intended to assure Abram that the outcome was completely up to God, and He would not disappoint. Yes, the future would be filled with dark days and disappointing setbacks, but they were all part of God’s plan. A barren wife, a 400-year delay, and the presence of powerful foes would not be enough to thwart the plans of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Promise Maker

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15-1-6 ESV

Abram has just received a blessing from Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God.

Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Creator of heaven and earth. – Genesis 14:19 NLT

Sometime after his encounter with the king-priest Melchizedek, God provided his servant with a confirmation and explanation of that blessing in the form of a vision. The Most High God referred to Himself as Abram’s shield or protector. In the same way that Abram had protected and delivered his nephew Lot during his time of captivity, God would be Abram’s defender and deliverer. And while Abram had turned down the king of Sodom’s offer of all the plunder taken from Sodom, he could be certain that God would reward him with something of far greater value.

One of the questions this passage raises is why God opened up His address to Abram with the words, “Fear not.” What was it that Abram feared? Some believe that, upon receiving an unexpected vision of the Most High God, Abram was filled with fear and awe. This would have been a normal and natural reaction to such an encounter with God. When Moses was given a vision of God in the form of a burning bush, “he hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6 ESV).

But based on the context of chapter 14, it makes more sense to see Abram’s fear as horizontal in nature, rather than vertical. Due to his victory over the four Mesopotamian kings, Abram had just made himself some powerful enemies. Not only that, by displaying his military might, he had inadvertently placed a target on his back. Whether he liked it or not, he was the new sheriff in town and everyone would be gunning for him. Abram was essentially a shepherd and not a warrior, and the thought that his enemies might seek retribution on him and his household was keeping him up at night. So, God assured his fearful servant that he had nothing to worry about. Abram could rest in the knowledge that God would protect and provide for him. It is the same message that God would give to Abram’s descendants centuries later.

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10 NLT

Abram’s response to God’s words of comfort and encouragement is less than confident.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” – Genesis 15:2 NLT

With this statement, Abram reveals that his greatest fear was that of failure. He knew that God had promised to bless him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the words God had spoken when he was still living in Haran.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2-3 ESV

Abram had been 75-years-old when God made that promise. And now, years later, he had only grown older and his wife’s fertility problem had not improved. All the way back in Genesis 11:30, Moses had disclosed the sad state of Sarai’s reproductive health: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”

All of these factors weighed heavily on Abram’s mind. Based on the circumstances, he could see no way that God’s promise could ever come to fruition. Abram had resigned himself to the fact that one of his household servants would end up as his heir. He informed God about the desperate nature of his situation and even blamed Him for it.

You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:3 NLT

It appears that Abram was growing impatient. During his time in the land of Canaan, he had seen his financial prospects improve. He had grown rich and his herds had grown in number. And here was God promising to shower him with further rewards. But what difference would it make if he had no one to whom he could leave his great wealth?

It’s not difficult to ascertain how Abram had assessed his situation and come up with a possible solution. He had given up on Sarai ever giving birth to a son, and had assumed that they would end up adopting one of their household servants as their son and making him the rightful heir to their estate. There had probably been a time when Abram had believed Lot, his nephew, would be the logical choice. But there had been a fallout between the two of them. So, at this point, Abram had determined that his heir would end up being Eliezer of Damascus.

What is ironic about Abram’s conclusion is that Eliezer’s name means “God is help.” Yet, it would appear that Abram was the one who was attempting to help God. He was offering God a logical solution to the whole fruitlessness problem. Abram was willing to settle for less. He was willing to accept a foreign-born “member” of his house as his heir rather than wait on God to do the impossible. But God had other plans. He was not going to compromise. And Sarai’s barrenness was not going to be a problem. So, God gently but firmly broke the news to Abram.

“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” – Genesis 15:4 NLT

In essence, God said, “Thanks for the tip, but no!” The Creator-God didn’t need Abram’s help or advice. If anything, Eliezer’s presence in Abram’s house was meant to be a constant reminder that “God is help.” Eliezer wasn’t intended to be the solution. No, every time Abram said Eliezer’s name, it should have reminded him that God was the solution. And to stress the miraculous nature of His promise, God took Abram outside and told him to “look up into the sky and count the stars if you can” (Genesis 15:5 NLT). Then, as Abram stood staring up into the night sky, overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars, God boldly proclaimed, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” (Genesis 15:5 NLT).

This was not the first time Abram had heard such an outlandish prediction from God. Earlier, when Abram had separated from Lot, God had assured him that all the land of Canaan would be his and that land would be filled with his descendants.

I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! – Genesis 13:16 NLT

This blessing would not come through Eliezer or any other substitute. God had promised to give Abram a son, and He was well aware of Sarai’s barrenness. In fact, as the sovereign God of the universe, her barrenness had been part of His plan all along. The improbability and impossibility of it all had been baked into the cake. God wanted Abram to understand that everything about this promise would be miraculous and supernatural.

And then Moses adds a somewhat surprising conclusion. Despite all of Abram’s former doubts and fears, he “believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith” (Genesis 15:6 NLT). Suddenly, Abram’s mental state went from doubt to assurance. He went from trying to help God out to having hope in God’s promise. His confidence in God grew deeper and richer.

It’s interesting to note that Abram had always believed that God would give him an heir. His doubts had been focused on the means by which God would fulfill that promise. He had been hung up on Sarai’s barrenness. That’s why he had come up with what he believed to be an acceptable and logical alternative solution. But now, his belief focused in on the power of God to accomplish the impossible. He went from believing in the promise to believing in the God who made the promise. And there is a huge difference.

In the great “Hall of Faith” found in chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, the author states, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). Abram was learning that his faith in God was the key to the promise of God. That does not mean that faith is what determines our reward, but that faith or belief in God is the means by which we appropriate the promises of God. We have to believe, trust in, and place our confidence in the God behind the promise.

The author of Hebrews goes on to explain how Abram displayed faith in God. And he describes how Abram’s faith developed and deepened over time until it influenced even his wife, Sarai.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. – Hebrews 11:8-12 ESV

Moses declares that God counted or credited Abram’s faith as righteousness. Abram was justified or made right with God because he chose to believe and trust, not only in the promises of God but in the God behind the promises. Abram had transferred his hope in the promise to the divine promise maker. And the author of Hebrews goes on to point out that faith in the God of the promise is what sets His people apart. Whether a child of God ever sees the promise fulfilled in their lifetime, they will continue to trust in the word and reliability of the promise maker.

All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. – Hebrews 11:39 NLT

Abram would eventually see a son born to his barren wife. But he would never own any land in Canaan. He would never live to see the day when his descendants, as numerous as the stars in the sky, would occupy that land. But he would continue to believe that His God was good and could be trusted to do what He promised, whether Abram lived to see it or not. That is the essence of faith.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Short Journey from Doubt to Disobedience

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. Genesis 3:1-7 ESV

With the opening of chapter three, the story takes a sudden and decidedly dark turn. The preceding chapter ended with the first marriage ceremony, officiated over by God Himself, as He joined together as “one flesh,” the man and woman He had created. It had been an idyllic scene, as Adam welcomed his new wife.

“At last!” the man exclaimed.

“This one is bone from my bone,
    and flesh from my flesh!
She will be called ‘woman,’
    because she was taken from ‘man.’” – Genesis 2:25 NLT

And Moses ended that chapter by noting that “the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25 NLT). They enjoyed a relationship built on innocence, transparency, and complete trust. They were just as God had intended them to be and, together, they enjoyed the bountiful and beautiful environment He had prepared for them. Yet, their state of unadulterated innocence and intimacy was about to change – forever.

One day, as Eve walked in the garden, she was confronted by one of the other “living creatures.“ In a scene straight out of a Harry Potter novel, Eve is confronted by a beautiful and particularly beguiling serpent. Surprisingly, Eve does not seem to be shocked at the creature’s capacity to speak. Due to her recent arrival on the scene, Eve may have not yet interacted with any of the other animals, so she would have been unaware that the capacity of speech was solely restricted to humans. The fact that the serpent spoke to her does not seem to surprise her. But the words that come from the mouth of the serpent will have life-altering implications.

It is interesting to note the wordplay that takes place between verse 25 of chapter two and verse 1 of chapter three. In Hebrew, the word for “naked” is עָרוֹם (ʿārôm), and the word used to describe the craftiness of the serpent is עָרוּם (ʿārûm). Moses, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, uses these two words to differentiate between Eve, the innocent protagonist, and the serpent, the clever and cunning antagonist. The serpent is going to make a full-frontal assault on the child-like innocence and inexperience of Eve.

But before preceding, we have to address the issue of the serpent’s identity. Was this just another snake in the garden? It would seem that the answer is no. This serpent displayed the capacity to reason and speak. Moses describes it as being “more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1 ESV). This statement could indicate that the serpent was not one of God’s creations. Then where did it come from? Most biblical scholars agree that the serpent was a manifestation of Satan himself. The prophet Ezekiel describes Satan as being in Eden.

You were in Eden, the garden of God;
    every precious stone was your covering,
sardius, topaz, and diamond,
    beryl, onyx, and jasper,
sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle;
    and crafted in gold were your settings
    and your engravings.
On the day that you were created
    they were prepared.
You were an anointed guardian cherub.
    I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God;
    in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.
You were blameless in your ways
    from the day you were created,
    till unrighteousness was found in you. – Ezekiel 28:13-15 ESV

And Ezekiel describes the ignominious fall of this “anointed guardian cherub” who had been “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12 ESV).

Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
    you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.
I cast you to the ground;
    I exposed you before kings,
    to feast their eyes on you. – Ezekiel 28:17 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah provides further insights into Satan’s epic fall from grace.

“How you are fallen from heaven,
    O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
    you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
    ‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
    I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
    in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.’” – Isaiah 14:12-14 ESV

Satan, desiring to be as God, had led an angelic insurrection against the Almighty. But his attempt to overthrow and replace God had failed and he was cast down to earth. In the book of Revelation, John provides an apt description of this former ministering angel. He refers to him as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9 ESV). Jesus described Satan as “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44 ESV). With this statement, Jesus seems to indicate Satan’s role in the fall. He played the part of the deceiver, using lies and half-truths to persuade Adam and Eve to rebel against God. And Jesus went on to explain that Satan “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44 ESV).

It seems clear that the serpent was merely a tool, a deceptive prop in the hands of Satan. It could be that Satan even disguised himself in the guise of a serpent in order to infiltrate the garden and catch the unsuspecting Eve off guard. The apostle Paul, when calling the false teachers who were deceiving local congregations, he described them as “deceitful workman, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13 ESV). Then, he went on to explain the source of their deception.

And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. – 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 ESV

It doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to consider Satan as disguising himself as a serpent. In that form, he was able to approach Eve and raise questions about the integrity and trustworthiness of God. He may have been cast down, but he had not yet given up his desire to replace God. This time, he chose to attack God’s chosen image-bearers in an effort to dissuade them from the kingdom mandate they had been given. And his weapon of choice was deceit, designed to produce doubt, which would eventually lead to disobedience. He began his conversation with Eve by asking a cleverly worded question:

“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” – Genesis 2:1 ESV

He was testing her knowledge and understanding of God’s command concerning the trees of the garden. But he was also subtly encouraging Eve to doubt the integrity of God’s word.

But Eve calmly responded, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Genesis 3:2-3 ESV). But Eve exposed her ignorance of God’s command by adding the inaccurate prohibition against touching the tree. Her answer was only partially correct, and this opened the door to Satan’s next salvo.

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 ESV

With this one statement, Satan planted the seeds of doubt that would soon spring forth into full-grown disobedience. He blatantly refuted the word of God by declaring that eating the fruit of the forbidden tree would result in life, not death. He insinuated to Even that God was holding out on them. The Almighty was trying to prevent them from experiencing all that they were meant to be. He asserted that if they actually disobeyed God and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would be like God. In other words, the fruit would give them the capacity to determine right from wrong. They would become autonomous and self-governing. In a sense, they would be like God in that they would be able to determine what was best for themselves. They would no longer have to live by God’s restrictive and repressive rules.

Satan portrayed God as the deceiver. He turned the tables and cast God as the villain in the story. It was Yahweh who was keeping them from enjoying their well-deserved freedom and right to self-determination.

And Eve quickly succumbed to Satan’s tempting ploy. Moses states that “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6 ESV). She immediately experienced what the apostle John would later describe as “a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions” (1 John 2:16 NLT). She fell in love with the fruit and all that it could offer. And she ate. She gave in to the temptation. Not only that, she shared the forbidden fruit with her husband. Yes, Adam was there. He had been the entire time. He had heard the entire conversation between Eve and the serpent and had never spoken up. It had been to Adam that God had given the original warning concerning the tree.

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” – Genesis 2:16-17 ESV

He knew exactly what God had said and should have refuted the lies of the serpent. But, instead, Adam followed his wife’s lead and accepted her offer of the fruit. He too, doubted God’s word and made the fateful decision to disobey God’s command. And the rest, they say, is history. Moses sadly states, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7 ESV). They got exactly what the serpent had promised: Their eyes were opened. But what they saw disturbed them. Rather looking on one another’s innocence, they viewed themselves in the guise of guilt. They had sinned and they knew it. And they immediately tried to cover their nakedness and hide themselves from the all-seeing eyes of God.  

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