Genesis 20 - When Believers Believe the Wrong Beliefs
[NOTE: Due to a technical difficulty, this sermon was not recorded. Below is the manuscript from which the sermon was preached.]
Sermon Text: Genesis 20
In chapters 17 and 18, the LORD promised that in a year’s time, Sarah would have a son in her old age, a son through whom the Story of Redemption would move forward. Chapter 18 in particular presents a high point of Abraham’s faith in the LORD. But now another threat to God’s promise emerges…a threat caused by the patterns of unbelief in the life of Abraham himself!
[Read text and pray.]
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Abraham pulled this trick about 25 years prior when he and Sarah were in Egypt. And apparently, he did it on a semi-regular basis since he says in v. 13 that this was what they did everywhere they went. You see, Abraham was a stranger, a foreigner in the land into which God had led him. So, when God first called Abraham to the land he had no relationships with powerful people to protect him from enemies. He didn’t have close family members on which to rely. He didn’t have the rights of citizenship he could call upon. I’m not saying that his plan was right, but I’m saying I think I understand him. He was afraid and he didn’t feel like he had any support.
What he did have, however, was the friendship of the LORD and God’s promises to him to bless him and protect him and cause him to be a blessing to others. Abraham has seen the LORD’s care for him by protecting him and his family through a famine. The LORD has blessed him so that he has more flocks and herds than the land could handle. The LORD helped him defeat 4 powerful kings who had carried off his nephew Lot. Abraham watched the LORD make a covenant with him saying that if everything did not happen as God said it would, God himself would bear the penalty and curse of a covenant breaker. Abraham saw God’s concern for a slave woman and her child. Abraham experienced the cleansing forgiveness of God in the sign of circumcision. Abraham heard God’s promise of a child from his and Sarah’s own bodies who would keep the story of redemption moving forward. Abraham had every reason to believe the LORD above everything else and the LORD had been working on him so that, increasingly, Abraham’s faith would be directed toward God alone.
But here we see Abraham, in a position similar to 25 years before, following a pattern of unbelief in his life – actually, believing in his own schemes to protect and provide for him over God’s ability to keep him safe and guard his life. He lives under a half-truth presented as the whole truth (which is a whole lie). And under that lie of calling his wife his sister he has grown wealthy and comfortable. Yet his unbelief in God’s ability to save him - no matter the circumstances - remains and leads him to lie again.
What becomes clear is that even in the best of men, the brokenness and the lie that entered human hearts at Adam’s fall is alive and well. Sin is a part of Abraham and it is a part of me and it is a part of you. We know that something is not right in this world, but we believe the lie that the problem lies outside of ourselves. Maybe you believe the lie that life can be made right through your own actions, through your own means – through religious observance or social causes or simply being “a good person.” Or maybe you feel the wrongness of our experience in this world and believe the lie that there is no hope for things to be different and so you despair and look for things to numb the pain or help you escape from it – false relationships or sexual license or food addiction or throwing yourself into work.
But like Abraham’s lies, our efforts to fix or escape life lead to trouble for ourselves and for others. In this case, the lies of Abraham not only threaten his marriage but ultimately the fulfillment of the promises of God. In chapters 17/18 God promised Sarah a son would be born to her about 9 months after this incident. Will another man be able to claim fatherhood instead of Abraham? Will another man be able to claim fatherhood because of Abraham’s lie? We seldom think of how our sins affect our own story, much less how our pursuit of selfish desires affects others.
Look at how Abraham’s sin affected Abimelech. After Abraham and Sarah resort to their old lie, Abimelech seizes an opportunity. When Sarah was taken by Pharaoh in chapter 12, her beauty was the cause. But people don’t just marry for beauty…powerful alliances can be made through marriage. Since her beauty isn’t mentioned here it is possible that Abimelech took Sarah as his wife to cement an alliance between himself and Abraham.
In verses 3-7 we see that whatever his reasons for taking Sarah, Abimelech gets called out by the LORD in a dream for taking the wife of another man.
God makes the seriousness of the situation very clear and gets Abimelech’s attention from the start. He tells Abimelech that he’s a dead man because of taking Sarah. But Abimelech responds just as he ought. See where the conversation goes from there.
Abimelech hasn’t approached Sarah yet to consummate their marriage and so he pleads his innocence in the situation. He was lied to by Abraham and Sarah both! Then he asks a good question…he understands something of righteousness and justice and believes that this God who has visited him works justly. He asks, “Lord (Adoni – not YHWH), will you kill an innocent people? I did this in integrity and innocence!”
And God answered him, “I know. But you should know that the only reason why you didn’t touch her was because I was the one working in you and keeping you from touching Sarah and sinning against me.”
That’s interesting. God stopped Abimelech from sinning … but not Abraham.
Still, God tells Abimelech that now he knows the truth, obedience is the only response if he values breathing. He needs to return Sarah. But God tells him something more. This Abraham, the man who lied to him, is a prophet – one who represents and speaks the words of God himself. Abilmelech needs Abraham to pray for him in order for Abimelech to live.
There are times when unbelievers look much nobler than believers. This is to our shame! And yet the most noble of unbelievers remains in need to the grace that has been shown to the weakest of God’s people. This passage reminds us that our salvation is not from ourselves through moralism or good works or sacrifices made or any such work. Salvation is only by the grace of God. In our time of God’s Story of Redemption we know that his grace has been shown to us in the person of Jesus. And that should humble us. But here we see that it is the will of God for his broken, yet redeemed, people to be a blessing to those who have not yet embraced the LORD for themselves.
Look at how Abimelech responds to his conversation with God. In v. 8 he calls all his servants and tells them everything that happened. And fear overwhelmed all of them. Take note of that.
Then Abimelech calls Abraham and, much like Pharaoh before, takes Abraham to the woodshed for a verbal whipping. “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.” Then Abimelech asks a profound question; one, I believe, that he is asking of God’s prophet. He asks, “What did you see, that you did this thing?”
Abraham’s answer exposes the unbelief in his heart. We’ve already talked about the half-truth/full out lie about calling Sarah his sister. It comes from his fear that the LORD isn’t powerful enough to protect him. But I want us to also note the first reason he gives and hear what is beneath it. He says, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place….’” First, he assumes he understands the people around him, that there’s no way that “these people” could fear God. That fear has already been proven wrong as we saw how deeply afraid Abimelech and his servants were when they heard the message from God. Second, more unbelief is being exposed as Abraham forgot the very heart of his own prayer in chapter 18, a prayer that God loved. Abraham prayed that the LORD would use the people of God as agents of transformation in whatever place the LORD sets them. No matter how evil a place, if the people of God are there, there is hope for that place as the LORD works through His people. Abraham isn’t living in light of that reality. The pattern of unbelief in his heart continues…
Last week, we saw the mercy of God toward a deeply broken Lot, torn between his love of God and his love of a sinful place. And just like with Lot, God is gracious toward Abraham, too. The grace of God isn’t based on anything good in Abraham. In fact, grace is shown in spite of everything Abraham does in this passage!
That’s good news for people like you and me; that no matter what we’ve done, we cannot out-sin the grace of God. Where sin abounds, His grace is super-abundant in Jesus. That’s never an excuse to keep on sinner, of course. Why would we want to hurt our good God like that? But when we sin, we have a God willing to cover our sin and our shame with full forgiveness because of his relationship with us. Abraham experienced the grace of God through the covenant relationship God made with him. We experience the grace and forgiveness of God through the covenant relationship God made with us in Jesus.
Part of God’s grace toward Abraham was exposing his unbelief as sin, which God did through the words of Abimelech. God is not content to leave Abraham in his habits of sin and unbelief. God call him on it and then uses to be a blessing on Abimelech. The compassion of God remains on Abraham and God uses Abraham in His service.
And Abimelech appears to desire the friendship of Abraham, the prophet of God. In v. 14 he goes beyond God’s call to seek Abraham’s prayer for him and Abimelech gives gifts to Abraham. He also publicly declares Sarah’s innocence and honor! And, unlike Pharaoh before him, invites Abraham to remain in his land and live wherever he likes. Even though Abimelech was wronged and even though Abraham blew it at first through his lies, Abimelech understands that Abraham is special to God and that makes Abimelech want to be near to Abraham.
And in the end we see Abraham being what he was supposed to be all along to Abimelech and his people: a blessing. Abraham prays for them like he is supposed to and God hears Abraham’s prayer and answers it. The text says that for Sarah’s sake, the women of Abimelech were barren – the LORD is sovereign over all of life – but when things were restored as they should be the house of Abimelech becomes fruitful once again. As God demonstrates his power here, we’re being prepared for what is about to happen in the Story of Redemption.
As we think about take-aways from this text, we first have to see that unbelief was deeply ingrained in Abraham. There were patterns of life that seemed to change little by his relationship with the LORD.
You and I have our own sin patterns that are a part of our lives. Some are deep and hidden, some are obvious and frustrating, but all flow out of unbelief. Technically speaking, we believe in something, it just so happens that we believe something other than God will rescue us and make life how it ought to be. For Abraham, he believed that if beautiful Sarah was viewed as his sister, then his life would be protected for her sake (with the side benefit of increased wealth). Rather than being honest and entrusting himself to the LORD and rather than relying on God’s promises already made regarding blessing and protection, Abraham believed he could achieve those same goals on his own.
Maybe you believe that the right job or boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse or house or approving words from your friends or educational accolades or (whatever) is going to make life the way it is supposed to be – free from fear or failure or rejection or discomfort. But doesn’t experience already tell you that these things cannot satisfy? The moment you attain the level you desire, you find that there remains another level to exhaust yourself trying to reach. The thing that you though would save your life has actually taken your life from you as the pursuit of the perfect family hit the simple road block of reality and something stands in the way of you being viewed as the perfect mother; your children.
But Jesus is not like our idols, even the good things that we run after to make life right or to bring healing to our wounds. Rather than taking life from us he gives us his own. Rather than deepening our wounds (like an idol does) he heals ours by receiving wounds in his own body. The death of Jesus on the cross was his deepest expression of love for you and for me who struggle to believe him above anything else. As we direct our faith toward Jesus, which itself is a gift from God that we can’t claim as coming from us, we enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ loving sacrifice. By faith alone our sins are forgiven. By grace alone we are restored to a right relationship with the God who made us and in Christ life begins to be renewed to the way things are supposed to be. Yes, sometimes that process seems slow. Yes, sometimes unbelief will rear its head and we always need to be quick to repent. And we need to be quick to redirect our faith away from the things we are running after instead of Jesus. That’s going to be a life-long process. But the good news is that in Jesus, we have forever for it to happen.
One of the beautiful things about this passage is that this is the last time it is mentioned in the Scriptures. As God’s grace covers Abraham, the LORD never brings up Abraham’s shame and disbelief against him. It’s the same for those whose faith is in Jesus. He meets us in our sin and weakness, just like Abraham, and covers our shame. That’s part of what it means in Romans 8 that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Not only is our guilt removed by his death, but our shame is covered as well and God will never use our past, present or future sin against us!
But like with Abraham, there are times where He will expose the sin that is in our hearts. But He does it BECAUSE He loves you! Ligon Duncan said, “Precisely because He loves us, He will not allow our sin to go unexposed because He wants to separate us from that which will destroy us.” We saw how destructive Abraham’s lie nearly was; it nearly cost him his wife and was even a threat to the promises of God! So it was God’s mercy toward him to expose his sin and call him back to the LORD. He may do the same for you, but know that that is actually a good thing, even if it is painful for the moment.
So when you feel accused in your heart, it is not the LORD that accuses you! Christ has removed the curse from us, but also continues (by the Spirit) to convict us of our sin so that we aren’t the same as we were before. We are being transformed…CONFORMED to the image of Christ in holiness and righteousness so that we are enabled to more and more die to sin and live in closeness to God in the way that life works best!
And like Abraham, this transformation through conviction (and repentance and faith) leads us into service. That’s where we often get hung up because we’re so afraid that God didn’t forgive us like He says He did. We live expecting the other boot to drop on to our necks. And that unbelief prevents us from joyfully praying and working for others. Once redeemed, we are freed from fear IN ORDER THAT we might serve God and others. We know who we are. Our identity in Christ is secure. And so we boldly go to work using the gifts God has given us.
And, like Abraham, this is often where we can make some more mistakes. We can often assume we understand what God is doing or will do in a situation, especially when it comes to who can be saved or not. Abraham’s assumption about the hard-heartedness of Abimelech (and his court) was dead wrong. Fear/Pride/Self-protection was rendering Abraham useless in his mission. But God called him on it (through Abimelech) and led him to be a blessing in spite of his failure. Even though Abraham didn’t think he would respond, God was already at work in Abimelech’s heart to make him sensitive to the LORD.
We, too, must be careful about our attitudes toward others. Remember that if it were not for the grace of God that we stand where we do in Christ. Faith, indeed, all of salvation is a gift! What person, or group of people, do you assume the LORD cannot change? Be sensitive here to your own heart. Where is unbelief present? Ask yourself honestly about issues of race or sexual orientation or lifestyle choices that you think are wrong. Is the LORD so weak to you? Rather than assuming there is and never will be the worshipful fear of God in someone’s heart, pray instead that the LORD would be as merciful and forgiving to them as He has been toward you.
The Gospel tells us that both human effort and human despair are false paths because we have a God who has entered into our story and our brokenness. He closes the road of human effort as he says that all of humanity is broken and mere external religion is fruitless. But he also closes the road of hopeless despair as he promises and proves that a new reality is being brought into existence by the resurrection of Christ.
As God worked on Abraham, convicting him of his unbelief (or rather his belief in something other than God to save him – just like Lot in the previous chapter), the LORD was transforming him from a religious person into a person who believes in the LORD and then goes out in that belief into the world in order to be a blessing to the world.
In Christ, God has come to deal with your sin once and for all, to close the roads of self-help and despair, so that you and I could experience the restoration of life as God intended it to be through the work of Jesus – a life of friendship with God and worship of Him; a life of community with other humans and enjoyment of real relationships typified by selfless love rather than selfish competition; a life of service to God and others rather than self.
Pray with me that the LORD would continue in His work on us so that we can live in that Gospel with deep joy and then joyfully go out in love and obedience to Christ.