We’ve been thinking about the story of Abraham for several weeks. And last week, we spent our time on chapter 17 where God once again reminded Abraham of his promise to give him many descendants — nations and kings would come from him — and of his promise to give to Abraham and his descendants the Promised Land of Canaan. But do you remember there was a new detail in what the Lord promised Abraham? God promised Abraham that he would be Abraham’s God and the God of his descendants after him. So, whereas one of his neighbours in the land of Canaan might have said:
My god is Baal.
Abraham and all his descendants after him would be able to say:
My God is the Lord.
And because the Lord is my God, I know I can look to him for all that I need. He will never leave me or forsake me. And he will never give us up, because he has promised on oath to be my God and the God of my descendants after me. And God gave Abraham a sign to confirm his promise. Just as we might sign a contract, and stamp it with a seal to confirm that we agree to all that’s contained in the contract, so the Lord was sealing his promise to Abraham and his descendants. From that day forward, every boy descended from Abraham was to receive circumcision as a sign which reminded them and confirmed to them God’s promise:
I will be your God. I promise it. I swear it.
Well, in verse 1 of chapter 18, we read that the Lord appeared to Abraham once again. Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Perhaps he was dozing as we sometimes do when it’s hot. But when he looked up, he saw three men standing nearby. Who are they? Well, one of them is the Lord. The other two are angels. We know that because that’s what we’re told in verse 1 of chapter 19. The Lord and two angels have come to Abraham. Presumably all three of them have taken the form of a human because there doesn’t appear to be anything remarkable about their appearance and Abraham seems to have assumed they’re just three men, three strangers, who are passing by.
Now, in those days and in that culture, it was important to be a good host and to welcome any guest who came to your home. So Abraham immediately jumped up and invited these three visitors to rest a while and to have something to eat. The strangers agreed and Abraham ran off to arrange the food. And it’s not just a sandwich he’s offering them. Fresh bread is baked. A tender calf is slaughtered and prepared. Curds and milk are brought out. It’s a feast — and all the commentators agree that Abraham was being especially generous. And look at verse 8: While they ate their meal, Abraham stood near them, like a waiter in a restaurant, making sure they had everything they needed. He was standing by, ready to run off and get anything they might need.
So far, then, it’s a fairly normal scene, at least as far as Abraham was concerned. He wasn’t aware of the special identity of his three visitors, and all he was doing was being a generous and welcoming host to three strangers who were passing by his tent. But that’s about to change, because very soon it became clear who these visitors are. And Abraham and Sarah discovered that they’ve been entertaining the Lord and two of his angels.
Well, in what happened next there are really two conversations. One is about the birth of their son. And the second is about what’s about to happen to Sodom. And so let’s look at these two conversations.
A son for Sarah
First of all, look at verse 9. Abraham had been waiting on his guests when they said to him:
Where is your wife Sarah?
And Abraham replied that she was in the tent. Now, why were they interested in Sarah? Why were they asking about her?
Well, think about it. In chapter 12 God promised Abraham that he would have offspring, descendants. In chapter 15, God repeated the same promise to Abraham. He said to him:
You shall have offspring, descendants. You will have so many descendants that they’ll be like the stars in the sky.
Then in chapter 17, the Lord repeated the promise to Abraham. The Lord said says to Abraham:
You will be very fruitful; you’ll have offspring, descendants, nations and kings will come from you.
Three times God repeated the same promise to Abraham. What’s missing? Sarah’s missing. On the three previous occasions, God appeared to Abraham and spoke to him and made the promise to Abraham, but not to Sarah. Sarah wasn’t there.
But now, in chapter 18, God appeared again and asked for Sarah. And hearing that Sarah was in the tent, and therefore able to overhear their conversation, God repeated the same promise again, but this time he repeated it for Sarah’s benefit.
Do you see? Last week we were thinking about why God kept repeating the same promise to Abraham. And I suggested it was to encourage and to re-assure Abraham. After all, 25 years had passed since God first made the promise to Abraham. And that’s a long time to wait for anything. So God kept repeating the promise to Abraham in order to re-assure him and to say to him:
I know it’s been a long time, but I haven’t forgotten my promise to you. I haven’t forgotten.
It’s like a husband saying to his wife on Valentine’s Day or on their Anniversary:
After all these years, I still love you. I’m still committed to you.
But in all that time, poor Sarah had only been hearing the promise second-hand from Abraham. Now, though, in chapter 18, she got to hear it from the Lord himself. The Lord and two of his angels showed up at their tent. And, with Sarah listening in the background, the Lord said:
You will surely have a child by Sarah. You really will. I promise you it will happen.
Do you see the Lord’s kindness? He doesn’t just reveal this thing to Abraham, but also to Abraham’s wife. And isn’t that what Sarah needed to hear? Look at what she said about herself in verse 12: She described herself as ‘worn out’. And we can imagine her looking at her 90 year-old body, thinking about how she had never been able to bear a child, and now it was surely too late for her. And we can imagine the shame she felt, and the sadness and the sorrow over her tired, weary, frail body. And we can hear in her words how she almost loathed herself and she can’t imagine ever feeling pleasure again. Over the years God had spoken to her husband, but not to her. Her husband had been encouraged. Abraham had been re-assured. Abraham had been strengthened. But not her. And as the years went by, she’d got more and more tired and weary.
But look. Now the Lord has come to them one more time, but this time he’s come for Sarah. He wanted to comfort and to re-assure her.
What does this teaches us? That the Lord knows us, each one of us, intimately. He knows us personally. And he knows what we need. He knows when we’re tired and weary. He knows when we’re struggling. He knows when we’re bitter. He knows when we’re disappointed. And he knows how to comfort us and how to console us and how to encourage us.
Have you ever had this experience? Something has happened to upset you or to discourage you. You’re worried about something. And then — right out of the blue — you hear something in church or you read something in the Bible and it’s just what you needed to hear. It’s like a message from God sent directly to you to help you at just that time. You’ve read the same verse a million times before. Or you’ve heard the minister preach from the same passage before. And it’s never had this effect on you before. But suddenly, on this occasion, when you needed it most of all, it comes alive and you think to yourself:
Yes, that’s just what I needed to hear today. The Lord was really speaking to me today from out of his word.
Have you ever had that experience? It’s like a personal note from the Lord, addressed to you in particular, picked out by him and sent to help you. This is the kindness and the wisdom and the gentleness of God who knows each one of us personally and intimately. And he arranges things in such a way that we will hear exactly, exactly what we need to hear at exactly the right moment to help us.
You know, almost every day we get all this junk-mail through the post. Or, whenever I look at my Gmail account, the spam folder is packed with useless messages. Every day, we get all kinds of useless messages. But the Lord knows us perfectly, just as he knew Sarah perfectly. And just as he was able to bring a message to her, so he’s able to give us the message we need from out of his word.
And look: Even though Sarah laughed — because the idea that she would have a son in her old age seemed too good to be true — nevertheless the Lord was still very kind to her. He didn’t rebuke her sharply. He didn’t get angry with her. He simply spoke once again to re-assure her and to remind her that there’s nothing too hard for the Lord.
So, the first conversation is really for Sarah’s benefit. The second one is about Sodom and Gomorrah. In verse 16 Abraham was again being the good host. This time, he was walking out with his guests to see them off on their journey. But then the Lord said in verse 17:
Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?
Presumably he was addressing the two angels with him. But when someone says something like that, you know that they’re about to tell you what’s on their mind. And sure enough, in verse 20 the Lord told Abraham what it was he was thinking. And he referred to the outcry that’s against Sodom and Gomorrah. You know, the people had been so cruel, so wicked, that the cries of their victims had come up to heaven and God had heard them. And he’d seen the sin of the people of Sodom and now he was about to do something about it. He’d come down from heaven to see this wicked place and to put a stop to it.
Now, you’re maybe thinking:
Why does God have to come down to see it? Doesn’t he know already?
And, of course, the answer is yes. God knows everything. He knows how bad the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are. He doesn’t need to come down in order to find out. So why has he come down? Well, maybe because of what happened next, because what happened next is that Abraham began to plead with God on behalf of the people. You see, God was standing with Abraham and he was speaking to Abraham about what he was about to do. And it’s almost as if he was prompting Abraham, and encouraging him and inviting him to intervene on their behalf. And Abraham took the bait and he began to plead with the Lord on their behalf.
So, look at verse 23: It tells us that Abraham approached the Lord. Now, that’s really a technical term. It means he’s approaching the bench. So, he’s like a lawyer, approaching the judge to make a case for the defendant. And his argument was twofold. First of all he asked in verse 23:
Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
He’s saying to God the Judge:
There may be some righteous people in Sodom; some of your people living there. Fair enough that you’re going to sweep away all the wicked ones. But surely it’s not right for those righteous people to suffer with the wicked?
That was the first argument he used. But then the second one is this. Look at verse 24:
What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the 50 righteous people in it?
He was saying to God:
If there are 50 righteous people in the city, will you not save all of the people in this city for their sake?
So, first of all he asked the Lord to spare the righteous. And then he asked the Lord to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous who may be living there. And the Lord agreed. And so Abraham reduced the number by five:
For the sake of 45 righteous people, will you not spare the rest?
And the Lord agreed. So he reduced it by another five:
For the sake of 40 righteous people, will you not spare the rest?
And so it went on, down to 10:
For the sake of 10 righteous people, will you not spare the rest of the city?
Do you see what Abraham was asking? He’s asking the Lord whether it’s possible for the righteousness of some to cover over the unrighteousness of others. Can the goodness of some cover over and make up for the wickedness of the others? And the remarkable thing is that the Lord answered ‘yes’ each time. The Lord loves what’s good and he hates what’s evil, but he was nevertheless willing to spare the evil for the sake of the good. If only there are 10 good people in that city, then he will gladly spare all of them.
And what happened in this chapter points us forward to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it points us forward to the gospel in two important ways.
First all of, in the gospel the perfect righteousness of just one person covers over the unrighteousness of us all. None of us — by ourselves — is right with God. We inherited from Adam a fallen, corrupt, sinful human nature, and day by day we sin against God by disobeying his laws and commandments. When we come to church on Sundays, we must bow before God to confess our sin and our guilt, for we know that during the week even our best deeds are streaked through with sin. And so — by ourselves — we stand before God as guilty sinners, deserving nothing from him but condemnation because we have broken his laws. We’re all lawbreakers. We’re all guilty. Even the best of us.
But Jesus Christ came into the world and he lived the life we ought to have lived: one of perfect obedience to God’s laws. He was just like us; and yet he remained totally sinless unlike us. He was just like us; and he lived the life we ought to have lived — one of perfect obedience to God. And the wonderful thing is that he lived this perfectly obedient life for us. He obeyed God on our behalf. And then he suffered the punishment we ought to have suffered, enduring on the cross the penalty for our sin, suffering in our place God’s curse for our disobedience. And he did it for us, on our behalf, so that we don’t have to suffer it ourselves. And in the gospel, believers are promised that his death paid for our guilt; and our guilt and our shame and our sin is now covered over by what? By his perfect obedience. By his perfect righteousness. In other words, for the sake of just one righteous person, God covers over the unrighteousness and the sin of his people and, instead of punishing us, he forgives us all that we have ever done wrong. By ourselves, we’re still sinners. But when we trust in Jesus Christ, we’re no longer by ourselves. We’re united to Christ, covered by him, so when God looks at us, he doesn’t see our sin and our guilt and our failures. He doesn’t see those things any longer. Instead he sees the perfect goodness and the purity and the obedience of his Son. We’re still sinners, but our sin has been covered over by Christ’s perfect righteousness.
Abraham pleaded with God and asked whether the righteousness of some can cover over the unrighteousness of the rest. But the truth of the matter is that there was not one person in Sodom who was righteous enough. There was Lot, Abraham’s nephew. And we’re told in our Bibles that he was a righteous man. But he wasn’t perfectly righteous. He too was a sinner who needed forgiveness. But in Jesus Christ we discover someone who was completely without sin and whose righteousness is able to cover over all of our sins.
That’s the first way that Abraham points us forward to Jesus Christ in this chapter. But he points us forward to Christ in another way. Abraham was acting, not only like a lawyer, making a case for the people of Sodom. He was also like a priest. And the priest’s role was to intercede for the sake of his people. He was to represent the people before God and to plead with God on behalf of the people. And that’s what Abraham was doing here. He came before God and intervened and interceded for them, asking God to pardon them and to spare them.
And that’s what the Lord Jesus Christ does for us. He’s our Great High Priest, who offered up to God a perfect sacrifice for our sin, when he offered up himself on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And since Jesus Christ our Great High Priest rose from the dead and lives for ever, he now lives for ever to intercede for us before his Father in heaven.
Do you remember how Jesus said to Simon Peter in Luke 22:
Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.
In other words, the Devil wanted to crush Peter and to destroy his faith. And of course, shortly after the Lord said those words, Peter was put under pressure and three times he denied knowing the Lord Jesus. What a failure he proved to be! What a sinner! Just look how he let the Lord down! But after warning Peter that the Devil wanted to sift him like wheat, the Lord added:
But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
That’s the work of our Great High Priest. Satan sifts us. We’re put under pressure. We’re tempted. And we give in. And we sin. Time and time again. And we let the Lord down. But our Great High Priest is praying for us, pleading our cause at God’s right hand, showing God his wounds which have paid for all our sins. And so he ensures that we are forgiven every single one of our sins. And, of course, when he intercedes for us, he’s also asking God to help us, moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, again and again and again so that our faith does not fail and we will finally come to our eternal home.
Abraham pleaded with the Lord on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And Jesus Christ lives for ever and he pleads with his Father in heaven on our behalf, asking the Lord to forgive us and to help us. And so, every day, we ought to remember and to believe that just as Abraham pleaded with the Lord on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, so we have a Great High Priest who is pleading for us. And so, we can expect to receive all the help we need because Jesus Christ our Great High Priest lives for ever to intercede for us.
And since we have the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ living in us, we too have been called to exercise the same calling and to plead with the Lord on behalf of others. Just as Abraham prayed for the people of Sodom, and the Lord Jesus Christ has prayed for us, so we need to intercede for those who do not yet believe and who are under the judgment of God, asking the Father to have mercy on them and to enable them to believe in the Saviour so that they too will be covered with Christ’s righteousness. Not all of us are able to go across the world to be missionaries. And not all of us are preachers. But all of us are able to do what Abraham did, and we can plead with the Lord in our prayers and ask the Lord to have mercy on those who are living in darkness and enable them to repent and to believe the good news, so that they are added to the church and all to the praise of his glorious grace.