Faith to Believe and Intercede: Sunday School Lesson Intro
At the heart of a vibrant, healthy faith is basic communication. God calls us to the essential task of being in ongoing interaction with Him. In fact, the primary means by which any relationship is established and maintained is simple conversation. Relationships are grown through hours of talking.
The life of Abraham exemplifies this emphasis on communication, and sets a standard followed by the other faith heroes of the Bible. After his faith has developed to maturity, God increases His conversation with Abraham to a new level. No longer does Abraham simply listen while God talks. No longer does Abraham feel that he is just following a "voice" somewhere out there. Instead, Abraham is invited into a dynamic relationship where he is allowed to question, contest, and deal with God's terms, perhaps even with a chance of changing God's mind! We see this first in Genesis 15, where Abram finally asks God some tough questions about how exactly this covenant will take place, seeing as how there are no babies in sight and he is already an old man married to an old woman. This was less conversation, however, and more rapid-fire question-and-answer. In chapter 18 the tone of the dialogue has significantly changed, moving to a more mature level. It is here that we learn most directly about intercessory prayer within the lifestyle of faith.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect to these texts for modern Christian readers to make sense of is the nature of prayer itself. When Abraham addresses God, he is doing so in a vision, or to an angel, or to the literal presence of God himself. Therefore, his conversation with God in many ways mirrors any conversation between two people of that time. Since God has expressed Himself definitively in Jesus Christ for all times, we rarely see such experiences of physical conversation with Yahweh today. However, the conversations Abraham has with God still have the power to teach us how to pray. We learn, for instance, that we can be honest and express our feelings. We learn that God can handle our toughest questions. And most importantly, we learn that God passionately desires to be in conversation with us.
I. Faith to welcome God (Genesis 18:1-8)
A primary tenet of salvation is that it takes simple faith to accept Jesus Christ into one's heart. This was the rallying cry of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, as the great Christian leader Martin Luther held up the standard of sola fida—faith alone—for salvation, apart from the works-oriented righteousness of the Roman Church of his day. The truth is not that there is a vast chasm between faith and works, but that faith is the only means by which salvation may be received. From faith flows good works. We see this doctrine clearly represented in the life of Abraham, as his spiritual journey of faith continues to develop.
A. Yahweh strengthens Abraham's faith
"And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground" (Genesis 18:1-2).
There was still more waiting. It must have been slow, painful and excruciating. In chapter 17, Abram received his new name upon believing, and then the covenant of his great offspring was confirmed through the sign of circumcision. Surely that would be the time God would bless him with the news of a son! Instead, he went back home to his tent just as clueless about how exactly this would all play out as he ever had been. Added to this was the ironic reality that his name had been changed to "father of many." Strangers probably chuckled to themselves when they met this prosperous nomad named "father of many" who had no children, save one son born to a handmaiden. But things changed for Abraham when three visitors stopped by.
Abraham had become familiar with appearances of Yahweh. For around 25 years now, God had been stepping onto the scene from time to time to remind Abraham of the original covenant that he was going to make his progeny into a great nation of people. At this point Abraham had seen God's power too often and too closely to doubt God. But the issue of his growing old was front and center in his mind. We know that Abraham was 99 years old in chapter 17 and Sarah was 90 (v. 17). However, an unstated amount of time has transpired since then and they may be much older. Abraham had not forgotten that God had promised him a son, but was his faith weakening?
This time Yahweh mysteriously visited in the form of three men. Even in the initial appearances, Abraham did not likely look at God with his physical eyes, if God can even be seen to begin with. We do not know what Abraham actually saw, if anything. Through the three men, however, Abraham could engage God's messengers physically, which must have been a welcomed change. At this point, more words from God were inadequate. The nomad needed to see and to touch. The fact that Yahweh visited Abraham in the form of three men may also be the first direct reference to the triune nature of God in the Scriptures. Although the word trinity does not appear in either Testament, Christians affirm one God eternally coexistent in three persons. There are hints of this plurality in the Creation narrative, where God says, "Let us make man in our image" (Genesis 1:26; italics added). Here, however, the divine visitation of three figures marks a new milestone in the spiritual journey of Abraham, strengthening his faith.
B. Passionate pursuit of God
"And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat" (Genesis 18:3-8).
We do not know how and when the three men were immediately recognized by Abraham to be Yahweh's messengers, but he wasted no time in reaching out to them. Hospitality was a staple of survival in the nomadic lifestyle, and to refuse hospitality was considered highly insulting. But social graces may not have been the only reason for Abraham's ardor. Perhaps he sensed something greater was at stake.
Abraham was not completely certain about the identity of the men. He suspected they might be departing soon and thus might need the food for nourishment. But he likely hoped otherwise. Perhaps their appearance was different than anyone else he had ever seen. Whatever the case, he instructed Sarah to bake a large amount of bread and then selected his best calf to be prepared by a household servant. In addition, curds and milk were served. This meal was not only financially costly, it was prepared in great haste. Abraham apparently anticipated that something wonderful was going to happen, and he wanted to keep these three mysterious visitors in his tent for as long as possible. Hospitality became a household effort in order to obtain the blessing about to come.
II. Called to believe beyond reason (Genesis 18:9-15)
Hebrews 11:1 teaches that "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (NIV). Faith is not a matter of seeing and believing, but of believing in order to someday see. This is the struggle of genuine Biblical faith, and all believers have known it, especially when the object of our hope seems impossible by human calculations. The faith of Abraham teaches us to never lose faith when hearing from God, even when His word sounds unreasonable or even beyond reason itself. What is laughable at first may wind up being literally true in the end.
A. God's unreasonable word
"And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent. And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women" (Genesis 18:9-11).
At this point, the attention in the story abruptly turns to Sarah. This must have been a strange moment for Abraham, who rather than eating with his visitors was simply standing near them, listening and waiting. He hoped that they would give him the instruction or blessing he needed from God to continue to walk faithfully with Him. Instead, they ask about the whereabouts of Sarah, probably wanting her to be close enough to hear their astounding promise: "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son" (v. 10, NIV).
Scripture is clear that they were delivering the words of Yahweh. However, the nature of these visitors remains in question. Whether they were angels or a physical manifestation of God himself is not important. The words they say were Yahweh's words, just like in the past when God spoke to Abraham without the aid of the three men. Besides, a word this radical had to come from Yahweh—the God of the impossible.
Scientists today can occasionally prescribe fertility treatments that help a woman become pregnant in her 40s, or extremely occasionally in her 50s, but not in her 90s! In the ancient world, which did not have the luxury of modern medical treatments, infertility was a common medical problem, with dire social ramifications. Infertile women were often considered cursed by the gods, and thus were made outcasts. The word from Yahweh was as wild as saying that next year Abraham would be a licensed pilot for an airline company! Such a thing had never been heard of in the world, and it was too much for Sarah to handle.
B. Laughter before faith
"Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? And the Lord said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh" (Genesis 18:12-15).
Until now, Sarah had been waiting patiently at the entrance of the tent, modestly hiding herself but straining to hear the conversation between Abraham and the mysterious visitors. What she heard floored her, so much so that she defied the conventions of hospitality. The notion of this prophecy from the visitors was hilarious to Sarah. Laughter spilled softly from the tent at the thought of it. Her body was worn, and her husband was even older. Or perhaps she laughed at the irony of Yahweh making her wait all of this time to finally give her the pleasure of her heart.
It is strange that although Abraham received this promise from the visitors sent from Yahweh, he was relegated to a secondary position in the story after the promise was announced. Instead, everything focused on the laughter, the disbelief, the disrespect of Sarah. In the face of her behavior, God reiterated the promise again, to ensure no one had heard incorrectly. Sarah—the same elderly, laughing woman in the tent—would birth a son within the next year. After regaining her composure, Sarah was embarrassed and craftily attempted to deny her laughter. Yahweh would have none of it, and the name Isaac, meaning "laughter," would forever remind the Jewish nation of her response that day.
Two principles can be taken from Sarah's behavior in this passage. First, nothing is said of Abraham's reaction, but he apparently did not join in her laughter. Whether he stood in stunned silence, sat down with his face in his hands, or jumped for joy is not known, but God specifically asked him not about his own laughter, but Sarah's. This implies that it was Sarah who had the lack of faith in God's word, not Abraham. Nonetheless, her faith could not prevent the divine plan from coming to pass. God did not need Sarah to believe. Abraham's faith was enough, and Sarah could ride the coattails of this spiritual giant. As Jesus would later say, just a tiny amount of faith is enough to move mountains (Matthew 17:20), and apparently God found at least that much between the two of them.
Second, it is significant that in the spiritual journey of Sarah, laughter comes before faith. The word of God is hilariously good, so good that it always offers a choice between dismissing it as fantasy or jumping out onto the high limbs of faith. As Frederick Buechner has written:
Maybe the most interesting part of it all is that far from getting angry at them for laughing, God told them that when the baby was born he wanted to name him Isaac, which in Hebrew means "laughter." So you can say that God not only tolerated their laughter but blessed it and in a sense joined in it himself, which make it a very special laughter indeed—God and man laughing together, sharing a glorious joke in which both of them are involved. It is perhaps as important to look closely into the laughter of Abraham and Sarah as it is important to look closely into the tears of Jesus (Telling the Truth).
The gospel, whether being proclaimed by Jesus to the world or by the visitors to the family of Abraham, is always almost too good to be true. But the power is in the "almost." For what is impossible with man is possible with God.
III. Faith to intercede (Genesis 18:16-33)
A dramatic break in the context and content of Genesis 18 occurs when the divine visitors finish eating and depart Abraham's tent. The ensuing conversation provides Abraham a chance to prove the merits of his faith, which is far stronger than Sarah's has just proven to be. His bargaining with Yahweh has much to teach us about the faith necessary for Biblical intercessory prayer.
A. Standing before the Lord
"And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know. And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the Lord" (Genesis 18:20-22).
Abraham's fervency to receive all that he could from the divine visitors is illustrated in the fact that he continued with them after they left his tent (v. 16). Next we get a rare glimpse into the mind of God, as the visitors consulted with one another as to whether they should divulge God's news about Sodom with Abraham. The consensus was that he should be told, since Yahweh had chosen him to live righteously and justly, contrasted with the going lifestyle of Sodom. Abraham should understand God's judgment so as to avoid it. But as the men turned toward Sodom to investigate the grievous sin there, "Abraham remained standing before the Lord" (v. 22, NIV).
B. Interceding for a city
"And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake. And the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place" (Genesis 18:23-25, 32-33).
The three visitors had not explicitly stated that Sodom would be destroyed; they only claimed to be investigating to see just how bad things had become. Abraham, however, didn't need any more data to see the truth. The city was a cesspool of sin and degradation. The results of their inquiry would be dire. If the city was to be saved, he had to jump into action. He asked the Lord, "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" (v. 23, NIV).
There was no time for small talk. Abraham had sniffed out the fact that God was about to wipe out Sodom, and he feared for his nephew, Lot, who lived there. Surely there were other righteous households that God would not destroy. He first appeals to the character of Yahweh himself.
How audacious the old nomad had become, lecturing God on what was out of bounds! But God showed no anger, no frustration. The Lord continued to agree with Abraham's terms, which decreased from 50 righteous persons to 10 very quickly.
This passage serves as a remarkable example of the power of intercessory prayer. Incredibly, God allowed Abraham to set the terms of God's own judgment of the city. Of course, Abraham's participation had its limits. God never withdrew his judicial right to destroy the city for its evil, and Abraham did not argue that the city was less evil than God portended. They both agreed that Sodom was a terrible place that deserved to be eradicated from the face of the earth. Abraham's intercession focused not on the justice of God toward the wicked in that city, but on God's mercy toward the righteous. If He really was a covenant-making God, then His covenant was with all righteous individuals following His ways, including those who (for whatever reason) were living in Sodom. God could not just give up on them.
This passage not only exemplifies intercessory prayer, but also elicits the discussion of a major theological concern—the manner of God's participation with humanity. Those Christians who theologically adhere to a belief system called Calvinism have historically emphasized the sovereign nature of God. For Calvinists, God is unchanging and, therefore, no person can convince God to make a better decision. God's decisions are always best and will always come to pass, for they are preset. This passage appears to open up another option, but without downplaying or decreasing the sovereignty of God. Notice that Abraham is not taking control of God or the situation in the passage. He is consistently aware of his boldness in addressing God in the first place, and completely recognizes that the decision is fully up to God. Also, we will see later that Abraham's intercession did not save Sodom. There simply were not 10 righteous people in the city, so God destroyed it anyway. Being eternal and all-knowing, God knew the outcome of Sodom during His conversation with Abraham, but He still let Abraham participate in the processes of judgment and mercy. This is true prayer—not cajoling God to do what we want but participating with Him to actualize what He wants. God saw that Abraham's heart was softened and loving toward his nephew Lot and toward even the sinful city of Sodom. God honored Abraham's contrite heart, and later saved Lot and his household.
Faith to Believe and Intercede: Sunday School Lesson Conclusion
To enjoy fellowship with God is a wonderful gift He gives to today's church, but it did not start with us. God's extension of friendship and grace to Abraham began humanity's covenant relationship with God, and still provides a relevant example for how we can remain in ongoing communication with our heavenly Father. Even when Sarah laughed in God's face, and when Abraham pled for the city of Sodom, God honored the fact that they were committed to relationship with Him. By doing this they pleased God's heart, for He longs for our fellowship.
Golden Text Challenge
"Abraham answered and said, behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27).
Abraham approached God with the right combination of boldness and humility. He could be bold because he was confident in the character of the Lord God and in his relationship with Him. He did what the writer of Hebrews urges us to do: "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (4:16).
However, Abraham was not arrogant. He referred to himself as dust (the lightest particles of earth) and ashes (the remainders of consumed substances) in the sight of the Lord. Yet he stood in the gap on behalf of Lot and Sodom, just as God wants us to humbly yet boldly intercede on behalf of our unsaved loved ones and sin-ravaged cities.
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