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Genesis 20

A Shaky Faith, an Unshakeable God

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Good morning, friends. We study through books of the Bible here at the Village Chapel, and it is my privilege to lead us through Genesis chapter 20 today, where we will see the contrast between a shaky faith and an unshakeable God. Before we start our message, I am thrilled to say that at the Village Chapel, we traditionally take communion together on the first Sunday of the month, and this month, both in person and here online, we are going to take communion together. So, if you’d like, you might want to gather some simple table elements for communion at the end of the message.

We’ve been following Abraham for about 25 years now, beginning in chapter 12 of Genesis. And if this were a Netflix TV show, we’d be starting off by saying, “Previously, in Genesis, the Abraham years…” Abraham has been leading the life of an itinerant Bedouin for that time, following the leading of the Lord, living in tents and grazing his flocks and herds. Abraham has encountered the Lord over and over again, starting back in chapter 12 with the call of the Lord in Heron when he was still named Abram, down into Egypt, then back up into the Negev, south of Hebron.

We’ve seen Abraham be so generous with his nephew Lot. When their parties and possessions were too great to dwell together, Abraham allowed Lot to have his choice of the land. Of course, we know that Lot chose the Jordan Valley, and we’ve seen Abraham bravely go to battle to rescue Lot from the four Kings, which Pastor Tommy led us through in chapter 14. And we’ve heard the promises the Lord made to Abraham in chapters 15 and 17, promises of a land, a seed, and a blessing. We’ve heard Abraham lobby and pray for his nephew, Lot, in the city of Sodom in chapter 18. And over and over, we’ve seen God reveal himself to Abraham, to proclaim a covenant with him, to give him these great promises.

We’ve seen time and again Abraham respond in faith to God, to be brave and generous, to intercede for others. And now, at this pivotal point, just as the Lord has promised Abraham that within a year, he and Sarah would have a baby boy, Isaac. Through him they would have countless generations of descendants and be a blessing to all people. Just now, we see old Abe take a giant leap backwards. It leaves us scratching our heads and saying, “Really, God? This is your guy? This is the guy?” But I love this chapter because it’s overflowing with God’s sovereign grace, grace with how He treats His chosen servant Abraham, grace with how He treats the unbelieving King Abimelech. And it points forward to the real hero of the story, Jesus, and how He provides all of us in Christ with redeeming and sustaining grace.

Derrick Kidner, in his commentary on Genesis, says this about chapter 20.

“The episode is chiefly one of suspense: on the brink of Isaac’s birth-story here is the very Promise put in jeopardy, traded away for personal safety. If it is ever fulfilled, it will owe very little to man. Morally as well as physically, it will clearly have to be achieved by the grace of God.”

–Derek Kidner, Genesis


Would you pray with me, church? Lord, we are grateful for Your Word. We are grateful for Your redeeming and sustaining grace, which meets us at our deepest need. We pray that Your Spirit would open our eyes, ears, hearts and minds as we hear from Your Word. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Well, so let’s get started on chapter 20. As we open up, Abraham has moved from Hebron south to the Negev, about 35 miles to the south, and he’s not moving because of any famine. He’s just on the move as a Bedouin. And he’s a pilgrim, he’s a journeyer. That’s what he does. But by now, he’s been very rich for a long time. Gold and silver and flocks and herds, and he has hundreds of people in his procession, so it’s not easy for him to move stealthily. And he also has a military reputation now, because of his defeating those four kings back in chapter 14. So, wherever he goes, it’s going to raise a commotion.

So here we go, chapter 20. “From there, Abraham journey toward the territory of the Negev 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.” So again with the “My Sister” routine. We heard it with Pharaoh in chapter 12, and we’re hearing it again now, for at least the second time. We’ll hear more about it later on in the chapter.

 Abraham’s fearful. He’s living in fear that, because his wife, still at 90 years old, is beautiful, somebody’s going to kill him for his wife. And he also has all of this stuff. And he’s in fear of his life. Proverbs 13:18 says, “A ransom of a man’s life is his wealth, but a poor man hears no threat.” Well, Abraham is hearing a threat. And I can’t believe that he has pawned off his wife and put the whole mission and promise in jeopardy just because he’s living in fear. Well, so we’ll pick up, “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.’ And 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.’” Well, I’ve got to tell you, if God wakes me up in the middle of the night and has something to tell me, “You are a dead man” is pretty much at the bottom of the list of what I want to hear.

And when Abimelech is proclaiming his innocence in verses four and five and he says, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people?” Man, that’s the same way that Abraham was pleading with the Lord in chapter 18 to be merciful to Sodom and Gomora. He’s saying, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Abimelech, an unbeliever, he still wants to know this very same thing and the deepest recesses of his heart. And friends, isn’t this one of the key things all of us want to know? “God, are you even there? Do you even care? Can I trust the Judge of the earth to do what is just?” So, God tells Abimelech in verse six, “Yes, I know you were innocent, because it was I who kept you from sinning.” Friends, when we sin, we may sin against someone else or several someone else’s, but our primary sin is, first, against God.

And then one thing, also, that you must know about the ancient near East… before Exodus, before Mosaic law, before the 10 Commandments…adultery, in that culture, was called the great sin. Not so much because God had ordained the covenant of marriage, even though He had in Genesis, but because at that time a man’s wife was his sole possession. And I don’t mean his only possession, but she was his. And that culture took it very seriously when you took a man’s wife. And actually, that’s why Abraham was afraid for his life, because he was afraid that, rather than commit adultery, they would just kill him. And so, when God told Abimelech he had taken another man’s wife, Abimelech was, naturally, concerned that he had committed a grievance against Abraham. But God is specifying here that He had kept Abimelech from sin against Him, not Abraham.

So, let’s pick back up. “So Abimelech rose early in the morning…” And frankly, if God comes to you in the middle of the night and tells you you’re a dead man, I don’t think you’re going to get back to sleep. “So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and he 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. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see that you did this thing?”

And Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘Well, there’s no fear of God at all in this place and they will kill me because of my wife, besides she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, though not the daughter of my mother. And she became my wife. 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.”’

Abimelech here is very justified in asking Abraham, “What have you done?” And you see how Abraham answers. Totally self-serving, just like Adam in the garden, he’s backpedaling. He’s trying to cover himself. He’s trying to do just like all of us do when we get caught. And he’s a little whiny and he’s even kind of blaming it on God here when he says, “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house.” He’s trying to blame everyone else for his failure but himself.

And now we see the ruse, we see this scheme that Abraham and Sarah have been up to, because they’ve been doing this at every place they’ve stopped along the way. And by the way, don’t get caught up in the idea of Sarah being Abraham’s sister. This was culturally appropriate for the time. This was before the 10 Commandments. And remember, we have to look at this through the lens of the context of the time when this passage was written. I mean, we can’t even look at it from the context of the Ten Commandments, so let’s not get too hung up on that.

Let’s continue on. “Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen and male servants and female servants and gave them to Abraham and returned Sarah, his wife, to him. And Abimelech said, ‘Behold, my land is before you dwell where it pleases you.’ 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.’ Then Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah Abraham’s wife.” Well, do you notice here that Abimelech treats Sarah with way more dignity and kindness than Abraham does?

And Kristen and I were going through this passage together last week, and we got to the point where Abimelech gives her the thousand pieces of silver, which is a lot of silver. It’s about 25 pounds of silver, and it was the bride price to pay in that culture. But we get to that spot and Kristen says, “Okay, I know I’m a woman of the 21st century, but I kind of think Abimelech should have given that silver to Sarah, not to Abraham,” and I agreed. And then the last thing, right here at this passage, it’s not a coincidence that we see God commanding Abraham to pray, in the role of a prophet, for Abimelech, because his family’s barren. That’s not a coincidence because Abraham and Sarah are facing the very same thing. And I also want to point out that Abraham, he’s a prophet, but he’s a prophet by God’s appointment, and obviously not by his own merit. Wow, what a passage.

So friends, what can we learn from this passage? We see an example of fear and failure from God’s chosen, but it is ultimately hopeful for all of us in the way it points forward to the Cross and the gift of God’s grace. The first thing that we can learn: An unhealthy fear leads to all sorts of dysfunctional behavior. As we frequently remind ourselves, the most often repeated negative command in the Bible is “Do not fear.” We can see God’s hand of grace here. He knows that, since the fall, we need to be reminded of this over and over again. I, for one, am grateful that the most often-repeated reminder in God’s Word is not “You’ve totally messed this up,” or “I told you so, didn’t I?” No, it’s “Do not fear.” It is a gentle, persistent, loving reminder that “I’ve got this. Trust me, I’m going to make all things new again.” Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And as Pastor Jim often says, “A healthy fear of the Lord keeps us from having an unhealthy fear of everything else.”

In the beginning, in the garden, we enjoyed unbroken relationship and full shalom with God. There was no perception of lack, because we lacked nothing. There was nothing to fear. There was total acceptance, a full and open relationship between God and mankind. Since the fall, we have been trying to find worth and acceptance on our own; in behavior, in possessions, in circumstances, in self. In short, we are trying to find worth and acceptance in created things instead of the Creator. And those things can never provide that. All those other created things are subject to change, to temporariness, to loss. Only the Creator is permanent and solid.

Fear is behind most of our bad behavior. We fear being found out. We have a fear of not being loved or being lonely. We have a fear of being loved and being left. We have a fear of not being enough, of not being man or woman enough. We have fear of being a failure, fear of being a success, fear of not being good enough for God, fear that God won’t be there for us. Look at these terrible decisions Abraham was making because of his fear that his wealth and his wife’s beauty would get him killed. His fear that Abimelech and his kingdom didn’t fear the Lord. Abraham’s fears drove him to risk his wife’s safety and jeopardize God’s promise to him.

So, if your life were characterized by a vehicle, whether a big SUV, an all-electric BMW, or an off-road truck with oversized tires and a four-inch lift, I can tell you that faith is a better driver than fear. Fear makes a terrible driver. When we fear we make terrible decisions. Hannah Whitall Smith says,

“You find no difficulty in trusting the Lord with the management of the universe and all the outward creation, and can your case be any more complex or difficult than these that you need to be anxious or troubled about His management of you?”

Hannah Whithall Smith

Friends, I want to encourage all of us, myself included. Man, I need to hear this: We can trust God with the details. Faith can be the driver, not fear. And believe me when I tell you that I really struggle with this. It’s easy to trust God with our eternal salvation, but can we trust Him with next Thursday afternoon when we have a big interview that has so much riding on it? If our car has a flat tire or we’re low on gas, are we anchoring our hope in circumstance rather than the promise of God in Christ Jesus? If we base our confidence in circumstances and the outcome of those circumstances, then we’re making those circumstances larger than God. If our trust in God is dependent on outcomes, then God will always be on trial and will seem very small.

Beyond our circumstances, are we trusting God with our identity? I know we’ve been talking a good bit about identity lately and with good reason. More than ever before, the very idea of what it means to be human, and the concept of identity is undergoing a radical change in our culture. Our identity is constantly being shaped and reshaped, formed and reformed. Quite frankly, even for believers, culture has a profound effect on what is shaping us. Romans 12:2 answers that with, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Brett McCracken, who Tommy and I have interviewed, in his book, The Wisdom Pyramid, says,

“Without God as an ultimate standard of truth, all we have are ‘truths’ as interpreted by individuals…but the self is not the reliable authority it is cracked up to be. Our fickle hearts are unreliable guides, deceitful above all things. Our embrace of “being true to ourselves” often leads to a closed loop of self-deception and chronic brokenness, where we erroneously believe we have all the resources for healing within ourselves.”

–Brett McCracken, The Wisdom Pyramid

Friends, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. When we find our acceptance in God through Christ Jesus, we don’t need to look for our acceptance anywhere else.

The second thing I think we can take away from this chapter is that the sovereign hand of God governs all creation. The sovereign God works in all nations and all peoples. Isaiah 43 tells us,

“I am the Lord and besides me, there is no Savior.”

Isaiah 43:11

God shows His sovereignty in this chapter the way He deals with Abraham, but also in the way He honorably deals with Abimelech. He confronts Abimelech in his situation, but He responds and agrees with Abimelech’s plea of innocence. He faithfully commands Abimelech to make it right and then commands Abraham to pray for Abimelech and the Philistines to heal them.

And it is no small thing that God tells Abimelech, an apparent nonbeliever, that He Himself kept Abimelech from sinning. Loved ones, I want to encourage all of us not to think in our silliness or in our pride as believers, “Oh, I would never do that,” whatever “that” is for you. Rather, in humbleness, let’s fall on our face daily and plead with the Lord to stay our hand when we would wander. Wisdom prays, “Lord, hold me back, lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil,” whatever small or great evil might beset us on any given day. That’s the prayer we want to pray.

Abraham feared the Philistines, because he didn’t think they feared the Lord. Perhaps he was equating them, like I’d said earlier, with the citizens of Sodom and Gomora and expecting them to be as wicked. But the Lord had other plans. He knew Abimelech’s and the Philistines’ hearts. And just like He will command Jonah to pray for the Ninevites later on, He commands Abraham to pray for Abimelech. God is faithfully tracking the progress of all people, all nations. When He calls Abraham in Genesis 12, He tells him that through him, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. And He shows that here, in chapter 20, when Abraham prays for Abimelech and his people, and they are healed. R.C. Sproul says, in Chosen by God,

“If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”

–R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God

Every molecule ever created in the universe was created, commissioned and commanded by God. And perhaps you could say some molecules have been thrown off course by the fall, because God told Abraham in Genesis 3 that, “Cursed is the ground because of you.” But, in Colossians one, we also read that God is reconciling all things, all means all, back to Himself through Jesus, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. And under God’s sovereign hand is the hand that rescues and restores us. J.I. Packer says it this way,

“Guidance, like all God’s acts of blessing under the covenant of grace, is a sovereign act. Not merely does God will to guide us in the sense of showing us his way, that we may tread it; he wills also to guide us in the more fundamental sense of ensuring that, whatever happens, whatever mistakes we may make, we shall come safely home. Slipping and strains there will be, no doubt, but the everlasting arms are beneath us; we shall be caught, rescued, restored. This is God’s promise; this is how good He is.”

–J.I. Packer, Knowing God

I love that quote, because it rightly shows us how steady God’s guidance is, how His sovereign hand moves. Our last takeaway from this chapter reminds us that when our faith is fragile, God is steadfast and firm. I am grateful for this example of Abraham’s fragility of faith in this chapter and the fact that God deals with him with grace, because God has said in Genesis 18, “I have chosen him.” Abraham’s relationship with God doesn’t depend on his own performance because it is founded in God’s character and grace.

Tish Harrison Warren says in her book Prayer in the Night,

“We cannot hold together human vulnerability and God’s trustworthiness at the same time, unless there is some certain sign that God loves us, that he isn’t an absentee landlord or worse, a monster. It takes the whole story of redemptive history to shape our questions about God’s presence in the darkness.”

–Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night

Friends, we know from this whole story of God’s redemptive love, God isn’t going anywhere. We are never alone. We’re never abandoned. Through Christ we are fully known and fully loved by God, fully accepted. We’re never less loved on our worst day than we are on our best day, and we are never more loved and accepted on our very best day than we are on our worst day. God’s love and acceptance of us is complete. It is a promise backed up by His faithfulness and character.

Paul Tripp says in his devotional book, New Morning Mercies,

“Jesus was willing to come and live the life we could not live and die the death that we deserved. He willingly endured the Father’s rejection so that we would know his acceptance. Because he was willing to endure the terrible pain of the Father’s rejection, you and I will never, ever again see the back of God’s head.”

–Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies

That’s so good.

Guys. Because of Jesus, our failures are not final. Because of Jesus, our future is for certain. Because of Jesus, death has been defeated. Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. We can trust God for our salvation. We can trust God for next Thursday afternoon. We can trust God with the condition of our faith, because our faith is not tied to our performance. It is tethered to a perfect and loving God who will remain steadfast and is completely committed to our redemption and our rescue in Christ Jesus. Amen? Amen.

Let’s pray, Church: Lord, we’re grateful for Your word. We are grateful for our older brother Abraham, for his example of faith and for his humanity, because it has given such a great example of Your grace that is afforded to us in Christ Jesus. Lord, we are grateful for the grace that tethers us to You, that redeems us and sustains us. Thank You for that. In Jesus’ name, amen.

(Edited for Reading)

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