God made a good world. A very good world. He placed Man in it in order to fill it, guard it, keep it, and rule over it. Adam and Eve, seduced by the serpent, rejected God’s wisdom and goodness and turned to their own way. They rebelled and fell into sin, and as a result, God began a total war against human flesh. By flesh, I mean human rebellion, corruption, and pride, and all of the distortions of God’s good world that flow from these. God is at war with human sin.
In Genesis 3, death enters the world, as Adam and Eve learn that they will return to dust and ashes. But in the midst of the God’s judgment, there is also mercy and hope. God promises that a male child will one day crush the serpent’s head and put the world to rights. In Genesis 6, we see God’s total war against human rebellion as he cuts off all flesh in the flood, preserving a small remnant in the ark. And then, beginning in Genesis 12, God makes promises to Abram involving a good land, seed and offspring, blessing and hope for the families of the earth.
Last week we saw the ratification of this covenant in the covenant sign—circumcision. Circumcision, I argued, was a symbolic death so that God’s people were not swept away in God’s total war on flesh. It’s a cutting of the flesh that signifies a renouncing of all confidence in human flesh, human power, human ability. And this covenant sign separated God’s people from the surrounding nations who lived under divine condemnation because of their great evil. And last week I said, it’s no surprise that the separation of God’s people with circumcision immediately precedes divine judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Like the Passover, God puts a hedge around his people before the angel of death comes in judgment. In the next two weeks, we’ll explore this story.
In Genesis 18, we find Abraham and Sarah at a tree in Mamre, where they’ve been since Genesis 14. Yahweh appears to Abraham at the doors of his tent along with two men whom we later find out are angels (19:1). Abraham welcomes them and they share a meal together, as they are passing by. Yahweh reiterates the promise that Sarah will bear a son in one year. Sarah overhears, laughs in disbelief, and is gently rebuked by Yahweh. Then, when the two angels leave to go on their way, Yahweh decides to let Abraham in on his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. The two cities are about to be destroyed for their great evil. Abraham then begins to debate and apparently argue with God about his plan, eventually persuading God to forego divine judgment if there are ten righteous people in the city.
Problems in Genesis 18
I want us to focus on two big puzzles in this passage. First, is Yahweh not omnipresent and omniscient? In 18:20, he says, “I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” What do you mean you have to “go down and see”? Can’t you see from here? Can’t you see from heaven? What do you mean “if not, I will know?” Don’t you know now? Aren’t you all knowing? Aren’t you everywhere present?
This puzzle becomes particularly troublesome when we set in the wider context of Scripture. Listen to the following crystal clear affirmations that God knows everything.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.
The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.
And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
And then Psalm 139 which celebrates both God’s total omniscience and his presence everywhere.
1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.
13 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.
Not only that, but Genesis 18 itself testifies to God’s omniscience. When Yahweh tells Abraham that he will return next year and Sarah will have a son, Sarah listens from inside the tent. She laughs internally, saying, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (18:12). And God knows her thoughts. He doesn’t need to ask her. He doesn’t need to go inside and see. He just knows. Even when she denies it (“I did not laugh”), God demonstrates that he knows everything by saying, “No, but you did laugh” (18:15).
So, given the clear testimony that God is present everywhere and knows everything, why does he present himself as though he needs to come down to investigate whether Sodom and Gomorrah are as bad as he’s heard? That’s the first puzzle.
The second is this: Does Yahweh really not know what justice is? Does he need Abraham to instruct him? Listen to Isaiah 40:13-14:
Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
Who taught him the path of justice? Apparently Abraham did. What’s more, is Abraham being insubordinate here by presuming to tell God what righteousness requires? And the real kicker: if we’re supposed to follow in the footsteps of our father Abraham, are we supposed to imitate this bargaining and negotiating with God? Is this how we should pray?
Priest, King, Prophet
To resolve both of these puzzles, we need to remember what we’ve seen about the difference between priests, kings, and prophets in the Bible. Priests are servants in God’s house. They are doorkeepers. They’re God’s bouncers. They guard the sanctuary and protect it from encroachment. Adam was called to work and keep, or work and guard, the garden, and he failed in his task. Priests are responsible for guarding the worship of God, and thus Abraham, in establishing altars in the promised land, acts as a priest.
A king is not merely a servant in God’s house, but a ruler over God’s house. If priests are bouncers and servants, the king is the maitre’d. The king rules in wisdom, discerning good from evil, applying the word of God in unusual circumstances. If the priest guards the sanctuary, the king guards and protects the land, the kingdom. And so, Abram, in rescuing Lot from the confederation of kings and discerning between the good king and the wicked king in Genesis 14 acts as a king.
A prophet, however, is more than a servant and more than a ruler. The prophet is the friend of God. Yahweh has a Divine Council, made up of angels (like the two with him here in Genesis 18). A prophet is one who has been admitted into the Divine Council. Like Joseph in Pharaoh’s court, or Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, the prophet is the advisor and councilor to the King of kings. Amos 3:7-8 “For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” The prophet doesn’t just execute a part of the plan (like a priest) and he doesn’t just administer the plan (like a king). He knows the whole plan. He’s in on it. In Genesis 15, we saw Abraham as a prophet, as God revealed to him the future plan for the people. Here in Genesis 18, we see that there’s even more to being a prophet. In Genesis 15, Abram heard the plan. In Genesis 18. Abraham contributes to the plan. In Genesis 15, Abram believed the plan in silent faith. In Genesis 18, Abraham talks back. Look carefully at Genesis 18:17-19:
17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen [literally, known] him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
God won’t hide his plans from Abraham because he has chosen/known Abraham, and Abraham’s calling will be to teach his children the ways of Yahweh, what doing righteousness involves, all so that the promise may come true. This means that Abraham needs to learn what the way of Yahweh is. What does it mean to “do righteousness and justice”? There’s no formal, written law yet. So Yahweh must teach Abraham about righteousness and justice.
How will he teach him? By revealing the plan so that Abraham will understand the ways of the Lord, the character of God and his righteousness. Revealing the plan for Sodom is designed by God to provoke a reaction in Abraham. God doesn’t just inform Abraham; he invites him in to the deliberations. The information is an invitation. And Abraham responds. In 18:22, when the angels are dismissed to continue their task, Abraham still stood in the presence of the Lord. More than that, he “draws near” to God.
And now perhaps we see why the all-knowing and omnipresent God speaks as though he needs to go down to investigate Sodom. He reveals himself in this way in order to invite Abraham into the discussion, in order to provoke the questions, in order to teach Abraham the ways of the Lord, so that Abraham can be a true prophet, a true friend of God. In other words, God, who is the all-knowing, omnipresent author of this story reveals himself to Abraham as a character in the story. And he does so, in order to grow Abraham up into maturity, that he might be qualified and equip to stand in his council and speak in his name. If you’re going to be God’s mouthpiece, you must know God’s mind. If you’re going to be a prophet, you must learn to pray and intercede like one.
And I highlight prayer and intercession here because a) Abraham intercedes for Sodom in this passage, and b) in Genesis 20, Yahweh connects the vocation of prophet to prayer and intercession. King Abimelech has taken Sarah into his house and God has punished him for it. God tells him, “Now then, return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live.” Abraham is a prophet, which he means he intercedes in prayer for people.
Now we normally think of intercession as something that a priest does. And priests do intercede. However, priests intercede according to established rules and rituals. They offer the sacrifices in precisely the way that God has commanded. They don’t innovate or get creative or question the methods. They do simple obedience. Prophetic intercession is more than that. It’s knowing the character of Yahweh, knowing his ways, knowing him so well that you plead for people based on God’s character despite what circumstances and events seem to suggest.
Prophetic intercession is bold intercession; a prophet boldly approaches the throne of grace as God’s friend, as God’s co-worker, as God’s advisor, as one who knows the mind of the Lord. The prophet knows that “Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face,” and so the prophet asks, prays, even demands that God unveil his smiling face, claiming the promises of God on behalf of the people. We see precisely this type of intercession with Moses, after the people sin with the golden calf. God moves to destroy the people, and Moses intercedes for them, reminding God of his promises and his mercy. We see it in the prophet Habakkuk, who wrestles with God’s judgment on Israel through the Babylonians. We see some of the same deliberations in the books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel.
And again, the purpose of this intercession is to instruct Abraham in the ways of Yahweh, in doing righteousness and justice. It makes no sense to think that Yahweh himself has forgotten the ways of Yahweh. But he presents himself this way in order to help Abraham grow into maturity. When I am playing a game of baseball with my sons, and I’m trying to get them out, I don’t play with all of my skills. When I’m pitching, I don’t throw as hard as I can. I throw it hard enough so that they can hit it, and I throw harder as they get better. I veil some of my ability in order to help them grow into true athletes. That’s what God does here. He veils his omniscience and omnipresence in order to draw Abraham into the discussion. And I suspect that Abraham knows this, just as my boys know that I can throw harder than I do when I’m playing ball with them. Abraham knows that God has already determined what will happen in 400 years. Of course, he knows what’s happening down in Sodom. The veil that God puts on is an invitation. It’s God saying, “Are you ready to get in the game?” And so Abraham draws near and intercedes. He enters into the drama. I want us to notice three aspects of Abraham’s discussion with God.
1) He appeals to what he knows of God’s character. “Far be it from you to sweep away the righteous with the wicked. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” This is a lesson about justice, so Abraham appeals to God’s justice.
2) Abraham is not insubordinate, but humble. “I am but dust and ashes.” “Don’t be angry, and I will speak.” He knows that he’s pushing things. He’s talking back to God. But he’s not doing so with presumption or anger, but with deep humility. “I know that I’m but dust. I know that it’s the wicked who shake their fists at you and provoke your anger. I’m coming with open hands, a lowly heart, but I’m still speaking.”
3) This is not a negotiation. We initially think of it as such, as though Abraham is bargaining with God over whether he will destroy Sodom or not. But there are no offers and counter-offers. Abraham doesn’t say, “What if there are 50?” and God counter with, “What about 25?” Every request Abraham makes is granted immediately. 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, 10. If this is a negotiation, God is a terrible negotiator. But it’s not a negotiation. It’s a lesson in the ways of the Lord.
So what does Abraham learn here about the ways of the Lord, about God’s justice, about what it means to do righteousness? He learns that God is righteous. God will punish the wicked for their grave evil. Justice will come from the Judge of all the earth. But more than that, he learns that God loves mercy. God is eager and willing to show mercy to whole cities of wicked people. All you need is a ten righteous ones and a friend of God, a prophet, who is willing to intercede.
I want to close with two applications—one for us as individuals and one for us as a church. As individuals, we learn from this passage what God calls us to grow up to maturity. God welcomes our prayers. He wants us to talk back. The Bible is filled with godly men and women who begged, pleaded, even demanded that God make good on his promises. Just read the Psalms. When you look out at the world, when you look at your life, and what you see doesn’t seem to fit with a righteous judge of all the earth, God is inviting you to draw near, to approach his throne, to pushback on the frowning providence.
So we should follow in the footsteps of our father Abraham here. We should grow up into maturity like he does. Which means, we should begin with basic obedience and worship. You can’t reject the worship of God and then talk back. If you do, that’s simply presumption and pride and rebellion. But if you worship, and if you believe the promises, and if you seek to walk in wisdom and faithfulness where God has planted you, and if you find yourself provoked by the circumstances and providence in the world, then answer the invitation. Boldly and humbly, as dust and ashes and as a friend of God, approach the throne of grace in order to learn the ways of the Lord by speaking, by interceding, by pushing back against providence. It’s a fine line to walk between “Thy will be done” and “Far be it from you,” but that’s where God wants to take us. You and I may not be there yet; we may have work yet to do in the foothills, where we simply need to learn to confess our sins and thank God for our daily bread. But God is calling us to draw near.
As a church, we see the importance of Christian witness in a society. We see more clearly why God has placed us here in these cities. God says that he won’t wipe out the city for the sake of ten righteous people. And if we put this passage together with things that we’ve learned previously in Genesis, a picture of God’s judgment on nations and the role of the church becomes a little more clear. We’re told in Genesis 15:16 that the people of God won’t inherit the promised land for 400 years because the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. This implies that iniquity is something that completes. Human sin fills up the cup of God’s wrath. When the cup is full, God pours it out and makes us drink it. Here in Genesis 18, we find out that Sodom’s iniquity is complete. Their great evil (Genesis 13:13) has produced such an outcry that God’s death angels are on the march. God’s total war against flesh is coming to Sodom. And yet, we find that, in the midst of that judgment, the faithfulness of a handful and the prayers of one man could stave off judgment, because our God loves to show mercy.
Next week when Pastor Jonathan preaches on Sodom, I have no doubt that you will hear similarities to our nation, to our state, to these cities. And when you look at the great evil of America and you ask yourself, “Why does God delay his judgment on such evil?”, remember this story. There may still be ten righteous people and a prophet in America, and that’s holding back the floodgates of judgment. And if you ask, why? Why does the presence of the righteous and the prayers of the prophet hold back judgment, I’d suggest that that presence and those prayers open up another possibility for destroying flesh than fire and sulfur, or hurricanes and wildfires. The witness of the church and the prayers of the righteous might lead to repentance. That’s why we’re here, seeking the good of these cities. God has placed us here as salt and light. The faithful presence of God’s people holds back the judgment of Almighty God. And so we ought to do righteousness and justice, walking in the ways of Yahweh and praying big, bold prayers that God might turn these cities from their wickedness and blessing might flow to all the families of the earth.
Which brings us to the Table. Here is the Table where the Righteous Judge of all the earth does right by showing mercy to great sinners. There was once a cup of God’s wrath, filled to the brim. And Jesus drank it to the dregs. Now this cup is no longer a cup of wrath, but a cup of salvation, a cup of blessing, a cup of mercy. At this table, we see the intercession of Jesus, our priest, our king, and our prophet, who ever lives and pleads for us. Here, we remember that for the sake of one perfectly righteous man, one perfectly faithful prophet, God does not sweep us all away for our rebellion, corruption, and sin. Instead, he welcomes us in. He invites us to worship him, to be his sons and daughters, and to become his friends. Here, the living God shares a meal with us. So come and welcome to Jesus Christ.