To get started this morning I want you to think for a minute about all the different kinds of things that you know. Just consider for a minute everything that you know, everything that you’ve ever learned, about anything at all. I want us all to do this. And then imagine that we could take all of those things that we know and then put them all together — all of that education and experience and knowledge — imagine that we’re somehow able to condense it all down and put it one big box [and pretend the box is right here beside me and it has everything we know in it].
Well, of all the things that are in this box, the two most important pieces of knowledge is first, the knowledge of God, and second, the knowledge of ourselves. The two most important things we could ever know is who God is and who we are. That is more valuable than everything else in the box.
And back in the year 1536 that is basically what John Calvin said. This was 19 years after Martin Luther kickstarted the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer from France, published his most famous book titled Institutes of the Christian Religion, and the very first thing Calvin says in that book is that all true and sound wisdom consists of these two parts — the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. Those two pieces of knowledge matter more valuable than anything else, says Calvin.
And I think it’s helpful that Calvin set it up this way, because these two things are what the Bible is fundamentally about. All throughout Scripture we see over and over again that God reveals to us who he is — God says in essence: This is who I am and this is what I promise.
And then, simultaneous to that, we also see over and over again in Scripture who we really are. And in essence when it comes to us we see that we were made for God and we need him.
Making Sense of Genesis 16
So the Bible is basically about God and then us, and then naturally the Bible talks about the relationship between the two. And all throughout the Bible again we see that there are basically two different ways that we respond to God — there are two different ways that we relate to him. We either respond to him by faith or by works.
Another we can say it is like this: Overall, the Bible shows us that there is:
- God with his promises, AND
- there is us with our needs
and we either respond to God:
- by trusting him to fulfill his promises OR
- by trying get them by working our own way.
It’s either by faith or it’s by works. And these two options show up constantly in the Bible, which is actually what is happening here in Genesis 16.
Genesis 16 is where we are today, and what I want to to do right away is just tell you what’s going on in this chapter. We’re going to look closer at one part, but first, from an overview perspective, this is what’s going on. This is an overview . . .
An Overview of Genesis 16
God had promised Abram children and land. We’ve seen that. God told Abram that he would have as many children as there is dust on the earth and they would inhabit this special land that God had set apart for them. That’s what God told Abram, but Abram had some questions — there were some problems with the promise, as Pastor Joe said last week — and the biggest problem was that Abram was old and still didn’t have any children. So, in Chapter 15, God doubles down on his promise and he cuts a covenant with Abram, and he tells Abram again: I will give you children and I will give you this land. And Abram believed God.
But then Chapter 16 opens and we read that Sarai, Abram’s wife, still hasn’t had a child. Abram is still without children, except now he has been in Canaan for ten years. And so Sarai gives Abram her servant named Hagar, and she tells Abram to have babies with Hagar. And so Abram does. But then once Hagar gets pregnant, all kinds of conflict erupts between her and Sarai.
[And look, C. S. Lewis warns us about “chronological snobbery,” so I’m trying not to do that here, but in the modern world, I feel we could have seen this coming from a mile away. I think we have seen enough reality TV to know that this was not going to go well for Sarai.]
Hagar ended up looking at Sarai with contempt, and then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and so Hagar, who was pregnant, ran away. But God came to Hagar in grace and told her to go back to Sarah and submit to Sarah, and then God made a really sweet promise to Hagar. He told her that he would multiply her offspring — which is a blessing. And then he said that Ishmael her son would be a “wild donkey of man” and that he wouldn’t get along with people — which is not really a blessing. But anyway, Hagar goes back to Abram, gives birth to a son, and his name is Ishmael. And Abram was 86 years old (that’s how the chapter ends).
And so that’s the story of Genesis Chapter 16. That’s the overview version. There is actually a lot going on here, and there are all kinds of implications and questions about Hagar and Ishmael, but this morning I want to focus now mainly on what Sarah does in these first six verses. And when we focus here, I think there are three things we learn. These are three things that are relevant when it comes to the knowledge of ourselves, and so I’m trying to say them very practically. Here they are. Three things we learn:
- Bad conclusions lead to bad decisions.
- Unbelief always goes to work.
- We must remember our mother.
[Let’s pray and we’ll get started.]
Father, we recognize now, by your grace, that your Word is precious. We confess that your Word is more valuable to us than a box full of gold, and it is tastier to us than the greatest of food. And so we ask now that you would speak to us by your Word and effect in us all that you will, for your glory, in the name of Jesus, amen.
1. Bad conclusions lead to bad decisions.
The very first thing we see about Sarai in Chapter 16 is that she still had “borne [Abram] no children” (verse 1). And I say “still” because Sarai’s barrenness has already been part of this story, going back even to Chapter 11. When Abram and Sarai are first introduced to us in the Bible, in Genesis 11, verse 30, we’re told that “Sarai was barren; she had no child.” And we’re reminded again about this in Chapter 15 when Abram tells God in verse 2: I’m going to die childless because you, God, have not given me children (15:2–3).
Remember that was Abram’s biggest problem with the promise, but then God assures Abram: Indeed, I will give you children, from your very own loins.
But here we are in Chapter 16, and some time has past, and Sarai still had not gotten pregnant. We’re actually told in verse 3 that Abram had lived ten years in Canaan at this point. So it’s ten years gone and God has not fulfilled his promise, and that presumably is what leads Sarai to say what she does in verse 2:
Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant [which is Hagar]; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.
And there are two things happening in what Sarai says. First, Sarai makes a conclusion, and then second, she makes a decision.
When it comes to the conclusion, Sarai says that God has prevented her from bearing children. We don’t know exactly why she concludes this. It might have been her age, or it might have been just the long stretch of time in general — because it has been ten yeas, and ten years takes time. Just think about that for a minute: What were you doing ten years ago? A lot can happen in ten years.
And so on this level, we can be a little sympathetic with Sarai. It’s been ten years, okay, we get it — but here’s the thing: no where in God’s promise to Abram did he mention dates.
God never gave a schedule to Abram for when he was going to fulfill his promise, but apparently for Sarai ten years was the schedule she had given God — and since she still didn’t have a child according to the schedule she had given God, she concluded that God had prevented her from bearing children. So wee, she has made a bad conclusion. Do you see what she did?
God had not at all prevented her from having children; he had just prevented her from having children within her imposed time frame. But rather than Sarai bow her plans to God’s, she expects God to bow his plans to hers, and when he doesn’t do that, that’s when she concludes that God must be doing something that he wasn’t doing at all.
I think we really need to get this, because we can do the same thing.
How many times do we impose our timeline on God, and when God doesn’t act in our timeline, we assume that he must be doing something else? — Or worse, we assume that he must be a different kind of God than he says he is. And we think this way not because God has really let us down, but because we only want to look at God through the little windows that we have assigned.
See, a lot of times, if we’re honest, I think we can just want God on our terms, and when he doesn’t act on our terms, we want to make it his problem, not ours.
And this doesn’t just happen in big ways, but it can happen in very subtle ways over time, which is why we need help. This is why we need one another. We are prone to making bad conclusions like Sarai, and so we need help remembering. We need to help each other remember that God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promises does not mean he is obligated to work in our timelines.
Sarai makes a bad conclusion about God here, and that is what leads her to make a bad decision.
We see this bad decision in the second part of verse 2. Sarai takes things into her own hands. She works a scheme here. Since she concludes that God has prevented her from having children, she is going to use Hagar, her Egyptian servant, to have children in her place. So she tells Abram: “Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”
And that’s when we read, at the very end of verse 2, the text says: “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.” Then in verse 3: “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife.”
And if we can remember back to earlier in Genesis, we have seen something like this happen before. [Anybody want to guess where?] In Genesis 3, Eve took the fruit from the tree and gave it to Adam her husband. And there in verse 17 we read that Adam “listened to the voice of [his] wife.”
So it’s took, gave, and listened — the exact same verbs used in Genesis 3 are used here in Genesis 16. And in essence, the same unbelief that led to the fall in Genesis 3 has resurfaced here in Genesis 16. And we’re supposed to connect these stories together.
Abram and Sarai here are a lot like Adam and Eve because they are both dealing with same fundamental problem — they don’t take God at his word. But get this: neither of them are completely dismissing what God said, they’re just falling for a spin.
- In Genesis 3 they questioned exactly what God meant by “you shall surely die.”
- Here in Genesis 16 they assume that the time was up for God to come through.
- In Genesis 3 they manipulated God’s meaning.
- In Genesis 16 they manipulate his silence.
And in both cases, this is unbelief.
A bad conclusion has led a bad decision. And that gets at the second thing we learn here.
2. Unbelief always goes to work.
One thing to notice here is that the unbelief we see in Sarai takes action. It’s never just unbelief. Every unbelief, every moment of faithlessness, is always accompanied by some kind of work. That’s because if you’re not trusting in God to fulfill his promises, then you have to try and figure out your own way. That’s what Sarai is doing here. She literally was trying to build her own offspring through Hagar. Rather than wait for God to fulfill his promise, Sarai used Hagar as work-around.
And here again there is a similarity to Eve. Way back in Genesis 3:15 God promised that an offspring of woman will come and crush the serpent — God said he would send a Redeemer Son. And then in the very next chapter, Eve gives birth to Cain, and she says, in Chapter 4, verse 1, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”
And last year when we looked at that, we saw that what Eve is actually saying here is negative. In the Hebrew, Eve is actually saying “I have created man like the Lord did.” Which means, Eve was saying that she can take the offspring promise into her own hands. She was saying that she can do what God said he would do. And that’s the same thing Sarai is doing in Chapter 16.
The Salvation by Works Project
Sarai’s unbelief goes to work. She is taking things into her own hands. Like Eve, she is trying to do herself what God said he would do. Hagar becomes the way that Sarai is going to earn what God said he would give — which means that Hagar becomes Sarai’s “salvation by works” project.
Do you know what that is? — a “salvation by works” project? Because everyone of us has one. We all have some kind of Hagar angle when it comes to the promises of God.
That’s because at different times we can all struggle with unbelief. Sometimes it feels hard to believe, but see here’s the thing: in all the ways that we struggle with unbelief, that unbelief doesn’t create a big void in our lives, it actually creates work.
And I think this is important for us to see. [So I’m going to try this.] Use your imagination for a minute and pretend that faith is a key.
If Faith Were a Key (Like a Real Key)
Think about a real key, to your house or to your car. Pretend that you have one actual, real key in your hand and that key is faith. Well, if that key is faith, what is unbelief? Well, we might assume that unbelief is something like a big dent in the key. We might assume that unbelief means there are scratches or cracks or holes in the key.
Back in high school and then all throughout college and seminary, I had this old Nissan Pathfinder, and I only had one key for it. And over the years, the end piece of the key that hooked to a keychain broke off and you couldn’t attach it to anything, which wasn’t very practical, so I took a drill and put a hole in another part of the plastic and reattached it to the keychain, until after a while it broke again and I had to drill another hole, and then I just repeated this process until eventually I had no more room to drill anymore holes, and so I just had to carry this key around by itself.
And it was this super gnarly, mangled key. Seriously it looked like it had been chewed up by a wild animal. The plastic was broken off and some of it was even melted (from the drilling). It was the kind of key you just keep in your pocket. I had a buddy with a new car and he didn’t need a key. He just pressed a button and the car would start, and I was walking around with my chewed up solo key in my pocket.
And we can imagine that unbelief is like the holes in that key. If the key is faith then unbelief must be the scars on the key. We can think that way. But really, it’s not like that. It’s not that unbelief is damage the key, it’s that unbelief gives you more keys when all you need is the one.
See, you have your key that is faith, no matter how ugly is it, but then unbelief comes and says, No, have another key, have the key of a good reputation at work. And then later unbelief says, Okay, add on the key of ‘This guy makes good decisions.’ And then it’s the key of having the model family that everyone thinks is great. And then it’s the key of living in a safe neighborhood where the kids can play outside...
- or the key of getting that promotion you’ve been aiming for
- or the key of being in good physical shape
- or the key of sacrificing your time in the service of others
- or the key of making donations to those in need
- or the key of moral impeccability
And see all of these are good things, but before long you end up with a whole keychain full of keys that you think you need in order for God to accept you. That is what unbelief does. Unbelief doesn’t put holes in your faith, it tells you that you need more than faith.
And the word for what is “more than faith” is called works. Unbelief always goes to work.
And we all deal with this. If we really want God — if we really want God and his promises — we all have something that we’re tempted to think we think we need in addition to faith. We have a works problem, we all do. We have our own Hagar Projects, and that’s why we must remember our mother.
3. We must remember our mother.
And I need to explain what I mean here.
It has to do with Hagar. Later in the Bible Hagar, actually becomes a metaphor of salvation by works. After the Book of Genesis, Hagar is not mentioned any more until we get to the New Testament book of Galatians.
And in this book the apostle Paul is talking to the Galatian church about this age-old problem of salvation by works. Basically there were some false teachers in this church who were telling people that the only way they can really be accepted by God — the only way they can have God and his promises — is if they have faith in Jesus and keep all the laws of Moses.
In other words, their salvation came down to what they did. It was about their works.
And Paul is explaining to them that it’s not by works, but instead it’s by faith. It’s by faith alone. We get God and his promises not by what we do, but by trusting what God says. And for Paul to make his point, he goes back to Genesis 16 to the story of Hagar.
And this is kind of a complex move that Paul makes, so I’m going to try to simplify this as best as I can. . . .
Two Different Covenants
Paul says that Hagar and Sarah are symbols or metaphors of two different covenants, and they both have children.
He says that Hagar is the metaphor of God’s covenant at Mount Sinai. [That is the mountain where later in the Book of Exodus (right after Genesis) God gives the people of Israel what’s called the law of Moses. The people’s hearts were hard; they didn’t trust God; and so God gave them rule after rule to spell out for them how to live.] And the false teachers here in Galatians had been telling the Galatians that God will only accept them if they keep all these rules.
And so based on that, Paul says that Hagar is a metaphor of Mount Sinai and that her children are children of slavery. In other words, Hagar is salvation by works, and her children — those who think and live that way — they are in slavery.
And then Paul says that the “present Jerusalem is in slavery with her children” (Galatians 4:25). And this is a bold thing for Paul to say. What he’s saying is that the Jerusalem of his day, and Judaism, because they trusted in their works, they were actually children of Hagar, and they were in still slavery. Those who trust in their works are children of Hagar and they are enslaved.
No Longer a Slave, But a Son
But then Paul says, Galatians 4, verse 26 — he’s speaking to these Christians and he’s still thinking in this metaphor, and he says — “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” And then in verse 28 he says, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.” And then in verse 31, “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”
And so Paul is speaking to these Christians and he’s telling them to remember their mother. They are not children of Hagar. They are not enslaved to their works. But instead they are children of promise, and they are free. To be a Christian, Paul says, is to be set free from the slavery of works. To be a Christian is to be a child of God by faith, and it means that we are set free from trying to earn God’s love by what we do.
God loves us because we are his children, and we are his children because we believe — and we believe because God has sent his Spirit into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but you are a son. In Christ, you are a child of God! (see Galatians 4:6–7).
We’re going to read about the birth of Isaac in a few weeks, but even more miraculous than the birth of Isaac, is the new birth of every person who turns from their works and puts their faith in Jesus.
And do you know why God sets it up this way? Because this way highlights the glory of Jesus, not you and me.
That’s also what this Table says.
At the Table Jesus gives us the symbol of his death for us. The bread represents his broken body, and the cup represents his shed blood, and by that, by his death, we get God and all of his promises.
And in a nutshell, that is the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. We need God, and God comes to us by the death of his Son. And one of the most obvious things about this Table is that you cannot earn this; but it’s given to you.
This Table is offered to all of us, and so we all have a choice. Will you continue to trust in your works, or will you have God by faith?
And for those of us who trust in Jesus, this Table is the reminder that indeed you do have God by faith. When we take the bread and the cup we are saying that we do not trust in our works anymore, but we receive God and all his promises. And if you would say that today, I want to invite you to enjoy this meal with us.