CRUCIAL QUESTIONS No. 4 CAN I Know GOD’S WILL? R. C. SPROUL Reformation Trust PUBLISHING A DIVISION OF LIGONIER MINISTRIES • ORLANDO, FLORIDA Can I Know God’s Will? © 1984, 1999, 2009 by R. C. Sproul Previously published as God’s Will and the Christian (1984) and as part of Following Christ (1991) by Tyndale House Publishers, and as Can I Know God’s Will? by Ligonier Ministries (1999). Published by Reformation Trust a division of Ligonier Ministries 400 Technology Park, Lake Mary, FL 32746 www.Ligonier.org www.ReformationTrust.com All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher, Reformation Trust. The only exception is brief quotations in published reviews. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked RSV are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 (2nd edition, 1971) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations marked KJV are from The Holy Bible, King James Version. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Sproul, R. C. (Robert Charles), 1939– [God’s will and the Christian] Can I know God’s will? / R. C. Sproul. p. cm.–(The crucial questions series) First published as: God’s will and the Christian. 1984. Following Christ. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, c1991. Can I know God’s Will? Ligonier Ministries, 1999. ISBN 978-1-56769-179-5 1. Providence and government of God–Christianity. 2. God (Christianity)–Will. I. Sproul, R. C. (Robert Charles), 1939– Following Christ. II. Title. BT135.S745 2009 248.4–dc22 2009018820 Contents One—THE MEANING OF GOD’S WILL Two—THE MEANING OF MAN’S WILL Three—GOD’S WILL AND YOUR JOB Four—GOD’S WILL IN MARRIAGE Chapter One THE MEANING OF GOD’S WILL Lost in Wonderland, Alice came to a fork in the road. Icy panic stung her as she stood frozen by indecision. She lifted her eyes toward heaven, looking for guidance. Her eyes did not find God, only the Cheshire cat leering at her from his perch in the tree above. “Which way should I go?” Alice blurted. “That depends,” said the cat, fixing a sardonic smile on the confused girl. “On what?” Alice managed to reply. “It depends on your destination. Where are you going?” the cat asked. “I don’t know,” Alice stammered. “Then,” said the cat, his grin spreading wider, “it doesn’t matter which way you go.” The destination matters to the Christian. We are a pilgrim people. Though we do not wander in a wilderness in route to the Promised Land, we seek a better country, an eternal city whose builder and maker is God. Someday He will take us home to His kingdom. So the ultimate destination is clear. We are certain that there is a glorious future for the people of God. However, what of tomorrow? We feel anxious about the immediate future, just as unbelievers do. The specifics of our personal futures are unknown to us. Like children we ask: “Will I be happy? Will I be rich? What will happen to me?” We must walk by faith rather than by sight. As long as there have been people, there have been soothsayers and wizards exploiting our anxieties. If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, surely fortune-telling is the second oldest. “Tell me of tomorrow” is the plea of the stock market speculator, the competitive businessman, the sports forecaster, and the young couple in love. The student asks, “Will I graduate?” The manager muses, “Will I be promoted?” The person in the doctor’s waiting room clenches his hands and asks, “Is it cancer or indigestion?” People have examined lizard entrails, snakeskins, the bones of owls, the Ouija board, the daily horoscope, and the predictions of sports handicappers—all to gain a small margin of insurance against an unknown future. The Christian feels the same curiosity, but frames the question differently. He asks: “What is the will of God for my life?” To search for the will of God can be an exercise in piety or impiety, an act of humble submission or outrageous arrogance—depending on what will of God we seek. To try to look behind the veil at what God has not been pleased to reveal is to tamper with holy things that are out of bounds. John Calvin said that when God “closes his holy mouth,” we should desist from inquiry (Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. and ed. John Owen [reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House. 2003], 354). On the other hand, God delights to hear the prayers of His people when they individually ask, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” The Christian pursues God, looking for His marching orders, seeking to know what course of action is pleasing to Him. This search for the will of God is a holy quest—a pursuit that is to be undertaken with vigor by the godly person. The Biblical Meaning of the Will of God We yearn for simple answers to difficult questions. We want clarity. We desire to cut through the entanglements to the heart of the question. Sometimes the answers are simple enough in themselves, but the process of finding them is laborious and confusing. Sometimes the answers are simplistic, giving us temporary relief from the pressures and the burdens of confusing questions. However, there is a profound difference between the simple answer and the simplistic answer. The simple answer is correct; it accounts for all the data found in the complex problem. It is clear and can be easily grasped in its fullness. It abides, being able to stand the test of rigorous questioning. The simplistic answer is a counterfeit. On the surface it appears to be the genuine article, but under closer scrutiny it yields its bogus flaws. The simplistic answer may account for some of the data but not all of it. It remains fuzzy. Worst of all, it does not abide; it fails the test of deeper questioning. It does not satisfy in the long haul. One of the most excruciating questions in theology is, “Why did Adam fall?” The simplistic answer, commonly heard, is that Adam fell by his own free will. Such an answer is satisfying until we probe the question more deeply. Suppose we ask: “How could a righteous creature made by a perfect Creator sin? How could Adam make an evil choice while possessing no prior inclination or disposition to evil? Was he simply deceived or coerced by Satan? If so, why would Adam then be blameworthy?” If he was merely deceived, then the fault is all Satan’s. If he was coerced, then it was not a free choice. If he sinned because he had a prior desire or inclination to sin, then we must ask: “What was the source of his evil desire? Did God put it there?” If so, then we cast a shadow on the integrity of the Creator. Perhaps the simplest way to expose the weak character of the simplistic answer that Adam fell by his own free will is to ask our question another way: “Why did Adam exercise his own free will to sin?” It simply won’t do to answer, “Because he chose to.” This answer is a mere repetition of the question in a declarative form. I would like to offer a simple answer to the difficult question of Adam’s fall, but I simply can’t. The only response I can give to the question is that I don’t know the answer. Some readers will surely chasten me at this point by saying to themselves: “I know the answer! Adam fell because it was the will of God.” I immediately ask: “In what sense was Adam’s fall the will of God? Did God force Adam to fall and then punish him for doing what he had no power to avoid?” To ask such an impious question is to answer it. Certainly the fall must have been the “will of God” in some sense, but the crucial question remains, “In what sense?” So here we are, pressed squarely against a biting question that involves the matter of the will of God. We want to know how the will of God worked in Adam’s life; but more personally, we want to know how the will of God works in our own lives. When questions are difficult and complex, it is a good rule to collect as much data about them as possible. The more clues the detective has to work with, the easier it usually is to solve the crime (note the word usually). Sometimes the detective suffers from too many clues, which only serve to compound the difficulty of the solution. The corporate executive faced with major decision-making responsibilities knows the importance of sufficient data- and record-keeping. His maxim may be: “If you have enough data, the decisions jump out at you.” Again we must add the qualifier usually. Sometimes the data are so complex that they jump out like screaming banshees, defying our ability to sort through them all. I emphasize the point of data, complexity, and simplicity because the biblical meaning of the will of God is a very complicated matter. To approach it simplistically is to invite disaster. At times, wrestling with the complexities of the biblical concept of the will of God can give us an Excedrin headache. Yet ours is a holy quest, a pursuit that is worth a few headaches along the way. But we must guard against proceeding in a simplistic way, lest we change the holy quest into an unholy presumption. We note at the outset that the Bible speaks of the “will of God” in more than one way. This is the key problem that complicates our quest and serves as a warning against simplistic solutions. In the New Testament, there are two Greek words that can be and have been translated by the English word will. It would seem that all we need is to identify precisely the meanings of the two words and check out the Greek text every time we see the word will, and our problems will be solved. Alas, it doesn’t work that way. The plot thickens when we discover that each of the two Greek words has several nuances of meaning. Simply checking the Greek text for word usage is not enough to solve our difficulty. However, finding the meanings of the Greek words is a helpful starting place. Let’s examine the two words briefly to see whether they shed any light on our quest. The words are boule and thelema. The term boule has its roots in an ancient verb that means a “rational and conscious desire,” as opposed to thelema, meaning “an impulsive or unconscious desire.” The ancient subtle distinction was between rational desire and impulsive desire. As the Greek language developed, however, this distinction was softened, and eventually the words became used at times as synonyms, with authors switching from one to the other for purposes of stylistic change. In the New Testament, boule usually refers to a plan based on careful deliberation; it is used most often with respect to the counsel of God. Boule frequently indicates God’s providential plan, which is predetermined and inflexible. Luke is fond of using it this way, as we read in the book of Acts: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan [boule] and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Here the resolute decree of God is in view, which no human action can set aside. God’s plan is impregnable; His “will” is unalterable. The word thelema is rich in its diversity of meanings. It refers to what is agreeable, what is desired, what is intended, what is chosen, or what is commanded. Here we have the notions of consent, desire, purpose, resolution, and command. The force of the various meanings is determined by the context in which thelema appears. The Decretive Will of God Theologians describe as the “decretive will of God” that will by which God decrees things to come to pass according to His supreme sovereignty. This is also sometimes called “God’s sovereign efficacious will”; by it, God brings to pass whatsoever He wills. When God sovereignly decrees something in this sense, nothing can prevent it from coming to pass. When God commanded the light to shine, the darkness had no power to resist the command. The “lights” came on. God did not persuade the light to shine. He did not negotiate with elemental powers to form a universe. He did not achieve a plan of redemption by trial and error; the cross was not a cosmic accident exploited by the Deity. These things were decreed absolutely. Their effects were efficacious (producing the desired result) because their causes were sovereignly decreed. A serious danger faces those who restrict the meaning of the will of God to the sovereign will. We hear the Muslim cry, “It is the will of Allah.” We slip at times into a deterministic view of life that says, “Que será, sera,” or “What will be, will be.” In so doing, we embrace a sub-Christian form of fatalism, as if God willed everything that happened in such a way as to eliminate human choices. Classical theologians insist on the reality of man’s will in acting, choosing, and responding. God works His plan through means, via the real choices of willing and acting creatures. There are secondary as well as primary causes. To deny this is to embrace a kind of determinism that eliminates human freedom and dignity. Yet there is a God who is sovereign, whose will is greater than ours. His will restricts my will. My will cannot restrict His will. When He decrees something sovereignly, it will come to pass—whether I like it or not, whether I choose it or not. He is sovereign. I am subordinate. The Preceptive Will of God When the Bible speaks of the will of God, it does not always mean the decretive will of God. The decretive will of God cannot be broken or disobeyed. It will come to pass. On the other hand, there is a will that can be broken: “the preceptive will of God.” It can be disobeyed. Indeed, it is broken and disobeyed every day by each one of us. The preceptive will of God is found in His law. The precepts, statutes, and commandments that He delivers to His people make up the preceptive will. They express and reveal to us what is right and proper for us to do. The preceptive will is God’s rule of righteousness for our lives. By this rule we are governed. It is the will of God that we not sin. It is the will of God that we have no other gods before Him; that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves; that we refrain from stealing, coveting, and committing adultery. Yet the world is filled with idolatry, hatred, thievery, covetousness, and adultery. The will of God is violated whenever His law is broken. One of the great tragedies of contemporary Christendom is the preoccupation of so many Christians with the secret decretive will of God to the exclusion and neglect of the preceptive will. We want to peek behind the veil, to catch a glimpse of our personal future. We seem more concerned with our horoscope than with our obedience, more concerned with what the stars in their courses are doing than with what we are doing. With respect to God’s sovereign will, we assume we are passive. With respect to His preceptive will, we know that we are active and therefore responsible and accountable. It is easier to engage in ungodly prying into the secret counsel of God than to apply ourselves to the practice of godliness. We can flee to the safety of the sovereign will and try to pass off our sin to God, laying the burden and responsibility of it on His unchanging will. Such characterizes the spirit of antichrist, the spirit of lawlessness or antinomianism, that despises God’s law and ignores His precepts. Protestants are particularly vulnerable to this distortion. We seek refuge in our precious doctrine of justification by faith alone, forgetting that the very doctrine is to be a catalyst for the pursuit of righteousness and obedience to the preceptive will of God. Biblical Righteousness Habakkuk’s famous statement, “the just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4, KJV), is found three times in the New Testament. It has become a slogan of evangelical Protestantism, whose emphasis has been on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This slogan, containing a hint of the essence of the Christian life, has its focal point in the biblical concept of righteousness. One of Jesus’ most disturbing comments was the statement, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). It is easy for us to assume that Jesus meant that our righteousness must be of a higher sort than that characterized by men who were hypocrites. The image that we have of scribes and Pharisees from the New Testament period is that of unscrupulous, ruthless practitioners of religious deceit. We must bear in mind, however, that the Pharisees as a group were men historically committed to a very lofty level of righteous living. Yet Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed theirs. What did He mean? When we consider the biblical notion of righteousness, we are dealing with a matter that touches virtually every plane of theology. In the first place, there is the righteousness of God, by which all standards of rightness and wrongness are to be measured. God’s character is the ultimate foundation and model of righteousness. In the Old Testament, righteousness becomes defined in terms of obedience to the commandments delivered by God, who Himself is altogether righteous. Those commands include not only precepts of human behavior with respect to our fellow human beings, but also matters of a liturgical and ceremonial nature. In Old Testament Israel and among the New Testament Pharisees, liturgical righteousness was substituted for authentic righteousness. That is to say, men became satisfied with obeying the rituals of the religious community rather than fulfilling the broader implications of the law. For example, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for tithing their mint and cumin while omitting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy. Jesus indicated that the Pharisees were correct in giving their tithes, but were incorrect in assuming that the liturgical exercises had completed the requirements of the law. Here, liturgical righteousness had become a substitute for true and full obedience. Within the evangelical world, righteousness is a rare word indeed. We speak of morality, spirituality, and piety. Seldom, however, do we speak of righteousness. Yet the goal of our redemption is not piety or spirituality but righteousness. Spirituality in the New Testament sense is a means to the end of righteousness. Being spiritual means that we are exercising the spiritual graces given by God to mold us after the image of His Son. The disciplines of prayer, Bible study, church fellowship, witnessing, and the like are not ends in themselves, but are designed to assist us in living righteously. We are stunted in our growth if we assume that the end of the Christian life is spirituality. Spiritual concerns are but the beginning of our walk with God. We must beware of the subtle danger of thinking that spirituality completes the requirements of Christ. To fall into such a trap—the trap of the Pharisees—is to substitute liturgical or ritualistic practices for authentic righteousness. By all means we are to pray and to study the Bible, and to bear witness in evangelism. However, we must never, at any point in our lives, rest from our pursuit of righteousness. In justification we become righteous in the sight of God by means of the cloak of Christ’s righteousness. However, as soon as we are justified, our lives must give evidence of the personal righteousness that flows out of our justification. It is interesting to me that the whole biblical concept of righteousness is contained in one Greek word, dikaios. That same Greek word is used to refer, in the first instance, to the righteousness of God; in the second instance, to what we call justification; and in the third instance, to the righteousness of life. Thus, from beginning to end—from the nature of God to the destiny of man—our human duty remains the same—a call to righteousness. True righteousness must never be confused with self-righteousness. Since our righteousness proceeds from our justification, which is based on the righteousness of Christ alone, we must never be deluded into thinking that our works of righteousness have any merit of their own. Yet as Protestants, zealously maintaining our doctrine of justification by faith alone, we must be ever mindful that the justification that is by faith alone is never by a faith that is alone. True faith manifests itself in righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees and the scribes, for it is concerned with the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy. We are called to bear witness to the righteousness of God in every area of life—from our prayer closets to our courtrooms, from our pews to our marketplaces. The top priority of Jesus is that we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. All other things will be added to that. An Allergy to Restraint “Everybody do your own thing.” This cliché from the sixties characterizes the spirit of our age. Increasingly freedom is being equated with the inalienable right to do whatever you please. It carries with it a built-in allergy to laws that restrain, whether they be the laws of God or the laws of men. This pervasive anti-law, or antinomian, attitude is reminiscent of the biblical epoch that provoked God’s judgment because “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). The secular world reflects this attitude in the statement, “Government can’t legislate morality.” Morality is seen as a private matter, outside the domain of the state and even of the church. A shift has occurred in word meaning so subtle that many have missed it. The original intent of the concept, “You cannot legislate morality,” was to convey the idea that passing a law prohibiting a particular kind of activity would not necessarily eliminate such activity. The point of the phrase was that laws do not ipso facto produce obedience to those laws. In fact, on some occasions, the legal prohibition of certain practices has incited only greater violation of established law. The prohibition of alcoholic beverages is an example. The contemporary interpretation of legislating morality differs from the original intent. Instead of saying that government cannot legislate morality, it says government may not legislate morality. That means government should stay out of moral issues such as the regulation of abortion, deviant sexual practices, marriage and divorce, and so on, since morality is a matter of conscience in the private sector. For government to legislate in these areas is often viewed as an invasion of privacy by the state, representing a denial of basic freedoms for the individual. If we take this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion, we leave the government with little to do. If government may not legislate morality, its activity will be restricted to determining the colors of the state flag, the state flower, and perhaps the state bird. (However, even questions of flowers and birds may be deemed “moral,” as they touch on ecological issues, which are ultimately moral in character.) The vast majority of matters that concern legislation are, in fact, of a decidedly moral character. The regulation of murder, theft, and civil rights is a moral matter. How a person operates his automobile on the highway is a moral issue since it touches on the well-being of fellow travelers. Questions relating to the legalization of marijuana often focus on the fact that a majority of certain age groups are violating the law. The argument goes like this: Since disobedience is so widespread, doesn’t this indicate that the law is bad? Such a conclusion is a blatant non sequitur. Whether or not marijuana should be decriminalized should not be determined by levels of civil disobedience. The point is that a vast number of Americans reflect an antinomian spirit regarding marijuana. Such disobedience is hardly motivated by noble aspirations to a higher ethic suppressed by a tyrannical government. Here the law is broken as a matter of convenience and physical appetite. Within the church, the same spirit of antinomianism has prevailed too often. Pope Benedict XVI faces the embarrassing legacy of his predecessors as he tries to explain to the world why a majority of his American adherents tell the pollsters they practice artificial means of birth control when a papal encyclical explicitly forbids such methods. One must ask how people can confess their belief in an “infallible” leader of their church and at the same time obstinately refuse to submit to that leader. Within the Protestant churches, individuals frequently become irate when called to moral accountability. They often declare that the church has no right to intrude into their private lives. They say this in spite of the fact that in their membership vows, they publicly committed themselves to submit to the moral oversight of the church. Antinomianism should be more rare in the evangelical Christian community than anywhere else. Sadly, the facts do not fit the theory. So blasé is the typical “evangelical” toward the law of God that the prophecies of doom that Rome thundered at Martin Luther are beginning to come true. Some “evangelicals” are indeed using justification by faith alone as a license to sin; these can be deemed properly only as pseudo-evangelicals. Anyone who has the most rudimentary understanding of justification by faith knows that authentic faith always manifests itself in a zeal for obedience. No earnest Christian can ever have a cavalier attitude toward the law of God. Though obedience to such laws does not bring justification, the justified person will surely endeavor to obey them. To be sure, there are times when the commandments of men are on a collision course with the laws of God. In those instances, Christians not only may disobey men, but must disobey men. I am not talking here of isolated moral issues but of attitudes. Christians must be particularly careful in this era of antinomianism not to get caught up in the spirit of the age. We are not free to do what is right in our own eyes. We are called to do what is right in His eyes. Freedom should not be confused with autonomy. As long as evil exists in the world, the moral restraint of law is necessary. It is an act of grace by which God institutes government, which exists to restrain the evildoer. It exists to protect the innocent and the righteous. The righteous are called to support it as much as they possibly can without compromising their obedience to God. God’s Will of Disposition While we understand that the decretive will and the preceptive will of God are part of His overall will, other aspects of the mystery of His sovereignty remain. One such aspect is “the will of disposition.” It is tied up with the ability of man to disobey God’s preceptive will. This aspect of the will of God refers to what is pleasing and agreeable to God. It expresses something of the attitude of God to His creatures. Some things are “well pleasing in his sight,” while other things are said to grieve Him. He may allow (but not via moral permission) wicked things to transpire, but He is by no means pleased by them. To illustrate how these differing aspects of the will of God come into play in biblical interpretation, let us examine the verse that says the Lord is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9, KJV). Which of the above-mentioned meanings of will fits this text? How is the meaning of the text changed by the application of the nuances? Try first the decretive will. The verse would then mean, “God is not willing in a sovereign decretive sense that any should perish.” The implication would then be that nobody perishes. This verse would be a proof text for universalism, with its view that hell is utterly vacant of people. The second option is that God is not willing in a preceptive way that any should perish. This would mean that God does not allow people to perish in the sense that He grants His moral permission. This obviously does not fit the context of the passage. The third option makes sense. God is not willing in the sense that He is not inwardly disposed to, or delighted by, people’s perishing. Elsewhere, Scripture teaches that God takes no delight in the death of the wicked. He may decree what He does not enjoy; that is, He may distribute justice to wicked offenders. He is pleased when justice is maintained and righteousness is honored, even though He takes no personal pleasure in the application of such punishment. A human analogy may be seen in our law courts. A judge, in the interest of justice, may sentence a criminal to prison and at the same time inwardly grieve for the guilty man. His disposition may be for the man but against the crime. However, God is not merely a human judge, working under the constraints of the criminal justice system. God is sovereign—He can do what He pleases. If He is not pleased or willing that any should perish, why then does He not exercise His decretive will accordingly? How can there be a hiatus between God’s decretive will and His will of disposition? All things being equal, God does desire that no one should perish. But all things are not equal. Sin is real. Sin violates God’s holiness and righteousness. God also is not willing that sin should go unpunished. He desires as well that His holiness should be vindicated. It is dangerous to speak of a conflict of interests or of a clash of desires within God. Yet, in a certain sense, we must. He wills the obedience of His creatures. He wills the well-being of His creatures. There is a symmetry of relationship ultimately between obedience and well-being. The obedient child will never perish. Those who obey God’s preceptive will enjoy the benefits of His will of disposition. When the preceptive will is violated, things are no longer equal. Now God requires punishment while not particularly enjoying the application of it. Yet does this not beg the ultimate question? Where does the decretive will fit in? Could not God originally have decreed that no one ever would be able to sin, thus ensuring an eternal harmony among all elements of His will: decretive, preceptive, and dispositional? Often the answer to this question is superficial. Appeals are made to the free will of man, as if by magic man’s free will could explain the dilemma. We are told that the only way God could have created a universe guaranteed to be free from sin would have been to make creatures without free will. It is then argued that these creatures would have been nothing more than puppets and would have lacked humanity, being devoid of the power or ability to sin. If that is the case, then what does it suggest about the state of our existence in heaven? We are promised that when our redemption is complete, sin will be no more. We will still have an ability to choose, but our disposition will be so inclined toward righteousness that we will, in fact, never choose evil. If this will be possible in heaven after redemption, why could it not have been possible before the fall? The Bible gives no clear answer to this thorny question. We are told that God created people who, for better or for worse, have the ability to sin. We also know from Scripture that there is no shadow of turning in the character of God, and that all of His works are clothed in righteousness. That He chose to create man the way He did is mysterious, but we must assume, given the knowledge we have, that God’s plan was good. Any conflict that arises between His commandments to us, His desire that we should obey Him, and our failure to comply does not destroy His sovereignty. God’s Secret and Revealed Will We have already distinguished among the three types of the will of God: His decretive will, His preceptive will, and His will of disposition. Another distinction must be established between what is called God’s secret, or hidden, will and His revealed will. This secret will of God is subsumed under the decretive will because, for the most part, it remains undisclosed to us. There is a limit to the revelation God has made of Himself. We know certain things about God’s decretive will that He has been pleased to set forth for our information in Holy Scripture. But because we are finite creatures, we do not comprehend the total dimension of divine knowledge or the divine plan. As the Scriptures teach, the secret things belong to the Lord, but that which He has revealed belongs to us and to our children forever (Deut. 29:29). Protestant theologians have made use of the distinction between the hidden God (Deus obsconditus) and the revealed God (Deus revelatus). This distinction is valuable and indeed necessary when we realize that not all that can be known of God has been revealed to us. There is a sense in which God remains hidden from us, insofar as He has not been pleased to reveal all there is to know about Him. However, this distinction is fraught with peril since some have found within it a conflict between two kinds of gods. A god who reveals his character to be one thing, but who is secretly contrary to that revealed character, would be a supreme hypocrite. If we say that God has no secret will and proposes to do only what He commands and nothing more, then we would perceive God as one whose desires and plans are constantly thwarted by the harassment of human beings. Such a god would be impotent, and no god at all. If we distinguish between the secret aspect of God and the revealed aspect of God, we must hold these as parts of the whole, not as contradictions. That is to say, what God has revealed about Himself is trustworthy. Our knowledge is partial, but it is true as far as it goes. What belongs to the secret counsel of God does not contradict the character of God that has been revealed to us. The distinction of God’s revealed will and hidden will raises a practical problem: the question of whether or not it is possible for a Christian to act in harmony with God’s decretive (hidden) will and at the same time work against His preceptive will. We must admit that such a possibility exists—in a sense. For example, it was in God’s decretive will and by His determinate counsel that Jesus Christ was condemned to die on the cross. The divine purpose, of course, was to secure the redemption of God’s people. However, that purpose was hidden from the view of men who sat in judgment over Jesus. When Pontius Pilate delivered Jesus to be crucified, Pilate acted against the preceptive will of God but in harmony with the decretive will of God. Does this make nonsense of God’s preceptive will? God forbid. What it does is bear witness to the transcendent power of God to work His purposes sovereignly in spite of, and by means of, the evil acts of men. Consider the story of Joseph, whose brothers, out of jealousy and greed, sold their innocent brother into slavery in Egypt. At their reunion years later, and upon the brothers’ confession of sin, Joseph replied, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Here is the inscrutable majesty of God’s providence. God made use of human evil in bringing to pass His purposes for Joseph and for the Jewish nation. Joseph’s brothers were guilty of willful and malicious sin. By directly violating the preceptive will of God, they sinned against their brother and against God. Yet in their sin, God’s secret counsel was brought to pass, and God brought redemption through it. What if Joseph’s brothers had been obedient? Joseph would not have been sold into slavery; he would not have been taken to Egypt; he would not have been sent to prison, from which he was called to interpret a dream. What if Joseph had not become prime minister? What would have become the historical reason for the brothers’ settling in Egypt? There would have been no Jewish settlement in Egypt, no Moses, no exodus from Egypt, no law, no prophets, no Christ, no salvation. Can we, therefore, conclude that the sins of Joseph’s brothers were, in fact, virtues in disguise? Not at all. Their sin was sin, a clear violation of the preceptive will of God, for which they were held responsible and judged to be guilty. But God brought good out of evil. This reflects neither a contradiction in God’s character nor a contradiction between His precepts and His decrees. Rather it calls attention to the transcendent power of His sovereignty. Is it possible for us in this day and age to obey the preceptive will of God and yet be in conflict with the secret will of God? Of course this is possible. It may be the will of God, for example, that He use a foreign nation to chastise the United States for sinning against God. It may be in the plan of God to have the people of the United States brought under judgment through the aggressive invasion of Russia. In terms of God’s inscrutable will, He could be, for purposes of judgment, “on the side of the Russians.” Yet at the same time, it would remain the duty of the civil magistrate of the American nation to resist the transgression of our borders by a conquering nation. We have a parallel in the history of Israel, where God used the Babylonians as a rod to chastise His people Israel. In that situation, it would have been perfectly proper for the civil magistrate of Israel to have resisted the wicked invasion of the Babylonians. In so doing, the Israelites would have been, in effect, resisting the decretive will of God. The book of Habakkuk wrestles with the severe problem of God’s use of the evil inclinations of men to bring judgment on His people. This is not to suggest that God favored the Babylonians. He made it clear that judgment would fall on them also, but He first made use of their evil inclinations in order to bring a corrective discipline to His own people. Knowing the Will of God for Our Lives Pursuing knowledge of the will of God is not an abstract science designed to titillate the intellect or to convey the kind of knowledge that “puffs up” but fails to edify. An understanding of the will of God is desperately important for every Christian seeking to live a life that is pleasing to his or her Creator. It is a very practical thing for us to know what God wants for our lives. A Christian asks: “What are my marching orders? What should my role be in contributing to the establishment of the kingdom of God? What does God want me to do with my life?” It is inconceivable that a Christian could live for very long without coming face-to-face with these gripping questions. Having been a Christian for some fifty years, with the study of theology my main vocational pursuit, I find the practical question of the will of God pressing on my mind quite frequently. I doubt a fortnight passes that I am not seriously engaged by the question of whether I am doing what God wants me to do at this point in my life. The question haunts and beckons all of us. It demands resolution, and so we must ask ourselves, “How do we know the will of God for our lives?” The practical question of how we know the will of God for our lives cannot be solved with any degree of accuracy unless we have some prior understanding of the will of God in general. Without the distinctions that we have made, our pursuit of the will of God can plunge us into hopeless confusion and consternation. When we seek the will of God, we must first ask ourselves which will we are seeking to discover. If our quest is to penetrate the hidden aspects of His will, then we have embarked on a fool’s errand. We are trying the impossible and chasing the untouchable. Such a quest is not only an act of foolishness, but also an act of presumption. There is a very real sense in which the secret will of the secret counsel of God is none of our business and is off limits to our speculative investigations. Untold evils have been perpetrated on God’s people by unscrupulous theologians who have sought to correct or to supplant the clear and plain teaching of sacred Scripture by doctrines and theories based on speculation alone. The business of searching out the mind of God where God has remained silent is dangerous business indeed. Luther put it this way: “We must keep in view his word and leave alone his inscrutable will; for it is by his word and not by his inscrutable will that we must be guided.” Christians are permitted, in a sense, to attempt to discern the will of God by means of illumination by the Holy Spirit and by confirmation through circumstances that we are doing the right thing. However, as we will discover, the search for providential guidance must always be subordinate to our study of the revealed will of God. In our search, we must also come to terms with the dynamic tensions created by the concept of man’s will versus predestination. Before our inquiry can lead us into such practical avenues as occupation and marriage, we must face the thorny issues involved in the free will/predestination issue. We have seen what the will of God entails. What about the will of man? How do the two relate? How free is man, after all? Chapter Two THE MEANING OF MAN’S WILL The term free will as applied to man is often glibly declared with little or no understanding of its meaning. There is actually no unified theory of man’s free will, but a variety of competing and often conflicting views about it. The question of man’s free will is made more complicated by the fact that we must examine it in terms of how the will functioned before and after the fall of Adam. Most important is how the fall affected man’s moral choices. Augustine gave the church a close analysis of the state of freedom that Adam enjoyed before the fall. His classic concept of freedom distinguished four possibilities. In Latin, they are: 1. posse pecarre—able to sin 2. posse non pecarre—able not to sin (or to remain free from sin) 3. non posse pecarre—unable to sin 4. non posse, non pecarre—unable not to sin Augustine argued that before the fall, Adam possessed both the ability to sin (posse pecarre) and the ability to not sin (posse non pecarre). However, Adam lacked the exalted state of the inability to sin that God enjoys (non posse pecarre). God’s inability to sin is based not on an inner powerlessness to do what He wants, but rather on the fact that God has no inner desire to sin. Since the desire for sin is utterly absent from God, there is no reason for God to choose sin. Before the fall, Adam did not have the moral perfection of God, but neither did he have the inability to refrain from sin (non posse, non pecarre). During his time of “probation” in the garden, he had the ability to sin and the ability not to sin. He chose to exercise the ability to sin and thus plunged the human race into ruin. As a result, Adam’s first sin was passed on to all his descendants. Original sin refers not to the first sin but to God’s punishment of that first transgression. Because of the first sin, human nature fell into a morally corrupt state, itself partly a judgment of God. When we speak of original sin, we refer to the fallen human condition that reflects the judgment of God on the race. The Fallenness of Man Christians differ in their views concerning the extent and seriousness of the fall. However, it is almost universally conceded that in dealing with mankind, we are dealing with a fallen race. Augustine located the depths of man’s fallenness in his loss of original powers of righteousness. No longer does man have the ability to not sin. In man’s fallen state, his plight is found in his inability to keep from sinning (non posse, non pecarre). In the fall, something profoundly vital to moral freedom was lost. Augustine declared that in his prefallen state, man enjoyed both a free will (liberium arbitrium) and moral liberty (libertas). Since the fall, man has continued to have a free will, but has lost the moral liberty he once enjoyed. Perhaps the most insightful study of the question of fallen man’s free will is the epic work of Jonathan Edwards, On the Freedom of the Will. Edwards and Augustine differ in terminology, but their meaning is essentially the same. Edwards distinguished between the natural ability of freedom and the moral ability of freedom. Natural ability deals with the powers of action and choice that we possess by nature. Man’s natural abilities include the power to think, to walk, to speak, to eat, and so on. Man lacks the natural ability to fly, to live beneath the sea as a fish, or to hibernate for months without food. We may desire to fly, but we lack the natural equipment necessary to live out our desire. Our freedom has a certain built-in restriction related to the limitations of our natural faculties. With respect to the making of choices, fallen man still has the natural ability and the natural faculties necessary to make moral choices. Man can still think, feel, and desire. All of the equipment necessary for the making of choices remains. What fallen man lacks is the moral disposition, the desire, or the inclination for righteousness. Stated simply, man still has the ability to choose what he wants, but lacks the desire for true righteousness. He is naturally free, but he is morally enslaved to his own corrupt and wicked desires. Both Edwards and Augustine said man is still free to choose, but if left to himself, man will never choose righteousness, precisely because he does not desire it. Edwards took the question a step further. He said man still has not only the ability but the built-in necessity to choose according to his desires. Not only can we choose what we want, we must choose what we want. It is at this point that the protest is sounded: Is free choice an illusion? If we must choose what we choose, how can such a choice be called free? If we are free to choose what we want but want only what is evil, how can we still speak of free will? This is precisely why Augustine distinguished between free will and liberty, saying that fallen man still has free will but has lost his liberty. It is why Edwards said that we still have natural freedom but have lost moral freedom. Why talk of freedom at all, if we can choose only sin? The crux of the matter lies in the relationship between choice and desire, or disposition. Edwards’s thesis is that we always choose according to the strongest inclination, or disposition, of the moment. Again, not only can we choose according to our strongest desires, we must choose according to our strongest desires of the moment. Such is the essence of freedom—that I am able to choose what I want when I want it. If I must do something, then in a sense my actions are determined. But if my actions are determined, how can I be free? The classic answer to this difficult question is that the determination of my choices comes from within me. The essence of freedom is self-determination. It is when my choices are forced on me by external coercion that my freedom is lost. To be able to choose what I want by virtue of self-determination does not destroy free will but establishes it. Choices Flow from Desires To choose according to the strongest desire or inclination of the moment simply means that there is a reason for the choices I make. At one point, Edwards defined the will as “the mind choosing.” The actual choice is an effect or result that requires an antecedent cause. The cause is located in the disposition or desire. If all effects have causes, then all choices likewise have causes. If the cause is apart from me, then I am a victim of coercion. If the cause is from within me, then my choices are self-determined or free. Think about Edwards’s thesis that we always choose according to the strongest inclination or desire of the moment. Think, if you will, of the most harmless choice that you might make in the course of a day. Perhaps you attend a meeting of a group and choose to sit on the left side in the third seat from the end of the fourth row at the front of the room. Why did you choose to sit there? In all probability, when you entered the room, you did not engage in a thorough analysis of your seating preferences. You probably did not make a chart to determine which seat was best. Your decision probably was made quickly, with little or no conscious evaluation and with a sense of apparent spontaneity. Does that mean, however, that there was no reason for your choice? Perhaps you sat where you did because you are comfortable sitting on the left side of the room in such meetings. Perhaps you were attracted to that seat because of its proximity to a friend or its access to the exit. In situations like this, the mind weighs a host of contributing factors so quickly that we tend to think our responses are spontaneous. The truth is that something in you triggered a desire to sit in a certain seat, or else your choice was an effect without a cause. Perhaps your seat selection was governed by forces outside your control. Perhaps the seat you chose was the only seat left in the room, so that you had no choice in the matter at all. Is that completely true? The option to stand at the back of the room was still there. Or the option to leave the meeting altogether was still there. You chose to sit in the only seat available because your desire to sit was stronger than your desire to stand and your desire to stay was stronger than your desire to leave. Consider a more bizarre illustration. Suppose on the way home from the meeting you encounter a robber who points a gun to your head and says, “Your money or your life.” What do you do? If you accede to his demand and turn over your wallet, you will become a victim of coercion, and yet in some measure you will have exercised free choice. Coercion enters by virtue of the fact that the gunman is severely restricting your options to two. The element of freedom that is preserved stems from the fact that you still have two options and that you choose the one for which you have the strongest desire at the moment. All things being equal, you have no desire to donate your money to an unworthy thief. You have even less desire, however, to have your brain poured out on the sidewalk by the gunman’s bullet. Given the small number of options, you still choose according to the strongest inclination at the moment. We always do what we really want to do. The Bible teaches, some will say, that we do not always do what we want to do. The apostle Paul lamented in Romans 7 that the good he wanted to do he did not do, and the thing he did not want to do was the very thing he did. Paul’s frustration over the wretchedness of his condition would seem totally to refute Edwards’s thesis of the relationship of choice to desire. Paul, however, was not giving expression to an analysis of the causal relationship between desire and choice. He was expressing a profound frustration that centers on the complex of desires that assault the human will. We are creatures with a multitude of desires, many of which are in violent conflict with each other. Again, consider the “all things being equal” dimension of our moral choices. As a Christian I have a profound desire to please Christ with my life and to attain righteousness. That good desire for obedience to God is neither perfect nor pure, as it struggles daily with other desires in my sinful personality. If I had no conflicting desires, I would never be disobedient. If the only desire I had, or if the strongest desire I had, was to obey God continuously, I would never willfully sin against Him. However, there are times when my desire to sin is greater than my desire to obey; when that happens, I sin. When my desire to obey is greater than my desire to sin, at that moment I refrain from sinning. My choices reveal more clearly and more certainly than anything else the level of my desire. Desire, like appetite, is not constant. Our levels of desire fluctuate from day to day, from hour to hour, and from minute to minute. Desire moves in an ebb-and-flow pattern like the waves of the sea. The person who goes on a diet experiences intensifying pangs of hunger at various times of the day. It is easy to make a resolution to diet when one is satiated. Likewise, it is easy to resolve to be righteous in the midst of a moving spiritual experience of prayer. Yet we are creatures of changing moods and fleeting desires who have not yet achieved a constancy of will based on a consistency of godly desires. As long as conflict of desire exists and an appetite for sin remains in the heart, man is not totally free in the moral sense of which Edwards spoke, and neither does he experience the fullness of liberty described by Augustine. Choice as a Spontaneous Act Over against the Augustinian view of free will is the classical notion that describes the action or activity of choice in purely spontaneous terms. In this concept, the will chooses and is free from not only external forces of coercion but from any internal rule of disposition or desire. The choice of the moment proceeds freely in the sense that no inclination or prior disposition controls, directs, or affects the choice that is made. It is safe to say that this is the dominant view of free will in Western culture and is the view Calvin had in mind when he stated, “Free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to man.” At bottom it implies that man can make choices that are effects without any causes. Here it is suggested that the power of man to produce an effect without a cause exceeds even the creative power of God Almighty. Moreover, the cardinal rule of causality—ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”)—is broken. Such a view of freedom is repugnant not only to Scripture but to reason. To understand freedom as purely spontaneous choice with no prior disposition controlling it is to rob freedom of any moral significance. That is, if I act with no prior motive or no previous inclination toward or away from righteousness, how can it be said that my act is moral at all? Such activity would be without reason or motive behind it; it would be a purely random action, with no moral virtue attached to it. However, a deeper question remains: Is such a spontaneous action possible at all? If the will is inclined neither to the right nor to the left, how could it choose at all? If there is no disposition toward, or away from, the action, then the will suffers from complete paralysis. It is like the donkey that had set before him a bale of hay and a bucket of oats. The donkey’s inclination with respect to the hay and the oats was exactly equal, with not the slightest degree of preference toward one or the other. The story is told that the donkey in such circumstances starves to death with a banquet feast in front of him because he has no way to choose between the two. The practical problem that remains with the classical view of freedom is one raised by behavioristic psychology. If man is indeed self-determined or free, does that not imply that if his desires were completely known, man’s action in every given circumstance would be completely predictable? There is a sense in which we must agree that such a predictability would be implied. However, there is no way that any genius short of God and His omniscience could possibly know all the complex factors present in the human mind weighing a choice. We recognize with psychologists that preferences and inclinations are shaped in many respects by experience and environment, but we cannot predict with certainty what any human being will do. Hidden variables within the complex of human personality make for this unpredictability. It nevertheless remains a fact that there is always a reason for our actions, a cause for our choices. That cause stems partly from ourselves and partly from the forces operating around and over against us. The Definition of Freedom The safest course to steer is to define freedom as did the church fathers, such as Augustine: “the ability to choose what we want.” God’s sovereignty does not extinguish that dimension of human personality, but certainly rules over it. Out of rigid forms of determinism comes the cry of despair: “If the complex factors that make up personality completely determine my choices, then what value is self-improvement or the search for righteousness? If my will is enslaved by my dispositions and desires, what hope do I have of ever breaking out of the patterns of sin that are so destructive to my present mode of behavior?” In a real sense, the process of sanctification involves a radical reprogramming of the inner self. We are not the victims of blind mechanical forces that control our destiny. As intelligent beings, we can do something to change the dispositions of our hearts and the inclinations of our minds. It is important to remember that desire is not a fixed and constant power that beats within our souls. Our desires change and fluctuate from moment to moment. When the Bible calls us to feed the new man and starve the old man, we can apply this injunction by taking advantage of the ebb and flow of moods to strengthen the new man when our desire for Christ is inflamed and to kill the old man’s desires by starving him in times of satiation. The simplest way to state the mechanism of sin is to understand that at the moment I sin, I desire the sin more than I desire to please God. Stated another way, my love for the sin is greater at the moment of its intense desire than is my love for obedience to God. Therefore, the simple conclusion is that to overcome the power of sin within us, we need either to decrease our desire for the sin or to increase our desire to obey God. What can we do to effect such changes? We can submit ourselves to the discipline of a class or a teacher and devote ourselves to a rigorous study of the law of God. Such disciplined study can help renew our minds, equipping us with a new understanding of what pleases and displeases God. The development of a renewed mind is the biblical definition of spiritual transformation. The mind and the will are linked, as Edwards noted. Understanding more deeply how abhorrent our sin is to God can change or reprogram our attitudes toward sin. We are to follow the biblical injunction to concentrate on whatever things are pure and good. It may be too much to expect that a man in the midst of an attack of profound lust will switch to pure thoughts. It would be difficult for him to push a button and change the inclination of his desire at that moment. However, in a more sober mood, he may have the opportunity to reprogram his mind by filling it with high and holy thoughts of the things of God. The end result is that he may well strengthen the disposition of his heart toward God and weaken the disposition of his fallen nature toward sin. We need not surrender to a superficial form of rigid determinism or behaviorism that would cause us to despair of any hope of change. Scripture encourages us to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling,” knowing that not only are we applying the means of grace by our own effort, but that God Himself is working within us to bring about the necessary changes to conform us to the image of His Son (Phil. 2:12–13; 1:6). Sovereignty of God and Freedom of Man What about man’s will with respect to the sovereignty of God? Perhaps the oldest dilemma of the Christian faith is the apparent contradiction between the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man. If we define human freedom as autonomy (meaning that man is free to do whatever he pleases, without constraint, without accountability to the will of God), then of course we must say that free will is contradictory to divine sovereignty. We cannot soft-pedal this dilemma by calling it a mystery; we must face up to the full import of the concept. If free will means autonomy, then God cannot be sovereign. If man is utterly and completely free to do as he pleases, there can be no sovereign God. However, if God is utterly sovereign to do as He pleases, no creature can be autonomous. It is possible to have a multitude of beings, all of whom are free to various degrees but none of whom are sovereign. The degree of freedom is determined by the level of power, authority, and responsibility held by each being. However, we do not live in this type of universe. There is a God who is sovereign—which is to say, He is absolutely free. My freedom is always within limits. My freedom is always constrained by the sovereignty of God. I have freedom to do things as I please, but if my freedom conflicts with the decretive will of God, there is no question as to the outcome—God’s decree will prevail over my choice. It is stated so often that it has become almost an uncritically accepted axiom within Christian circles that the sovereignty of God may never violate human freedom in the sense that God’s sovereign will may never overrule human freedom. The thought verges on, if not trespasses, the border of blasphemy because it contains the idea that God’s sovereignty is constrained by human freedom. If that were true, man, not God, would be sovereign, and God would be restrained and constrained by the power of human freedom. As I say, the implication here is blasphemous because it raises the creature to the stature of the Creator. God’s glory, majesty, and honor are denigrated since He is reduced to the status of a secondary, impotent creature. Biblically speaking, man is free, but his freedom can never violate or overrule God’s sovereignty. I and my son are free moral agents; he has a will and I have a will. However, when he was a teen living in my home, his will was more often constrained by my will than was my will constrained by His. I carried more authority and more power in the relationship and hence I had a wider expanse of freedom than he had. So it is with our relationship to God; God’s power and authority are infinite, and His freedom is never hindered by human volition. There is no contradiction between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Those who see a contradiction, or even point to the problem as an unsolvable mystery, have misunderstood the mystery. The real mystery regarding free will is how it was exercised by Adam before the fall. Options for Considering Adam’s Sin If Augustine was correct that pre-fall Adam possessed an ability to sin and an ability not to sin, and that he was created with no prior disposition or inclination toward sin, then the question we face is, “How was it possible for such a creature with no prior disposition toward evil actually to take the step into evil?” As we grapple with this mystery, let me present several options that have served as explanations in the past. First, we can hypothesize that Adam fell because he was duped by the craftiness of Satan and simply did not know what he was doing. The inspiration for this hypothesis is the biblical emphasis on the craftiness of the Devil. Satan, in his guile, was able to seduce Adam and Eve by confusing their thought patterns. Thus, the weakness of our primordial parents was not moral in nature, but intellectual, inasmuch as they failed to perceive the chicanery of the serpent. What complicates the picture is the fact that the Scriptures in this instance do not describe Adam and Eve as having been completely duped by their adversary; rather, they had full knowledge of what God allowed and did not allow them to do. They could not plead ignorance of the command of God as an excuse for their transgression. There are times when ignorance is excusable, namely when such ignorance cannot possibly be helped or overcome. Such ignorance is properly described by the Roman Catholic Church as “invincible ignorance”—ignorance that we lack the power to conquer. Invincible ignorance excuses and gives one a reprieve from any accusation of moral wrongdoing. However, the biblical record gainsays this option in the case of Adam and Eve, for God pronounces judgment on them. Unless that judgment was arbitrary or immoral on the part of God Himself, we can only conclude that what Adam and Eve did was inexcusable. A just God does not punish excusable transgressions. Indeed, excusable transgressions are not transgressions. A second option is that Adam and Eve were coerced by Satan to disobey God. Here we see the original instance of the statement “The Devil made me do it.” If, however, Satan, in fact, fully and forcibly coerced Adam and Eve to transgress the law of God, then once again we would find an excuse for their actions. We would have to conclude that they did not act with a reasonable measure of freedom, a measure that would at least have delivered them from moral culpability. Such a theory violates the clear teaching of the biblical text, which hints at no coercive manipulation on the part of Satan. Consistently, the Scriptures place the responsibility, the blame, and the full culpability on Adam and Eve themselves. They committed evil. Their choice was an evil one. By what means did Adam and Eve make an evil choice? If we apply the analysis of choice common to Augustine and Edwards to pre-fall Adam, we face an insoluble dilemma. If Adam had been created with a purely neutral disposition (with no inclination toward righteousness or evil), we would still face the same rational impasse that Edwards notes for those who would impose it for post-fall man. A will with no predisposition would have no motivation to choose. Without motivation, there could be no choice. Even if such a choice were possible, it would have no moral import to it. We must examine the other two alternatives—that Adam was created with a predisposition toward evil or with a singular predisposition toward good. Both of these options end at the stone wall of intellectual difficulty. If we assume that Adam was created with a predisposition toward evil, we cast a horrible shadow over the character of God, for this would mean that God created man with a predisposition toward evil and then punished man for exercising the disposition that God Himself had planted within his soul. In a real sense, this would make God the author of, and the one ultimately responsible for, human wickedness. Every page of Holy Scripture recoils from such a thesis, as it would transfer the blame from man to God Himself, who is altogether good. Still, many take this option, following in the footsteps of the implied criticism of the first man, Adam, who excused himself before the Creator by saying, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12, emphasis added). Men from Adam onward have manifested their fallenness by trying to transfer the blame for that fallenness to the Creator. A third option is that God created man with a disposition toward only righteousness. If this were the case, then we have an effect without a sufficient cause. How is it possible for a creature created with the disposition toward only righteousness to have chosen a wicked act? Other Inquiries into the Mystery of Adam’s Sin I have a built-in antipathy to dialectical theology—theology that proclaims the beauty of contradictions and nonsense statements. Thus, I must swallow hard to agree with one neoorthodox theologian about the origin of Adam’s sin. Karl Barth calls the sin of Adam the “impossible possibility.” Barth, of course, is calling attention to the utterly inexplicable mystery of Adam’s transgression—what was rationally impossible and inconceivable happened, and remains a bona fide and impenetrable mystery to us. Other attempts have been made to seek a complex and sophisticated answer to the mystery of iniquity. One suggestion is that the sin of Adam was like all sin, namely, a privation, a corruption, or a negation of something that was inherently and intrinsically good. In other words, Adam was created with a good moral disposition. His appetites and desires were continuously good, and as a result, one would expect his activities to have been equally good. However, it is suggested that in the complexity of moral choices, sometimes a good will (which has a desire that in itself is good) can be misused and abused toward an evil end. The supreme example of such a twisting occurred at the temptation of Jesus, the second and new Adam. In Jesus’ temptation experience in the wilderness, Satan came to Him in the midst of a prolonged fast. It is probably safe to assume that at that point Jesus had a consuming passion for food. That natural human desire to eat carried no immoral overtones in and of itself. One expects a hungry man to have a disposition to eat. However, Jesus wanted to obey God through this act of self-deprivation. When Satan came to Jesus and suggested that He turn stones into bread, Satan was appealing to a perfectly normal appetite and desire within Jesus. However, Jesus’ desire to obey the Father was deeper than His desire to partake of food. Thus, filled with an altogether righteous desire, He was able to overcome the temptation of Satan. Now the theory goes like this: Perhaps it was something good that caused Adam to fall—something that in and of itself was good, but which could have been misused and abused by the seductive influences of Satan. Such an explanation certainly helps make the fall more understandable, but it goes only so far before it fails. At its most vital point, the explanation does not account for how this good desire could have become distorted, overruling the prior obligation to obey God. At some point before the act of transgression took place, Adam must have had to desire disobedience to God more than obedience to God; therein the fall already had taken place because the very desire to act against God in disobedience is itself sinful. I leave the question of explaining the fall of Adam by virtue of the exercise of his free will to the hands of more competent and insightful theologians. To blame it on man’s finite limitations is really putting blame on the God who made man finite. Biblically, the issue has been, and always will be, a moral one. Man was commanded by the Creator not to sin, but man chose to sin, though not because God or anyone else forced him. Man chose out of his own heart. Consequently, to probe the answer to the how of man’s sin is to enter the realm of deepest mystery. Perhaps all we can do in the final analysis is to recognize the reality of our sin and our responsibility for it. Though we cannot explain it, certainly we know enough to confess it. We must never attribute the cause of our sin to God or adopt any position that would excuse us from the moral responsibility that Scripture clearly assigns to us. Some have criticized the Christian faith for its inability to give a satisfying answer to the question of sin. The fact is that other religions must come to terms with this same question. Some respond simply by denying the reality of evil—a convenient but absurd way out. Christianity alone deals head-on with the reality of sin by providing an escape from its consequences. The Christian solution to the problem of sin is a radical departure from what other religions provide, for it is centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through His perfect sacrifice, which has the efficacy of blotting out believers’ sins, we have become righteous in God’s eyes. However, that righteousness does not give us the license to do as we please. We must still seek to do God’s preceptive will, especially as we swim through the perilous waters of the moral, ethical, and social dilemmas of our age. While we have discussed the more theological aspects of man’s will and God’s will, two other topics now beckon us: God’s will for our jobs and for our marital status. These two practical concerns take center stage in the drama of our personal lives. What can we learn about God’s will and man’s will in relation to these vital aspects of living? The next chapters offer guidelines to facilitate our decision making in these all-important areas. Chapter Three GOD’S WILL AND YOUR JOB When we are introduced to people, the following three questions are generally asked: “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” The third question is the one that concerns us in this chapter. “What do you do?” is obviously a question about one’s occupation, career, or vocation. People want to know what task or service constitutes our livelihood or helps fulfill our personal aspirations. We are all familiar with the aphorism, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” We understand that life is more than work. We devote periods of time to recreation, sleep, play, and other activities not directly part of our principal employment or labor. However, the portion of our lives that is taken up by work is so encompassing and time-consuming that we tend to understand our personal identity in the light of our work. Whatever else we are, we are creatures involved in labor. This was the design of creation—God Himself is a working God. From the very moment of creation, He conferred on our original parents the responsibilities of work. Adam and Eve were called to dress, till, and keep the earth, to name the animals, and to have dominion by way of managerial responsibility over the earth. All of these activities involved the expenditure of time, energy, and resources—in short, work. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that work is a punishment that God gave us as a result of Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden. We must remember that work was given before the fall. To be sure, our labor has additional burdens attached to it because of the fall. A mixture of thorns and thistles is found among the good plants we seek to cultivate. Our labor is accomplished by the sweat of our brow. These were some of the penalties of sinfulness, but work itself was part of the glorious privilege granted to men and women in creation. It is impossible to understand our own humanity without understanding the central importance of work. Most of us spend the early years of our lives preparing and training for a lifelong activity of work. The sensitive Christian understands that in the labor of his occupation, he is responsible to make a contribution to the kingdom of God, to fulfill a divine mandate, to embark on a holy calling as a servant of the living God. Such a Christian is keenly interested to discover how best to serve God through his labor. Vocation and Calling The idea of vocation is based on the theological premise of a divine call. The word vocation comes from the Latin word meaning “calling.” In our secular society, the religious meaning of the term has lost its significance, having become merely a synonym for career. I will be using the term vocation in its original sense: a divine call, a holy summons to fulfill a task or a responsibility that God has laid on us. The question we as Christians wrestle with is, “Am I in the center of God’s will with respect to my vocation?” In other words, “Am I doing with my life what God wants me to do?” Here the question of the will of God becomes eminently practical, for it touches on that dimension of my life that fills most of my waking hours and has the greatest impact on the shaping of my personality. If the Bible teaches anything, it teaches that God is a calling God. The world was created through the call of the omnipotent Creator: “ ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:1). God also calls His people to repentance, to conversion, and to membership in His family. In addition, He calls us to serve Him in His kingdom, making the best possible use of our gifts and talents. Still, the question faces us: “How do I know what is my particular vocational calling?” One of the great tragedies of modern society is that, although the job market is vast and complex with an infinite number of possible careers, the educational systems that train us tend to guide and direct us to a very small number of occupational choices. When I was a high school graduate embarking on college, a great deal of discussion centered on one’s major and career aspirations. At that time, it seemed as if everyone was setting out to become an engineer. The mechanized culture of the 1950s was opening up thousands of lucrative positions in engineering. College campuses were flooded with young aspirants for degrees in the field of engineering. I also remember the engineer glut on the market that occurred in the 1970s. Stories circulated about people with doctorates in engineering who were collecting unemployment or washing dishes in the local diner because there simply were not enough engineering jobs available. The same could be said for education majors. Positions in education became fewer and fewer while the number of applicants became greater and greater. The problem was heightened by misguided publicity and counseling that steered people into occupational roles that society already had filled. In the early twentieth century, the choices were much less difficult since the vast majority of American children spent their time preparing for a life in agricultural labor. Today, roughly two percent of the population is employed in farming—a radical decrease in one occupation that has opened the door for a vast number of other occupations. Finding Your Vocation The question of vocation becomes a crisis at two major points in life. The first is in late adolescence, when a person is pressured into deciding what skills and knowledge he should acquire for future use. Some college freshmen feel pressured to declare a major in their first year, before knowing the available options and the limits of their ability. The second period in life when vocation becomes critical is in midlife, when a person experiences a sense of frustration, failure, or lack of fulfillment in his current position. He may ask: “Have I wasted my life? Am I sentenced forever to a job that I’m finding meaningless, unfulfilling, and frustrating?” Such questions highlight the fact that vocational counseling is a major part of pastoral counseling in America, second only to marital counseling. We must also consider the fact that vocational frustration is a major contributing cause of marital disharmony and family strife. Thus, it is important to approach the matter of vocation with great care, both in the early stages of adolescent development and in the latter stages, when the sense of frustration hits home. The problem of discerning one’s calling focuses heavily on four important questions: 1. What can I do? 2. What do I like to do? 3. What would I like to be able to do? 4. What should I do? The last question can plague the sensitive conscience. To begin to answer it, we need to take a look at the other three questions because they are closely linked to the ultimate question, “What should I do?” What can I do? Reasonably assessing our abilities, skills, and aptitudes is a crucial and basic part of the decision-making process in choosing a vocation. We need to ask: “What are my abilities? What am I equipped to do?” We may object that Moses and Jeremiah both protested against God’s call by saying that they were not equipped for the task. Moses protested that he had limited speaking ability, and Jeremiah reminded his Creator of his youthfulness. Both experienced God’s rebuke for seeking to evade a divine calling on the basis of the flimsy claim that they lacked the ability to do the job. Neither Moses nor Jeremiah had a full understanding of what was needed to carry out the summons God gave him. Moses, for instance, protested that he lacked speaking skill, but God had prepared Aaron to help Moses with that part of the task. What God was looking for was obedient leadership from Moses; public speaking could be delegated to another. God certainly took into consideration Moses’ gifts, abilities, and aptitude before He called him. We must remember that God is the perfect Manager. He is efficient in His selection, calling people according to the gifts and talents that He has given them. Satan’s strategy is to manipulate Christians into positions for which they have no ability or skill to perform well. Satan himself is very efficient in directing Christians to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. What can I do? This question can be answered by proficiency examinations, analysis of our strengths and weaknesses, and a sober evaluation of our past performance. Abilities and performances can be, and are, measured in sophisticated ways in our society. We need to know the parameters of our abilities. People often apply for positions for which they have no skill. This is particularly and sadly true within the church and in related Christian service. Some hunger and thirst to be in full-time Christian service but lack the ability and the gifts required for the particular job. For example, they may have the academic training and credentials for the pastorate, but lack the managerial skills or the people skills to be effective pastors. Perhaps the most important principle in Scripture regarding abilities is found in Paul’s injunction that we ought to make a sober analysis of ourselves, not thinking too highly of ourselves (Rom. 12:3). Through sober analysis, we can make a serious, honest, and clear evaluation of what we can and cannot do, and we should act accordingly. The young person has a different question: What would I like to be able to do? Such a person may have developed very few skills or have little educational background, but he realizes that he has enough time to acquire skills and talents through education or vocational training. At this point, the concept of aptitude is relevant. Aptitude involves a person’s latent abilities as well as his acquired abilities. A person may have a certain aptitude for mechanical things and have no aptitude whatsoever for abstract things. This person may desire to be a philosopher but would make a far better investment of his time by learning to be an airplane mechanic. However, preferences are still important. Here we tread into that critical and frightening area of human experience called the realm of motivation. Motivated Abilities Research indicates that most people have more than one ability, and that their abilities can be divided into two basic types: motivated abilities and non-motivated abilities. A non-motivated ability is a skill or a strength that a person has but is not motivated to use. Some people are very good at doing certain things, but find no particular fulfillment or enjoyment in doing them. Performing them is sheer drudgery and pain. They may be proficient in what they do, but for one reason or another they find the task odious. I know of one young woman who in her early teenage years attracted national attention because of her proficiency at the game of golf. While still a teenager, she won a national tournament. Yet when the time came for girls her age to turn professional, she chose a different vocation, not out of a higher calling to seek a more spiritual enterprise than professional athletics, but because she found golf to be very unpleasant. Her displeasure came as the result of fierce pressure her father had placed on her in pushing her to become a proficient golfer at a young age. When she became of age and was out from under parental authority, she decided to do something else. She had the ability to become a professional golfer, but she lacked the motivation. We might ask, “How could she have become so proficient in the first place if she had not been motivated to perform well in golf?” We have to realize that she had been motivated to become proficient, but the motivation was largely based on fear of her father’s wrath. In order to please him, she disciplined herself to acquire a skill that she never would have pursued on her own. Once free from the driving force of his authority, she turned her vocational pursuits in another direction. The moral to the story is obvious. The person who gives his full measure of time and energy to a non-motivated ability is a walking pressure cooker of frustration. It is true that, as Christians, we don’t always have the luxury of doing the things we want to do. God calls us to sacrifice and to be willing to participate in the humiliation of Christ. To be sure, we live in the midst of warfare, and as Christians we have signed up for the duration. We should never neglect our awesome responsibility to the kingdom of God. Called to be servants, we are also called to obedience. Sometimes we are called to do things that we don’t particularly enjoy doing. Nevertheless, the overriding consideration is to bring our motivation into conformity with our call and our call into conformity with our motivation. All things being equal, Jesus did not want to go to the cross, as He expressed in His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet at the same time, He had an overarching desire and motivation to do the will of His Father. That was His “meat and drink,” the focus of His zeal. When it was confirmed to Him that it was the Father’s will that He lay down His life, Jesus was, in a very real and vital sense, motivated to do it. Let us extend the concept of service and obedience to the analogy of human warfare. A crisis besets a nation, and people are summoned to the cause of national defense. Leaving the security and comfort of their homes and jobs, they make sacrifices by enlisting in the armed services. Are not Christians called to do the same? Certainly there is a sense in which we are. Yet within the context of the earthly military, there are a vast number of jobs, some for which we would be suited and others for which we would not. Some military tasks would be in line with our motivated skills and patterns of behavior, while others would be completely at odds with our motivated skills and behavior. Even within the context of sacrificial service, a consideration of motivation is a vital ingredient in determining our vocation. Some rugged individualists in our society are self-employed and find it totally unnecessary to fit into an organizational working structure that involves supervisors, bosses, and lines of authority. Most of us, however, carry out our working lives within the context of an organization. Here we face the problem of fitting. Do our jobs fit our gifts, talents, and aspirations? Do our motivated abilities fit our jobs? The degree to which our job requirements and our motivated abilities fit often determines the usefulness of our contribution and the extent of our personal satisfaction. When personal motivations do not fit job descriptions, many people suffer. The first to suffer is the individual, because he is laboring in a job that does not fit his motivated abilities. Because he is in a job for which he is unsuited, he tends to be less efficient and less productive. He also creates problems for others in the organization because his frustration spills over and has a negative effect on the group. Some of us are “sanctified” enough to perform assigned tasks for which we lack motivation, doing them as proficiently as we do tasks that are more enjoyable. However, people who are that sanctified make up an infinitesimal minority within the workforce. Research shows again and again that there is a strong tendency for people to do what they are motivated to do, regardless of what is called for in their job description. That is, they spend the majority of their time and effort doing what they want to do rather than what the job, in fact, calls them to do. Such an investment of time and energy can be quite costly to a company or an organization. The following simple diagrams show the relationships between motivated ability patterns and job descriptions. They have been borrowed from People Management, a Connecticut-based organization. People Management helps people to discern their motivated ability patterns and helps organizations to coordinate people’s gifts and motivations with the needs and aims of the organizations. This kind of guidance works not only in secular industry but also within the structures of the church and sacred vocations. MISFIT DIAGRAM Job Description Unused Abilities Frustration Personal Organizational Frustration Tasks Not Performed Motivated Abilities Job Fit In this diagram, the top left block represents the job description of the employee, including the tasks required for optimal organizational functioning. The lower right block represents the motivated abilities of the employee. The shaded area represents the area of job fit. It is not in balance. A large portion of the employee’s motivated abilities are not being used. This produces frustration for the employee. Also, a large portion of the organizational job description is either left unperformed or performed at a low degree of proficiency. The result is organizational frustration. This pattern spells problems for both the individual employee and the organization. Changes must be made. The diagram below represents an ideal matchup between job description and motivated abilities. The result is fulfillment for both the employee and the organization. ORGANIZATIONAL FIT Job Description Motivated Abilities Through the influence of the world-denying spirit of Manichaeism, early Christians got the idea that the only way they could possibly serve God would be by living their lives on a bed of nails. It was assumed that to embark on a pathway of service involved self-denial. Real virtue could be found only in being as miserable as possible in one’s job. However, if God indeed called us to devote ourselves to the most unpleasant tasks possible, He would be the cosmic Chief of Bad Managers. The Scriptures describe God’s management style differently. God manages by building us into a body according to our abilities and our desires. He gives gifts to each one of His people. Every Christian is gifted of the Lord to fulfill a divine vocation. Along with the gift, God gives a desire or a motivation to make use of that gift. What Should We Do? This brings us to the final and paramount question: “What should I do?” The most practical advice I can give is for you to do what your motivated ability pattern indicates you can do with a high degree of motivation. If what you would like to do can be of service to God, then by all means you should be doing it. One vital constraint is at work: the preceptive will of God. If a woman’s great ability and motivation were to be a prostitute and a man’s motivated ability were to be the world’s greatest bank robber, then obviously vocational goals would have to be adjusted. To fulfill such motivated abilities would bring individuals into direct conflict with the preceptive will of God. If we carefully analyzed the root causes for the motivated ability of the bank robber and the motivated ability of the prostitute, we probably would find root abilities and motivations that could profitably and productively be channeled into godly enterprises. We must not only bring our motivated abilities into conformity with the law of God, but also make sure that the vocation we choose has the blessing of God. There is certainly nothing wrong, for example, with devoting one’s life to the practice of medicine, for we see the good that medicine can do in terms of alleviating suffering. We also understand that the world needs bread to eat and that the vocation of baker for someone who is motivated and able to bake is a godly enterprise. Jesus Himself spent many of His years not in preaching and teaching but in being a carpenter, a craftsman in a legitimate trade. During those years, Jesus was in “the center of God’s will.” Any vocation that meets the need of God’s world can be considered a divine calling. I underscore this because of the tendency in Christian circles to think that only those who go into “full-time Christian service” are being sensitive to divine vocation—as if preaching and teaching were the only legitimate tasks to which God calls us. A cursory reading of the Bible would reveal the flaw in such thinking. The temple was built in the Old Testament through not only the wise oversight of Solomon but also the craftsmanship of those who were divinely gifted in carving, sculpting, and so on. David’s vocation as a shepherd, Abraham’s vocation as a caravan trader, Paul’s vocation as a tentmaker—all were seen as part of God’s plan to bring about the redemption of the world. When God made Adam and Eve, neither was called to be a full-time professional worker in the ecclesiastical structure; they were basically called to be farmers. A vocation is something that we receive from God; He is the one who calls us. He may not call us in the way that He called Moses, by appearing in a burning bush and giving a specific set of marching orders. Instead, He usually calls us inwardly and by giving us certain gifts, talents, and aspirations. His invisible sovereign will is certainly working in the background to prepare us for useful tasks in His vineyard. The External Call from People In addition to the inner call of God, we recognize that there is such a thing as an external call to labor, a call that comes from people who request our services for their particular mission or purpose. We may be called by the church to be preachers or by a company to be foremen or shippers. Every time an organization places a want ad in a newspaper, a human call is going out for able workers to come and match their gifts and talents to a presented need. Some Christians have argued that the need always constitutes the call. They say that there is a need for evangelists in the world and therefore everyone should be an evangelist. I agree that we must consider the needs of the kingdom of God as we make vocational decisions. However, the very fact that the world needs evangelists does not necessarily imply that everyone in the world is called to be an evangelist. Again, the New Testament makes it clear that not all are called to be preachers or administrators. The church is composed of people with a diversity of gifts, talents, and vocations. We must not make a simplistic, passive assumption that the need constitutes the call. Certainly the presence of a need requires that the people of God strive to meet that need. However, it does not necessarily mean that people who are not equipped to meet the need are thereby forced into the gap. For example, it is every Christian’s responsibility to help carry out the mandate for evangelism. It is not every Christian’s responsibility to be an evangelist. I am not an evangelist, though I contribute to evangelism by teaching evangelists theology and by contributing money for the church’s task of evangelism. I do those things so that those who do have the gift and the motivation can be called out, trained, equipped, and sent into the world as evangelists. I participate in the responsibility of the body of Christ to see that the task is met, but I myself am not the one who delivers the goods as the practicing evangelist. I could say the same regarding a host of other vocations. How do others affect our vocational calling? We do need to listen to the community of believers and friends. Sometimes our gifts and abilities are more evident to those around us than they are to us. The counsel of many and the evaluation of the group are important considerations in our search for our vocations. However, we must put up a red flag of warning. The group’s judgment is not always correct. The fact that a particular individual or group thinks we should be doing a certain task is not a guarantee that it is the will of God. I went through a period in my life of being unemployed for six months. During that time, I had five different job offers in five different cities in the United States. Five different friends came to me and said out of sincerity and urgent zeal that they were sure God wanted me to take each of the particular jobs. This meant that if all five of them had a direct pipeline to the will of God, God wanted me to hold five full-time positions and live in five different cities in the United States at the same time. I explained to my friends that I knew I was iniquitous (full of sin), but had not yet discovered the gift of being ubiquitous (being everywhere at the same time). I simply could not possibly do all five jobs. Somebody was wrong in their estimation of the will of God for my life. I find it very difficult to resist the pressures that come from people who are sure they know what God wants me to do with my life. We all experience that kind of pressure, so we must be careful to pay attention to those whose judgment we trust. We must be able to discern between sound judgment and the vested personal interests of other people. As it turned out, I accepted a sixth position for which no one came to me in the middle of the night with a telegram from God. I was convinced that the sixth position was the one that matched my abilities with the job that needed to be done. Considering Foreseeable Consequences One last consideration that is often neglected but is of crucial importance is the foreseeable consequences of the job. To take a job simply for money or for geographical location is a tragic mistake. All things being equal, I would like to have a salary of a $1 million a year, to be a teacher of theology, and to live where the climate is mild twelve months of the year. At the present time I am a teacher of theology living in Florida, but I make far less than $1 million a year. Somewhere along the way, I had to make a decision about my priorities. Did I want to make a million dollars or did I want to heed my vocational calling? My residence was determined by the locale of my vocation. Job decisions have both short-range and long-range consequences. Consider the case of Abraham and his nephew Lot, who lived and worked together in the Promised Land. Conflict between their hired hands made it necessary for them to divide the territory they were occupying. Abraham gave Lot the first choice, offering any half that he chose. Lot gazed toward the barren area of Transjordan and then looked toward the fertile valley near the city. He thought for a moment: “If I take the fertile valley, my cows can graze there and become fat. It’s a short distance to the city market. My profit will be great.” In consideration of his business, Lot opted for the fertile areas around the city and left Abraham the barren land. Lot’s choice was brilliant—from the perspective of raising cattle. He didn’t ask himself, “Where will my family go to school? Where will my family go to church?” The city he chose was Sodom—a great place to raise cows. The short-term consequences were fine, but long-term living in Sodom turned out to be a disaster in many ways. How will our job decisions be conducive to fulfilling our other responsibilities? The person who chooses a vocation purely on the basis of money, location, or status is virtually guaranteeing his later frustration. Much of the confusion we often experience in the job arena would be dispelled by asking ourselves one simple question: “What would I most like to do if I didn’t have to please anyone in my family or my circle of friends?” Another good question is, “What would I like to be doing ten years from now?” These questions are good to keep in mind even after one has settled into a particular job. Another thing to remember is the promise of God’s Word that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. As His children, that includes the area of our work. While God’s decretive will may not always be clear to us even in our occupational pursuits, His preceptive will is more easily discerned. Wherever we are, in whatever work we find ourselves, His preceptive will must be done. Finally, what does God expect of us in relation to our work? As Christians, we have been called to be spiritual salt in a decaying world, to be spiritual light in the midst of darkness. We are to be wise stewards of God’s gifts and talents. That means striving to be the most honest, patient, hardworking, and committed workers we can be. It means settling for nothing less than excellence. God help us to live up to His high call for each of us. Chapter Four GOD’S WILL IN MARRIAGE Besides our work, the other topic of perennial concern is our marital status. Should we marry or remain single? It is possible that Christians expend more decision-making energy over the subject of marriage than any other area of human existence. No wonder, since the decisions relevant to the marital relationship have such far-reaching effects on our lives. How a person feels about his marital status determines, in large part, his sense of fulfillment, his productivity, and his self-image. The reality and the seriousness of the marital relationship are brought home when we realize that the one who knows us most intimately, the one before whom we are the most fragile and vulnerable, and the one who powerfully shapes and influences our lives is our marriage partner. That is why entering the marital relationship is not something anyone should undertake lightly. Before we tackle the general question, “Is it God’s will for me to marry?” several specific questions need to be considered. Should I Get Married? The answer to this question has often been assumed by our culture, at least until recent years. Even today, most of us absorb the idea while growing up that marriage is a natural and integral part of normal life. In many ways—from the fairy-tale characters Snow White and Prince Charming, the romantic plays of Shakespeare, and some mass media heroes and heroines—we receive signals that society expects us to be numbered among the married. Among individuals who fail to fulfill this cultural expectation, those of a more traditional mindset are left with the nagging feeling that perhaps something is wrong with them, that they are abnormal. In earlier generations, if a young man reached the age of thirty without getting married, he was suspected of having homosexual tendencies. If a woman was still single by thirty, it was often tacitly assumed that she had some defect that made her unattractive as a marriage partner or had lesbian preferences. Such assumptions are by no means found in the Scriptures. From a biblical perspective, the pursuit of celibacy (as Scripture expects for the unmarried) is a legitimate option in some instances. Under other considerations, it is viewed as a definite preference. Though we have our Lord’s blessing on the sanctity of marriage, we also have His example of personal choice to remain celibate, obviously in submission to the will of God. Christ was celibate not because of a lack of the masculine traits necessary to make Him desirable as a life partner. Rather, His divine purpose obviated the destiny of marriage, making it crucial that He devote Himself entirely to the preparation of His bride, the church, for His future wedding. The most important biblical instruction that we have regarding celibacy is given by the apostle Paul in a lengthy passage from 1 Corinthians: Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I have the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 7:25–40, RSV) Paul’s teaching in this matter of marriage has been subjected to serious distortions. Some observe in this text that Paul is setting forth a contrasting view of marriage that says celibacy is good and marriage is bad, particularly for Christians called to service in the interim period between the first advent of Christ and His return. However, even a cursory glance at the text indicates that Paul is not contrasting the good and the bad, but rival goods. He points out that it is good to opt for celibacy under certain circumstances. Moreover, it is also good and quite permissible to opt for marriage under other circumstances. Paul sets forth the pitfalls that a Christian faces when contemplating marriage. Of prime consideration is the pressure of the kingdom of God on the marriage relationship. Nowhere has the question of celibacy been more controversial than in the Roman Catholic Church. Historically, Protestants have objected that the Roman Catholic Church, by imposing on its clergy a mandate beyond the requirements of Scripture itself, has slipped into a form of legalism. Though we believe that Scripture permits the marriage of clergy, it indicates, at the same time, that one who is married and serving God in a special vocation does face the nagging problems created by a divided set of loyalties—his family on one hand, the church on the other. Unfortunately, the dispute between Protestants and Catholics over mandatory celibacy has become so heated at times that Protestants have often reacted to the other extreme, dismissing celibacy as a viable option. Let us return to the focus of Paul’s word, which sets forth a distinction between rival goods. His distinction, in the final analysis, allows the individual to decide what best suits him or her. Paul in no way denigrates the honorable “estate” of marriage, but rather affirms what was given in creation: the benediction of God over the marriage relationship. One does not sin by getting married. Marriage is a legitimate, noble, and honorable option set forth for Christians. Just a Piece of Paper? Another aspect of the question, “Should I get married?” moves beyond the issue of celibacy to whether a couple should enter into a formal marriage contract or sidestep this option by simply living together. In the past few decades, the option of living together, rather than moving into a formal marriage contract, has proliferated in our culture. Christians must be careful not to establish their precepts of marriage (or any other ethical dimension of life) on the basis of contemporary community standards. The Christian’s conscience is to be governed not merely by what is socially acceptable or even by what is legal according to the law of the land, but rather by what God sanctions. Unfortunately, some Christians have rejected the legal and formal aspects of marriage, arguing that marriage is a matter of private and individual commitment between two people and has no legal or formal requirements. These view marriage as a matter of individual private decision apart from external ceremony. The question most frequently asked of clergymen on this matter reflects the so-called freedom in Christ: “Why do we have to sign a piece of paper to make it legal?” The signing of a piece of paper is not a matter of affixing one’s signature in ink to a meaningless document. The signing of a marriage certificate is an integral part of what the Bible calls a covenant. A covenant is made publicly before witnesses and with formal legal commitments that are taken seriously by the community. The protection of both partners is at stake; there is legal recourse should one of the partners act in a way that is destructive to the other. Contracts are signed out of the necessity spawned by the presence of sin in our fallen nature. Because we have an enormous capacity to wound each other, sanctions have to be imposed by legal contracts. Contracts not only restrain sin, but also protect the innocent in the case of legal and moral violation. With every commitment I make to another human being, there is a sense in which a part of me becomes vulnerable, exposed to the response of the other person. No human enterprise renders a person more vulnerable to hurt than does the estate of marriage. God ordained certain rules regulating marriage in order to protect people. His law was born of love, concern, and compassion for His fallen creatures. The sanctions God imposed on sexual activity outside marriage do not mean that God is a spoilsport or a prude. Sex is an enjoyment He Himself created and gave to the human race. God, in His infinite wisdom, understands that there is no time that human beings are more vulnerable than when they are engaged in this most intimate activity. Thus, He cloaks this special act of intimacy with certain safeguards. He is saying to both the man and the woman that it is safe to give oneself to the other only when there is a certain knowledge of a lifelong commitment behind it. There is a vast difference between a commitment sealed with a formal document and declared in the presence of witnesses, including family, friends, and authorities of church and state, and a whispered, hollow promise breathed in the back seat of a car. Do I Want to Get Married? Paul states in 1 Corinthians 7:8–9: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” The distinction is between the good and the better. Here Paul introduces the idea of burning, not of the punitive fires of hell, but of the passions of the biological nature, which God has given us. Paul is speaking very candidly when he points out that some people are not made for celibacy. Marriage is a perfectly honorable and legitimate option even for those who are most strongly motivated by sexual fulfillment and relief from sexual temptation and passion. The question, “Do I want to get married?” is an obvious but very important one. The Bible does not prohibit marriage. Indeed, it encourages it except in certain cases where one may be brought into conflict with vocation, but even in that dimension, provisions are left for marriage. So to desire marriage is a very good thing. A person needs to be in touch with his own desires and conscience. If I have a strong desire to marry, then the next step is to do something about fulfilling that desire. If a person wants a job, he must seriously pursue employment opportunities. When we decide to attend a college or a university, we have to follow the formal routine of making applications and evaluating various campuses. Marriage is no different; no magic recipe has come from heaven that will determine for us the perfect will of God for a life partner. Here, unfortunately, is where Christians have succumbed to the fairy-tale syndrome of our society. It is a particular problem for young, single women. Many a young woman feels that if God wants her to be married, He will drop a marriage partner out of heaven on a parachute or will bring some Prince Charming riding up to her doorstep on a great white horse. One excruciating problem faced by single women—more so in past generations than today—is caused by the unwritten rule of our society that allows men the freedom actively to pursue a marriage partner while women are considered loose if they actively pursue a prospective husband. No biblical rule says that a woman eager to be married should be passive. There is nothing that prohibits her from actively seeking a suitable mate. On numerous occasions, I’ve had the task of counseling single women who insisted at the beginning of the interview that they had no desire to be married but simply wanted to work out the dimensions of the celibacy they believed God had imposed on them. After a few questions and answers, the scenario usually repeats itself: the young woman begins to weep and blurts out, “But I really want to get married.” When I suggest that there are wise steps that she can take to find a husband, her eyes light up in astonishment as if I had just given her permission to do the forbidden. I have broken a taboo. Wisdom requires that the search be done with discretion and determination. Those seeking a life partner need to do certain obvious things, such as going where other single people congregate. They need to be involved in activities that will bring them in close communication with other single Christians. In the Old Testament, Jacob made an arduous journey to his homeland to find a suitable marriage partner. He did not wait for God to deliver him a life partner. He went where the opportunity presented itself to find a marriage partner. But the fact that he was a man does not imply that such a procedure is limited to males. Women in our society have exactly the same freedom to pursue a mate by diligent search. What Do I Want in a Marriage Partner? A myth has arisen within the Christian community that marriage is to be a union between two people committed to the principle of selfless love. Selfless love is viewed as being crucial for the success of a marriage. This myth is based on the valid concept that selfishness is often at the root of disharmony and disintegration in marriage relationships. The biblical concept of love says no to acts of selfishness within marital and other human relationships. However, the remedy for selfishness is nowhere to be found in selflessness. The concept of selflessness emerged from Asian and Greek thinking, where the ideal goal of humanity is the loss of self-identity by becoming one with the universe. The goal of man in this schema is to lose any individual characteristic, becoming one drop in the great ocean. Another aspect of absorption is the notion of the individual becoming merged with the great Oversoul and becoming spiritually diffused throughout the universe. But from a biblical perspective, the goal of the individual is not the annihilation or the disintegration of the self, but the redemption of the self. To seek selflessness in marriage is an exercise in futility. The self is very active in building a good marriage, and marriage involves the commitment of the self with another self based on reciprocal sharing and sensitivity between two actively involved selves. If I were committed to a selfless marriage, it would mean that in my search for a marriage partner I should survey the scene to find a person for whom I was willing to throw myself away. This is the opposite of what is involved in the quest for a marriage partner. When someone seeks a mate, he should be seeking someone who will enrich his life, who will add to his own self-fulfillment, and who at the same time will be enriched by that relationship. What are the priority qualities to seek in a marriage partner? One little exercise that many couples have found helpful is based on freewheeling imagination. While finding a marriage partner is not like shopping for an automobile, one can use the new car metaphor. When one purchases a new car, he has many models from which to choose. With those models, there is an almost endless list of optional equipment that can be tacked onto the standard model. By analogy, suppose one could request a made-to-order mate with all the options. The person engaged in such an exercise could list as many as a hundred qualities or characteristics that he would like to find in the perfect mate. Compatibility with work and with play, attitudes toward parenting, and certain skills and physical characteristics could be included. After completing the list, the person must acknowledge the futility of such a process. No human being will ever perfectly fit all the possible characteristics that one desires in a mate. This exercise is particularly helpful for people who have delayed marrying into their late twenties or early thirties, or even later. Such a person sometimes settles into a pattern of focusing on tiny flaws that disqualify virtually every person he or she meets. After doing the made-to-order mate exercise, he can take the next step: reduce the list to the main priorities. The person involved in this exercise reduces the number of qualifications to twenty, then to ten, and finally to five. Such a reduction forces him to set in ordered priority the things he is most urgently seeking in a marriage partner. It is extremely important that individuals clearly understand what they want out of the dating and eventually the marital relationship. They should also find out whether their desires in a marriage relationship are healthy or unhealthy. This leads us to the next question, regarding counseling. From Whom Should I Seek Counsel? Many people resent the suggestion that they seek counsel in their selection of a marriage partner. After all, isn’t such a selection an intensely personal and private matter? However personal and private the decision might be, it is one of grave importance to the future of the couple and their potential offspring, their families, and their friends. Marriage is never ultimately a private matter, because how the marriage works affects a multitude of people. Therefore, counsel can and should be sought from trusted friends, pastors, and particularly from parents. In earlier periods of Western history, marriages were arranged either by families or by matchmakers. Today, the idea of arranged marriages seems primitive and crass. It is totally foreign in the American culture. We have come to the place where we think that it is our inalienable right to choose one whom we love. Some things need to be said in defense of the past custom of arranged marriages. One is that happy marriages can be achieved even when one has not chosen his own partner. It may sound outrageous, but I am convinced that if biblical precepts are applied consistently, virtually any two people in the world can build a happy marriage and honor the will of God in the relationship. That may not be what we prefer, but it can be accomplished if we are willing to work in the marital relationship. The second thing that needs to be said in defense of arranged marriages is that in some circumstances, marriages have been arranged on the objective evaluation of matching people together and of avoiding destructive parasitic matchups. For example, when left to themselves, people with significant personal weaknesses, such as a man with a profound need to be mothered and a woman with a profound need to mother, can be attracted to each other in a mutually destructive way. Such negative mergings happen daily in our society. It is not my intention to lobby for matched or arranged marriages. I am only hailing the wisdom of seeking parental counsel in the decision-making process. Parents often object to the choice of a marriage partner. Sometimes their objections are based on the firm conviction that “no one is good enough for my daughter [or son].” Objections of this sort are based on unrealistic expectations at best and on petty jealousy at worst. However, not all parents are afflicted with such destructive prejudices regarding the potential marriage partners of their children. Sometimes the parents have keen insight into the personalities of their children, seeing blind spots that the offspring themselves are unable to perceive. In the earlier example of a person with an inordinate need to be mothered attracting someone with an inordinate need to mother, a discerning parent might spot the mismatch and caution against it. If a parent is opposed to a marriage relationship, it is extremely important to know why. When Am I Ready to Get Married? After seeking counsel, having a clear understanding of what we are hoping for, and having examined our expectations of marriage, the final decision is left to us. At this point, some face paralysis as the day of decision draws near. How does one know when he or she is ready to get married? Wisdom dictates that we enter into serious premarital study, evaluation, and counseling with competent counselors so that we may be warned of the pitfalls that come in this new and vital human relationship. With the breakdown of so many marriages in our culture, increasing numbers of young people fear entering into a marriage contract lest they become “statistics.” Sometimes we need the gentle nudge of a trusted counselor to tell us when it is time to take the step. What things need to be faced before taking the actual step toward marriage? Economic considerations are, of course, important. Financial pressures imposed on a relationship that is already besieged with emotional pressures of other kinds can be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. That is why parents often advise young people to wait until they finish their schooling or until they are gainfully employed so that they can assume the responsibility of a family. It is not by accident that the creation ordinance of marriage mentions that a man shall leave his father and mother and “hold fast to” his wife, and the two shall become “one flesh.” The “leaving and cleaving” dimensions are rooted in the concept of being able to establish a new family unit. Here, economic realities often govern the preparedness for marriage. Entering into marriage involves far more than embarking on new financial responsibilities. The marriage commitment is the most serious one that two human beings can make to each other. A person is ready to get married when he or she is prepared to commit to a particular person for the rest of his or her life, regardless of the human circumstances that befall them. In order for us to understand the will of God for marriage, it is imperative that we pay attention to God’s preceptive will. The New Testament clearly shows that God not only ordained marriage and sanctified it, He regulates it. His commandments cover a multitude of situations regarding the nitty-gritty aspects of marriage. The greatest textbook on marriage is sacred Scripture, which reveals God’s wisdom and His rule governing the marriage relationship. If someone earnestly wants to do the will of God in marriage, his first task is to master what Scripture says that God requires in such a relationship. What does God expect of His children who are married or thinking about getting married? God expects, among other things, faithfulness to the marriage partner, provision of mutual needs, and mutual respect under the lordship of Christ. Certainly the couple should enhance each other’s effectiveness as Christians. If not, something is wrong. While celibacy is certainly no less blessed and honorable a state than marriage, we have to recognize Adam and Eve as our models. God’s plan involved the vital union of these two individuals who would make it possible for the earth to be filled with their “kind.” Basically, I cannot dictate God’s will for anyone in this area any more than I can or would in the area of occupation. I will say that good marriages require hard work and individuals willing to make their marriages work. What happens in our lives is cloaked ultimately in the mystery of God’s will. The joy for us as His children is that the mystery holds no terror—only waiting, appropriate acting on His principles and direction, and the promise that He is with us forever. Sproul, R. C. (2009). Can I Know God’s Will? (Bd. 4, S. i–102). Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.
Opening up Genesis, by ArchBishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz
© Day One Publications 2009
First printed 2009
Unless stated otherwise, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
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lover of Jesus and missionary to Ethiopia:
“God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20)
Background and summary: The book of beginnings
Part 1: Paradise lost (1:1–11:32)
1 In the beginning God … (1:1–2:25)
2 Paradise lost (3:1–5:32)
3 If it keeps on raining … (6:1–9:29)
4 Stairway to heaven (10:1–11:32)
Part 2: Abraham—man of faith (12:1–23:20)
5 In you all the families of the earth will be blessed? (12:1–14:24)
6 Abram believed God (15:1–18:15)
7 Hellfire and brimstone (18:16–20:18)
8 Promise and provision (21:1–23:20)
Part 3: Isaac and Jacob—men of God’s own choosing (24:1–36:43)
9 All in the family (24:1–26:35)
10 Jacob I loved? (27:1–31:55)
11 A new name (32:1–36:43)
Part 4: Joseph—God meant it for good (37:1–50:26)
12 Misery and mystery (37:1–38:30)
13 Faithfulness and favor (39:1–41:57)
14 Change is good (42:1–45:28)
15 Finishing well (46:1–50:26)
List of Bible abbreviations
THE OLD TESTAMENT
1 Sam. 1 Samuel
2 Sam. 2 Samuel
1 Kings 1 Kings
2 Kings 2 Kings
1 Chr. 1 Chronicles
2 Chr. 2 Chronicles
S. of S. Song of Solomon
THE NEW TESTAMENT
1 Cor. 1 Corinthians
2 Cor. 2 Corinthians
1 Thes. 1 Thessalonians
2 Thes. 2 Thessalonians
1 Tim. 1 Timothy
2 Tim. 2 Timothy
1 Peter 1 Peter
2 Peter 2 Peter
1 John 1 John
2 John 2 John
3 John 3 John
The book of Genesis is aptly named. In this book we find the “genesis,” the beginning, of everything that is—everything, we should say, except God. In the first eleven chapters of this opening book of the Bible we find the beginning of the heavens and the earth, the beginning of the human race, and, sadly, the beginning of human sin. But as the story goes on, we may also trace the beginnings of God’s plan of salvation! Through a tiny little family with a great many skeletons in its closets, God begins his plan to save the planet, to forgive human sins, and to send a Savior. Though the book does not name him, Genesis begs for a Savior; Genesis promises a Savior; and Genesis, if we read it rightly, can lead us to the Savior of the world—Jesus, the Son of God.
Background and summary: The book of beginnings
In the beginning … God
Genesis is the first book of the Bible, the beginning of everything but God. If we had to give a contemporary English title to this Bible book, we might call it “The book of beginnings,” or maybe just “In the beginning.” That is what the ancient Hebrews called it:bereshith, meaning “In the beginning.” The title we use today, “Genesis,” comes from the Greek word that means “birth.” This book tells the account of how the universe was born.
But there are more beginnings in the book of Genesis. Genesis records the beginning of the human family—tracing the family tree all the way back to its roots in Adam and Eve. It depicts the beginning of sin, following this polluted river back to its fountainhead in the Garden of Eden. And further, through the family history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the forefathers of the Messiah, Jesus—Genesis draws up the beginnings, the blueprints, of God’s great plan of salvation for fallen humanity.
So Genesis teaches us about the beginnings of the world, the human race, the problem of sin, and God’s plan of salvation. Each of these themes, which are vitally important in the rest of biblical and human history, finds its origin in this book. That means Genesis is a very significant book, and our study of it will be extremely important for our understanding of our God, of ourselves, of our Bible, and of our world.
Genesis is the book of beginnings. But it is also a book about God. “In the beginning God” is the opening freeze-frame of the Bible. If we try to go back before the world sprang into being, we find God. If we ask where the world came from, Genesis answers: God. If we wonder why the universe continues to operate in an orderly, timely, predictable fashion, the answer in Genesis is God. And as we ponder how all this ancient information has been preserved and passed down to us, the answer again is God, who gave this book to Moses and had him write it down for the ages. So perhaps the best modern title for the book of Genesis would be “In the beginning … God.”
How do you see the world?
As I just stated, the book of Genesis will be for us an important component for our understanding of the world in which we live. What you believe (or don’t believe) about Genesis is determinative in the development of your worldview. That is because what you do with Genesis largely determines how you answer questions like: Where did the world come from? Where did I come from? What is the purpose for my being on earth? Is there a God? And, if so, what are my responsibilities to him? Why is the world as tangled up as it is? And is there a solution?
How a person answers those questions forms the foundation for the worldview—the basic approach to life—that he or she holds. And if we want to think honestly about which worldview is right, we must take seriously the book of Genesis. Furthermore, if we want to persuade our friends that the biblical, God-centered worldview is the correct worldview, we must understand Genesis and be able to dialogue intelligently with them about it.
If that seems far-fetched, just think through Genesis chapter 1 for a moment. From the very first page of the Bible we may directly address hot-button issues like evolution, the sanctity of human life (i.e. abortion and euthanasia), and the relationship between the sexes. What you believe about Genesis chapter 1 will go a long way in determining how you deal with those issues that are so important in our world at the present moment. The same applies to your understanding of the rest of Genesis. The origin of the world, the question of race, the nature of science—all these questions find wonderful answers in the book of Genesis!
How do you read the Bible?
What you believe about Genesis, and how familiar you are with it, decisively shapes your worldview. And your understanding of Genesis also goes a long way towards determining how well you understand the rest of the Bible. What, really, is sin—and why is it so bad? What does Paul mean when he styles Jesus as the second Adam (Rom. 5)? Was God’s sending of his Son merely a reaction to human sin? Or was this the plan all along? Is the idea of a Trinity simply a New Testament realization? Who was this Abraham who is mentioned so often as an example of faith (Rom. 4; Heb. 11; etc.)? And what was Jesus talking about when he urged his disciples to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32)? All these Bible questions, and more, can only be fully answered by opening up Genesis.
Genesis is the account of beginnings—one that impacts our entire worldview and our understanding of the Bible as a whole. But who are its main characters?
Well, the list must begin with God. After all, he is the one who begins, ends, and carries along this magnificent history. He spoke the universe into being. He declared it all good. He looked on as mankind rebelled. He pronounced both the curse on mankind and the promise to redeem us. He presided over the Flood. He rescued Noah. He called Abraham to be the father of many nations. He led him to the land of Canaan. He kept the chosen family tree alive through the miraculous birth of Isaac. He blessed Jacob and made his family into a great nation. And he did it all for his own glory. So, the primary character in the book of Genesis is none other than God.
The first human character we will encounter is, obviously, Adam (chapters 1–3)—the first human being, made from the dust of the ground; placed in authority over God’s good earth; given a wife to be his helper; communing unhindered with God; but eventually falling into sin and birthing a race of men and women bent on repeating his folly.
One of the most memorable characters in Genesis is Noah (chapters 6–9). A sinner like us, Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8). When the fallout of Adam’s sin had become too great to tolerate, and God was planning a worldwide flood to cleanse the earth, he let Noah in on his plan. He gave him plans for a giant ship. And he kept Noah and his family safe inside that ark while the rest of the world perished. Noah, then, like Adam, became a single seed to which all subsequent human beings can trace their family tree.
God’s plan to rescue humankind eventually shifted from Noah to Abram (later Abraham; chapters 12–23). God called this Mesopotamian man to become the father of a great nation, sent him on a pilgrimage to that nation’s future home, and gave him and his ninety-year-old wife a miracle baby to get the family started. In his trust of God’s promise, in his obedience to God’s sometimes strange instructions, and in his willingness to go wherever God called him, Abraham became, for every generation since, the supreme example of what it means to have faith in God.
Abraham’s son was Isaac (chapters 21–27). Also a man of faith, Isaac followed the Lord after his father Abraham, and gave birth to a son who was destined to carry on the lineage of God’s chosen nation.
Isaac’s son was Jacob (chapters 25–36). A one-time rebellious teen who deceived his father, stole from his brother, and dishonored his father-in-law, the younger son of Isaac would eventually meet God face to face and be forever changed. Even his name was changed to “Israel,” from which the chosen nation eventually drew its name.
Jacob had twelve sons. Genesis 37–50 focuses our attention on the eleventh of the twelve—Joseph. A bit of a problem child like his father, Joseph was taken by God through a serious of difficult providences, each of which serves to teach us how faithful the Lord is to work all things together for the good of his people—both for individuals, like Joseph, and for his people as a whole. Though he couldn’t see it, Joseph’s individual struggles set the stage for his entire family (the whole, tiny nation of Israel) to be preserved and protected, ultimately preparing the way for the most important human character in the book of Genesis …
Jesus. Jesus is a character in the book of Genesis? Absolutely! In the days following his resurrection (thousands of years after the events recorded in Genesis), Jesus walked unrecognized along a road with two befuddled Christians. Seeing their distress over the death of their would-be Messiah, Jesus, “beginning with Moses … explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). As we walk through its pages, we will see how, through the characters and accounts it records, this first book of Moses prophesies of Jesus, typifies Jesus, foreshadows Jesus, prepares the ancestral way for Jesus, and shows us our need of Jesus. My hope, then, is that this book will serve in the spirit of John the Baptist—crying out in the wilderness and shame that we encounter in Genesis, “Prepare the way for Jesus, the Lord!”
May God grant you his blessing as you study his Word and look for his Son!
1 In the beginning God …
If Genesis is the book of beginnings, how important is the beginning of that book? Genesis chapters 1 and 2 lay foundations that are vital for understanding all of life. What is God like? Where did we come from? What are we here for? In these first two chapters of the Bible, spanning just seven twenty-four-hour days, we have profound answers to these questions, and more.
Forming and filling
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1)—light and land, sunshine and sea, forests and fish, and human beings. God made it all in six days. You can remember the order of things by keeping two words in mind: forming and filling. On days one through three, God formed the heavens and the earth. And on days four through six, he filled the heavens and the earth with inhabitants. Follow the pattern through:
• On the first day, God created light and separated it from darkness (1:3–5).
• On the second day, he formed the sky—the “expanse,” or “firmament” (1:6–8).
• On the third day, he formed the dry land and all its vegetation (1:9–13).
• On the fourth day, God filled the sky with sun, moon, and stars (1:14–19).
• On the fifth day, he filled the waters with fish and sea creatures, and the sky with birds (1:20–23).
• On the sixth day, he filled the land with mammals, reptiles, and, finally, with man (1:24–31).
And “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done” (2:2). Observing this pattern, we should find it no surprise that nearly every human civilization from that time until today has ordered its life around a seven-day week—even though most of them have had neither the book of Genesis nor significant contact with one another. This is a testimony, written on the human conscience, of the truthfulness of the biblical creation account.
Evolution and the Bible
Having made mention of the truthfulness of this account, let us say a brief word about evolution. Note that the evolutionary hypothesis is simply that—a hypothesis, not scientific fact. Because of the time that has elapsed between the beginning of time and today, no hypothesis of the origins of the world can ever be properly tested, much less proven. So, though many around us are enamored of the evolutionary hypothesis, let us not get carried away by accusations claiming the Bible contradicts proven science. For not only can the evolutionary hypothesis not be scientifically tested or proven, it also cannot, by any reasonable means, be partnered with the biblical creation account. Notice three reasons why:
• First, we are given no reason to believe that the six days of creation were not six literal days. Yes, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). But Genesis 1 says again and again that on each day “there was evening and there was morning.” That doesn’t describe a millennium, but the normal sequence of one twenty-four-hour day!
• Second, notice that the Bible makes it clear that the plants (1:11–12), the sea creatures (1:21), the birds (1:21), the mammals (1:24), and the reptiles (1:24) were all created “after their kind.” So what we are being told is this: God did not create an amoeba that turned into a fish. Nor did he create a monkey that evolved into a modern man. Each creature was created as a distinct “kind”!
• Third, notice that man was created in the image of God. Anyone, then, who says that we came from the apes must also be prepared to say that God, in whose image we are made, must be like an ape—or, at least, that God must have been ape-like when he created Adam (maybe he’s evolving too?)! Do you see? Evolution is, at best, silliness; and, at worst, blasphemy! From the very beginning we see the first man, Adam, with God-like characteristics such as speech, reason, creativity, and moral consciousness. Man was made, from the beginning, in the image of God!
Up close and personal
Having created Adam in his own image, “the Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed” (2:8). The Garden of Eden was specially designed with Adam in mind. It was a home perfectly suited to Adam’s needs and capabilities—a reminder that it is a kind and loving God with whom we have to do.
Think about the goodness of the home God provided for Adam. Eden was a bountiful land situated on a river delta (2:10), where the soil would have been rich and black like that in the cotton fields of northwest Mississippi. It was covered with the most beautiful orchards and the most sumptuous fruits (2:9)—apples, oranges, kiwis, plums, and peaches, all growing in Adam’s backyard. And the surrounding territory was rich in natural resources (2:12)—gold and onyx for beauty, aromatic gum (“bdellium”) for creativity and industry.
Imagine a landscape unspoiled by human “progress,” unlimited by climatic conditions, and untainted by sin’s curse. That was Adam’s home—a home of which we can only dream in the present age but await eagerly in the age to come—a paradise! In this paradise, Adam had free reign. He could live anywhere he wanted; use anything he wanted; and eat anything he wanted, with only one restriction: “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (2:17).
“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him’ ” (2:18). Adam and Eve were different, but with a glorious purpose—that the two might fit together like hook and eye. Eve was a “suitable” companion. Perhaps Matthew Henry, the Puritan Bible commentator, said it best: “The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected by him, and near his heart to be beloved.”
This is why it is important (and good!) for a man to “leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife” (2:24). Marriage, and healthy marriage in particular, is vitally important as a sign of obedience to God, as a building block for culture, and (most of all) as a beautiful and accurate portrait of the relationship between Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22–33).
In the image of God he created them
Both Adam and Eve were created in the image of God (1:27) and, as our first parents, have a great deal to teach us about what it means to be human. Observe the distinct traits of humanity that Genesis 1 and 2 set forth.
If man is created “in the image of God,” no one has the right to degrade or destroy human life—neither one’s own life, nor that of another. This principle must be applied in the areas of social justice, race relations, sexual ethics, abortion, euthanasia, and a whole host of other topics.
We are to “rule over” the other created beings (1:26) and “subdue” the earth (1:28). Man has been given dominion over both herbage (2:15) and animals (2:20). Human beings have the God-given authority to chop down trees, build buildings, domesticate animals, and eat meat. Human beings also have the responsibility to do those things responsibly.
“Male and female He created them” (1:27). Genesis 2 highlights this difference by giving the genders separate names (2:23), showing how they were created separately (2:7, 22), and calling one a “helper” for the other (2:18). Man and woman were created equal “in the image of God,” but their roles are clearly distinct.
Notice that the first thing God did after creating Adam and Eve was to bless them and give them a command: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). The relationship between God and man was not one between equals. Nor was it one of autonomy. Man is dependent upon God for the blessings of life and sustenance; and man is accountable to God in the areas of service and obedience! Further, God’s command concerning the tree (2:16–17) makes it clear that man was and is capable of receiving and understanding moral instruction—and is responsible for his obedience. If we disobey God, we “will surely die” (2:17).
God created the heavens and the earth
Having fixed our eyes on the origin of man, let us not pass over what is most important—that the origin of man (indeed, the origin of all things) is none other than God! And, as we noted earlier in the Background and Summary chapter, Genesis is preeminently a book about God! So what do Genesis 1 and 2 teach us about the most important subject of all? We see that God is …
“In the beginning God …” Before the world was, there was God. One of the most basic truths about God is that, without beginning or end, God simply is. Nearly every child eventually asks, “Where did God come from?” And Genesis 1:1 gives the answer. God came from nowhere. God simply is!
As you read chapter 1 you will notice that verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, and 24 all begin with the same three English words: “Then God said …” And every time God said something, things happened! “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” “God said, ‘… let the dry land appear’; and it was so.” It feels powerful to say “post office” and have the GPS system in the car listen and act accordingly. But God sits in the driver’s seat of a voice-activated universe! God is powerful!
Everything God does is good. That’s what 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31 say! Everything God made was “good.” The light was good (v. 4). The seas were good (v. 10). The plants were good (v. 12), and so on. God never makes mistakes—even when he allows calamities to strike cities and heartaches to strike individuals. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
God is glorious! Every good thing God created came from the overflow of his own beauty. Imagine the first six days on planet Earth! Oak trees, tulips, cows, dolphins, giraffes, snapdragons, ponds, mountains, and rivers were springing to life out of nowhere. And even now, God still splashes flowers on the mountainsides; he paints the sky blue, then red, then purple; he makes the waters teem with aquatic life; he fashions perfectly-formed little babies in the womb—all as an outward demonstration of his own creativity and beauty. When we look at the beautiful things God has made, we are to think to ourselves, “If the creation is that glorious, how beautiful must the Creator be!”
Everywhere we turn in the Bible, it teaches us that there is only one true God (Deut. 6:4, for instance). We must affirm and uphold this truth along with all true Christians. But the Bible also teaches that the one true God is a plural God—and not just in the New Testament, but in the Old as well: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’ ” (1:26). God, from the very opening page of the Bible, has revealed himself as both one and more than one. How can that be? The mystery is great, but this is what the Bible teaches.
All things have been created through him and for him
When we turn to the New Testament, we get an even better idea of what God’s plurality looks like. The New Testament makes it plain that the one true God exists in three distinct persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Specifically, it says of Jesus, the Son, “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9); and that “all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16). What a profound truth to read back into Genesis 1:1!
All the “things” of Genesis 1–2 were created by God the Son and for God the Son! That includes each one of us. We owe Jesus our very lives! And this amazing account of creation ought, even more, to motivate us to love him with all our hearts and obey him with all our might. But when we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that none of us does so. Not one of us honors our Creator as we ought (Rom. 1:21). And thus we all stand as guilty sinners before a perfect God and, apart from divine intervention, we “will surely die.”
But thank God that the Christ of creation is also the Christ of the cross! Thank God that the Sovereign to whom we are accountable is also the Savior who paid the penalty for our sins! Let us be sure, as we contemplate the Christ of creation, that we also place our trust in him as the Christ of the cross!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Do some research on the scientific “problems” created by Genesis 1. Are there logical solutions? Can we use scientific defenses of Genesis 1–11 in our witness for Christ? Visitanswersingenesis.org.
2. God is one, yet three. How would you explain and defend this biblically for a friend? What Scripture passages would you use?
3. Do a study of marriage in the Bible. What are some of the reasons given for God’s creation of it? Which do you think is most important?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Everyone has a worldview (a mental framework that answers questions such as: Where did I come from? What am I doing here? Is there a God? What are my responsibilities to him? How should mankind live?). What are some of the significant ways in which Genesis 1–2 shapes a Christian worldview?
2. What effect will the denial of the historicity of Genesis 1–11 have on: Christian morality? Christian worship? evangelism?
3. Compare Genesis 2:18 with 1 Corinthians 7:25–35. How should a person determine whether to remain single or get married? What are some of the reasons why God said “It is not good for … man to be alone”? In what cases would it be good to be alone?
4. Read John 1:1–18. How does Genesis 1–2 help us appreciate and love Jesus?
2 Paradise lost
The closing thought of Genesis 2 was: “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” These words remind us that the Garden of Eden was a place of beauty; a place of bounty; and a place completely unmarred by sin and its crippling, polluting, heartbreaking effects. It was the birthplace of marital intimacy and of intimacy with almighty God. Everything, says God, was “good.” Adam and Eve’s world was a paradise.
But if Genesis 1–2 was paradise, then, sadly, Genesis 3 and what follows is a description of paradise lost. Through one foolish and rebellious act—eating the fruit God had forbidden—Adam and Eve lost their innocence, their dignity, their home, and their perfect relationship with God. And so, says Romans 5:12, did you and I: “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” The reason we are the way we are—diseased, discontent, disobedient, disappointed, and disenfranchised from God—is because each one of us has inherited a sin sickness and a death sentence from Adam, our first father. How did it happen?
The father of lies
Paradise lost began with the lies of “the serpent”—”the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9). Jesus called him “the father of lies” and said that lying is his native language (John 8:44)! So it is no surprise that, in his very first speaking part, we find the devil uttering deceit. And, since he is “crafty” (3:1)—since his expertise is crafting lies that sound almost true—we find Eve falling for his schemes. God had said, quite plainly, not to eat of the one tree in the middle of the garden (3:3). But the devil was able, with clever lies, to convince her that she should indeed eat.
Satan is no less cunning today. Therefore, it may be helpful for us to observe his strategies and guard ourselves accordingly. How does Satan craft his lies? Notice how he destroyed Eve. Satan wants to …
“Indeed, has God said …?” was his introductory question for Eve (3:1). Modern paraphrase: “Are you sure that’s what God said? Are you certain that is what he meant?” Eve had a perfectly clear commandment from God. But the serpent planted seeds of doubt in her mind. He does the same in our minds: “Maybe that verse doesn’t really mean what it looks as if it means. Maybe God doesn’t mean for us to take that literally. Maybe … Maybe … Maybe …” Satan’s strategy is to make us doubt the reliability and applicability of the clear teachings of Scripture. We must not believe him!
Notice 3:1 again: “has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” Of course God hadn’t said that! In fact, he said that Adam and Eve could eat from any tree of the garden—except the one (2:16–17)! But you see how Satan operates. He twists what God has said. And he takes one small restriction, placed upon us for our good, and makes God out to be a spoilsport. He says things like: “God is always trying to spoil your fun. What’s the matter with looking at a little soft porn? After all, you’re not hurting anyone.” Or, “Why does God care what you do with your money? Doesn’t he want you to enjoy life?” In the face of such lies, we must remember that our God is good, no matter how the devil paints him!
Salve our consciences
“You surely will not die!” the devil said to Eve in 3:4. Sin isn’t that big a deal, the devil tells us. “OK, God said don’t eat from the tree. But come now, do you really think he’s going to kill you over this? Go ahead. You know he will forgive you.” Have you ever heard him talk like that? Don’t believe it. The devil is a liar; God hates sin, and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
“God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” Satan said of the forbidden fruit (3:5). There was some element of truth to that statement. Adam and Eve, who had never before known evil, would surely know it now! But do you see what Satan was doing? He was convincing Eve that sin would actually enable liberation and self-actualization! And he is still telling the same lies: “Go ahead and separate from your wife. You’ll finally be free.’ “Go ahead and take out your frustration. You’ll feel much better.” “Go ahead and vent your anger towards God. It’s cathartic.” Lies, all lies! Sin will never make you free. Adam and Eve were promised liberation, but instead (3:7) they received shame. They were promised that they would become like God, but instead they found themselves (3:8–10) hiding fromGod.
Sin’s seductive promises always turn out to be a mirage! Those relationships we enter against the will of God leave scars that may never fully fade. Those extra trips to the buffet leave us miserable for the rest of the day and place some of us on operating tables. And what about the nicer car, the bigger TV, the latest gadgetry, and the younger wife? All those things grow old and outdated—leaving us just as empty as we were before. Selfishness and sin never keep their promises.
Worse than broken promises and broken dreams, however, is the broken relationship with God with which sin also leaves us. Adam and Eve knew they had rebelled. And they knew there must be consequences. But instead of repentance, observe their response in 3:11–13:
“Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Our first parents’ response sounds quite contemporary. First, Adam points his finger at God: “The woman whom you gave me made me do it.” At the same time, he also shifts the blame onto his wife: “The woman whom you gave me made me do it.” And when God looks to Eve for an explanation, she points to the serpent—”The devil made me do it”!
Blame-shifting is a universal human disease. Ever since Adam and Eve, it has been part of our sinful human nature: “I know I sometimes lose my temper. But that is just the way God made me.” “I know I shouldn’t talk to my wife that way, but I’m under a lot of stress at work.” “I know I shouldn’t read these racy romance novels, but my husband isn’t exactly a knight in shining armor anymore.” But anytime we begin a sentence with “I know I shouldn’t … but,” we are on dangerous ground. We ought simply to stop with: “I know I shouldn’t.” God has made himself clearly seen in creation, in the human conscience, and, most of all, in his Word, so that we are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20) when we sin against him.
Whether they wanted to admit their sin or not, Adam and Eve’s rebellion came with great consequences. They lost their capacity to rightly enjoy God’s good gifts. Perfection was replaced with pain (3:16a). A joyful marriage became an unequal partnership (3:16b). Happy cultivation became sweaty toil (3:17). The beautiful garden became a briar patch (3:18). Once-imperishable bodies began slowly to decay and die (3:19). And they were thrust out of their garden home forever (3:22–24). Everything that was once so good was turned on its head. As we read on in the book of Genesis we find that murder, rape, disease, drunkenness, and death were further results of the sin of Adam and Eve. And the world in which we live today is mixed-up and messy because of their original sin.
The curse on Adam and Eve affected everything about them—including their natures. All that God made—including Adam and Eve—was good. But now these two humans became enslaved to sinful cravings. And, like the other effects of the curse, this sinful nature has been inherited by us all: “through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom. 5:19).
Adam’s sinful legacy becomes quite obvious when we turn the page to Genesis 4. Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel (4:1–2). Had their parents obeyed the Lord, all would have been well with these two boys. But things turned out quite differently. One day, both sons brought offerings to the Lord. Abel’s offering was pleasing to God, and Cain’s was not (4:4–5). Before Adam’s first sin, it would have been inconceivable for Cain to have been rejected by God. But now he was. And this rejection led to further behavior that would have seemed impossible just a few years before: murder. So jealous was Cain of his brother that he eventually murdered him (4:8); “through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world” (Rom. 5:12).
Cain became a carbon copy of his sinful father. And Cain is a picture of us all. Why do we find ourselves alienated from God? Why are we weighed down with selfishness, bitterness, envy, and the like? Because we have inherited Adam’s sin nature; “through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” And, in inheriting Adam’s sin nature, we have inherited the death that comes with it. Genesis 5 bears this fact out. “And he died” is the recurring refrain of the chapter and becomes the theme of the human race, from Adam to Seth to Enosh to us. Because Adam sinned, we became sinners. And, because of Adam’s sin and our own sin, we have God’s sentence of death hanging over our heads—”through one transgression [that of Adam] there resulted condemnation to all men” (Rom. 5:18).
A covering for sin
Now, Genesis 5 isn’t all gloomy, is it? Amid the monotony of “So all the days of ____ were ____ years, and he died” comes this twist: “So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (5:23–24). What a word of hope! Yes, God was true to his word (2:17)—Adam’s sin resulted in death for Adam, and in “condemnation to all men” (Rom. 5:19). But Enoch’s account reminds us that death is not the final word. There is the possibility of redemption in this fallen world!
We get a hint of God’s plan of redemption in chapter 3. First, God said that a descendant of this very woman, Eve, would someday be born to crush the serpent’s head (3:15). Then, in verse 21, we find that, after all Adam and Eve had done, God was merciful and covered their sins. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” Isn’t that amazing? They deserved to die, yet God forgave their sin and covered their shame!
This covering for sin was sheer grace—a totally free and undeserved gift. But an animal had to die in order for Adam and Eve’s sins to be covered. And so it is with us. God offers you and me the same free gift. Yes, the effects of the curse still linger in the air of this life. But God offers us an eternal covering of forgiveness for our sins and our shame. The covering is a gift, free to us, but costing someone his life—namely Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He is the covering for our guilt and shame. He is the sacrifice for our sin! “For if by the transgression of the one [Adam], death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).
Have you come to terms with these facts? Have you come to admit how bad your sin really is? And how badly you need the covering of Jesus? Or are you still, like Adam and Eve, hiding yourself from God? Shifting the blame onto others? Trying to cover your shame with a handful of fig leaves (see 3:7) you’ve picked up along the way—penance, baptism, church attendance, and so on? It will never work! God knows where to find you when you are hiding. God sees right through the excuses. And God is not impressed with our religious fig leaves. In fact, these attempts to rescue ourselves are not even necessary. God has given us his Son for a covering! When we trust in him, we need no longer hide. When we trust in him, excuses are no longer necessary. When we trust in him, we are clothed in his righteousness. So look to the seed of the woman who has crushed the serpent’s head; and behold “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Why do you think God rejected Cain’s offering and accepted Abel’s? What was the difference between “an offering … of the fruit of the ground” (4:3) and the “firstlings of [the] flock” (4:4)? What do Cain and Abel teach us about our own service to God? How does Abel’s offering foreshadow Jesus?
2. Sin’s “desire is for you, but you must master it” (4:7). What does the Bible teach about mastering sin? See Romans 6:1–14.
3. Where else does the Bible speak of Enoch? What do these passages teach us about what it means to walk with God?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Can you think of examples, from your own life, of times when Satan has tried to confuse you, caricature God, or beautify sin? How did you overcome the temptation? How did Jesus overcome such temptations? See Matthew 4.
2. What are some common locations onto which we Westerners tend to shift our blame? Are you tempted to blame any of these people, events, or phenomena when you sin? What is the biblical perspective on these things?
3. Does it seem “fair” that Adam’s sin results in condemnation to us all? If we choose to reject the idea that we are born condemned because of Adam, what bearing does that have on our understanding of the gospel? See Romans 5:12–21.
3 If it keeps on raining …
In my city, Cincinnati, we speak about the great flood of 1997, and the even greater flood of 1937, when the waters of the Ohio River made the streets of downtown Cincinnati look like the canals of Venice. Every few years, we have a significant flood. So we name them—”the flood of ´37,” “the flood of ´97″—to distinguish one from another. But the flood spoken of in Genesis 6–9 needs no such signature. So wide was it spread, so colossal was the destruction, so well is it known that we simply call it “the Flood.”
The account of Noah and the Flood covers four chapters in Genesis. But the basic details are sketched for us in Genesis 6:1–8, upon which we will focus the attention of this chapter.
Only evil continually
Genesis 6 begins with a big problem—the intermarriage of families of God-fearing people (“the sons of God”) with families of unbelievers (“the daughters of men,” v. 2). Young men who were believers in the Lord began to marry “whomever they chose.” The result was moral chaos. By the time we reach verse 5, we find there was no longer any distinction between the religious and the irreligious: “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
“Only evil continually.” Now that is a perfect description of unredeemed men and women of any era—including our own. Human beings are not basically good. Because of the curse brought about by Adam’s sin (see Gen. 3 and Rom. 5), human beings are basically bad—completely sinful. How can I say such a thing? We can look around the world and see good things being attempted and noble tasks being achieved. But the problem is not simply with our attempts and our achievements. The problem is with our hearts. Until we come to bow the knee to Jesus Christ as King of the universe, our own agendas remain on the thrones of our hearts—we are without God in the world. And that means that even our best acts are godless acts. And for all the good that homeless shelters, cancer research, or AIDS orphanages will do on this earth, those efforts will not carry over to eternity unless they are done in the name of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To put it another way: if our hearts are godless, then even our most altruistic deeds are filthy rags because they are done by our own self-effort and not through the strength that God supplies. And that, even in the most loving and giving among us, leads to secret pride: “Look at what I achieved”; “Look at who we helped”; “Look at what mankind has accomplished.” And in that kind of thinking, subtle or unspoken as it may be, there is a robbery of the glory of God who made us and who alone gives us the ability to accomplish what is meaningful.
Some of us do “only evil continually” by blatantly rebelling against God. Others of us do “only evil continually” by failing to acknowledge God as the giver of every good and perfect gift—including the gifts we ourselves give to others. But both lifestyles are equally godless and, as we shall see, worthy of judgment.
The Lord was sorry he had made man
The continual sin of mankind in Genesis 6:5 leads to one of the most startling sentences in the Bible in Genesis 6:6: “The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” If this were not recorded for us in Holy Scripture, it would almost sound unbelievable! Just a few chapters ago, God was creating man in his own image and calling him “good.” And now we read that he was “sorry that He had made” him! Think of that the next time you are tempted to brush God aside through sin.
“The Lord was sorry that He had made man.” This is not the regret you feel when you realize you have made a mistake. God never makes mistakes. So verse 6 is not a picture of God wringing his hands over a bad decision. But it is a picture of a God who is genuinely sorry.
How can a God who never makes mistakes be sorry over something he did? When we say that we are sorry about something, what we usually mean is: “I wish it never happened.” But there are times when we may do what is best and yet be sorrowful about doing it—such as when we discipline our children or confront a brother or sister in sin. Most of us are sorry that we sometimes have to do these things. But, at the same time, we know that they are the right things to do. My emotions may be sorry for having to discipline my children. But my mind and will know it is the right thing to do. So I do it sorrowfully, but with no regrets.
This is how we explain Genesis 6:6. On the level of his divine will, God knew that creation was no mistake. But on the level of his emotions, the way man turned out brought great sorrow. So God could say, with all honesty, that he was “sorry that He had made man,” and yet still be the God who never makes a mistake.
Now, the fact that we have to take several paragraphs to untangle verse 6 is significant. We have rightly taken time to understand it because it is such a weighty verse. God was truly sorry that he had made man. His heart is broken over men and women who choose to live without him, rebelling against his laws and ignoring his kindness.
I will blot man from the face of the land
Now, not only was God grieved over sin—he was also angry. And that anger was so just and so deep that “The Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land’ ” (6:7). God was going to wipe mankind completely off the face of the earth, as a housewife scrapes the filthy black crud from the inside of her oven. The whole earth had become, and continues to be, “corrupt in the sight of God” (6:11).
“I will blot out man … from the face of the land.” The fulfillment of this promise is described in chapter 7. God caused waters to burst forth, not only from the clouds, but also from the belly of the earth (7:11). The earth was inundated with water for forty days and nights (7:12). So much water was there that the highest mountains were covered (7:19). And “all in whose nostrils was the breath of life, died” (7:22)—including nearly the entire human race. God had done what he said he would do—”blot out man … from the face of the land.”
Noah found favor with God
The ancient world, like our own, deserved the judgment of God. But amid the ugliness of sin, and the promise of judgment, we read these wonderful sentences (6:8–9): “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord … Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God.”
Reading those verses, we could now launch into a nice “be like Noah” sermon—like those that many of us heard as children. But that is not the point of the passage. The thrust of this chapter is not that Noah was good, but that God is gracious. Look closely at verse 8: “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The word translated “favor” here is the Hebrew word that means “grace.” Noah found grace—free, unmerited kindness—in the eyes of the Lord. Noah was righteous and blameless, yes. But he wasn’t naturally so. By nature, Noah was a born sinner—just look at him sprawled out drunk and naked on his living room floor at the end of chapter 9! The curse of Adam had fallen as heavily on Noah as it had on anyone else. So the only reason Noah was “blameless in his time” was because God had shown him “favor”!
The remarkable thing about verses 8–9 is not Noah’s goodness, but God’s “favor”—God’s grace! The effect of verse 8, then, is to say: The whole earth was wicked but, of his own free will, God decided to show undeserved kindness to Noah! Now, how did he do it?
Well, in Genesis 6:13–22, God gave Noah specific instructions for the construction of an ark—a mighty ship that would provide safe haven for Noah, for his family, for all the various kinds of animals, and for anyone else who was willing to join them on board. So Noah built the ark as he had been told (6:22) and readied himself and his family to enter the ark. And, when the rains came and the world perished, Noah, sinner though he was, was saved. “Noah found favor”—undeserved grace—”in the eyes of the Lord.”
Jesus, our ark
The account of Noah’s finding favor with God is a beautiful foreshadowing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel says that man is still as sinful as he ever was—”there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). The gospel says that, one day, God is going to destroy all flesh again—this time by fire (2 Peter 3:10). But the gospel also says that, just as he did in the days of Noah, God has provided us with a way of escape—an ark—in the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus—who lived a sinless life, died in our place, and rose on the third day—we, like Noah, may find “favor in the eyes of the Lord.”
Yes, as detailed as was God’s plan for Noah’s ark—the wood, the pitch, the dimensions, the windows and doors (6:14–21)—he laid down the plans for the thirty-three-year life of his Son with much more care! In his premeditated mercy, God planned out every detail of the life of Jesus so as to provide us with a perfect Savior, with an ark that will not sink! And “whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed” (Rom. 10:11)!
So we close this chapter with another reminder to climb on board the ark. God has fixed his day of judgment. The sands of time are sinking. The day of judgment draws ever closer. And in that day, God will not relent of his fury. But while he tarries, we live, like Noah, in an age of “favor.” We live under the offer of complete rescue from the wrath to come. So let us heed God’s warning before the rains come. While Noah preached to his contemporaries (2 Peter 2:5), they had opportunity to climb aboard the ark and be saved. But they missed the opportunity of grace. Let us be sure not to imitate them. Let us rather imitate Noah in trusting God and doing “according to all that God had commanded him” (6:22). Let us climb aboard the security and safety of Jesus Christ, our ark!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Many modern critics question the factual reality of the biblical Flood account. Do some research (biblical, historical, and scientific) that will equip you to defend the veracity of the biblical Flood account. You might begin with answersingenesis.org, and consult some more lengthy commentaries on the book of Genesis.
2. In describing God’s rescue of Noah and his family, Genesis 8 begins with the phrase “But God.” Do a word search on this phrase. How often is it found in the Bible? In what circumstances? What does it often teach us about God?
3. In 8:21–22, God made a covenant with Noah never again to destroy the earth with water. Research the other covenants God made in the Old Testament—with Abraham, Moses, and David. How are they similar to, and how do they differ from, the covenant God has made with us in Christ?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Why do you suppose that many folk consider the Flood account to be a mere fable? Why would secular people view it this way? Why do you think that some within church circles do the same?
2. In 2 Peter 2:5, Peter calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness.” What do you think Noah was preaching about? What implications does 2 Peter 2:5 have on how we who have climbed aboard Jesus, our ark, should behave towards those still “on land”?
4 Stairway to heaven
I have a keen interest in geography and maps. At my bedside are usually four books: my Bible, a copy of whichever Christian book I am reading, theNational Geographic Atlas of the World, and a Rand McNally Road Atlas. Guests in our home often find me sliding back to the bedroom to “bring out the maps” and look up some particular place that may have come up in conversation. So many different people in so many different places … and they all date back to Genesis 10–11!
The table of nations
At first glance, Genesis 10 appears simply to be a bland genealogical record of Noah’s family. But these thirty-two verses of genealogy are, in fact, a table of the many nations and people groups founded by the family of Noah after the Flood. Without being overly tedious, let us notice just a few of the geographical implications of this chapter:
• Japheth, Noah’s youngest son, and his descendants (10:2–5) were largely responsible for the founding of much of what is now Eastern Europe. Some of the settlements included Ukraine (Gomer), Turkey (Magog, Tubal, Meshech), Greece (Javan), southern Russia (Ashkenaz), Cyprus (Elishah), and the Greek Isles (Kittim).
• Ham, Noah’s middle child, and his descendants (10:6–19) are the ancestors of many of the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East—all along the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. The nations settled by Ham include Sudan (Cush), Egypt (Mizraim), Libya (Put), Yemen (Sheba), Lebanon (Sidon), and Palestine (Canaan).
• Finally, Shem, Noah’s firstborn, and his descendants (10:21–31) grew into the dominant nations of the Middle East. They settled in regions like modern Iran (Elam), Iraq (Asshur), Assyria (Aram), and Saudi Arabia (Joktan). Most significantly, Eber settled in Ancient Mesopotamia and, through his descendants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, fathered the nation of Israel. In fact, the designation “Hebrew” is probably a derivative of the name Eber.
So, as you can see, with a little research, Genesis chapter 10 could be a map-lover’s dream. But this is more than just interesting geographical history. It is also a very sensible explanation of how the world began to go from a post-Flood frontier inhabited by only eight people to the diversely populated planet that it is today. Here also is a reminder that God knows and cares for the nations and peoples of this earth by name; a foreshadowing of God’s promise to one day gather people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation into his kingdom through Jesus. He spread them out so that he might bring them back in! That is what Acts 17:26–27 says: “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God.”
God created and loves the diversity of the nations. He desires that heaven be a beautiful mosaic of human culture and language praising his Son. In fact, this global diversification plan, which we see coming to fruition in Genesis 10, was God’s plan from the beginning (see Gen. 1:28). But, in chapter 11, we discover there was also a more immediate, and less encouraging, reason for the dispersal of Noah’s descendants.
The tower of Babel
The account of the tower of Babel (11:1–9) is one of the saddest and most momentous stories in the Bible—sad because of the rebellion it depicts; momentous because of the world cultures that it spawned. Let’s think through the account in four parts:
There is nothing inherently wrong with building a tower. In fact, it must have seemed like a great idea. After all, Babel was surely a feat of architectural beauty. And it was bringing people together in a common cause. So what could have been so wrong?
Well, we must remember Genesis 9:1, when God instructed mankind, through Noah, to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” And again in 9:7 he told them to “Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” God’s instructions were clear. The people were not to hunker down in one spot. They were to spread out over the whole earth! But listen to 11:1–2: “Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”
What was so wrong with the tower of Babel? First, that there never should have been a Babel! There never should have been this gathering together of the earth’s population in the first place. The people had done what seemed convenient instead of what was commanded! It seemed much wiser to congregate together in one large metropolis than to be “scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4). So they ignored God’s clear instructions in favor of their own wisdom.
Let us admit that modern men and women are not above the ancient sin of Babel—thinking ourselves wiser than God. “Surely God isn’t saying what it looks as if he’s saying,” we think to ourselves. “Surely God will understand if I fudge on this commandment.” “Surely, given the modern situation, we can’t be expected to take all these commands literally.” This is the sin of Babel, and of many a modern churchgoer, too.
Now, the main reason why the descendants of Noah thought themselves wiser than God was because they had already deemed themselves more important than God. Notice verse 4 again: “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name.” Their chief goal had shifted from glorifying God and enjoying him forever to promoting their own renown.
The tower of Babel would have actually been what is called a ziggurat—a stair-stepped, pyramid-shaped edifice. Literally, it was a stairway to heaven; an attempt to gain, by human effort, what only God can give. They thought that, if they could just provide themselves with enough fame and fortune, there would be heaven on earth.
“Let us make for ourselves a name.” Isn’t that the mantra of our age? It’s why we wear what we wear; why we drive what we drive; why pastors long for the bigger and better church. It is why the Pharisees (like some of us) loved to do their religious deeds—to be noticed by men. Self-promotion is simply the air we breathe in the Western world. So we need constantly to ask ourselves: Am I purchasing this item/seeking this promotion/performing this service so that I might feel better about myself/attract attention to myself/live more comfortably for myself? Or am I doing it for the glory of God?
In verse 6 God responded to the people’s building project: “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.”
God’s response might sound confusing to us. It almost sounds as if he is saying that, should he leave man to himself, he really would be able to build a tower all the way to heaven! But I don’t believe that is what is meant here. The phrase “nothing … will be impossible for them” likely refers, not to the heights of accomplishment that mankind might achieve, but to the depths of sin to which mankind is capable of falling. In other words, “If I let their sin go unchecked, there is no telling how much worse it will get. No rebellion will be too great for them. Nothing will be sacred in their crooked hearts.”
Have you realized that about the world? If God had not fenced us about with civil powers, religious influence, and fear of punishment, we could be in as much darkness as the Auca Indians of Ecuador, or worse! Have you realized that about yourself? The reason you and I have not gone off the deep end into sin is not because we are morally superior to the terrorists of the world, but because of God’s restraining grace. We ought to remember this the next time we read about prostitution in the newspapers or pass a drunk person on the street. We should remember Babel and remind ourselves, “If God doesn’t restrain the natural bent of my heart, nothing will be impossible for me.”
How did God restrain the evil of Noah’s descendants? He scrambled their language (11:7), foiled their plans, and scattered them over the whole face of the earth to make sure that nothing like Babel was attempted again (11:8).
What an ironic reversal of fortunes! They had wanted to make a name for themselves, and now they couldn’t pronounce one another’s names! They had wanted to ensure that they wouldn’t be scattered over the whole face of the earth, but that is exactly what ended up happening. What a reminder that God is opposed to the proud—and will often make the punishment for our arrogance a direct reversal of our prideful intentions! If we have adopted plans without consulting the Lord and his Word, we should not be surprised if we find our dreams turned on their heads. This is cause for reflection when our plans fail. Why has this business deal flopped? Why did that relationship sour? Why did that purchase end up such a waste? The answer may not always be chastisement for sin, but Babel reminds us that it is a possibility.
God has a way of showing us when we have left him out of the equation, hasn’t he? But, if we believe, even this is for our good—because it gives us an opportunity to repent. And it teaches us to “Commit [our] works to the Lord” that our “plans will be established” (Prov. 16:3).
The tale of salvation
Genesis 11 concludes by zeroing in on the genealogy of just one of the sons of Noah—Shem (11:10–32). It was through the line of Shem that Abram, the father of the Jewish race, would be born. So here we have the beginning of God’s setting apart of the Hebrews as his chosen people. Here we have a wonderful reminder that, amid all the mess of Babel, God remembered mercy and set aside a people to whom he would grant undeserved salvation.
Ultimately, we too are recipients of the same undeserved mercy through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. And this genealogy is a reminder of him, too. If you look at 11:10–32 closely, comparing these verses with Luke 3, you will find that all of these names are repeated by Luke as being ancestors of the Messiah. Isn’t that wonderful to know? All the way back in Genesis 11, on the heels of one of the greatest rebellions in human history, God was planning to send his Son! God truly loves sinners—and longs to save them!
Have you been willing to accept that love—admitting that it is undeserved and can never be earned? Have you laid down your rebellion and the desire to make a name for yourself, and admitted that your sufficiency and salvation are found in Christ alone? Or are you, like the ancient people of Babel, trying to build your own little stairway to heaven?
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Trace the teaching about Babel, or Babylon, through the Bible. How is this ancient city usually portrayed? How is its name used symbolically? How does “Babel” still exist today?
2. The scrambling of human language is an important theme in the Babel account. How and where does the Bible come back to this theme? How is the diversification of language redeemed, in the New Testament, by Jesus?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. The inhabitants of Babel lived with peculiar “advantages” that made life easier for them and caused them to forget their need for God (a large city, unified language, growing civilization). What modern “advantages” do you enjoy that tempt you to forget your need for God?
2. There was nothing inherently wrong with building a tower, but the people’s motivation was wicked. Are there undertakings in your personal life, family, or church which aren’t inherently wrong but are arising from wrong motives?
Abraham—man of faith
5 In you all the families of the earth will be blessed?
We have already noted that Genesis may be rightly called “The book of beginnings.” In the opening eleven chapters we witnessed the beginning of God’s creation, the beginning of the human race, the beginning of marriage and family, and (sadly) the beginning of human sin. The very air we breathe—both literal and figurative air—has its origins in Genesis 1–11.
Now as we open chapter 12, we find that it, too, signals a new beginning. In this chapter we find the earliest shoots in the Jewish family tree. And since “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), Genesis 12 and following offer us the initial blueprints of God’s great plan of salvation. When we read about God’s calling of Abram, we are not simply given a lesson in history. We are actually tracing a story line that takes us all the way to the Lord Jesus himself. So the calling of Abram—the beginning of the nation of Israel—is a story of tremendous significance.
It had been more than 300 years since Noah’s Flood—the last recorded instance of God speaking to mankind. That is a long time to go without hearing a word from the Lord. Some of God’s faithful may have begun to think that God had forgotten them; that God had withdrawn from active participation in the affairs of planet Earth. But in 12:1, “the Lord said to Abram …”!
Here is a word of hope for us! Sometimes God may seem silent. We wonder if he has forgotten us, or, worse yet, laid us aside altogether. But Genesis 12 is a reminder that God never forgets his people. Even after the aggravation and rebellion of Babel, even after three-and-a-half centuries of seeming silence, God had not forgotten his promise to save the world (Gen. 3:15). And, with that plan in mind, God spoke to a man named Abram:
Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you …
That is a tall order, isn’t it? “Abram, I want you to pack up your things and move. I want you to leave behind your homeland, along with the culture and language you’ve known all your life. I want you to leave your relatives, too. And make sure you gather together all your possessions because you won’t ever be coming back to this house your father worked so hard to build for you. I want you to leave it all, Abram—and come and follow me. And by the way, I’m not going to tell you where we’re going until we get there.” Isn’t that what 12:1 says? The task was difficult indeed.
If Abram was anything like most of us, he could have thought of all sorts of excuses and arguments for why he shouldn’t go. “Surely the Lord doesn’t want me to do that. I must have misheard him. God wouldn’t ask me to leave everything I’ve ever known behind. I can obey and serve him just fine right here in beautiful Ur.” But what a lesson there is in his obedience! He went forward, not because it made sense; not because it was easy; not because it seemed the most feasible way to raise a family; but simply because God said so! That is the essence of faith (Heb. 11:8)—obedience to God’s commandments even when we don’t know what obedience will bring.
Abram was given a difficult task in 12:1. But it is important to note that God didn’t stop speaking there. In fact, beginning with verse 2, we find that attached to God’s difficult commandment was a wonderful covenant—a wonderful blessing should Abram trust and obey:
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing …
Now, many of us, had we been in Abram’s sandals, might never have heard God’s promises at all. After hearing verse 1, we’d have been so engrossed in drawing up our counter-proposal, so busy formulating our excuses, that we would have totally missed everything else God had to say! But Abram didn’t stop listening after verse 1! If he had, he might never have obeyed. Because, you see, obedience to God always arises out of trust in God. In other words, we obey God because we believe that he knows what is best. That is why Bible commands so often seem connected with Bible promises—to help us see that there is reward in earnestly seeking God; that there are blessings in obedience—so that we might be wooed to obey.
Abram was certainly wooed to obey. What great promises God made to him: a great name, a great nation, and a great blessing. And, with the encouragement of these promises, Abram was able to leave all he had ever known and go to a strange place with no prospect of success—except that God had promised to care for him.
It is true that God doesn’t always make such specific promises to us. Sometimes all we have to go on is: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). But that is enough! God promises that, for those who love him—for those who keep his commandments (John 14:15)—their best interests will always be the final result. Sometimes that doesn’t happen right away. Abram’s 600-mile trek to Egypt was surely no walk in the park! But the end result for him, and for all who trust and obey, would be a good one.
Moving ahead, we need to notice the most important, most long-term aspect of God’s covenant with Abram. We find it in verse 3:
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
What did God mean when he said, “… in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”? Well, Abram couldn’t have understood this fully. But as the rest of the Old Testament unfolds we begin to understand that, through the Jews—Abram’s family—God was going to send a Savior, whose atoning blood would “sprinkle many nations” (Isa. 52:15). And when we turn over to the New Testament, we find that it is through Jesus—the descendant of Abram—that people from “every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (Rev. 7:9) will be redeemed and made God’s very own.
What mercy that, after the muddy waters of human sin that necessitated the Flood, and after the confusion of human pride that characterized the tower of Babel, God still had a plan to bless “all the families of the earth”—through Abram, and, ultimately, through his descendant, Jesus! Here among Sarai’s boxes and Abram’s moving van is another reminder that all the Law and the prophets point us forward to God’s Son (Luke 24:27)!
Now, wonderful as the promises were, and gracious as God had been, Abram still had to decide whether or not to obey—and thank God he did! In 12:4 we read this simple and wonderful sentence: “So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him.” No questions asked. No altering of the plans. He just got up from his place, packed his bags, and left “as the Lord had spoken to him.” And in this regard, Abram is a quintessential example of what it means to walk with God. Because it was the Lord who spoke, and because he trusted God’s promise to do him good, Abram simply obeyed.
So we must all ask ourselves, “What about me? Am I simply obeying the Lord? Or are there clear commandments of God that I have left undone? If the latter is true, what is the source of difficulty? Is it that I have yet to call him ‘Lord’—have yet to admit that God has ownership rights over my life? Or am I dragging my feet because I’m not quite sure I trust that God will really work things out for my good?” All disobedience boils down to one of the two. Either we do not care what God says (he is not Lord); or we do not believe what God says (we do not trust him).
For the Christian—the person who has come to know God in Christ—the problem is usually one of faith. We struggle to obey because we struggle to believe that God’s way will really work out for the best. So, like Abram, we need to listen to and trust God’s promises! “Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken” because he believed that God would do as he said: that he would bless him; that he would care for him; that he wouldn’t leave him wandering in the wilderness, but would truly bring him to “the land which I will show you.” Abram was also able to give his nephew Lot first dibs in the new land (ch. 13) because he continued to believe that God would bring him to “the land which I will show you.” And he was able to show unbelievable kindness to Lot (ch. 14), even after Lot’s selfishness, because he knew that it was the Lord who held his destiny in his hands. Abram’s simple faith that God really was on his side allowed him to do what was right again and again!
Learn from Abram. God is not stingy! He will not leave you in the desert when once you have obeyed. No! He brought Abram to the promised land, and he will fulfill all his promises to us if we will but trust and obey!
Now, sadly (but helpfully), Genesis 12 reminds us that Abram didn’t always trust and obey. Verses 10–20 tell the devastating account of how he put Sarai, his wife, in an extremely compromised position. Afraid that the Egyptians might take a liking to her, Abram asked Sarai to pretend to be his sister, so that, should a strong Egyptian man desire her for himself, Abram would be no perceived obstacle to their nuptials. Look at the man of faith now, asking his wife to do this so that “it may go well with me” (12:13). This is a far cry from God’s mandate that a husband love his wife and give himself up for her (Eph. 5:25)! And it is a far cry from the Abram we have been admiring so far! He traded in his wife in exchange for “sheep and oxen and donkeys” (12:16).
What had happened to Abram? He momentarily stopped believing what God said in 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” Believing that would have taken care of any inappropriate advances made towards Abram’s wife. But he forgot what God had said. When he arrived in Egypt, instead of trusting the Lord, Abram devised a plan: “Let’s pretend you’re my sister. That should make everything go much more smoothly.”
Now, here is another lesson for us who wish to obey the Lord. If, as we said earlier, our obedience to God arises from our faith in God, then we are in big trouble the moment we stop trusting in God and start devising our own plans. This Abram did, to his great shame—and his wife’s great hurt.
Can you imagine what the Egyptians might have thought of Abram after this episode? They’d have scoffed at his claim to be God’s chosen one. “God is going to bless you? And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed? The man who treated his wife in this way? God is going to restore the world through you? Come on, Abram, get serious!” That seems like a logical conclusion, doesn’t it? The ugliness of 12:10–20 seems as if it will undermine all the promises that have gone before.
“God is going to bless you?” That’s a reasonable question, isn’t it? It’s one we all could ponder in light of our own sins. We know where we have been. We know what we have done. And when we allow those memories to flash across the movie screens of our minds, we might ask ourselves the very same question: “Look at my life! Why would God pick me? Why would he bless me? Why would he care for me?” These very questions—not thrown at us by our enemies, but eating at us from within our own guilty consciences—can be quite debilitating.
So we need to remember that Abram knew something the Egyptians did not. Abram remembered something that we sometimes forget—that God is not only the God of promise, but also the God of provision! Read what happened after this episode:
So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, he and his wife and all that belonged to him, and Lot with him. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold. He went on his journeys from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar which he had made there formerly; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord.
What do you think Abram said to the Lord at the altar of Bethel? “Lord, look at what a faithful servant I have been”? Not a chance! That killing stone must have been wet, both with Abram’s tears and with the blood of an unblemished lamb—the atoning sacrifice for sin. Abram “called on the name of the Lord” that day as a convicted sinner. And as a sinner who knew that there was a sacrifice for sins!
Here again, we find that Abram is a bright example of faith—this time, faith, not simply in the promises of God, but also in the provision of God; faith in the God who justifies the ungodly! And we, failures though we are, must be people of the same faith. God makes wonderful promises for those who trust and obey. But even better news is that he has also made wonderful provision for those who haven’t yet done so—not in a lamb from Abram’s fold, but in the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus has made provision for our forgiveness so that all of us who, with Abram, will “call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. What does the New Testament have to say about Abram (Abraham)? How is he an example to us? How else is his faith commended? Who are to be considered his children?
2. Genesis 14:17–20 deals with a character named Melchizedek. Read Hebrews 7 for more information on this man. Who do you think he was? Why is he important?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Abram treated his wife quite selfishly. What does the Bible say about how a man should treat his wife? And why is this important? (See Eph. 5:25–33.)
2. What is so commendable about Abram’s actions in chapter 13? In what ways do they reflect the generosity of Jesus towards us? What are some of the specific, practical ways you can reflect Jesus’ generosity towards the “Lots” in your life?
6 Abram believed God
Abram’s story reminds us of a soap opera. In one episode we find him the triumphant man of faith, believing God for the birth of a miracle child, and we say to ourselves, “Abram believed God!” But in the following episode, we see him fathering an illegitimate child, squabbling with his wife, and in a whole heap of trouble. Now it is “Abram believed God?” that we find ourselves proclaiming!
Though he was a man of faith, Abram was sometimes as unpredictable as the wind. But the one constant in this story is God. Abram is known to us as a man of faith, not because his trust never wavered, but because God, the object of that trust, never wavered. God was the anchor to which Abram’s fledgling boat was always attached. And thus (because of God’s immovability), Abram’s faith remained. Follow the story through chapters 15–18.
Abram believed God
In the middle of chapter 15, we find one of the most important sentences in the Old Testament: “Then he [Abram] believed in the Lord; and He [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). God had come to Abram in a night vision (15:1) and promised him the unthinkable—a family. Now Abram and his wife, Sarai, were childless. They were also old—well beyond child-bearing age. But here God promised that Abram’s heir would not be one of his servants, but a son of his own (15:4). And not only would Abram and Sarai have a son, but also God would bless that son so that, in years to come, the descendants of Abram would have family reunions of the largest proportions (15:5) and would possess the land of promise (15:18).
God had promised something quite impossible to Abram. Not improbable—impossible! Eighty-plus-year-old couples don’t have babies! But here was God promising just that! Put yourself in Abram’s shoes. Would you not wake up from your sleep, shake your head, and tell yourself you should not have eaten that chocolate before lying down? Not Abram. When faced with the unthinkable, we find that Abram simply “believed in the Lord.”
Abram’s unwavering faith is a striking example of how we, too, ought to trust God unwaveringly. For does he not make some seemingly impossible promises to us? “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28)? Simply “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31)? “That’s it?” we may ask. “Don’t I have to join something, or give something, or promise something? Just believe in Jesus, and nothing more? That seems impossible.” Impossible, but true! And Abram teaches us, by example, to simply take God at his word.
Now I say again that this verse contains one of the most important sentences in the Bible: “Then he [Abram] believed in the Lord; and He [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul picks up on this theme and quotes this verse a couple of times in his New Testament epistles (see Rom. 4 and Gal. 3). And he does so, not only to demonstratethat we should believe, but also to show what happens when we believe in the Lord. In both places (Romans and Galatians), Paul emphasizes that, when Abram believed in the Lord, God “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In other words, Abram was brought into a right relationship with God on the basis of his belief—his faith, or trust.
This is crucial, because, when someone poses the question “How can we be made right with God?”, the kinds of answers that often follow are things like: go to church, obey the Ten Commandments, read the Bible more often, and so on. But we need to notice something quite refreshing in Genesis 15:6. “How can we be made right with God?” Well, all Abram needed to do was to believe—to take God at his word. He didn’t have to perform good works; he didn’t have to make any promises. He simply had to trust what God had said, and he was reckoned as righteous in God’s sight.
The same is true for us—so that Paul can summarize in Romans 3:28: “we maintain that a man is justified [reckoned righteous] by faith apart from works of the Law.” How can webe reckoned as righteous? The same way Abram was: by faith; by believing what God tells us. And what does God tell us? “He made Him who knew no sin [Jesus] to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). God sent Jesus to take our sins upon himself. And if we will simply take God at his word—if we will simply trust what Jesus has done for us—it will be reckoned to us as righteousness!
Abram believed God?
Now there is no doubt that Abram trusted the Lord. He was indeed a man of faith. But the sad tale of Genesis 16 reminds us that even the best of God’s people are prone to fall prey to many foolish desires. Think it out. Abram and his wife, Sarai, had God’s astonishing promise: “You will have a son.” And though God had not specifically said, “You will have a son by your wife,” that was clearly the implication—that is how men are supposed to have sons! So, clearly, Abram and Sarai had a promise together. And initially Abram, if not his wife Sarai, believed God.
But some time had passed between chapters 15 and 16, and they still had no son. Abram and Sarai weren’t getting any younger. And Sarai began to get impatient. So impatient, in fact, that she started to “do God’s thinking for him.” Sarai was desperate. God did not seem to be coming through, so she came up with a plan of her own (16:2). Maybe Hagar, her slave-girl, could act as a surrogate mother. “After all, she is just a slave,” Sarai must have thought; “it will be no big deal to use her this way.”
Observe Sarai. She was bitter, muttering to herself, “The Lord has prevented me from having children.” She was callous, treating her slave-girl as something less than human. And, worst of all, in her weird, warped world, Sarai was wiser than God! And Abram fell right in with her—and into bed with his cleaning lady! He doesn’t seem like the man of faith now. He and his wife both lost sight, temporarily, of God’s promises—and reaped a whirlwind of disappointment and dysfunction.
Now, in all this nonsense, Abram didn’t lose his right standing with God. But he did suffer great heartache and misery because of his momentary lapse in judgment. His family would never be the same again. Because of the family dysfunction that began in chapter 16, Abram eventually lost his son Ishmael forever in chapter 21. And oh, how many people live with a lifetime of pain, difficulty, or heartache because somewhere along the line they thought they were wiser than God! God’s Word was clear enough, but because of the heat of the moment, the influence of our friends, or our own lack of patience, we leapt into an incredibly foolish decision. Perhaps you’ve never thought of it this way. But so much of the tangled web you are now bemoaning may date directly back to “that night,” “that summer,” “that relationship,” or “that season of life.”
The pain is real. And the pain may last a lifetime. But “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If we are people of faith—if we believe God’s promises made in Christ—we do not have to carry our sins and sorrows to the grave!
What is faith?
In spite of Abram’s folly, we can learn a great deal from him regarding faith. What is faith? What is it not? We have already begun to see some answers in Genesis 15–16, and we will see some more as we continue into chapters 17 and 18.
Faith is a response to God’s Word
Faith was not Abram working up, in himself, some confidence that God was going to bless him. Regrettably, that is how faith is often portrayed in our day—a quality worked up in an individual who is “believing God” for a windfall of his or her own imagination. That is not what we see in the account of Abram (ch. 15). He didn’t decide that, if he would just believe enough, God would give him a son. On the contrary, the whole thing was God’s idea. Abram simply responded to the promise of God. Abram simply took God at his word. The lesson? If we desire more faith, we ought to get ourselves more familiar with God’s Word! Faith is a response to God’s Word!
Faith is not perfection
Abram proves in chapter 16 that a person can be a true believer and still really blow it! That is not to excuse our sin. But it is to say that our faith—and, ultimately, our salvation—rests not on our performance, but on God’s promise. God is the object of our trust. And since he doesn’t change, we may continue to trust him, even though we vacillate.
Faith never gives up
When Abram was seventy-five (12:1–3), God had promised to make him into a great nation, and to bless all the families of the earth through his descendants. But when chapter 17 opens, Abram is ninety-nine years old and has almost nothing to show for all the promises God had made—only a thirteen-year-old illegitimate son. Yet Abram trusted God for each of these twenty-four years! So, if you’ve been waiting for what seems like a long time for God to answer your prayers, here is hope from Genesis 17:1–8: God never forgets his people or his promises! “I will multiply you exceedingly” (v. 2); “you will be the father of a multitude of nations” (v. 4); “I will make you exceedingly fruitful” (v. 6); “kings will come forth from you” (v. 6). “I will do what I said I would do,” says the Lord. Abram believed. And faith keeps believing even when God seems slow to deliver. Faith never gives up!
Faith is the gift of God
As excited as Abram was about the promise of a legitimate child by Sarai (17:15–16), he was still concerned for the welfare of his illegitimate son, Ishmael. He asked God, in fact, that the blessings promised to himself might extend to Ishmael (17:18). And God’s response is as curious as it is firm: “I will bless him … But My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (17:20–21). God decided that Isaac, and not Ishmael, would be the father of the chosen people—the descendants of Abram!
Clearly Isaac would later have to believe in God as his father had done. But verse 21 is a reminder that the reason why Isaac would later believe like his father was because God had chosen him! God designated Isaac as the father of the family of faith—before he was ever born! Isaac believed because God chose him for that very purpose! And that is a wonderful reminder that faith does not spring from the content of our own characters, from the wisdom of our own hearts, or even from the exercise of our own wills. Faith is “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8)!
Faith results in change
In chapter 17, both Abram and Sarai had their names changed by God himself. Abram (“exalted father”) became Abraham (“father of a multitude”). And Sarai became Sarah, which means “princess.” Why did God change their names? As a symbol of their changed status! Abraham was now living under God’s covenant blessings. And Sarah was now God’s princess, destined to be the mother of Israel! They had gone from barren to blessed. And, in the ancient context in which they lived, such a change called for brand new names.
Now, in most modern cultures, we do not change our names when we become believers in Jesus. But our status is no less changed than was Abraham’s or Sarah’s. We, too, have gone from barren to blessed. We have gone from being guilty to being innocent; from being God’s enemies to being his friends; and, as we will see in the next section, from being disobedient sinners to being saints with the capacity and desire to obey God!
Faith is demonstrated by obedience
James the brother of Jesus made this point quite well when he said that “faith, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17), and claimed, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Faith and works are not synonymous. But good works are the inevitable result of true faith. And Abraham illustrates this. In 17:9–14 God declared that the sign of his covenant with Abraham would be that Abraham should circumcise all the males in his house. Easy for us to say, since, in our modern, health-related practice of circumcision, we do the deed right at birth, leaving no memory of the pain. But Abraham, remember, was ninety-nine years old. His son was thirteen, and his servants were all grown men. To circumcise them all would not be an easy task. But this was what God asked. So Abraham faced a test. Would he really trust God, even when it was difficult? Would he prove his faith by obeying the God in whom he supposedly trusted? Yes, he would (17:23). Abraham did just “as God had said”! He demonstrated his faith by obedience. And so must we!
Abraham was a man of faith! He believed God when the promise seemed impossible. He believed God even when his wife laughed (18:1–15). He got back on track after a momentary lapse in judgment. And he demonstrated that he trusted God by practical obedience. May God give us grace to do the same!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Read Romans 4 and Galatians 3. What conclusions does Paul draw from Abram’s faith? How does he apply them to New Testament believers?
2. Genesis is filled with examples of God’s choosing of individuals—Abram out of the land of the Chaldeans (ch. 12); Isaac over Ishmael (ch. 17); Jacob over Esau (ch. 25). Read Romans 9. What ongoing implications does Paul draw from these events? How does God’s choosing relate to our salvation?
3. Read James 2—faith demonstrated by obedience. How can we put together James’s strong language about works with Paul’s strong language regarding faith (see Eph. 2:1–10; Rom. 3:21–4:25)?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Have there been occasions when you, like Abram, have waited a very long time to see God fulfill his promise or answer a prayer? What did you learn during those years of waiting? Or are you still waiting? And what can you learn from observing Abram during the twenty-plus years between God’s promise (ch. 12) and its fulfillment?
2. God chose Isaac as the child of the promise before he was even born. If you are a believer, think back to that time when you first came to believe in Christ. Looking back, can you discern how God was working to draw you to himself before you even realized it? What do these experiences teach us about grace?
7 Hellfire and brimstone
August 6, 1945 dawned like any other day. Men rode off on their bicycles to work. Housewives folded laundry and swept floors. Children bustled off to school. Young mothers dutifully changed dirty diapers and nursed their babes.
They could not have known that creeping towards their city like a hungry tiger was theEnola Gay, a United States bomber. They could not have known that it carried with it sure and instant death. But in the blink of an eye, the men with their bicycles and the women with their laundry were engulfed in white-hot flames. The schoolchildren and their teachers were incinerated in their classrooms. The mothers and their babies went into eternity together. And the city of Hiroshima had its name written in bold print in the annals of world history.
That was only a few decades ago. But we might well take what we know of Hiroshima and project it back into the account of Sodom. The story is much the same. “In the days of Lot,” says Jesus, “they were eating, they were drinking, they were buying, they were selling, they were planting, they were building; but on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:28–29). No prophet to warn them. No message from an angel. The men, women, and children of Sodom and Gomorrah were caught completely off guard, to their everlasting destruction.
A tour of the city
Now it is easy to use Sodom and Gomorrah as a byword; to separate ourselves from them because “Of course they deserved to die. We know what God thinks about homosexuality.” Yes, we do—he hates it. But we must be willing, also, to recognize that, though homosexuality was the sin that finally wore God’s patience with Sodom threadbare, there were other sins in Sodom and Gomorrah! In fact, Genesis 19:32 informs us that there were not even ten righteous people in the whole place. And a look around the city reveals that many of these unrighteous persons looked a lot like the folk we interact with daily at the workplace, in the market, or at the school. In fact, they looked a lot like us!
So let’s take a tour of the city, just hours before all its inhabitants were wiped off the map. What kind of people lived there? We might be surprised to see our own reflections in one or two of their faces—and, in so doing, we might be a little better prepared to meet our Maker.
Man of prayer
Let’s actually start our tour outside the city walls on overlooking hillside near the village of Mamre. That is where we will find Abraham, the man of prayer (18:16–33).
Before the destruction of Sodom, the Lord had paid a visit to Abraham’s tent (18:1–5). As he was about to leave, he asked himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (18:17). Then he turned and said to Abraham, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave” (18:20). Why did the Lord give him warning? So there would be a witness to testify that it was God who destroyed the cities? To see how Abraham would respond to the destruction of his near neighbors? Both explanations seem possible—especially the latter.
Abraham had just put his wife in a position of extreme compromise (and was about to do it again in ch. 20). He had begotten an illegitimate child by his wife’s servant girl. And he had treated that servant girl quite poorly afterward. In a very real sense, Abraham was just as guilty as Sodom. Yet Abraham the sinner had been forgiven by God again and again! How would he respond to the news of the impending destruction of his neighbors?
Well, in 18:22–33, we find that he pled that God might spare the city. Yes, he pled, primarily, on behalf of the righteous (18:23). But his plea was that God spare the entire city, homosexuals and all! What an example to some in our day who are so vindictive towards present-day Sodomites—using them for political target practice and proudly proclaiming, regarding the AIDS virus, that “they are getting what they deserve”! That may be so. But do we pause like Abraham to plead for their souls before our Redeemer? Do we recall that we also, like Abraham, are guilty sinners? Have we forgotten how much mercy the Lord has shown to us in Jesus?
How good it would be if we could see our reflection in the face of Abraham, the man of prayer! But let’s continue our tour. We may see ourselves again in the city …
Saved, but barely
Follow me down the hillside and across the valley to the gates of Sodom, where sits Abraham’s nephew Lot (19:1). Lot had probably grown to believe in the Lord through his uncle Abraham. So he was a little bit of an oddity in Sodom—different enough, in fact, to have compassion on strangers who were prepared to spend the night on the streets (19:2–3). But he had also been assimilated quite well into this city of sin. He even had a seat at the city gate! To sit there, he must have been an elder in the city. And to have been an elder, he must have made some compromises with the lifestyle and morality of the city. So there he sits—an apparent believer, yet able to join the crowd and immerse himself in the culture of sin.
Lot was a man confused—torn between his upbringing in the faith and his enjoyment of the world. So confused, in fact, that when the men of the city were at the door, prepared to gang-rape his guests, he offered them his daughters instead (19:4–8). Do you see the torment in his soul? He was desperate to protect his guests, as the Lord would want. But he was also desperate to make peace with the sinful culture in which he lived. So desperate, in fact, that he was willing to sell his daughters in the process (no wonder they learned to use sex to preserve themselves, 19:30–38).
Now, many a churchgoer may see his or her reflection in the tormented face of Lot. Some of us are torn. When God calls us to go forward with him, we hesitate like Lot (19:16). The opportunity for dishonest gain pulls at us powerfully. The temptation of sexual sin has laid down roots in our lives. Our friends, business partners, and neighbors are like the men of Sodom; and we, like Lot, are so often desperate to make a good impression with them and are willing to compromise to do so.
Lot was saved in the end, but barely. God had to drag him, by the collar, to safety. Perhaps, in his mercy, he will do the same with some of us. But why take the chance? Why do we not simply resign our positions as elders in Sodom now? Why not put our hands firmly into that of the Savior today?
Haters of God
Step outside Lot’s door now and observe the mob in the street (19:4–9). They are violent and angry; filled with homosexual lust; prepared to rape and even murder. And, even after being struck blind by God, they are still desperately trying to continue in their sin (19:11)! These men are not torn like Lot. They are, rather, tearing down his door to get what they want!
God forbid that we should see our faces reflected in this mirror. But could it be that someone who has picked up this little book has sunk this low? Perhaps God has even laid you on a sick-bed or hamstrung you so that you can’t keep up your sinful routine. Yet you have struggled all the more against him. You’re a bit angry with God. You’re not even sure, in fact, why you are reading this book! Perhaps it is simply that you might see yourself in the mirror of Genesis 19; that you might see that sin is suicidal; and that you might flee to safety in Jesus who died in your place!
Deaf to God’s warning
Continuing our tour of Sodom, fast-forward with me to the following morning. Inside Lot’s compound, all is in a frenzy. Lot and his wife are packing clothing, locating heirlooms, saddling their donkeys … and desperately trying to track down the two young men who are engaged to Lot’s daughters. “Up, get out of this place,” Lot says to them in 19:14, “for the Lord will destroy the city!”
But look at their faces. They smile knowingly. Lot appears to them “to be jesting”! They don’t believe him, and why would they? Nothing in this man’s life would make them view him as a faithful spiritual guide. They probably think of him as just another religious hypocrite who changes his clothes and his behavior one day in seven, then returns to his normal self the rest of the week. You can almost hear them laughing, “The old boy’s gone mad! Go sober up, pops! You’ve had another long night.”
Theirs is a popular line of thought. “These religious folk are all mad. They don’t even practice what they preach.” That was certainly true of Lot. But whether it is true of your local church or not does not invalidate the message. Lot’s sons-in-law would tell us that the line “Church folk are all hypocrites” will not be a sufficient excuse when we stand before God’s judgment seat. They would tell us that the man at the front of the chapel, frantically warning people to flee the wrath to come, is not jesting; nor is he out of touch with reality. They would have sober words for the thousands who hear the message of salvation week after week but who are yet unsaved: “Please, stop turning a deaf ear to the gospel!”
Attached to the world
Finally, walk back with me to Lot’s house and observe his wife, packing her belongings. She looks around longingly at her beautiful living room, a symbol of the status she has gained as a high-society woman in Sodom. She wishes she could take it all. Tears fill her eyes. She wonders whether or not she really wants to leave it all and follow God. And when it’s time to go, the angels literally have to drag her, aching over the loss of everything that she holds dear, out of her home (19:16). That is why she “looked back” in 19:26. Because she, like the rich young ruler after her, loved her material possessions and her societal position more than she loved the Lord.
Maybe Lot’s wife is the most modern of all the characters in the account. Her life, it seemed, consisted in the abundance of her possessions. Is that true of us? If someone were to ask us, “What are your chief ambitions in life?”, would our answers be given in terms of job status, pay scale, and retirement possibilities? Would we speak of the dream house we’ve always wanted to build, the vacation we’ve always wanted to take, the financial security we hope to achieve, or the popularity we hope to attain? If so, there is a good chance that, when God calls us out of this world, we will find ourselves looking back … and left out of the kingdom. For Jesus says, “Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:32–33).
Does it seem impossible that such a choice should ever have to be made in the English-speaking world—between comfort and Christ; between social acceptability and Christ; between job security and Christ? Some who read these pages will likely live long enough to see the day when Westerners (yes, Westerners) will be forced to choose between Christ and political freedom; between Christ and financial opportunity; between Christ and social acceptance; between Christ and our very lives. And if we find ourselves looking back now, what will happen to us then?
“No one,” says Jesus, “after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Where is your treasure? Is it hidden with God in Christ? Or is it hanging on your wall, nestling in your bank account, or parked in your garage?
Flee the wrath to come
Finally, let us remind ourselves of what Jesus said in that famous reference to Sodom and Gomorrah to which we referred in opening this chapter: As it was “in the days of Lot,” so it will be “on the day that the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:28–30). Hellfire and brimstone will come again. Only, on that day, there will be no mountains and no town “near enough to flee to” (Gen. 19:20). Our only refuge will be in the shadow of the Lord Jesus, who alone can forgive the sins that bring God’s judgment on the world. So why sit in the gates of Sodom any longer? Why wait another day to find rest and refuge in Jesus? “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’ ” (2 Cor. 6:2)!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Do a study of the word “Sodom” in Scripture (using a concordance or online tool). How is the city referred to in the rest of Scripture? What lessons from Sodom are applicable for today?
2. The New Testament speaks of a different kind of people who are “saved, but barely”; not because of their love of the world, but because of their understanding of the gospel. Read 1 Corinthians 3:10–15. What does this say about: what we should look for in a church? how we should share the good news of Jesus with our neighbors? What kinds of modern religious trappings might be considered “wood, hay, straw”?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? How would you talk through these realities with a homosexual friend or co-worker? How could you identify with them in the gospel rather than condemning them? See Romans 1:18–32.
2. Notice how Lot (19:8), his daughters (19:30–38), and Abraham (20:1–13) all used sex to protect themselves and/or promote their agendas. How is sex used in our day (perhaps less obviously) for the same purposes (in innuendo, attire, advertising, etc.)? Are you using, or being used by, sex in these ways?
8 Promise and provision
Dinner was warm. The house was tidy. The table was set. And there we sat in the living room, waiting for our guest to arrive. But she never came.
Isn’t it disappointing when people do not keep their word? We’ve all had it happen to us at one time or another. And when it does, we can become jaded and bitter; or develop a great fear of entrusting ourselves to other people; or take the attitude that, “If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.” Worst of all, for many of us, these attitudes begin to color the way that we relate to God. Maybe we can’t be sure if he will keep his word. We fear making too radical a commitment, lest we end up being hurt in the end. And we take matters into our own hands.
As he had promised
Do you have trouble taking God at his word? Then you need to hear the opening lines of Genesis 21:1–2: “Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him.” Isn’t that good to hear? It had been a long time coming, but God had not forgotten his promise to Sarah (17:19). God always does what he says he will do. He is not like us, forgetting, overlooking, and ignoring his commitments. Nor is he, like us, sometimes willing to fulfill his commitments, but unable to do so. He never runs out of time. He never gets sick, or has an unexpected scheduling conflict. And he never lacks the strength to do what he says he will do—even if the task is as tall as giving a baby to a ninety-year-old woman or raising his Son from the dead! Nothing is too hard for the Lord! And the Lord always does “as He had said.”
Now read on into 21:3–4 and you will find that God wasn’t the only one doing “as He had said”—so was Abraham! In verse 3, he named his new son Isaac, just as the Lord had instructed him back in 17:19. And in verse 4 we read that “Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him” in 17:10!
As we read, it would be easy to say to ourselves, “Amen! I am so glad I am trusting in and waiting on the Lord!” But are we really doing that? And are we proving it by doing what he says? Do our checkbooks reveal that we believe that God’s kingdom investment plan really works? Does our treatment of others show that we believe God when he says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19)? Do our schedules demonstrate that we believe that the Lord “gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Ps. 127:2)? Do the decisions we make show that we believe God will do “as He [has] said”? Or are we taking matters into our own hands?
Those who live life based only on worldly wisdom will rarely have the experience of Sarah in verses 6–7: “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me … Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” What a sign of spiritual health laughter can be! Not laughter at the contrived levity that we call comedy—but a laughter that says, with Sarah, “Ha! I can hardly believe how good God has been to me!” Do you ever laugh like that? If not, is it a sign that, perhaps, your successes are not results of the surprising grace of God but simply of the run-of-the-mill paybacks of worldly wisdom?
Sarah had once laughed at God—disbelieving his promise of a son. Then she had tried to fulfill the promise herself, and found only heartbreak. But now Sarah laughed with God, because his goodness was almost too good to be true—and not only because of her old age. God’s goodness to Abraham and Sarah was also too good to be true because it was so undeserved! Even if we hadn’t seen the continued sin of Abraham and the unbelief of Sarah in previous chapters, Genesis 21:9–12 would be enough to convince us that God was not good to them because they had been good to him. No, Abraham and Sarah were, again, being treated better than they deserved. Not only had Sarah devised her own worldly-wise plans to get a son through her servant girl, but also Abraham had gone along with those plans. But now we find Sarah wanting to kick that servant girl and her son (whom Sarah had arranged for) out of the house.
Isn’t this amazing? Sarah, who had been shown such kindness by God, and who was rejoicing in God’s good provision, now shows utter contempt for another human being—her husband’s own son, no less. What a reminder to us that God was not good to Sarah because Sarah was good. God was good to Sarah because God is good! And the same is true of us. If God has been good to us, it is “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5).
By the time we come to chapter 22, many years have passed. Abraham and Sarah had finally settled in. Their days of wandering about and living in makeshift tents were over. Sarah had probably gotten their home decorated just the way she liked it. Perhaps Abraham had planted a little garden. The servants had learned the ins and outs of the surrounding hillsides, perfecting the seasonal routines of cattle-driving and shepherding. And best of all, there was Isaac. He was becoming a young man now. He had proven to be a faithful and obedient son. He was learning to worship the God of his father. His shoulders were broad and his face was becoming like that of a man. Everything seemed just right.
And now this? Now, after God had given them every earthly blessing, comes this? “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (22:2). “Why?” Abraham must have thought. “Why this? Why now? O Lord, anything but Isaac!”
The wrenching in Abraham’s heart must have answered his own question. Why now? Why Isaac? Because God had given Abraham much. And, like us, Abraham must have been tempted to love God’s good gifts more than he loved God himself. And God’s crowning gift—Abraham’s most prized possession—was his son, his only son, whom he loved, Isaac. And thus, the loss of Isaac would be the keenest test of Abraham’s faith in and love towards God. Would he still love God if God took away his good gifts? Would he still follow God if God took away his son, his only son, whom he loved, Isaac? These are questions we must ask of ourselves: “Would I still love God if I were put in the shoes of an Ethiopian, making around one dollar a day? Would I still love him if he took my home, my three meals a day, my children, or my spouse?”
Perhaps you have walked through such trials—the death of a loved one, or the loss of a fortune—and found God faithful on the other side. But I want you to notice that Abraham didn’t wake up one morning and find Isaac dead. As testing as that may have been, God didn’t simply take Isaac from Abraham. God gave Abraham the option of whether or not to give Isaac up in obedience to the Lord. That’s a much greater test. It’s the kind of test that Ann Hasseltine’s parents got when they received the following lines from their would-be son-in-law, Adoniram Judson, asking for Ann’s hand in marriage:
I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure for a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with a crown of righteousness, brightened by the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Saviour from the heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?
What will I say if I get a letter like that someday? What will I do if God calls my son to go to Saudi Arabia with the gospel? What will I do if being faithful to Christ means losing my job, or forfeiting my health, or endangering my family? I don’t know yet, and neither do you! That is why we need, so badly, to be tested.
So “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4). Did you catch that? In order to be “complete” we must “encounter various trials.” And before we do, let us learn from Abraham, and from his son.
Abraham believed God
Imagine the night that passed between 22:2–3. Abraham could not have slept a wink. Perhaps he tossed and turned. Perhaps he paced the floor—praying, crying, and pleading with the Lord. He may even have found himself questioning God. “I thought you said that You were going to make me ‘the father of a multitude of nations’ [17:4]. I thought you said that ‘through Isaac [my] descendants shall be named’ [21:12]. How can that be if I now have to sacrifice him? I don’t understand.”
Those are good questions. We’ll find the answers to them in just a moment. But first, let’s simply notice that Abraham did what God said. Did he have questions? Surely. Was his task difficult? More than any of us can know. But the difficulty of the task and the questions involved never provide us with an adequate reason to disobey or drag our feet when we have a clear command from God. “So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him” (22:3). That is true obedience: doing as God says, even when we don’t have all the details—and even when God’s instructions don’t make sense. Is there a situation like that in your life right now?
Abraham, amazingly, obeyed God. But the question is, “Why?” Was he just morally good-natured? No. We’ve already seen what kind of a sinner he was. So how does a sinner like Abraham come to a place where he is able to obey God so steadfastly in such a difficult situation? By faith! By believing that God, not Abraham, knows best! And in this case, by believing that God would do what he said he would do. God had promised to make Abraham, through Isaac, a great nation. Abraham believed that. Thus, Abraham believed that somehow, in some way, God would spare Isaac’s life through this ordeal. That is why, in 22:5, he told his servants to “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.”
Abraham was not sugarcoating the situation. He was not lying. He really believed that he and the lad would both be back. He really believed that, because of God’s promise concerning Isaac, God would somehow, in some way, preserve the boy’s life. And Hebrews 11:17–19 tells us just what was going through his mind:
By faith, Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.
Isn’t that astounding? God’s instructions seemed to contradict God’s character and God’s promises. But, instead of disobeying God’s instructions and doubting God’s promises, Abraham was busy brainstorming how God might make it all work together for his good! And he came up with a possible solution—resurrection! “Perhaps that is what God is going to do,” he thought. “After the sacrifice, God is going to raise Isaac from the dead—because God will not fail to keep his promise! Isaac will live!”
That is faith! Believing that God will work this seemingly impossible situation for my good so that I am able, in spite of my questions, to obey! And though God worked the situation out another way, as we will see, the lesson is still the same. Abraham believed God would do what he said he would do. And when hope seemed lost, Abraham thought deeper and deeper about the God he served until his hope was restored.
Do you have that kind of faith in God? When the going gets tough, do you have a mind that defaults, not to brainstorming your own solutions, but to brainstorming the miraculous ways God might work the situation out for your good and his glory? If you do, then you will have enough light at the end of the tunnel to keep going—and to do what God says!
In putting ourselves exclusively into Abraham’s shoes, we haven’t stopped to think about how all this must have felt for Isaac. It must have seemed a bit strange when, in 22:5, Abraham left the servants behind. But Isaac picked up the pile of wood that one of them had been carrying, and hiked along. But something else was nagging at his young mind. They had all the ingredients for a sacrificial worship service—except the most important: the offering itself. So Isaac asked his dad in verse 7, “… where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” and got this cryptic reply: “God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
Now, some of us might have found ourselves asking, “What do you mean, Dad? Do you expect that God is just going to make a lamb appear out of thin air? Don’t you think that, if God were going to provide the lamb, he would have provided it by means of us bringing it with us when we left home this morning?” We wouldn’t fault Isaac for being confused at this point, and perhaps even a bit frustrated at his dad’s nondescript replies.
But, if Isaac thought those kinds of thoughts, he didn’t say them. All we read in verse 8 is that “the two of them walked on together.” Perhaps he had seen his father trust God for provision in the past. Maybe he had even heard these same words from his father’s lips many times growing up: “God will provide, my son.” And he had surely seen God do it! You see, young Isaacs do not come out of nowhere. They come from parents whom they observe obeying the Lord even when it is tough. They come from parents who believe—and live as though they believe—that the Lord will provide! And look how children like that turn out: “Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood” (22:9).
Now verse 6 becomes really important. In verse 6 we read that Isaac, not Abraham, carried the wood. Isaac must have been very close to full grown at this point—strong enough to do the heavy lifting in place of his aging father. In other words: stronger than his father. This was no chubby toddler Abraham was tying to the stake here. This was a big, strapping teenager—the kind that, though Dad doesn’t like to admit it, could now whip his father in a wrestling match. And Abraham was well over a hundred years old. So now you get the picture of what was really happening here. Abraham was only able to tie Isaac down to the altar because Isaac was willing to be tied down! And why was Isaac willing? Because his father’s faith in the God of the impossible had rubbed off on him. He believed what his father had said in verse 8: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And if God chose him to be the lamb, then God knew best!
I say to you again: teenagers like that do not come out of nowhere. They do not generally arise out of families that are thoroughly moral but only marginally Christian. They arise out of families where Christ has come to have first place in everything!
Let’s hurry on to the climax of the account. Just as Abraham, hands trembling and forehead dripping with sweat, draws his killing knife in verse 10, the angel of the Lord speaks: ” ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.’ Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by its horns” (22:12–13).
Abraham had passed the test! He had laid aside his doubts and fears and done what God said—so that the angel could say, “now I know that you fear God.” Did God know ahead of time what Abraham would do? Yes. The Bible teaches that God always knows the end from the beginning (see Ps. 139:4, 16; Prov. 19:21; Eph. 2:10). But Abraham had yet to prove his faith and love for God in time and space. And so, in that sense, God was seeingit for the first time, and, in that sense, could say, “now I know that you fear God.” And, perhaps more importantly, Abraham was also seeing how strong his faith had become.
Do you know who else passed the test in these verses? God! At the opening of the chapter it seemed that God was forgetting all the promises he had made to Abraham. If we had lived at the beginning of Genesis 22, we might have given up on God. But not Abraham. Through his obedience, Abraham gave God a chance to prove himself. And God came through, just as he always comes through. So learn a lesson here. God’s severe testings in your life are not merely meant to test and prove your faith, but also to give you a chance, through your obedience, to test and prove his faithfulness! And God always passes the test. There is always a ram in the thicket! And so Abraham named that mountain Jehoveh-Jireh, “The Lord Will Provide.”
We see in the verses that follow that God continued to provide—to do “as He had promised.” In verses 15–18, God reiterates his covenant promises to Abraham and Isaac. In verses 20–24, he anticipates the fulfilling of those promises with the announcement of the birth of Rebekah, who will become Isaac’s wife and Israel’s mother. In chapter 23, his pledge of the promised land begins to be fulfilled as Abraham procures a burial plot in the land of Canaan. And in 22:19, Abraham and Isaac return home, having had their faith both tested and proven, and having had God’s promises tested, proven, and reaffirmed. And everyone lived happily ever after, right?
God will provide the lamb
Well, yes, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac did live happily ever after. But if we closed the chapter there, we would have missed the most important lesson of the account: that there is more to this story than Abraham and Isaac. In point of fact, this story is one of the brightest, most colorful of all the Old Testament portraits of our Lord Jesus.
Like Isaac, Jesus faced a sacrificial death at the hands of his own Father. Like Isaac, Jesus took up the wood on which he would give his life and carried it into the countryside of Moriah, around what we now know as Jerusalem. Like Isaac, Jesus had questions about his Father’s plan: “if you are willing, remove this cup from Me.” But, like Isaac, Jesus faithfully obeyed his Father: “yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
But that is where the similarities end. For Jesus, there was no ram in the thicket. For Jesus, there was no substitute. Jesus’ Father actually went through with what Abraham only contemplated: sacrificing his Son, his only Son, whom he loves—for the sake of sinners. Isaac was spared, but God “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all” (Rom. 8:32).
Therein lies the reason why there was no substitute for Jesus. Jesus was acting as the substitute for “us all.” There was no ram in the thicket for him because he himself wasour ram in the thicket. And as Genesis 22:13 speaks of the ram’s sacrifice for Isaac, so we may speak of Jesus’ sacrifice for us: God “went and took the ram [Jesus] and offered him up … in the place of” sinners.
We need to hear this because, in looking at Abraham’s faith and obedience, we’ve set the bar quite high. Yet none of us, when tested, will pass with no marks against us. None of us obeys God fully as we ought. None of us trusts God in everything. We all find ourselves doubting, questioning, finagling, doing God’s thinking for him, and many times disobeying his clear commandments outright. And even if we, like Abraham, grew to a place of maturity where we did pass the test, we would not be able to blow away the foul stench of our past! For all Abraham’s victory in chapter 22, he could not erase the selling of his wife in chapters 12 and 20, nor his adultery in chapter 16!
It doesn’t matter how much perfume you pour into a septic tank, you cannot get rid of the odor. And so it is with our sins. No matter how much good we do, we cannot erase the bad we have done. And no matter how much good we do today, we cannot tell how we may falter tomorrow. So we should, apart from faith in Christ, picture ourselves in the place of Isaac in verse 10: God’s knife poised above us, ready to come down on our throats as a just penalty for our sins against his holiness and justice.
We need a Savior! We need a substitute. We need a ram, caught in God’s thicket, which will willingly lie down on the altar and bleed in our place. And that is what we have in Jesus—”the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). But we can only have him if we, like Abraham, trust that “God will provide the lamb.” We can only have him if we, like Abraham, stop trying to create our own solutions and submit ourselves to God’s. Have you done that? If not, then, in Genesis 22, behold “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”—and believe!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Think back through the life of Abraham (chapters 12–23) and compile a list of “Facts about faith” based on his example. For instance: “Faith is demonstrated by obedience” (17:9–14); “Faith is rewarded with provision” (22:10–14).
2. Think back through the life of Abraham and compile a list of the ways God kept his promises to him. Before you start, look carefully at 12:1–3 and notice all the facets of God’s promises.
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Has God been asking you to do something that does not seem to make sense? What is it? Search to see if there are specific Bible promises that relate to your situation. Brainstorm (like Abraham) with a trusted Christian friend the ways in which God might be working a blessing.
2. When was the last time you “laughed” (though not necessarily outwardly) at the provision of God, or the last time you were surprised and overjoyed by grace? Is this a normal experience for you? Or do most of your provisions seem to come only as a result of your efforts?
Isaac and Jacob—men of God’s own choosing
9 All in the family
Genesis 24 contains one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible—a love story, with all the elements that would make a charming screenplay.
Young Isaac Abramson, devastated by the loss of his mother, wanders without comfort through the lonely corridors of his life. But one day, at the arrangement of his wealthy and devoted father, and through the wooing of a faithful family servant, a caravan arrives from the countryside, and into Isaac’s life steps a bright, modest, beautiful young woman. A lonely young nobleman … a devoted father … a dedicated servant … a well-bred bride—a match made in heaven!
What a film it might make! But as we let the story of Isaac and Rebekah play in the theatres of our minds, I want you to see that this account was made for something much more important than television. This account was written, and recorded in Holy Scripture, for our spiritual instruction and edification.
Imitate their faith
One of the things that makes this such an intriguing story is the faith and character displayed by the various people involved. Let’s sketch them in briefly.
Abraham the devoted father
Abraham was passionately concerned about Isaac’s future—specifically, that Isaac not take a wife “from the daughters of the Canaanites” (24:3) but from his own relatives (24:4). Why? The Canaanites were idol worshippers. And a Canaanite wife might well lead his son or his grandchildren astray. And more than anything else, Abraham wanted his family to remain faithful to the Lord. In that sense, Abraham is a model for every believing parent. Every Christian parent ought to want—more than fortune, fame, or education—their children to walk with the Lord. And that means that every Christian parent ought to be intimately and helpfully involved, as their children mature, in helping them choose wisely in matters of education, career, and certainly marriage.
Eliezer the praying servant
We learned in chapter 15 that Abraham’s servant was called Eliezer. Here in chapter 24 we find him assigned a difficult task: travel a few hundred miles (without either the father or the groom) and pick a suitable wife for Isaac! What if he made a foolish choice? He simply couldn’t do that. The task was too important. So what did Eliezer do? He prayed! Listen to him in verse 12: “O Lord … please grant me success.” And notice that, not only did he pray, but he prayed specifically—he asked God for a sign (24:13–14). And not just any sign, but a sign that accorded with biblical principles. He asked God, through the sign, to guide him to a woman of character—one who had a servant’s heart. And Eliezer is an example of how Christians should seek the Lord’s guidance in every endeavor. First, we must pray. Next, we must pray for specific guidance. And third, we must pray for guidance that clearly matches up with what we already know from Scripture.
Rebekah the honorable young woman
Rebekah is an example of what every young woman ought to be. She was chaste (24:16). She had a servant spirit (24:18–19). She was hospitable (24:25). And she was modest (24:65). Rebekah was everything that modern teenage girls are so often encouraged not to be. Instead of locking herself in her room, she was out collecting water for her family. Instead of being glued to her cellphone, she was on the lookout for strangers who needed a drink. Instead of showing off her undergarments (or lack thereof!), Rebekah “took her veil and covered herself” as she prepared to meet her fiancé. And (wonder of wonders!) Isaac was attracted to her! Need we say more? Rebekah is a picture-perfect example for young ladies!
Behind the scenes
Now, this is a story that not only shows us how to act, but also teaches us how to think—about God. God was the one working behind the scenes to bring these two young people and their families together. So what do we learn about him in this love story? We learn that he is …
A God who is faithful to all his promises
As he sent Eliezer out to find a bride, Abraham called God the “Lord … who spoke to me and who swore to me” (24:7). He was remembering how God had promised him a family (ch. 12), specifically, a son (ch. 17); how he had given him that son (ch. 21); and how he had spared the boy’s life (ch. 22). And he was reasoning to himself, and with Eliezer, that if God had been so faithful to his promises thus far, surely he would provide a wife to keep the promised family tree going! God always does exactly what he says he will do. Therefore, we, like Abraham, can trust him!
A God who knows what we need before we ask him
This is what Jesus said in Matthew 6:8. And this is what Eliezer discovered in verse 15: “Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah … came out with her jar on her shoulder.” Why? Because God knew what Eliezer needed before he asked. So God began answering the prayer before he finished asking! Isn’t that good to know? Whatever the decision or difficulty we may be facing, God already knows what we need. Our job is simply to ask him and believe!
A God who speaks clearly to those who seek him
One of the beauties of this story is how clearly God answered Eliezer’s prayer—giving him exactly the sign he had requested so he could be sure of how to proceed. And that is how God deals with us. He may not always post neon signs that can be seen from miles away. But his Word is clear enough, isn’t it? The Bible is not encoded with secret messages. Nor is it written on a scholarly plane that only the most educated can understand. There are difficult passages, to be sure. But, by and large, even a child can understand the basic teachings of the Bible if he or she is willing to listen. And even when the Bible doesn’t provide black and white answers—on questions such as whom to marry, when to buy a house, or which job to take—the Lord finds a way to make his will clear for those who will earnestly and patiently seek him.
A God who is determined to save sinners
Here is, perhaps, the most important lesson of all from Genesis 24. The whole reason for this arranged marriage was to ensure that Abraham’s family tree continued to grow—that the nation of Israel would assuredly come to birth. And why was that important? Because, as Jesus said in John 4:22, “salvation is from the Jews.” God’s plan of salvation for the whole world—Jews and Gentiles alike—depended upon a Jewish Messiah! And God is determined to save sinners. Therefore God was determined to send Jesus, the Messiah. And therefore God was determined to establish Israel, through which he would send this Messiah! So, way back in Genesis 24, God was so interested in saving you that he was orchestrating a marriage in the middle of nowhere to ensure that, in the fullness of time, you would have a Savior!
Like father, like son
As we continue on in the life of Isaac, there are more lessons to be learned from the family circle. In particular, we see that the apple usually doesn’t fall very far from the tree. Abraham had two sons. We read (25:1–18) that, spiritually at least, Ishmael didn’t look very like his dad. He was not the beneficiary of the Lord’s covenant promises. And he did not demonstrate the generous character of his father. Instead, “he settled in defiance of all his relatives” (25:18). Isaac, on the other hand, was the spitting image of his father—which was sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not. Let’s notice the family resemblance between Isaac and his father, Abraham, learning some lessons along the way.
Isaac inherited his father’s sin nature
There was constant bickering in Abraham’s family. Everyone knew that Isaac, and not Ishmael, was the favorite. So we are little surprised when we learn (25:19–34) that Isaac and Rebekah governed their home the same way—choosing favorites (25:28). At least, for Isaac’s part, there is little doubt he learned this from his own parents! Like father, like son!
As we worked through Abraham’s life in chapters 12–23, we saw his sin nature on display in various other ways, too. Probably the most memorable was his putting his wife in a position of compromise in order to protect his own back in chapter 12—and then his doing the same thing again in chapter 20! And here in 26:7–11, we remember that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Isaac passed his wife off as his sister and sold her to a foreign king to protect his own back. And he probably didn’t think up this cowardly solution on his own. Though he had not been born when his father had pulled the same stunt, he had probably heard tell of it. And now, when put in a pinch, he resorted to the same tactics as his dad in order to save his own neck—like father, like son!
The lesson here is that, as parents, we can pass down horrible habits of sin to our children. Not only do they inherit a sin nature from Mom and Dad, but they often also pick up, by dint of their environment, their parents’ specific sin habits. And while we magnify the fact that Jesus can redeem children from the “futile way of life inherited from [their] forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18), we do not minimize the fact that sin patterns often pass through the generations—particularly as children grow up and have families of their own. So there is strong caution in the tale of Abraham and Isaac.
Isaac inherited his father’s promises
Abraham was the recipient of some amazing promises from the Lord (ch. 12): “I will make you a great nation”; “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”; and “To your descendants I will give this land.” And, as we discover in 26:1–6, God’s intention all along was to pass those promises along to, and bring them to fulfillment through, Isaac. In 26:12–22, in fact, we see Isaac beginning to lay hold of some of the land that was promised to his father. Like father, like son.
Isaac imitated his father’s faith
Yes, Abraham passed down his sin patterns to his son. But Abraham was a believer. Wherever Abraham went, he built an altar and called upon the name of the Lord (see 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18; 22:9). And each time he did so was a reminder to himself, and to his God, that he needed forgiveness. He needed a blood sacrifice that would atone for his sins. And he called on the Lord to forgive him. And so it is no surprise that we find Isaac, having grown up with a father like that, doing the same thing in 26:23–25. Isaac had learned from his dad what it was to sin. But he had also learned from his dad what it was to go to the Lord in faith, seeking and finding forgiveness for sin and rest for his conscience. Like father, like son.
Now, from these last two points, we learn an opposite lesson from the previous one. Not only can our sin habits be imbibed by our children, but so can the blessings of spiritual life! Salvation is not inherited, infallibly, the way the covenant blessings of Abraham were inherited by Isaac. Salvation happens as each individual places his or her faith in the Savior. That’s why we say that Isaac “imitated” rather than “inherited” his father’s faith. But, though eternal salvation is not inherited genetically, the blessings of abundant life in Christ, as they are observed up close for eighteen years, can be a powerful testimony that pulls our children into the same manner of life, that urges them to imitate our faith. Growing up in a believing home (and one where that faith is obvious) is a tremendous blessing to a child.
So are our children learning, from us, that there is happiness and blessing in following the Lord? Yes, we know they are learning what it is to sin (even from the best of parents). But are they learning, from Mom and Dad, what it is to go to the Lord in faith, seeking and finding forgiveness for their sins and rest for their souls?
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Do some research on biblical parenting (Deut. 6; Eph. 6; Proverbs, etc.). What sorts of commands are given to parents? As either parent or child, how, practically, have you seen these commandments work for your family’s good? If you are a parent, how, practically, might you implement what you have left undone?
2. Read 1 Peter 3:1–6. How can your local church help young women develop the kind of character that Rebekah had? In your local context, what specific issues and temptations for young girls need particular prayer and attention?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Is there an area in which you, like Eliezer, are in need of specific guidance? What are some specific biblical markers you could be requesting of God and looking for?
2. If you are a parent, are there personal sin patterns that you see reflected in your children? What are they? What, practically, can you do to help break the cycle? How do your answers connect with the gospel (1 Peter 1:18–19)?
3. Genesis 24 presents a preparation for marriage that is very different from what is common in the Western world. What lessons can be gleaned from the health of this story and applied to courtship today? What are the particular temptations that are present in our modern system of finding a spouse?
10 Jacob I loved?
Have you ever known someone who was just a dirty, rotten scoundrel, but who nevertheless seemed always to have everything go his or her way? Maybe there was someone with whom you worked or went to school whose character was arrogant, selfish, and dishonest, but who seemed to have been born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth. Perhaps you can picture that person in your mind’s eye even now. If you can, you have a good idea of how the folk in Isaac’s neighborhood probably thought of his son Jacob.
Jacob was a despicable character—a conniving, cheating, stealing lecher. Yet everything seemed to go his way. Jacob’s story is one long litany of self-centeredness, deceit—and success. And as we read it, in the back of our minds, we need to ask the question: “Why?” Why was such a rotten character blessed so profusely? In the process, we might just learn a little bit about ourselves and about our God.
So let’s notice the different hats Jacob wore in his sordid career:
Jacob the con man
Jacob’s scheming actually began in Genesis 25:31. He took advantage of his brother’s foolishness and stole his birthright. Jacob was an opportunist, not unlike those who run the lotteries, casinos, and pawn shops of our day. He had no scruples about taking advantage of someone’s foolishness or desperation and sucking the life out of him or her.
But Jacob was not only an opportunist. He was also aggressive in his greed. Look at him in chapter 27, pulling the wool over his father’s failing eyes. Look at him, particularly, in verses 18–25, willing to go to unbelievable lengths to make his lies work. And look at him in verse 20, willing even to take the name of the Lord on his lips to make his lies sound feasible. What a dastardly character! But he was not unlike many even in the churches of our day. Here is a young person hiding the truth from her parents. There is a fellow selling his car but not telling the whole truth about its collision history. Here is a businessman, working in a highly religious region and becoming tied to the local church because “it’s good business.” There is no shortage of Jacobs in our day. And they are no less repugnant.
Jacob the family man?
Chapter 29 opens with the promise of another beautiful love story. Jacob was so in love with Rachel that he was willing to work seven years to earn her hand in marriage (29:18). But he soon found that Laban was up to no good. Laban deceived Jacob and gave him Leah instead. Laban’s was a dirty trick, and his, we soon discover, was a dysfunctional family. But Jacob proved he fit right in. For it was not long until he and his wife were bickering (30:1–2); until he was falling into bed with his housemaids (30:3–13); and until Rachel and Leah were at each other’s throats and bartering for sex (30:14–24).
Jacob’s family was one giant mess! Pride, greed, deceit, jealousy, sexual immorality, and spite—sounds a lot like the modern family, doesn’t it? But do you know which sin is most heinous of all in this story? Do you know which sin opened the floodgates for all the others? The fact that—except when God was giving them what they wanted—Jacob, Laban, Leah, and Rachel never spoke of him. Re-read chapters 29–30 and you will find that it is true. The only thing God seemed to be good for was to meet their own selfish desires. And maybe that is a sin we can relate to, as well. Some of us only pray when we’re in trouble. Some of us only pray for ourselves. Some of us only obey because we want God to do something for us. And some of us only praise God when he does what we want. That was the sin that tore apart Jacob’s family.
Jacob the businessman
Re-read 30:25–36. Does this sound like a healthy conversation between a man and his son-in-law? Their relationship seems to have been one strictly of business. And it seems that Jacob viewed his whole life this way. Notice how, in verse 26, he thought of his wives and children as his wages. He called them “my wives and my children for whom I have served you”—almost as if he viewed them as his weekly paycheck. Notice also Jacob’s self-reliance in verses 29–30: “But he said to him, ‘You yourself know how I have served you and how your cattle have fared with me. For you had little before I cameand it has increased to a multitude, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I turned.’ ” Jacob gave a little doff of the cap to the Lord’s provision. But he was primarily giving himself the credit for his and Laban’s financial success. He viewed everything as a business, with himself as the CEO.
How easy it is to view our families this way; to view our churches this way; to view our whole lives this way—using and commanding people so that we can have our goals achieved, and then becoming frustrated and indignant when others don’t do what we want them to do. This is an especial danger, it seems, for fathers and church leaders—viewing our wives, our children, our members as little assets meant to build our empires. So get a good look at how ugly it was in Jacob’s life and resign your position as self-appointed CEO!
Now, not only was Jacob a businessman, he was also a shady businessman, as we see in 30:27–43. Let’s not stumble over Jacob’s superstitious genetic-research project. The Bible is not teaching that Jacob’s superstition had any scientific validity; only that Jacob thought it did—and that God supernaturally allowed Jacob’s scheme to work (31:12). This paragraph is not teaching biology but the ways of providence—how God can, and sometimes does, work outside the norms of science. And what is important here is not the biology but the psychology. The important question is: Why did Jacob devise this scheme to begin with? The answer: To gain the upper hand over his father-in-law. This is an ancient example of a get-rich-quick scheme. And, like many modern get-rich-quick schemes, Jacob’s plan had its roots in selfishness and dishonesty. Remember, Jacob was not only a businessman, but also a con man.
Jacob the spin man
Jacob’s prosperity created a rift between him and Laban; so great a rift that Jacob realized that he needed to move his family away from Laban. But observe the forked-tongue way he went about it in 31:1–32. The problem was not that Jacob fled from Laban—God had told him to do so in verse 3. Rather, the problem was how he left. Jacob could (and should) have just said to his family and to Laban, “God has told me to return to the land of my fathers—so we are leaving.” But that isn’t what he said. Instead, Jacob became a spin doctor. He went into an elaborate political monologue meant to convince his wives that it really was OK to leave. It sounds like a campaign-year television ad:
Hard-working. Honest. Religious. These are the words people are using to describe Jake Isaacson. For twenty years he has faithfully served his constituency. But the record of Laban proves that he is not the man to lead us forward. Ten times he has voted to lower the minimum wage. His record is a long litany of dishonesty and unfulfilled promises. So this year, vote Isaacson!
Jacob’s speech is filled with enough exaggeration, enough mudslinging, and enough self-promotion to fit in quite nicely in any political campaign. But how easy it is to take this tack to make ourselves look better in the office, in the schoolhouse, in the neighborhood, at the family gatherings, and even at the church fellowship. But listen to how repulsive Jacob sounds, and remember that bad-mouthing others to improve your own position is morally reprehensible in any era.
Jacob, God’s man
So Jacob was a lying son, a stealing brother, a cheating husband, a selfish father, and a mud-slinging son-in-law. Not much to be impressed with. And that is what makes Genesis 28:10–22 so amazing. For there we read that the Lord had a few words for this morally repugnant character, Jacob:
I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
What? That is not what we would have expected to hear! The incongruity seems even more obvious when we read a verse like Romans 9:13: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”Jacob I loved? How can that be? How could God love Jacob?
Well, the first part of the answer lies in God’s sovereignty. Remember, God chose Jacob as the child of the promise before he and Esau were ever born (25:23). And the apostle Paul argued from this that God has the right to choose (or not choose) any one of us for salvation before we are ever born (Rom. 9). Retelling the account of Jacob and Esau, Paul said,
… though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
In other words, God loved undeserving Jacob to demonstrate that God, as God, can love anyone he chooses! He is sovereign. And in the same way that God chose Jacob before he was ever born, so God chooses everyone who ever becomes a son or daughter of the covenant. And it works the same way with each of us who inherits the promise of salvation in Jesus. We do not come into the world looking for God. We are born like sheep, each one turning to his or her own way (Isa. 53:6). And if God had not sought usbefore we sought him, none of us would ever seek him. If God hadn’t chosen us before we chose him, none of us would ever have chosen him.
This is the genius of the gospel. This is how salvation can be absolutely free. God did not choose us because of anything we have done or will do. This is the whole lesson of Jacob’s life. Whether or not an individual or family belongs to God is ultimately God’s decision. And thank God it is. Because if we are anything like Jacob and his sons—and we have seen that we are—then we do not want to depend on our own works or our own wills but on God who shows mercy!
This mention of the Savior reminds us of the second reason why God chose Jacob—to demonstrate God’s grace! We may read this account and protest, “This isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that God should choose Jacob and not Esau. It isn’t fair that God permitted Jacob’s schemes to work.” And we would be absolutely correct. It isn’t fair. What would have been fair would have been for God to have sent Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s whole family to hell. They were all, in some ways, fairly rotten characters, as we have seen! And what would be fair would be for God to send all of us to hell, too. For there is a little bit of Jacob in each of us. Perhaps it comes out in different ways, but there is a con man in each of us; a spin doctor in each of us; a cheater in each of us; a greedy heart in each of us. And “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
So it may seem unfair that God loved Jacob, the scoundrel. But you see, when we are thinking clearly, we really don’t want God to treat us fairly. Rather, we want God to grant us his grace as he did Jacob! And thank God he has! He has given “His only begotten Son, [so] that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Have you believed in the Son of God? Have you entrusted yourself to the God whose grace is given to us unfairly? If you have, then you realize that you and I are the dirty, rotten, undeserving scoundrels with the silver spoons in our mouths. Thank God!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Use a concordance to look up the various other Bible passages that mention either Jacob or Esau. What else can we learn about them? How does God’s choice of Jacob relate to us? What are we to learn from their examples?
2. Skim through the Genesis records in your mind. Are there other examples of God choosing one sibling over another in this book? What are the reasons given in each case? How do these examples tie in with what we learned about God’s choice of Jacob?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. What was your first reaction when someone told you that God chooses whom he will save? What are the other alternatives? How does God’s sovereign election fit together with human will?
2. Think through the sins of Jacob again. Is there anywhere you see your own face reflected in his poor example? Confess this to a friend and pray together for God’s help (James 5:16).
11 A new name
Some time ago, some friends of mine traveled to Siberia to finalize the adoption of a little Russian boy. The process had dragged on for well over a year, during which time they had filled out hundreds of pages of paperwork, made two trips to Russia, spent thousands of dollars, shed many tears, and prayed every day … until, finally, we received a short email that began like this: “Well, it’s official! We are now three. Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Mechev is now Edmond Aleksandr Huffman.”
Why do you suppose they began their email that way? Why not simply say, “The adoption went through” or “Edmond is ours”? Why make their friends attempt to pronounce all those names? Because names are important; and because the changing of a name is especially important! In this case, little Edmond’s new name symbolized that he had new parents, a new home, a new family, and a brighter future.
A new name is almost always the symbol of a new beginning. This is why adoptive parents are so excited when they finally have the adoption certificate; and why young women excitedly practice writing their fiancé’s last name over and over. A new name symbolizes a new life! And this is what we see in Genesis 32–36. In these pages, Jacob, the deceiver, meets God, the Redeemer—and his life is completely and irreversibly changed. And, as a symbol of his new life—and of his adoption into God’s family—Jacob gets a new name: Israel (32:28).
Now remember, Jacob was chosen by God before he was born (25:23). But God still needed to bring Jacob to a place in time when he would encounter God and be radically changed from the inside out. And the same is true for us. If you are saved, it is because you, like Jacob, were “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:1–2). But none of us was born a Christian or a lover of God. Therefore, each of us needs to encounter God in such a way that our whole life is changed. Though we may not change our names, each one of us needs to be converted as Jacob was. For some of us, this has already happened; and for some of us, it still needs to. And Jacob’s encounter with God in these chapters might just serve as a paradigm for how God has already met us, or might someday do so.
The turnaround in Jacob’s life began with a crisis (32:1–21). In front of him was Esau, who, for all he knew, was on a mission of revenge. And behind him was Laban, who was also none too pleased with Jacob. If he went forward, Jacob was marching into a potential minefield. But, because of the bridges he had burned between himself and Laban, he could not retreat. So he was stuck. He was afraid (32:7). And, in verses 9–12, he did what many of us do when we are stuck and afraid—he prayed.
How kind of the Lord to drop Jacob into the middle of a crisis so that, finally, he would turn his attention to the Lord! The jam Jacob was in was all of his own making. But God used it to allow Jacob to see how foolish he had been and how much he had offended him. What a mercy times of crisis can be! Perhaps you have witnessed how sickness, the loss of a loved one, a national emergency, or a public embarrassment can be used of God to humble our hearts and to call upon his name. Sometimes God’s appointed means of grace is getting us stuck and afraid.
Up until this point, Jacob had been prideful and arrogant (remember his speech in ch. 31?). But not until he was in trouble was he willing and able to say, “I am unworthy” (32:10). It is the specific conviction “I am unworthy,” not a general realization that “nobody is perfect,” that drives individuals to Jesus, the Savior. We will never be converted unless we are convinced that we as individuals are wretched, miserable sinners. And whether or not God uses a tangible crisis to get us to this point, this is the real crisis to which we must come. A crisis of conviction! Have you come to it yourself? Have you realized that, apart from Christ, you are stuck like a stone in the mud?
Jacob was convicted of his sin (32:10). But conviction alone could not solve his problems. He still needed God to intervene. And that is exactly what God did (32:24–32)! As night fell, Jacob sent his family away (32:22–23), probably so that, if Esau found him overnight, his family wouldn’t have to perish with him. But, in his solitude, it was not Esau who hunted him down, but God! “A man wrestled with him until daybreak” (32:24). Who was that man? Well, in verse 30, Jacob tells us: “I have seen God face to face.” Jacob was wrestling with God himself!
And notice how Jacob “wrestled”—intensely. He and the man wrestled “until daybreak” (32:24). What does that mean? Was Jacob wrestling against the Lord? No. Jacob was trying to wrestle forgiveness and help from the Lord. He was doing, physically, what all of us do, spiritually, when we earnestly pray. He was pleading with God for mercy. He was begging God for it. He was trying to wrestle it out of him: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (32:26)!
But why did God make Jacob wrestle all night? God could have ended the encounter any time he wanted. All he had to do was “touch” his hip and Jacob was crippled for the rest of his life. So the length of the bout wasn’t because it was an even match. Why, then, did Jesus allow Jacob to grapple so long? To see how badly he really wanted the blessing of forgiveness and hope! And, in that sense, Jacob prevailed (32:28). Here is a reminder that undergoing the great change—becoming a Christian—is not always quick and easy. It is not just a matter of repeating a prayer, making a decision, or filling out a card. True conversion often comes only after intense wrestling with God. A new identity in Jesus often comes only after a period of persistently praying like Jacob, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
So let me ask you: Have you wrestled with Jesus and prevailed? I am not saying that everyone’s wrestling match will be equally long or intense. We may wrestle ten to twelve hours like Jacob. We may only wrestle ten to twelve minutes. Or we may wrestle ten to twelve weeks or months. But everyone who was ever saved went through a time of wrestling—and came out with a definite peace and assurance in Christ.
The great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones was once asked, “What does a person look like who has truly met God?” Alluding to Genesis 32:31, he replied, “He walks with a limp.” That is incredibly perceptive, isn’t it? After encountering the living Christ, Jacob was forever crippled—both physically and in regard to his ego. He could no longer strut around arrogantly as he had done before. His pride turned to lowliness (33:3). His greed turned to generosity (33:10–11). And his self-reliance had turned into worship (33:20). So we who are professing believers must ask ourselves: Have these things happened to me? Have my habits changed? Have I met the Lord?
Look closely at Genesis 33:20. Here we see Jacob building an altar to the Lord—just as his father and grandfather had done. Why did they build altars? To offer sacrifices. And why did they offer sacrifices? So that the blood of those bulls and goats could remind them of how much they needed a Savior. Jacob had finally realized that he needed someone to die for his sins. And Jacob had also finally decided that the Lord would be his God. You may have noticed how, up to this point, Jacob always referred to the Lord as “the God of my father Isaac.” He never once called him “the Lord my God.” But now, in the naming of this altar, he did so. He called it “El-Elohe-Israel,” which means “God, the God of Israel.” His name was now Israel. And his God was now the Lord. Jacob finally began to worship the Lord.
Again we must ask ourselves: Have these things happened to me? Is the Lord really myGod? And have I realized that I desperately needed someone (Jesus!) to die for my sins? If the answers are “yes,” then, though we may not have new names, the Lord has granted us, with Jacob, new life!
Like father, like sons
Chapter 34 is a reminder that encounters with God happen individually. Jacob was dramatically changed in chapters 32–33. But his sons remained the same (ch. 34). They were deceitful (34:8–24), murderous (34:25–26), greedy (34:27–29), and arrogant (34:31). And, despite his new heart and his distress over their behavior (34:30), Jacob could not change his boys. God would have to bring them to a crisis of their own, as we will see later. This is another subtle reminder that the new heart—unlike the temporal blessings that passed from Abraham to Isaac, Jacob, and then Jacob’s sons—is not passed down genetically. God encounters us individually. And we place our faith in him individually. Like their father, Jacob’s sons committed their own sins; and, like Jacob, they would have to make God their own God, independent of their father.
Have you come to that realization—that you were not born Christian? That, as godly as your parents may have been, you must encounter Jesus yourself? That you must trust him yourself? Will you do that today?
Jacob I loved
Before we close out this section, we need to take a brief look at chapters 35–36. Why did God bother to reiterate the promises to Jacob (35:1–15)? To remind us that Jacob, in spite of all the dirty water that had gone under the bridge, was still the child of God’s promise. God’s calling of him was gracious and irreversible. God would do what he said he would do!
But what about the rest of these chapters? Why does God leave us with such a long genealogy of unpronounceable names from 35:23 to 36:43? I think it was to illustrate the same point—that God would do what he said he would do! How does a genealogy illustrate that? Well, when I read the list of names, one thing strikes me: I barely recognize any of the names in the generations of Esau (ch. 36). Their names do not roll off my tongue like the names of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher (ch. 35). I don’t know near as much about Esau’s sons as I do Jacob’s. Why? Because it was Jacob’s sons, not Esau’s, who were God’s chosen ones (Gen. 25:23). Jacob’s sons, not Esau’s, were the children of promise. And therefore it is Jacob’s sons, not Esau’s, whose stories are recorded in the Bible and are familiar to me.
Do you see? My familiarity (or lack thereof) with these names is illustrative of the fact that God particularly blessed the family of Jacob and not the family of Esau—just as he said he would do! What a reminder of God’s faithfulness! And he is just as faithful to all who are his own. If he is your God, he will do what he said he would do. So I ask you: Is he your God? Have you met this God? Have you wrestled with him? And have you prevailed?
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Are there other Bible characters who received new names (or nicknames)? With each one, discuss the reason for the name change. What kind of “new name” would you like God to stamp on your soul?
2. God appears in bodily form in chapter 32. Locate some other Old Testament accounts in which he does so. How is this possible? How do these various occasions prefigure the ministry of Jesus, the Word made flesh?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. If you are a believer in Jesus, describe to your small group (or write out for yourself) the way in which you came to faith. How did God bring about a crisis of conviction? Where did you encounter him, and by what means? How has he changed you? Compare notes with others in your group. What are the similarities in all the stories?
2. Talk with a Christian friend or others in your small group about the changes you have seen God make in them since their conversions, or about the changes you see him making even now. Encourage one another with what God has done!
Joseph—God meant it for good
12 Misery and mystery
In the previous chapters, we have seen, very clearly, that the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was living under the unparalleled mercy of God.
It was “unparalleled” because no one else on the face of the earth was receiving promises like: “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (12:3) or “Two nations are in your womb” (25:23); and it was “mercy” because all that God did and promised was utterly undeserved. Abram twice put his wife in a position of compromise and danger. Isaac did the same, and bred a mutated family through his favoritism. And Jacob was a dishonest, greedy con man. All these facts combine to make the account of this unusual family not a story of godly heritage so much as a story of mercy! Thank God that, in his Son, he is just as merciful to poor, stumbling sinners today!
The misery of sin
But it also needs to be pointed out that, as much as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were under the mercy of God, he still reserved the right to chastise them for their sin! “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines” (Heb. 12:6). So, very often, the Lord allowed the sins of the Israelite fathers to blow up in their faces. Think of the quarreling that went on between Sarai and Hagar. Was it not the fruit of Abram’s sin? The same could be said of the hostility between Jacob and Esau. This kind of enmity would be a natural and expected consequence in any family in which the parents had obvious favorites.
So, as much as God shows mercy to sinners, he also often (because he loves us) makes us absolutely miserable in our sins! Sin—whether we are among God’s chosen people or not—is a miserable, spreading, spoiling thing. It is like a cancer that eats, then spreads, then eats some more. God has designed it this way, attaching earthly consequences to our sins, so that the pain might urge us to repent! And if there is anything that is clear in Genesis 37–38, it is the misery of sin. What dissension, pain, lingering guilt, and embarrassment sprang up from the polluted soil of sin in the lives of Jacob and his sons! Notice the misery of sin in the various characters in this portion of God’s story:
Joseph comes across as a spoiled, arrogant, know-it-all in 37:5–11. He had two dreams, both of which seemed to indicate that one day he would be the patriarch and head of his father’s family. One day he would be the one to whom they all would look. Now we must assume that, in some way, the dreams were from God. After all, they were fulfilled in startling detail later in his life.
But the question is: How should Joseph have responded to these dreams? Perhaps he should have taken them as a subtle warning about the place of pride in his own life. It seems that strange dreams are often sent our way to reveal some sinful fixation in our lives. And even beyond that, Joseph certainly should have taken these portents about the future as an opportunity to prepare himself for the leadership role that God was going to give him. These dreams might have signaled him to cultivate concern for this family he would one day lead; to cultivate the humility and wisdom needed in leadership. Instead, he used the dreams simply as wind to further inflate his already puffed-up self-opinion.
Joseph took gifts from God—his dreams—and turned them into tools of self-promotion! And aren’t we also prone to take the good gifts of God—our positions, our possessions, our intelligence, our education, our sexuality, our ability to pray—and use them, not for the benefit of others and the glory of God, but only to make ourselves feel better? Think it out. What good gifts has God given you which you are tempted to use solely for yourself? As you think it out, notice the obvious: Joseph’s sins came back and bit him! He ended up in a pit, in a slave caravan, and in slavery because he abused the good gifts of God. If he was to be God’s leader, he would have to learn humility somehow. So God let him stumble; “whom the Lord loves, He disciplines.”
The brothers’ guilt
Now yes, in a roundabout way, and through his brothers, Joseph got what God had coming to him. But let’s not give the brothers a free pass. Their plan of revenge was even more despicable than was his conceit. In 37:25, we find that, even though they had just dumped their brother in a pit and thought about killing him, they had the callousness of heart to be able to sit down and enjoy a nice meal!
Their blood seems to have run completely cold. God had offered them a way out through the protestations of Reuben (37:21–22). This episode could have ended as nothing more than a prank against their little brother. A mean-spirited prank, but a prank nonetheless. But they did not take God’s way of escape. Instead they wallowed in their bitterness, and everything got away from them in the matter of just a few hours! And the same may happen to us who are walking too close to the cliff-edge of some sin.
Notice that the sin of Judah and his brothers haunted them for the rest of their lives. You won’t find that here in chapter 37. But read on in the story and you will discover that these brothers never got over the guilt of having sold their youngest brother as a slave—and having deceived their aging father. Oh yes, there is forgiveness with God. If we are in Christ, our sins will not damn us eternally. But they may haunt us as long as we live on this earth.
Yet somewhere, amid all the temptations we face, is a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). And what misery we avoid if we take it!
You will notice in 37:21–22 that, in the midst of all the madness, the only voice of reason was that of Reuben. It was his voice alone that kept Joseph from being slaughtered on the spot. We should praise him for that. But did you notice, in 37:22, that he was not as bold as he should have been? The rest of the brothers wanted to kill Joseph and throw him into a pit. As the oldest brother, Reuben should have stood up and said, “Listen, I know Joseph has been a pain in the neck, but we’re not going to do anything to harm him.” But he only went half way. To his credit, Reuben said, “Shed no blood.” But he still allowed them to throw Joseph into the pit. So yes, Reuben kept Joseph from being killed. But when he had the opportunity to squelch the situation entirely, he buckled.
Reuben had good intentions. But, presumably out of fear of what his brothers might say, he did not fully carry them out. So he stayed in the land of good intentions while his brother was carted off to the land of slavery. And Reuben, like the rest of his brothers, lived with regret the rest of his days. All because he did not stand up for the right when he had the chance! And that regret will follow us all of our days if we are content to drive in circles through the land of good intentions. Do we intend to share the gospel with that co-worker? Do we intend to stop looking at pornography? Do we intend to make things right with that estranged family member? Do we intend to begin reading the Bible with our children? Do we intend to someday turn our lives over to Jesus? Now is the time! Good intentions without follow-through lead only to the misery of regret.
All sin, in fact, leads eventually to misery—especially in the lives of God’s people. God will not allow us to stay content in sin. And the difficulty of his discipline ought to motivate us to obey!
The mystery of providence
In the events of Genesis 37–38, God seems completely absent from the minds of Jacob and his sons. But that by no means indicates that God was not actively involved in what was happening! Let me ask you: Who was the “man” who directed young Joseph when he was looking for his brothers (37:15–17)? Maybe it was the same “man” who wrestled with Joseph’s father back in chapter 32—God himself! Or maybe it was just a man. But in either case, it was no accident in Joseph’s life that “A man found him” and helped him find his brothers! Just as it was no accident in 37:25 that, at just the right time, a caravan of traders came along to bring Joseph down to Egypt!
That is right! At just the right time, those traders came along. Why? Because God wanted Joseph in Egypt! Therefore, God superintended everything that happened in his life to make sure he got there! How do we know that? Well (without giving away the whole story), because, in chapter 50, we learn that God’s plan all along was that Joseph might come to power in Egypt and thus keep his family alive when famine hit many years later! God wanted to rescue his chosen people from the impending famine—to keep the bloodline of the Messiah alive. Therefore he sovereignly controlled all the events of Genesis 37—the man in verse 15, the caravan in verse 25, and, yes, even Joseph and his brother’s sins—in order to get Joseph to Egypt! Jacob’s sons were trying to kill their baby brother. But God was turning their actions into a chain of events that would save their own lives! What mercy!
God truly does cause “all things”—including those seemingly random things; including others’ sins against us; and even including our own sins—”to work together for good” to his people (Rom. 8:28)!
If we really believe that, then we won’t feel the need to throw others into the pit when they hurt us—and we will also have hope in the midst of guilt and regret over our own personal sins. Maybe we weren’t the faithful parents we should have been. Maybe we wasted our youth in riotous living. Maybe we didn’t speak up for Jesus when we should have. But if we are God’s children, we should know this: God works all things—even our failures—for the good of his people. He will work something beautiful out of the mess that we have made.
Now this does not excuse our disobedience—for surely God would rather accomplish his good purposes through obedience rather than sin. But the sovereignty of God over the sins of Joseph and his brothers does teach us that God is bigger than our sins. He is big enough to forgive our sins through Jesus Christ. He is big enough to help us overcome our sins. And he is even big enough to re-work our sins as part of his larger plan to do us, and the rest of his people, good! We may have meant it for evil, but God will work it for good!
Misery and mystery—a close-up
Finally, think of chapter 38 as a close-up version of the wide-angle shot we saw in chapter 37. There we saw sin’s misery on a family-wide scale. Here we see it in the life of one member of that family—Judah. Thinking he was beyond the sight of anyone that mattered (and forgetting that “The eyes of the Lord are in every place,” Prov. 15:3), Judah spent the night with a prostitute (38:12–16). Little did he know that it was his own daughter-in-law, pushed out onto the streets by his callousness (38:6–11). And, as had been the case with his family—and as is always the case—sin led to misery. Judah’s hard-heartedness led to Tamar’s prostitution. Her prostitution seduced him into further degradation. And this eventually led to great embarrassment, shame, and guilt. And the same will be true for us. There are no secret sins. God sees them all. And he will bring them out into the open, if necessary, to coax us to repent; “be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23).
But again, in the midst of the misery, notice the mercy and mystery of God’s providence. Out of Judah’s incestuous relationship with Tamar were born two sons—Perez and Zerah (38:27–30). Does the name Perez sound familiar? If it doesn’t, it should. Both Luke 3:33 and Matthew 1:3 inform us that Perez—the child of incest; the kind of baby who should never have been born—was an ancestor of Jesus, the Messiah!
The Messiah was to be “the Lion … from the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5). It was God’s plan that he would come through the family line of this wicked character we’ve been reading about in Genesis 38. But in 38:7, Judah’s oldest son died without a child. In 38:10, his next son died without a child. And in 38:11, Judah kicked his daughter-in-law out of the family. Things weren’t looking good for God’s messianic plan. Yet in the rest of the chapter, we see the sovereignty of God ensuring that the bloodline of the Messiah would remain intact—even if he had to use the ugliness of Judah and Tamar’s sin to make it happen!
Do you see? God is in control; and Jesus is the goal of all human history! God was determined that his Son should be glorified as king! And God was determined that we should have a Savior. Nothing and no one was going to thwart his plan! Not Judah’s sin; not anyone’s sin against us; not even our own sin. God will work all things for the good of his people and the glory of his Son!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Study the Bible’s teaching on dreams. How did God use them in biblical times? What are we to make of them today? Are any precautions given regarding dreams? What are they?
2. In Genesis 38:8, Onan is urged to perform his “duty” to his widowed sister-in-law (i.e. to have children with her). What was the biblical principle behind this (see Deut. 25:5–6)? Why do you think God was so angry with Onan’s response?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Can you remember a time, as a believer, when God made you miserable in your sin? What was the good outcome of such discipline?
2. Think about a recent temptation you have faced. Did you discern (or can you now see) how God was providing a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13)? What was it? Did you take it?
3. Share some ways in which you have clearly seen God take a sinful situation and (though not excusing the sin), work it for good. Can you think of some other biblical examples of such mercy?
13 Faithfulness and favor
“I told God that if I just had five thousand dollars, all my problems would go away. And when I started praying with this prayer cloth …” That was the message I received in the mail. And it got me thinking. So many religious teachers and followers these days are talking about “the blessing.”
Explaining how we may claim this blessing has, in fact, become a multi-million-dollar television and book industry. But one wonders what might be the outcome if the prosperity teachers began to tell folk that “the blessing” of God might not land us five thousand dollars but on a cross, in slavery, or in a prison.
As we pick up again with the life of Joseph in Genesis 39 we will discover that, in spite of his previous arrogance, Joseph was a man clearly under the blessing of God! And yet “the blessing” was not always exactly what we might think. So he is an interesting study if we really want to know what the Bible says about “the blessing,” about the favor of God. Let’s follow him along and see what we discover.
The favor of God
There is no question that one of the main emphases of the account of Joseph is the favor of God in his life. In fact, the news that God was with Joseph is repeated eight times in chapter 39 alone:
• “the Lord was with Joseph, so he became a successful man” (39:2)
• “the Lord was with him” (39:3)
• “the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hand” (39:3)
• “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house on account of Joseph” (39:5)
• “the Lord’s blessing was upon all that he owned” (39:5)
• “the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him” (39:21)
• “the Lord was with him” (39:23)
• “whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper” (39:23).
The message is clear, isn’t it? Even though Joseph was away from his homeland; even though he had been betrayed by his brothers; even though he was no longer a free man; and even though he ended up in prison: still the Lord was with him. To be sure, God eventually brought Joseph full circle and granted blessings that were more obviously blessings (see chapters 40–41). But often God’s saints do not experience this turnabout in their situations until the world to come, as Hebrews 11, for instance, makes clear. So let us put away once and for all the idea that God’s blessing necessarily equates to health, wealth, and prosperity. That is not the consistent teaching of the Bible. In fact, the Bible and experience often teach exactly the opposite.
On the other hand, let us not deny the fact that, in Genesis 39–41, the blessing of Godwas, in some ways, related to success and prosperity. In Potiphar’s house, in the prison, and in Pharaoh’s court, God made Joseph successful. God made him, if you will, a good businessman—a wise manager. And we do not discount the fact that the blessing of God may rest on some of us in similar ways. In fact, many of God’s people are successful at what they do. God has given them financial security, influence on people, and respect from their peers. But the question is: “Why?”
Well, notice that all of Joseph’s prosperity actually funneled into the hands of other people. The fact that Joseph “became a successful man” did not make him personally wealthy. What actually happened was that God’s blessing in the life of Joseph made Potiphar personally wealthy (39:5), rescued Pharaoh’s kingdom (ch. 41), and preserved Joseph’s family through famine (ch. 42 and following). That’s interesting, isn’t it? Even when God was blessing Joseph with great success and power, it was not about Joseph’s health, wealth, and prosperity. God blessed Joseph so that Joseph could be a constant blessing to others! Furthermore, God prospered Joseph so that he might have a testimony for the Lord in high places. Because of his success as a manager, Joseph was able to influence Potiphar, the chief jailer, and eventually Pharaoh himself for the Lord!
Most of us are not exactly like Joseph—serving high up in the government, or impacting a nation’s finances. But in our spheres of influence, are we using the manifest blessings of God (be they influence, position, popularity, or money) to bless others and speak for God? Think of it like this: What would you do if God really did send you a five-thousand-dollar check in the mail? Would you immediately get about alleviating the misery of others, blessing the missionaries, or helping your church complete its building campaign? Or would you simply burn it up, making all your problems go away?
The faithfulness of Joseph
It goes without saying—and it follows all we have just said—that those who are under thefavor of God are expected to demonstrate faithfulness to God. And Joseph certainly did! Take a closer look:
Scanning over 39:1–6, we observe the great faithfulness with which Joseph served in Potiphar’s house. He was worthy of notice (39:3) and eventually of promotion (39:4). In fact, his integrity under Potiphar is summed up in verse 6: “[Potiphar] did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.” Literally, the Hebrew says, Potiphar “did not know what was in his house.” He did not need to. After all, Joseph would take care of things!
What a challenge Joseph is to us! Are we known as the most trustworthy employees in our workplaces? Would our bosses entrust us with their checkbooks? Can we be trusted to be on time, and to obey orders? These are the kinds of believers—the Josephs of the world—whom God uses to adorn the gospel and attract unbelievers to himself.
Potiphar so trusted Joseph that he left him alone at home with his wife. Again I ask: Is this true of us? Can we be trusted alone with another man’s wife or husband, or daughter or son? Can we be trusted alone on the internet? Joseph could be trusted! But notice that, even though he was trustworthy, he went an extra mile in fleeing temptation. Day after day, Potiphar’s wife would put on her perfume, bat her eyelashes, and urge Joseph to give in to her seduction. But day after day, Joseph would refuse “to listen to her to lie beside her or [even to] be with her” (39:10). There is the practical key to Joseph’s sexual purity—he refused even to “be with her”! He took great pains to make sure they were never alone together. That is why verse 11 makes a point of noting that, on one particular day, it did not work out that way.
Isn’t this a stark contrast from what we saw in Joseph’s brother Judah in chapter 38? Judah walked right up to the seductress; Joseph avoided her altogether. What about you? Do you take great pains not to be alone with a member of the opposite sex? This is the only sure way to avoid temptation—and false accusation.
Notice how Joseph, when it came to the gift of interpreting dreams, did not bury his talent in the ground! This may not seem all that extraordinary once he was out of prison and standing before Pharaoh. After all, if you or I had an opportunity to impress the CEO of our companies or stand before Congress, we probably would not slouch around either! But remember that this audience with Pharaoh (ch. 41) was precipitated by his faithful use of his gift in a very different setting—the jailhouse (ch. 40)! There Joseph was—in prison and falsely accused. But in the form of the cupbearer and baker, along came the opportunity to put his spiritual gift to work. What would you have done? I’ll tell you what might have gone through my mind: “I’m not going to go out of my way trying to help these two. Nobody appreciates me around here, anyway. Potiphar wouldn’t listen to me. His wife betrayed me. These Egyptians are all the same. Why should I go out of my way to help these two criminals?”
Perhaps this is precisely where some of us are in our churches, small groups, or careers—jaded, disillusioned, or discouraged. So we have decided that we will no longer serve on the committee, no longer speak up on that issue, no longer be a member of the team, no longer teach the class. If that describes you, take a long look at Joseph. Lying in that jailhouse he had every excuse in the world just to roll over and play spiritually dead. He had every excuse to bury his talent in the ground. But he didn’t. Instead, he stayed committed to the Lord; he used his spiritual gift; and eventually God used that gift to get him into the throne room of Pharaoh! And God would do similar things with us if we would only serve him without losing heart!
What an amazing plan Joseph came up with in 41:33–36! An engineer could hardly have done better. But where did Joseph get his agricultural wisdom? Was he trained by his father? Did he pick it up in the midst of all his labors as a slave? We are not sure. It is possible that it was given, miraculously, by God. But more often than not, the wisdom that comes from above comes to us as a result of our applying ourselves hard to study. And, somewhere along the line, it would seem, Joseph had done this. He had applied himself to the agricultural branch of learning—and God blessed that knowledge to the rescue of many souls (41:54).
Now this is certainly a mandate for Christians to imitate Joseph, excelling in all kinds of wisdom—agriculture, medicine, science, history, etc.—and using that wisdom to bless mankind and to honor the Lord. In a very real sense, Joseph’s life teaches us to use our careers, skills, and gifts to serve the Lord by serving others. But it should be pointed out that there is another kind of wisdom which may be used to rescue the perishing, eternally. Paul calls it “the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” and says it is a wisdom found only in “the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15). Thus, one application for us would be to apply ourselves to learning the gospel—to being able (and, of course, willing) to share the good news of Jesus clearly, fully, and accurately at a moment’s notice. Can you do that? If not, you have homework! Who knows but that God may put you in a position, even this week, to rescue someone from eternal death! Will you have acquired the wisdom to do so?
Which came first?
The two main portraits in Genesis 39–41 show the favor of God and the faithfulness of Joseph. But which came first? Was it that the faithfulness of Joseph resulted in the favor of God? Or was it that the favor of God gave rise to the faithfulness of Joseph? Or was it both?
Was it God’s favor that led to the faithfulness of Joseph? Very clearly, yes! For when we saw Joseph in chapter 37, he was an arrogant, mouthy teenage boy. And the very next thing we read about him (39:2) is that “The Lord was with Joseph.” God’s initial favor towards Joseph was not a result of goodness in Joseph (for he had shown none), but of the grace of God! And it was only after we read that “The Lord was with Joseph” that we begin to see Joseph act as though he was with the Lord. Joseph’s faithfulness was a flower that bloomed only after much plowing, planting, and watering on the Lord’s part. And this is the way it works with all of us. None of us is faithful to God on our own. It is only once we have been shown God’s favor—once we have been united to Jesus—that we are able to respond with faithfulness. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). God’s favor leads to our faithfulness. And, whenever we find ourselves doing right, we would all do well to take up the mantra of Joseph: “It is not in me; God …” (41:16).
But it would, in some ways, be right to say that our faithfulness is rewarded with God’s favor. Jesus himself illustrated this in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25). Those who are faithful in little things are blessed with greater responsibilities. This principle is illustrated over and again in the life of Joseph, isn’t it? He was faithful as a mere slave, so God made him the personal assistant of Potiphar (39:4). He was faithful in the prison, so God made him master of the prison (39:22). He was faithful as the master of the prison (ch. 40), so God made him second in command to Pharaoh (ch. 41). Do you see the principle? “Those who honor Me I will honor,” declares the Lord (1 Sam. 2:30). Our faithfulness isrewarded with God’s favor.
So which comes first: our faithfulness or God’s favor? If we look carefully at this story, and at the Bible in general, we discover that the answer is “both.” In both cases, however, the final credit belongs to God. After all, “we are His workmanship.”
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Jesus speaks about God’s favor, or blessing, in Matthew 5:1–12. How do these qualities compare with the more modern, popular ideas about God’s “blessing”? Which of these qualities do we see reflected in the life of Joseph? How? Which would you like to see reflected in your own life?
2. Ancient rabbis expected the Messiah to be the “son of Joseph,” that is, they believed that Joseph, in all his trials and triumphs, was a prefiguring of what the Messiah would be like. Look back over the life of Joseph (and do some thinking ahead, too). In which ways does Joseph prefigure the trials, triumphs, and characteristics of Jesus? In which ways is Jesus greater than Joseph?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Where and when have you encountered the so-called “prosperity gospel”? Aside from its unbiblical view of suffering, what other problems does it present: in evangelism? in dealing with the poor? theologically?
2. In what specific ways has God outwardly blessed you? How have you seen God use your position, talent, finances, etc., to promote his glory? How might you leverage these gifts to go even further for his cause?
3. We observed Joseph’s integrity, chastity, industry, and wisdom. Which quality speaks loudest to you as a matter for personal prayer and sanctification? Why?
14 Change is good
2 Corinthians 5:17 says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Isn’t that a wonderful promise? As believers in Jesus, we no longer have to keep on living as we once did. A great change has come over us.
This newness does not necessarily become observable overnight. Often God works our sanctification over extended periods and through prolonged circumstances. But the change eventually becomes obvious. It is wonderful when we observe how God is changing new (or seasoned) Christians in our churches. And it is wonderful to look back on our own lives, to remember what we once were, and to see that God has brought about real change! Such observation is a great aid to our assurance. The “new creature” that we have become (and are becoming) is evidence that we are, indeed, “in Christ”!
And what we observe happening in Genesis 42–45 demonstrates that new creatures are by no means only a New Testament phenomenon. In fact, we might even go so far as to say that these chapters present, in biographical form, what 2 Corinthians 5 teaches in doctrinal form. As the preincarnate Christ worked in the lives of this family, its members became changed! They were becoming God’s new creatures! Let’s observe that together.
Change is needed
Now, in the previous chapter we observed that a change seemed already to have been afoot in Joseph. It seems that God had used the oil of affliction to soften his heart and change his outlook. But, as we see in chapters 42–45, there was still work to be done. And if that was true of Joseph, it was also true of his father and brothers. Let’s look at three family portraits from chapter 42 to demonstrate the need for change in these various men.
Forgotten but not forgiven
Sometimes we salve our consciences by telling ourselves that it is all right to forgive someone but not necessarily to forget what he or she did. This is just an unbiblical way of harboring continued bitterness. (Compare what God teaches us about his own manner of forgiveness—Isa. 43:25; Jer. 31:34—with the command to forgive “as God in Christ also has forgiven you,” Eph. 4:32.) But there is an even more serious error. While some of us convince ourselves that we have forgiven without forgetting, others of us make no pretense of forgiveness. We do not want to forgive. We just want to cut the offenders out of our lives and pretend they do not exist anymore. We want to forget so we do not have to forgive!
That was Joseph. Look back at 41:50–51: “Now before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.’ ” Joseph had forgotten his brothers. And the heavy-handedness with which he treated them in chapter 42 showed that he had forgotten without forgiving. And we are prone to the same, aren’t we? Sometimes it is easier to cut off a family member or friend than to forgive him or her. So we forget, but do not forgive. And we need a change.
Guilty but not forgiven
There are those who convince themselves they have forgiven but not forgotten. There are others who have forgotten but not forgiven. And then there are those who, like Joseph’s brothers, need to experience forgiveness themselves! Notice how burdened with guilt they were: “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother … therefore this distress has come upon us” (42:21); and “Now comes the reckoning for his blood” (42:22). Notice, especially, how they responded to an apparent kindness of God in 42:28: “What is this that God has done to us?” That is what happens when you have a guilty conscience! Even the kindness of God seems to call you to account!
These men were guilty—and they knew it. Yet, unlike those who know they are guilty and have experienced the peace of Jesus, these men did not feel forgiven. Indeed, they could not. They had never dealt with their sin. Even though 42:36 shows that Jacob now had some inkling about what had happened to his son, we are given no indication that Joseph’s brothers had yet confessed their sins and sought their father’s forgiveness. And their obvious fear of God’s judgment in 42:22 and 28 shows that they had never brought their sins before the Lord to request and receive his forgiveness. So Joseph’s brothers teach us a valuable lesson. Just because we feel convicted over our sins, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are forgiven! We may feel as guilty as we like, but, until we bring our sins to God and confess, we cannot be forgiven. That is where Joseph’s brothers were stuck in chapter 42. And they needed a change. So, perhaps, do some of us.
Neither forgiven nor forgotten
That is the phrase to describe Jacob’s response to his sons’ treachery. At least twenty years had passed since Joseph had disappeared, presumed to have been eaten by wild beasts. But Jacob (as 42:36 shows us) had never gotten over it. Now, I suppose that no one ever really fully gets over the loss of a child. And I am not sure that we are supposed to. So it is not Jacob’s sadness over Joseph that was sinful. Jacob’s sin was in the fact that he still hadn’t forgiven his sons for whatever role they might have played in Joseph’s supposed death. Time should have allowed his wounds to heal and his bitterness to die. Instead, his unforgiveness festered for two decades.
But notice a second way Jacob responded to losing Joseph. He responded to losing one favorite son by crowning another—Benjamin—as his new favorite. His initial (and obvious) favoritism towards Joseph had been patently sinful. But, in losing Joseph, he was given a chance to recognize that and repent. Instead, he salved his wound by picking another favorite—by continuing in the very same sin! That may sound familiar to us. So many times, when God takes away one sinful habit, we simply replace it with another equally sinful habit. And we, like Jacob, need a change!
Change is good
Joseph needed to forgive. His brothers needed to confess and be forgiven. And their father needed to forgive, forget, and lay down his favoritism. And, in chapters 43–45, we find that God, through extraordinary difficulties and surprises, performed the work! And again, this family serves as an example to us. It reminds us, not only that we need changing, but also that God wants to change us—and that God has many ways of getting our attention and melting our hearts. Notice three more family portraits, this time of godly change.
Jacob went from favoritism to faith
When Jacob had lost his favorite son Joseph, he had simply replaced him with another idol, Benjamin. That is why he was so stubborn about sending the boys back to Egypt. He was afraid to lose Benjamin. He was afraid to let go of his idol. But finally, in 43:13, he let him go! And what did God use to change his heart? Famine! Jacob didn’t want to let go of Benjamin. So he held on, and held on, and held on—until circumstances forced him to make a radical decision. Either he could hold onto his idol and risk losing his whole family to starvation, or he could let go of Benjamin and trust God to fill the void. And he chose, finally, to let go and trust God (43:13–14)! Finally, it was “God Almighty” and not his youngest son that brought Jacob comfort.
Here is a lesson in the ways of God. Sometimes he brings against us great hardships (like famine) to bring us to repentance. Sometimes he breaks our arms to force us to let go of our idols. That is the way many people are initially brought to Christ—through great physical or emotional suffering! And it is certainly the way in which God often works out change in the lives of his followers—through suffering! But the change God brings about is worth pain! Jacob finished his life a changed man! His bitterness was gone. His family was a family again. But it took famine to get there.
Joseph’s brothers went from bitterness to bravery
Joseph’s brothers finally learned to love (44:14–34)! Wasn’t that their problem all along? They did not love Joseph. And they did not seem to love their father, either. But now look at Judah (44:33)—representing, I think, the sentiments of the other nine—on his knees, begging for their brother’s life. They had gone from selling their spoiled brother into slavery to being willing to sell themselves into slavery to save another spoiled brother!
How did God do it? First, through guilt. Everywhere they turned, they seemed to see Joseph’s face—even though they didn’t recognize him standing right in front of them. Their sins seemed to be haunting them. I think that is why they said what they did in 44:16: “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants.” They knew they weren’t guilty of stealing the cup. What they meant, it seems, was that God was paying them back for their treatment of Joseph so many years before. They deserved the rough treatment they were now getting—not because of the cup, but because of the pit into which they had thrown Joseph. And they weren’t going to make that mistake again. Thus, the healthy guilt we see in 44:16 brought them, finally, to repentance!
But God also brought about the brothers’ change, I believe, through the change in their father. Notice 43:14 again. For years, Jacob had only cared about Joseph. Then, for years, he had only cared about Benjamin. In fact, as we see in 42:38, Jacob had a tendency to speak as if he only had one son. But in 43:14, he finally speaks of his “children,” plural: “if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” It seems as if Jacob had finally begun to care for all his boys. He had begun to repent of his favoritism—and his sons noticed! Isn’t that why they were so protective of their little brother in chapter 44—because of their affection for their father? “For the sake of our father, preserve the boy’s life” is Judah’s consistent plea.
Jacob’s repentance set off a chain reaction that, by the end of the story, had resulted in changed lives for his eleven older sons. So let me apply this just by pointing out that this kind of domino effect can be used by God today. Very often, God will use a radical change in one person’s life to touch the lives of many other people and bring them to similar change. And he might just do it in our families and workplaces if we would forgive, repent, or make things right again!
Joseph went from frustration to forgiveness
Finally, after all his angry posturing towards his brothers, Joseph broke down (45:1–5). He revealed his identity to them. And he urged them not to be afraid, for they were forgiven, and should forgive themselves (44:5). What was the catalyst? The example of Judah’s love (44:18–34). Just as his brothers had seen the change in their father and been changed themselves, so Joseph saw the change in Judah and his hard heart was broken wide open. Judah (and the other brothers), who had so mistreated him, was now willing to lay down his life for his youngest brother. That kind of love catches people’s attention. And that is a good word for those of us who have family members and friends who are hard-hearted towards us or towards the gospel. Keep loving. Keep sharing the good news … and watch God eventually break through!
Do you remember Judah at the end of chapter 44, pleading for his youngest brother’s life? “Let me change places with him. Let me take the punishment that hangs over his head! Let me be taken so that he might go free.” Isn’t this a beautiful picture of what Jesus has done for us? Isn’t this amazing love—that a man would trade his life in exchange for his brother’s? That is what Judah wanted to do for Benjamin. And that is what Christ did on the cross. This is why we may become God’s children and enter into this process whereby God works all sorts of circumstances to change us into his Image.
We began this chapter with 2 Corinthians 5, and I’d like to invite you to turn there again to firm up this final point. Immediately after describing the new creature in 5:17, Paul says, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ” (5:18). In other words, being a “new creature” is “from God.” You don’t become a new creature by trying to do better, by making resolves, or by pulling up your spiritual bootstraps. Godmakes you a new creature! He works out the change, as we have seen, through various circumstances. But he always begins it in the same way: by reconciling us “to Himself through Christ.”
And how, exactly, does God reconcile us to himself “through Christ”? Read 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” How do you become reconciled to God and thus begin this process of becoming a new, changed creature? By having changed places with Jesus (as Benjamin might have done with Judah)! And that is the biggest change of all! He has taken on the sin that we committed, gone to the cross that was made for us, and died the death that we deserved! And, in exchange, we are treated as though we had earned the righteousness that he earned; we are given the new life that he possessed; and we inherit the heaven that he alone deserves! We can be changed into new creatures because Jesus has changed places with us!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Re-read 2 Corinthians 5:17–21. I have referred to the phrase “new creature” mainly to describe the ongoing process of sanctification that God works in the life of the believer. Do these verses, however, also have something to say regarding our justification (i.e. the immediate benefits of trusting Christ)? What is the difference between justification and sanctification?
2. I mentioned Ephesians 4:32, in which we are taught to forgive because God has forgiven us. What else does the New Testament teach about our forgiving of one another? Do a study on this concept. What surprises you? Is there anyone you need to forgive before it is too late?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. How can we go about forgiving and forgetting the offense of another person? What does it mean to forget someone’s sins? What does God mean when he speaks this way about himself (Isa. 43:25; Jer. 31:34)?
2. Skim back over chapters 42–45. What were some of the positive effects of the changes God brought about in the lives of Jacob and his sons: within their own family? on the onlooking world (think particularly about 45:2)? How have you seen God use changes in yourself to positively affect others? How have the changes he has effected in others been a blessing to you?
15 Finishing well
Eric Liddell, Olympic Champion-turned-missionary to China, was made world famous by the movie Chariots of Fire. In a particularly poignant scene in the film, Liddell falls down just a few strides into a 440-yard race. The crowd groans. His hopes for a medal seem dashed. But to their amazement, Liddell rises to his feet, leans his head back in characteristic fashion, strides even harder, and catches his opponents from twenty yards back to win the race.
This became Liddell’s signature—not the way he began his races, but the way he finished: head tilted back, mouth wide open, body in full stretch, and feet moving faster than those of any other man in the world! He is a classic portrait of the adage “It’s not how you begin the race but how you finish that is important.”
How true that is in the Christian life! None of us begins very well. We begin as sinners, desperately in need of God’s grace. But even when we come to Christ, receive forgiveness, and begin running the race set before us (Heb. 12:1), we find that our gait is often characterized by fits and starts. We do not always proceed as smoothly or as rapidly as we would like. But we realize that, while the way in which we run the race isimportant, what is most important is how we finish. Will we give up? Will we simply coast to the finish line? Or will we run into the arms of Jesus with our heads tilted back and our souls in full stretch?
Jacob was a man who ran not unlike many of us. Way back in Genesis 32, Jacob met God and began running well. His eyes were focused on the Lord. His previously crooked pathway had been straightened out. But over time—probably much more gradually than we realize from reading his life in print—Jacob and his sons began to lose focus. Family squabbles, the loss of a son, and year after year of guilt and unforgiveness had knocked them so far off track that we would never have discerned that they were the people of God if we had picked up the story, say, in chapter 37.
Jacob’s family had run completely off course. But God, in his mercy, used the goads of reconciliation and repentance to prod them back onto their feet, to get them running, and to help them finish well. So much so that, in chapters 46–50, it almost seems as if we are reading about an entirely different family! Jacob’s sons, who, just a few chapters ago, had been fearful and indecisive (42:1), were now leading their families with strength and surety (46:5). Jacob, who (as we observed him in the last few chapters) had become a blubbering old man, was now able to stand with dignity and grace before the most powerful man in the world (47:9) and pray for him! This family, which seemed to have almost forgotten its role as the chosen people of God, was now recognizing and embracing that role once again. And Jacob, who had been worshiping at the altar of his favorite son for over two decades, was now back worshiping at the altar of the Lord (46:1)!
The entire family seems to have gained new strength for the race. And particularly, in these final chapters we get to see two members cross the tape, heads back and souls fully stretched out in faith in the Lord.
Jacob’s last words
Chapters 47–49 record the last few hours of Jacob’s life. How well he finished! In fact, his dying words are some of the most memorable in the Bible. Notice, for instance, that Jacob was adamant about being buried back home in the land of Canaan (47:29–31). Why was this so important to him? Well, because Canaan was the land of promise. Canaan was God’s land, and Jacob and his family were God’s people. So Jacob wanted even his burial to be a testament to the fact that the Lord was his God! That is instructive, isn’t it? Jacob was so concerned to leave behind a testimony for the Lord that even the arrangements for his funeral were important to him! What a spur he could be for many of us! Westerners are often very concerned to have all the practical details of a funeral worked out—the casket, the burial plot, the funeral home—but spend very little time thinking about how this funeral service can speak for the Lord. Christians (and their believing families) ought to be different. We ought to labor to make funerals an opportunity for the preaching of the gospel and worshiping of the Lord. That was what Jacob was thinking on his deathbed: “How can my death point my family to God?”
But Jacob went further. He had more to say than simply to give his funeral requests. Notice 48:3. When he had gotten to the very end, he called his son Joseph to his bedside, and the first words out of his mouth were “God Almighty.” He then proceeded to recount the blessings and promises of God. And again, this is instructive, because it is (sadly!) so different from how most people operate. What do most people talk about when they are lying sick in the hospital bed? They talk about their sickness—the treatments, the medicines, the pain, the doctors, and so on! You go to visit them and it is as though there is nothing happening in the universe besides their sickness. You read the Bible to them, and they go right back to talking about their sickness. You ask about their family, and they use it as an opportunity to get back to bemoaning their sickness. But, as Christians, we have something altogether more hopeful and more important to talk about! Namely, “God Almighty,” and what great things he has done for us!
So both in his burial request and in his last conversation with Joseph, Jacob was using the last moments of his life to remind his family of their commitments to God! That is why he was buried where he was buried, and why he spoke the way he spoke—so that he might give one last testimony to encourage his sons to follow the Lord with all their hearts! Jacob’s desire to give a final testimony is also the reason why he called in Joseph’s sons (48:8–22)—and eventually brought together all of his children (ch. 49)—to pronounce God’s blessings upon them. What a beautiful way for Jacob to die!
So let me just ask again: Are you going to die that way? Are you going to finish well? Since life is so uncertain and our years are so “few” (47:9), there is no better time to get into our closing sprints than now! If we want to finish well, we must run well now! We must speak much of Jesus now! We must pass the gospel along to our families now! We must gather them together for prayer now! We must serve the Lord now!
You see, the key to Jacob’s happy ending was not mainly that he was happy. That was most obvious. He was thrilled to have his whole family together again. But that is not what was most important. What was important was that he finished his life in an all-out sprint, serving the Lord. Murmuring had been replaced with praise. Accusations had been replaced with blessings. Passivity and reclusiveness had been replaced with action. And fear had been replaced with faith (46:4)! Jacob had finished well.
The book of Genesis closes with the death of Joseph, the hero of its final chapters. Like his father, Joseph finished well. He reminded his brothers of God’s providence (50:20) and his own forgiveness (50:21). And, like his father, he asked to be buried, not in Egypt, but in God’s country—Canaan. Generations later his request was fulfilled as Moses carried his bones up from Egypt in the Exodus (Exod. 13:19) and Joshua, eventually, buried them in Jacob’s field in Shechem (Josh. 24:32). We aren’t given any more details than that about Joseph’s burial. Was there a ceremony? Did someone give a eulogy of this great father in the faith? If so, what did that person say? Was there a marker at the grave? All these questions remain unanswered.
But let’s suppose for a moment that there was a grave marker set up in the field in Shechem. What might have been written under the name “Joseph” on such a stone? Well, there is usually only space for one brief phrase, or maybe a sentence at most. So we usually see phrases like “Beloved husband,” “Faithful mother,” and so on. Whatever words we might place on someone’s tombstone, they must be brief, and they ought, in a very pointed way, to tell us something important about the person buried below.
So, given that set of guidelines, what might we have engraved on Joseph’s gravestone? What was the main theme of his life? And how would we state it? What would we put on Joseph’s tombstone? Perhaps this simple phrase: “God meant it for good.” How appropriate to take Joseph’s exact words from 50:20 and have them written on his grave marker! Because this is the main lesson of Joseph’s life: “God meant it for good.” So much heartache, frustration, and wrong dots the timeline of Joseph’s 110 years. But in all of this, “God meant it for good.”
In 50:20, Joseph was specifically reminding his brothers that, though they “meant evil against” him when they sold him into slavery, “God meant it for good in order to … preserve many people alive” through the seven years of famine. Think through the chain of events that Joseph was encapsulating in that verse, and think how they worked out for good:
• Had Joseph not been sold into slavery, he would never have ended up in Egypt.
• Had Joseph not ended up in Egypt, he would never have gained distinction in Potiphar’s house.
• Had he not gained distinction in Potiphar’s house, he would never have been falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife.
• Had he not been falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, he would never have ended up in jail.
So far, things do not seem to be working out for good! But think on …
• Had Joseph not ended up in jail, he would never have interpreted the cupbearer’s dream.
• Had he not interpreted the cupbearer’s dream, he would never have been called upon to interpret Pharaoh’s dream.
• Had he not interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, Egypt would never have been prepared for the coming famine.
• Had Egypt not been prepared for the coming famine, many in Egypt would have died—and so would Joseph and his brothers!
• And had Joseph and his brothers died, there would have been no Israel and, therefore, no Messiah!
Joseph’s whole life is one long trail of evidence that demonstrates how God uses the worst of circumstances to turn our lives into something useful and profitable! And the profit of Joseph’s suffering continues down to this very day! As believers in Jesus, we benefit from the fact that Joseph’s suffering kept the family tree of the Savior alive! “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28)!
The practical applications of this discovery are many. We learn that, even when others are harming us, they are, unwittingly, doing us good—and therefore we can forgive, as Joseph did! We learn that God is in control, and can be trusted even in the darkest hours. And we learn not to judge our circumstances too quickly! If Joseph had measured God’s love simply by what he could see in the here and now, he would have lost his faith long before he ever got to chapter 50!
How much more spiritually healthy we would be if we could get Joseph’s epitaph, “God meant it for good,” engraved onto our hearts! So much of the Christian life is wrapped up in believing this truth! The ability to forgive is attached to our acceptance of Genesis 50:20. The ability to cope with hardship is tied up in believing Genesis 50:20. The question of why God permits evil is directly related to Genesis 50:20. This is an inestimably important verse and lesson.
Even understanding the gospel itself is difficult if we do not understand and believe the message of Genesis 50:20. For skeptics sometimes ask, “If God is really all-powerful, and if God is really loving, and if Jesus was really God’s Son … how could an all-powerful God allow his own Son to be murdered so gruesomely?” The answer is the same as in Genesis 50:20, isn’t it? “[They] meant evil against [him], but God meant it for good in order to … preserve many people alive.” The story of Joseph is so much like the story of Jesus! In both cases, God allowed one man to go through tremendous suffering in order, in the end, to bring about rescue for all God’s people! This is simply the way God works. If you are God’s child, and if you suffer, God means it for good! And knowing such should keep us calm when we are the ones experiencing the suffering.
So when you struggle and when you suffer, remember Joseph. Remember that his brothers meant evil against him, “but God meant it for good.” And more than that, remember Jesus—whose suffering was more excruciating than anything you or I will endure, yet who brought about the world’s greatest good! Remember the death of Jesus, and all the good it brought about, and you will be able to sing with faith,
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. Look back over chapter 49. Is there any significance to the varied blessings pronounced by Jacob over his different sons? How do we see these blessings played out in Scripture? In particular, what significance is attached to the blessing of Judah (49:8–12)?
2. Joseph’s life can be summarized by the phrase “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Can you think of some other biblical characters who could have said the same thing? What does this teach us about: God’s sovereignty? human sin?
TO THINK ABOUT AND DISCUSS
1. Have there been instances in your life when someone clearly meant evil against you? Have you seen, in retrospect, God working those events for your good and his glory? In what ways? Have you been able to forgive the offender as Joseph forgave his brothers? Is there, perhaps, an appropriate way for you to let that person know he or she is forgiven?
2. Have you been to a funeral that was particularly honoring to the Lord—that of someone who finished as well as Jacob? What elements were present? What typical elements were, perhaps, left out? How might you, like Jacob, prepare for your own death and burial to preach the goodness of the Lord?