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Father, we come to You because we need Your help, not merely because this is what we normally do before the Word is preached. I need your help that I would speak clearly and humbly and boldly from Your Word in a way that people can understand and we all need your help that we would be able to listen and pay attention and not be hearers only, but also doers. So we pray that You would give us grace to listen now and we would be changed, that we may know Your will and walk in Your ways. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
Our text this morning comes from Genesis 18, first book in the Bible as we have been in for many months now, and we come to the second half of chapter 18, beginning at verse 16. Genesis 18:16 through 33, as we have the second half of this story where the Lord and two angels appear to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre, they provide a meal and then they announce that next year Sarah will have a baby, and now we transition with eyes set toward Sodom and the evil that is there.
“Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.’ Then the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.'”
“So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near and said, ‘Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will You then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.'”
“Abraham answered and said, ‘Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ Again he spoke to Him and said, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, ‘Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And the Lord went His way, when He had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.”
This is one of those texts that can be taken in several different directions. If I were giving a student preaching advice, I would certainly say pick one theme and run with it. Don’t try cover two much. Don’t try to go in several directions. Just pick one big idea, focus on that and stick to it. That would be good advice. But I’m not a student anymore. No one’s telling me what to do. So I’m going to ignore that good preaching advice, don’t tell me afterward if you say you should have listened to that, but I am going to take this in several directions. Three, to be precise.
We can look at this story of Abraham bargaining back and forth with the Lord, we can look at this on one level as a story about prayer, so that’s the first theme.
Second, we can look at this as a lesson about corporate responsibility, and there we’re going to step back and do a little bit of looking throughout the Bible and try to understand because this is a very relevant topic. How do we understand corporate responsibility? When might one person be guilty or culpable if they are in the midst of many unrighteous persons?
And then finally at the end, briefly, we’ll look at the text as a lesson about divine justice. That’s what we saw last week, the question in verse 14, is anything too hard for God, and then the question in verse 25, will not the judge of all the earth do what is just. So God is great and God is good, that’s where we’ll land.
So three big themes.
Here’s the first then. We can look at this as a story about prayer. Notice Abraham’s privileged position. You see in verse 17, the Lord says, talking with His angelic companions, so there’s two angels and the chief spokesman is the Lord Himself in human form, and He says in essence, uh, don’t you think we should let Abraham know what is about to happen? About to happen?
We’ve already heard in Genesis that Sodom is filled with wicked people, judgment is coming soon in chapter 19, and the Lord says, “Don’t you think we should let Abraham know what’s about to happen? We shouldn’t hide this from him.”
Now why would it be important? Why would they bother to let Abraham know? Two reasons are given. You see verse 18, reason number one, he’s a great nation, he will be a great nation, and through him all the nations will be blessed. In other words, Abraham should know what is going to happen to one of these “nations,” to the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah. Specifically, because Sodom is going to experience the curse of God’s wrath, not the blessing that might come through obedient and through being close to Abraham, and so shouldn’t we tell this father of great many nations what is going to happen to this nation?
And then the second reason is in verse 19. Abraham is meant to pass on to his children and to his household the lesson of Sodom. Sodom and Gomorrah will be a kind of cautionary tale that Abraham is meant to tell. So he doesn’t want to just see that fire and hail and brimstone come down and eat up Sodom and Gomorrah and wonder what is that all about, they want Abraham to understand. This is because they were wicked, deserving of God’s judgment, and so he will be able to relay.
Because we read in verse 19, “Teach them so that you may keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what He has promised to him.” So there are covenant obligations for Abraham and this is going to be a lesson. Here’s what can happen if you run afoul of God’s will and God’s ways. So the Lord then tells Abraham in verse 20. He says, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, their sin is very grave.”
The outcry means that the sin itself is screaming out as it were and come to the Lord’s ears, and more than that, it’s probably the outcry of the people who are oppressed by Sodom’s sins.
We know that Sodom is most famous for its sin of sexual immorality and we’ll see that clearly in the passage. But we know from other places, Ezekiel and elsewhere in the Old Testament, they were also guilty of injustice towards outsiders and oppressing the poor, so they had manifold sins. And those that they oppressed, their cries were going to the Lord and now He would come down to see if it was so.
The first half of chapter 18 God is provoked by Sarah’s laughter, here in the second half, as one commentator puts it, He is provoked by Sodom’s groans.
He’s in a privileged position. He gets an inside look at what’s about to happen. It’s a humble and reverential prayer that Abraham offers.
Notice the language over and over again, verse 27. He understands it’s a privilege he should speak to the Lord. He says, “Oh, I’m but dust and ashes.” This is referring to how he was made, mankind, Genesis 2. It’s a way of saying, “You’re the Creator, I’m the creature. You are ineffable, You are infallible, I’m dust and ashes.” He never loses sight, and we should not lose sight when we pray, that there is this gulf between us and God, that He is in the heavens, we are on earth; He is the maker, the sustainer, the Almighty One, and we are but dust and ashes. He understands his position.
Verse 30 he says, “Don’t be angry. I know that I’m asking for a lot.”
Verse 31, “I don’t even deserve to bring these petitions before You,” is the sense of it.
And then verse 32, “One more time, oh, bear with me, please, just, just one more request.”
Throughout this prayer, Abraham, and remember he’s a rich man, he’s an impressive man, he’s had victory over armies and kingdoms, he’s had kings come and bow before him. He is a great man in the world and yet he understands that compared to God, he’s very small. And so his prayer is deferential, respectful, mindful at all times, of the Lord’s greatness and his smallness. It’s a humble prayer.
But notice it’s also a bold prayer, full of faith. He keeps knocking on the door. God is eager to hear from him. If Abraham were talking to one of us, we might say, okay, this is the sort of friend who he turns and you think, “All right, thanks for coming, you have a nice trip, bye now,” and then he walks out, and then, “One more thing.” “Oh, yeah?” “What about, yeah, I think I will, I will take some, some Coke with me on the journey. Thanks, I will.” “All right, see you. Goodbye,” closing the door. “Hold on just a second, one more thing.” He keeps sticking his foot in the door, “I just have one more thing.” But God keeps listening to him as he boldly makes his request, down to 50 to 45 to 40, 30, 20, all the way down to 10 persons.
So there’s two dangers in prayer. Some of us are too chummy with God, and Abraham’s a good example of how not to do that. He understands there’ s a gulf. Some of us just waltz in, like God is just anybody’s old pal or some cosmic genie out there, just ready, yes, Master, you rubbed the lamp, what can I do for you today? And we have no sense that we’re talking to the God of the universe.
Certainly many of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith understood this better than we do. And perhaps those of us who are younger don’t pray with the thee’s and the thou’s and “we beseech thee” and the formal King James sort of language, but there was something that was commendably reverential, and let us not lose that, a sense that we are talking to God Almighty.
So there’s one danger.
But here’s the other danger. Yeah, you could be too casual with God, but you can also never really approach Him intimately to ask for hard things, or risky things. Some of us, we only pray for safe things from God, or we pray for things that seem rather easy to us, let alone for God.
But Abraham dares to stick his foot in the door and say God, “Would you hear me one more time? I’m going to keep knocking. I got a bold request for You.” It’s a humble prayer, it’s a bold prayer, and notice it is a merciful prayer. This is the first time in the Bible that man initiates a conversation with God. Now God has talked to man, He talks to Adam and Eve in the garden, He initiates a conversation there, or maybe with Abraham, calls Abraham, talks to Sarah, talks to Hagar, calls down to Noah, but heretofore it’s all God starts the conversation. Here’s the first time that man initiates a conversation with God, and it is this great prayer of intercession.
And what does Abraham pray for? He prays for this wicked city. The most infamous city anywhere in the Bible, that’s become a byword, almost anywhere in the world Sodom and Gomorrah, he prays for them.
Now you say, well, he’s praying for them because he wants to save his nephew Lot, and no doubt he has in his mind that he has family down there. But he’s not just praying for Lot. If he was only interested in his family, he could have said, “Lord, would you spare my nephew Lot and his family?” And indeed He does spare Lot.
He could have just asked that You would have mercy on the righteous and let them flee before Your judgment comes, but he doesn’t pray that. He says, “For the sake of the righteous, would you spare this entire city?” Abraham is the very opposite of Jonah, Jonah who in Nineveh repented just harrumphed, “Well, this is not what I wanted. I wanted these people to get nuked.” Well, Abraham, even though they have not repented, says, “Oh, Lord, would You be merciful?”
I wonder if you and I take seriously Jesus’ words, we should pray for our enemies, we should pray for those who persecute you.
Now, you think, well, do I really have enemies? Well, think about it. Are there not people who genuinely hate what you believe? It’s true. There are people in this country, online, maybe even close to you, maybe in your school, maybe in your sphere of influence, maybe in your own family, and they positively hate what orthodox, Bible-believing Christians believe about any number of things. And they, if they listen to all of it, would hate what comes forth from this pulpit. They don’t hate this week, they’ll probably next week when we get to Genesis 19.
There are enemies, and God says, Jesus says, we ought to love them. See, on the one hand, some people just say, “Well, no, no, it’s really not all that bad and everything’s fine. You can just be nice and everyone will like you.” Well, that’s not realistic in today’s world. It’s not.
But yet then there are people who just get you stirred up and think about bad everything is and think about all the people that are out to get you. Well, that’s not the end of the story. Suppose you have enemies. Suppose there are people that hate what you stand for, or even hate you. Can you be merciful towards them? How often we assume the worst about groups or places or parties or industries or vocations that are opposed to Christian truth. Never imagining that there might be anything good there.
Matthew Henry, the great puritan expositor, put it like this: “As bad as it was in Sodom, Abraham thought there were several good people in it. It becomes us to hope the best of the worst places. Of the two, it is better to err in that extreme.”
That’s right. Rather than erring in the extreme that says I will, I will never be taken for a fool, I will always be cynical, I always will assume the worst about everything and everybody everywhere and that way I’ll never be taken advantage of. That’s one way to live.
I think this is better. Of course, to be wise as serpents, innocent as doves. But as Matthew Henry says, “Better to hope the best of the worst places.”
Even Sodom, Abraham thought, there may be perhaps be righteous people there.
Brothers and sisters, let us, those of us, all of us here, we’re sinful. Let not those who are sinful be quicker to execute punishment than God, who is perfectly holy.
Think of that line from Gandalf to Frodo. Remember Frodo is complaining that Gandalf should have killed the skulking Gollum when he had the chance? Gandalf says, “Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment.”
Surely a word for us. Let us not be overeager to deal out death and judgment. Abraham even held out hope that perhaps Sodom could be spared, and prayed for them.
That’s the first direction. We can look at this as a lesson about prayer.
Second. This story can teach us something about the nature of corporate responsibility. Now we’re going to come back to Genesis 18 in just a few minutes, but just think with me here, because this is such an important topic today. Are you guilty of sins that people committed in the past? Are you guilty of sins that people committed who looked like you? How does corporate responsibility work? And the Bible’s a big book, and there’s a lot of things in it, and so this is not a simple topic, because there’s many layers.
On the one hand, you can’t say the Bible never talks about corporate responsibility or corporate repentance. It does. But on the other hand, you can certainly take that too far and lump anyone and everyone together just because they looked the same or have the same ethnicity or the same race and the Bible doesn’t do that either.
Think about the example of the Jews in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion. This is very instructive. In Acts 2 Peter charges, “The men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem with crucifying Jesus.” The Jews present in Jerusalem during Passion week bore some responsibility for Jesus’ death. The Romans were the one who actually nailed Him there, but Peter and John can speak to them as if they had some responsibility.
In chapter 3 of Acts, Peter charged the men of Israel gathered at Solomon’s portico, he says you delivered Jesus over, you denied him in the presence of Pilate.
And we don’t know was every single person there at Solomon’s portico among the crowd that chose Barabbas over Jesus and chanted, “Crucify Him.” Well, we don’t know that. But Peter certainly felt comfortable in saying corporately you’re responsible for this. And it was a sin in need of repentance.
We see in Acts 4:10 and Acts 5:30, Peter and John charge the Council, the Sanhedrin: You killed Jesus.
So the Jews in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last days bore corporate responsibility for His murder. So there was a sense of corporate responsibility.
And yet, this is very instructive, to hear how Peter and Paul then speak about the Jews elsewhere and later. So once the action leaves Jerusalem, it sounds very different. Paul tells the crowd in Pisidian Antioch, “Those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers condemned Jesus.” Now that’s important because Paul is talking to Jews. Ethnically, religiously, historically the same people. But he does not blame the Jews in Pisidian Antioch with the crimes of the Jews in Jerusalem. He refers to it as “what they did” not “what you did.”
And this is a consistent pattern. Paul does not charge the Jews in Thessalonica or Berea with killing Jesus. Nor the Jews in Corinth. Nor the Jews in Ephesus. In fact, years later Paul will return to Jerusalem and he does not accuse the Jews living in Jerusalem then of killing Jesus, because some time had elapsed. He does not charge the Council with that crime, acts 23. He does blame Felix, Acts 24, or Festus, Acts 25, or Agrippa, Acts 26, for Jesus’ death even though all of these men were in now positions of authority connected in some way with the governing apparatus that years ago had killed Christ.
So the Apostles considered the Jews in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion to be uniquely responsible for Jesus’ death. But this culpability with that group of people did not extend that every high ranking official, every Jew, or everyone who would live in Jerusalem thereafter, was guilty of the same thing.
Now to be sure, they all had sins, other sins, and they had to repent of those sins, but they were not charged specifically with killing the Messiah. They were not guilty just because they shared an ethnic, historic, religious identity.
And there’s great danger when we don’t heed this lesson, and it’s happened too often throughout history, where people have sort of sized up a group; “Well, you are the Jews, we know what the Jews are like and what the Jews did and lumping everyone, you’re a Jew, and you will be ascribed the worst characteristics of any Jews who have ever lived.”
Same thing happened for centuries in this country, with African Americans. Too often ascribing to black Americans the worst stereotypes, prejudices. And it should not happen either today to white Americans, to say, “We know what Jews are like, you’re all like this. We know what black people are like, you’re all like… We know what white people are like, we’re all like this.” The Bible doesn’t do that. It does not do corporate responsibility in that way.
So we must be very discerning. Yes, there is a way in which the Bible talks about corporate identity.
I’ll give you another example. Matthew 23:35: “Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with murdering Zechariah, the son of Barachiah. Now think about that. Scholars disagree who this is, but most people think this is the Zechariah not in the present. So Jesus charges these scribes and Pharisees, “You killed Zechariah.” Now they didn’t actually do it, it was in the past, so why does Jesus charge them? Well, He charges them because they have the same wicked, murderous attitude. He’s saying, “You treat Me and the prophets just like your fathers always treated the prophets,” and so He can hold them in a sense responsible because they have the same heart condition.
We see in the Old Testament several examples of corporate confession: Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel. They all lead out confessing the sins of the nation. But here we must remember they weren’t confessing just the sins of people who looked like them, but they were confessing the sins of a people who had entered into a national covenant with God. They were in covenant, the Israelites with each other and with the Lord, and it was a corporate relationship.
In all of the examples above, with Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel and their corporate confession, we see they were praying on behalf of covenant people, they were praying for people who are marked on the whole with unfaithfulness, and they were leaders who in some sense bore some responsibilities for the actions of their people.
Ezra 9:3, he sort of confesses that he’s been blind to it. Nehemiah and Daniel, they confess that they participated and were complicit in the sins.
So to sum up as we come to Genesis 18, the Bible does have a category for corporate responsibility. Culpability for sins committed can extend past an individual if virtually everyone in the group was active in that sin or is you are the leader over that sin, or if there is a covenantal community identity relative to that sin, and yet we see clearly that the idea of corporate responsibility must not be stretched too far.
The Jews of the diaspora were not guilty of killing Jesus just because they were Jews. Neither were later Jews in Jerusalem charged with the crime just because they were Jews and lived in the place where it had happened but a few years ago, let alone hundreds of years ago.
So we are not strictly individualistic, but neither do we think that all responsibility adheres simply based on race, ethnicity, or any kind of corporate identity. All of that is because I think a relevant matter in our day, and it helps to give some overarching background, to notice two things here in Genesis 18 relative to corporate responsibility.
One, notice that Abraham does not think that the righteous become wicked automatically by dwelling in the city with them, nor does he think the wicked become righteous. You see this in verse 23. Abraham has two categories, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked.”
Now it’s true, you can sometimes be complicit in larger sins, but here Abraham says if there’s wicked people in this city, they bear responsibility for being wicked, and there’s righteous people, there’s a different category. Just because the righteous live among the wicked doesn’t automatically make them wicked, and just because the wicked are in the righteous doesn’t automatically make them righteous. So he has two categories.
The second thing I want you to notice is how he asks that God would have mercy on the wicked for the sake of the righteous, and this, I mean, I’ve learned this passage forever and ever, and it struck me this week in particular, this is so much the opposite of how our world wants to do things. Our world’s cancel culture, from the right or from the left, says now you may not have personally done something wrong, but you are embedded among a people who are wicked, therefore you, too, are culpable and you should be shamed, you should be cut off, you should be punished.
In other words, our world sort of says if there’s a little bit of wickedness somewhere in the organization, in the institution there, it corrupts everything, all of you culpable, you ought to be punished.
Here you see the stronger contagion, as it were, is righteousness. Abraham doesn’t say, “Well, if there’s 90% of the city is righteous, Lord, surely.” Our world would tend to say, “Well, 90% are righteous and 10% are wicked, so what in the world are those righteous people doing? They’re probably guilty, too.”
And Abraham says, “God, if there’s just a small fraction of righteous people, would You have mercy?”
We live in a world that loves to take down as many people as possible for the sins of the few, when God says, “I will spare the many wicked persons for the sake of the righteous.” In other words, the righteous few are more noteworthy to God than the many wicked, and who knows how many cities, how many nations, how many churches, how many denominations, have been spared or have been given extra time for the sake of a believing remnant few.
Abraham prays this merciful prayer, and the Lord Himself is abounding in mercy.
Which leads to our final theme. We see here a lesson about the justice of God. Now, keep in mind, this is not an absolute formula. We don’t know how many people lived in Sodom. Some people say, well, there’s a verse in Amos that makes it sound like a city, typically had a 100 people, so maybe Abraham starts with what if half the city? But we don’t know. Sodom might have been bigger than that. We’re not given a mathematical proportion as if God is promising us, if you can just reach this certain proportion of righteous people, I’ll never let anything bad happen to your city or your country or your people group.
No, we know from Proverbs that a bad ruler, for example, often means bad things for the whole city, it has a corrupting influence.
So this isn’t an absolute rigid formula that the righteous will never have anything bad happen to them. But the over-arching principle is inviolable, and it is this: The judge of all the earth will do what is just. He will always be fair in His judgment. God always bases His judgments upon evidence, no Twitter mobs in God’s moral universe.
Notice why does He have two angels in chapter 19 come down to Sodom? Likely because later the Mosaic prescription will be that you shall not judge a man guilty except on the evidence of two witnesses. Now God doesn’t need a witness, He knows everything, He’s heard everything, but He says, “Okay, we’re going to make sure this is fair and square. We’re going to make sure this is above board. Everyone’s going to see that we went down, I sent these two angels down, these two men, they’re going to see is this so, is Sodom deserving of this judgment? And in the end, we know the people of Sodom and Gomorrah got what they deserved. They did not even have 10 righteous persons in the city. The wicked were destroyed, the righteous were spared. Just as God said.
Lot’s sons-in-law, they don’t believe Lot, they think he’s joking. Lot’s wife famously turned back. She didn’t make it very far. Lot and his daughters make it out of Sodom, and if you know the sad details at the end of chapter 19, you know that even though they were accounted among the righteous to leave Sodom, yet they prove very quickly how wickedly they can behave.
One of the lessons here is that no one gets worse than they deserve. Ultimately, no one gets worse than they deserve. You’ve probably heard it said before, the question that we want to answer as human beings is why do bad things happen to good people? And that’s the book of Job. It’s an honest question.
The bigger question in the Bible is the opposite. Why do good things happen to anyone? Why do good things happen to bad people? No, no, no. Sodom did not get worse than they deserve. Gomorrah did not get worse than they deserve. Lot and his family did not get worse than they deserve. And it was true for them and it’s ultimately true for each one of us, as we will stand before God on the Judgment Day, and not a single person will receive worse than they deserve.
The Judge of all the earth will do what is right.
There is, however, one unresolved question. Maybe you’ve thought it before. Why stop at 10? Why not keep going? Now we don’t know ultimately. Some people say, well, he figured that was a safe number to include his family. He’s got Lot, daughters, wife, sons-in-law, 10 gives, okay, my family and a few other people, right? We can get to 10. Maybe that’s his thinking.
Some scholars argue 10 was the smallest unit for a community, and so Abraham’s praying if there’s just one community of righteous in here, will you spare the city?
Or people say Abraham just figured he couldn’t bargain anymore. He had pressed his luck. He had already said one last time I can’t go any lower, I’ve done it too many times, we’ll get down to 10.
We don’t know why he didn’t go past 10, but we are left wondering, would God have spared the city for 5? What about 3? Or 2? Or perchance might God even save the wicked for the sake of 1 truly righteous individual?
Because hopefully you know the rest of the Bible and you know that that’s exactly what God has done. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
Not 10, not 5, not 3, not 2. One. The Lord says yes, for the sake of one truly righteous person I will have mercy upon the wicked sinners. For the sake of My Son, My only begotten Son.
Yes, the Judge of all the earth will do what is just and for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, counted to us, He will judge us to be the righteous though we deserve to be counted among the wicked.
God is great, and God is good. He will judge the ungodly and He will save those who flee to the one righteous man for refuge, and He will spare His judgment upon the many wicked for the sake of the One.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, we give thanks for Your great grace to us, amazing grace. Help us, Lord, to learn the lesson of merciful prayer, to learn the lesson of loving our enemies, to learn the lesson of righteousness, contagious righteousness, and help us ultimately to know how You love us, how You show mercy to us, not for our sakes, but for the sake of another. We ask this in His name, Jesus, our Lord. Amen.