Genesis 20:1-18: Grace for the Unworthy
March 19, 2023 Speaker: Josh Tancordo Series: Genesis: In the Beginning
Topic: Default Passage: Genesis 20:1–18
Genesis 20:1-18: Grace for the Unworthy
We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Genesis, and today the next passage we come to is Genesis 20:1-18. It says,
1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” 8 So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. 9 Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.” ’ ” 14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, we read in Psalm 19 that your law is perfect, reviving the soul. Your testimony is sure, making wise the simple. Your precepts are right, giving joy to the heart. And your commandments are pure, enlightening the eyes. So, please, as we dig into your Word this morning, revive our souls, give wisdom to our minds, impart joy to our hearts, and enlighten our eyes. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Whenever I eat fast food—especially fast food that’s greasy—I know what’s going to happen. It’ll taste relatively good as I’m eating it, or at least satisfy a certain craving, but afterwards I’m gonna feel pretty blah for the rest of the day. That food’s gonna sit in my stomach like a bowling ball and make me feel bloated and tired and just…gross. And I’ll ask myself, in the midst of my bloated fatigue, “Why did I ever think it was a good idea to eat that greasy burger? I knew what was gonna happen, I knew how I’d feel, I knew on some level that it wouldn’t be worth it—yet I still gave in to my cravings.” It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it. Yet, for some reason, I still do that to myself at least once a month, and often more than that.
And that’s a good picture what we do in many areas of our lives, including with things that are much more serious. Even though the Bible teaches that those of us who are Christians have been changed from within, we still have a tendency to go back to certain sins again and again. As the saying goes, old habits die hard. Even though we know certain things are wrong and we know the effect they have on our relationship with God and we know that we’ll regret them, for some reason, we keep falling back into them. For some of us, it’s losing our temper. For others, it’s looking at pornography. For others, it’s participating in gossip. And on and on we could go—substance abuse, being deceptive, holding grudges, speaking carelessly, and dozens of other things. If I didn’t happen to mention any of the sins that are a unique struggle for you, just fill in the blank with whatever those sins are—because every one of us struggles with certain sinful tendencies that cause us difficulty again and again. Even though we might desperately try to put an end to these sins in our lives, we continue to battle them on a regular basis.
And whenever we lose that battle and find ourselves falling into the sin yet again, we feel tremendous shame. And we might sometimes wonder, “Is there a limit to how many times God will forgive me for this? Does he still love me? Will I ever again get to experience closeness with him? Will God still use me for meaningful Kingdom work?” These are the kinds of questions that often run through our minds.
Thankfully, I believe our main passage here in Genesis 20 has a lot to say to us in the midst of our struggles and the kinds of questions we often have. As we’ll see, Abraham has some struggles of his own. And one of those struggles is that he sometimes gets…shall we say…a little creative with the truth and conveniently fails to mention certain aspects of the truth that are very important—such as the fact that he and Sarah are married.
Look at verse 1 and the beginning of verse 2: 1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” Now, if that lie sounds familiar to you, there’s a good reason for that. This isn’t the first time Abraham’s told this lie about Sarah. Back in Genesis 12, he told the same lie to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Abraham knew that Sarah was very beautiful and was afraid that someone in Egypt would want her so badly as their wife that they’d kill Abraham in order to get her. So, Abraham lied and told everyone he encountered in Egypt that Sarah was just his sister. So, acting on that information, Pharaoh took Sarah to be his wife. However, when God afflicted Pharaoh and his household with plagues, the truth came out that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and Abraham and Sarah were forced to leave Egypt in disgrace.
Yet, here in Genesis 20, Abraham tries telling the exact same lie again! I mean, clearly it worked so well the first time, so why not try it again, right? If these were the only stories we had about Abraham, we might conclude that he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. Then, after that, not surprisingly, the latter half of verse 2 records that “Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah”—again, just as Pharaoh had done back in chapter 12. Abimelech saw that Sarah was beautiful, he’d been told she wasn’t married, so he sent for her and took her to be his wife.
We then read in verses 3-7: 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” 4 Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? 5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
So, talk about something that’ll get your attention. When God comes to you and says, “You’re a dead man,” I think that’s pretty much guaranteed to get anyone’s undivided attention immediately. And God makes Abimelech’s options very clear. Abimelech can either return Sarah to her husband or die. Not much of an option there. When God wants to play hardball, he really knows how to do it.
And I think it’s very interesting to compare this passage with what happens in Genesis 12 since the way these two stories unfold is so similar. Yet, it’s notable that, in contrast to Genesis 12, this passage in Genesis 20 goes out of its way to emphasize that there was no sexual contact between Abimelech and Sarah. In Genesis 12, we kind of had to infer that from the text. But here, it’s emphasized several times. Verse 4 clearly states, “Now Abimelech had not approached her.” And in verse 6, God says to Abimelech that “[I]t was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” And the reason that’s so important in this passage is because of the son God had promised that Sarah would miraculously conceive. It had to be very clear that that son belonged to Abraham. There could be no doubt that he was Abraham’s offspring—because that was a central part of God’s covenant with Abraham. And that fact that Sarah had no sexual contact with any man except for Abraham does continue to be clear throughout this passage.
The story then continues in verses 8-12: 8 So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid. 9 Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 11 Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.
So, yeah, fun fact about Abraham: his wife was actually his biological half-sister, “the daughter of [his] father though not the daughter of [his] mother.” That’s obviously pretty messed up. And that kind of thing would later be clearly prohibited in the book of Leviticus. So, Abram’s lie did have a measure of truth mixed in with it. However, as J. I. Packer has written, “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” And that’s certainly the case here. Even though Abram might have tried to justify this lie in his mind by telling himself that it was at least partially true, that doesn’t make it any less of a lie.
By the way, this is a good reminder for us of something we talked about last week—that it’s so easy for us to come up with a justification in our own minds for sins we want to commit. That’s why it’s so important for us to take measures to prevent that from happening. One essential measure is to maintain involvement in a healthy church that isn’t afraid to call sin what it is. We should also read the Bible on a regular basis and let it step on our toes and expose our sins. And a third measure is to develop meaningful relationships with other Christians who are willing to lovingly brings sins to our attention. A key way we try to facilitate those relationships in our church is, of course, through Community Groups. So, these are all ways in which we can guard ourselves against the tendency all of us have to manufacture a justification in our minds for the sins we want to commit.
Then, moving forward in the passage, Abraham continues his pitiful explanation to Abimelech in verse 13: “And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” So, here we see that this lie about Sarah being Abraham’s sister was premeditated. It’s not like Abraham just had a moment of weakness every once in a while and slipped up and told this lie. This was an ongoing arrangement he had made with Sarah. Likewise, I imagine that just about every one of us as well has deep-rooted sins we’ve embraced and that have become patterns of life for us. Perhaps we’ve embraced them for so long that we don’t even think very much of them anymore. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still there and are still displeasing to God.
We then read in verses 14-18: 14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
So, that’s the effect Abraham’s sin had on Abimelech and Abimelech’s household. Yet, as we consider Genesis 20 as a whole, I believe the main idea of this passage actually isn’t primarily about Abraham’s sin but rather about God’s grace toward Abraham in the midst of his sin. God continues to be gracious to Abraham despite Abraham’s foolish decisions. That’s the main idea we see here. God continues to be gracious to Abraham despite Abraham’s foolish decisions.
Notice all the ways we see God’s grace displayed toward Abraham. First of all, God displays his grace simply by what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t immediately punish Abraham by striking him with some sort of plague or other affliction. Instead, it’s actually Abimelech and his household who are afflicted in this passage rather than Abraham. God also doesn’t withdraw from his covenant with Abraham. He doesn’t tell Abraham, “You know, I made this covenant with you with the assumption that you’d be better than this. I didn’t think you’d be this bad. So, just forget about everything I said about land and offspring and being a blessing to the world.” No, God doesn’t say that.
Then we also see God’s grace toward Abraham not only in what he doesn’t do but also in what he does do. God actively watches over Abraham’s welfare in this passage. In verse 3, God threatens Abimelech with death if Abimelech doesn’t return Sarah. We then learn in verse 17 that God had afflicted Abimelech with some sort of disease. We also learn he had afflicted the women in Abimelech’s household, including his wife and his female slaves, with infertility. And the reason God did all of this was as a way of watching over Abraham and making sure that Abimelech followed through with returning Sarah.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, God even topped it all off by leading Abimelech to offer a permanent dwelling place to Abraham anywhere he liked and to give Abraham a massive amount of additional wealth, including animals, servants, and 1,000 pieces of silver. God did all of this for a man as foolish and inconsistent as Abraham. I mean, the patience and grace God exhibits toward Abraham is absolutely incredible.
Similarly, for those of us who are Christians today, God shows us extraordinary patience and grace even in the midst of our frequent failures and shortcomings and sins. You know, sometimes, we might be tempted to think that we’ve exhausted God’s patience and used up his grace after committing the same sins again and again. We might imagine that God’s only willing to forgive us up to a certain point—that there’s a quota or limit to the number of sins we can commit or the number of times we can commit a certain sin, and that, once we exceed that limit, that’s it. God loses his patience and stops being gracious. Or maybe it’s kind of like the way some cell phone data plans are set up, and after we use up premium access to God’s grace, he kind of throttles it back and only allows us to have the bare minimum we need in order to make it to heaven.
And, on the one hand, there’s a sense in which it’s understandable for us to think that way. After all, that’s more or less the way it works in virtually any human relationship. In almost any human relationship, there are limits to people are willing put up with. If you offend someone enough or do something that’s serious enough against them or repeat a wrongdoing a certain number of times, their patience and perhaps even their love toward you will eventually run out. But that’s not the way it is with God. If you belong to him, then it’s impossible for you to screw up badly enough or enough times to get to a place where God’s grace won’t reach you. There’s nothing you can do to make him stop loving you or being gracious to you. God’s just as committed to being gracious to you as he was to being gracious to Abraham.
And he does that in two ways. First of all, he forgives us of our sins. 1 John 1:8-9 states that 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. So, we have two options: we can either deny our sins or confess our sins. And if we confess our sins, God doesn’t pause to evaluate how bad that sin is or check his records to see how many times we’ve committed that sin in the past before deciding what he’ll do. What does verse 9 say? “[H]e is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
We then see a few verses later in 1 John exactly how God’s able to do that. 1 John 2:1-2: 1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. So, whenever we sin, we don’t have to face the consequences for our sin. Ordinarily, of course, those consequences would be unimaginably severe. Any sin against an infinitely holy God demands an infinitely terrible punishment. It demands eternity in hell. That’s what you and I deserve.
Yet, God’s graciously provided a way for us to be rescued from what we deserve, and that way is through Jesus. We’re told here in verse 1 that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Think about what an advocate does in a courtroom setting. In our modern judiciary system, we call this person a defense attorney. This advocate will work with someone who’s been charged with a crime in order to build a defense strategy, gather evidence, negotiate with prosecutors, and prepare arguments to be used in court. An advocate is there to help the person who’s been accused of a crime and make sure they have fair representation. And that’s the role Jesus has on our behalf before God the Father.
Yet, Jesus only has one legal strategy that he ever uses. Regardless of who he’s representing as an advocate, Jesus defends the person with the same legal strategy every single time. And we see what that is in verse 2. John writes of Jesus that “He is the propitiation for our sins.” For Jesus to be the “propitiation for our sins” simply means that he himself is the sacrifice offered to God the Father that absorbs God’s righteous wrath against sin and thereby appeases God and satisfies God’s justice. Essentially, God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus on the cross so it wouldn’t have to be poured out on us.
And that’s the basis upon which Jesus, now resurrected from the dead, acts as our advocate. His strategy, whenever we sin, is to go before God the Father and, in a manner of speaking, remind the Father of his sacrifice on our behalf. He doesn’t try to argue that we didn’t sin or that our sin isn’t that bad or that God the Father should simply overlook our sin. Instead, Jesus reminds the Father that he himself died on the cross as “the propitiation for our sins” and that all who put their trust in him are therefore forever and irrevocably forgiven. That’s it. That’s the only defense strategy Jesus ever employs as our advocate. And that’s all he needs—because it works every time, no matter how badly we’ve sinned or how many times we’ve committed a certain sin.
In addition to that, another way in which God’s gracious to us in our sin is not only that he forgives us but also that he continues his work within us. Abraham’s sin didn’t stop God’s continued work in Abraham’s life or keep God from accomplishing his purposes in Abraham. Likewise, with those of us who are Christians, God never gives up on us or discontinues his work in our lives. He never says, “That’s it, I’m done with you.” Instead, even in the midst of our stumbling and all of our failures, God continues to accomplish his work within us of conforming us to the likeness of Jesus. God’s on a mission to transform us to be more like Jesus in the way live and think, and nothing can stand in his way. Not even our own foolish decisions can ultimately keep him accomplishing his purposes within us.
Several years ago, I saw a video that seems to illustrate this very well. Now, it’s certainly not my intention to make fun of anyone who’s elderly or who has mobility issues. But—and you can push play now—this video just seemed to illustrate our sanctification so well that I couldn’t not use it. Sanctification, by the way, is simply the process of us becoming more like Jesus. As you can see, the man in the video is having some difficulties. He’s not contributing very much at all to getting to the second level. But in spite of his weakness and limitations, the escalator ensures that he gets where he needs to go. Is that not an accurate picture of the way it so often works in our sanctification? We stumble and fall and make a mess of things on a regular basis—almost continuously, in fact. Yet, God graciously continues his work within us of making us more like Jesus.
One of my favorite verses is Philippians 1:6, where Paul writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The majority of other translations say “until the day of Jesus Christ.” No matter how often we stumble or how hard we fall, the same God who began a good work in us at our conversion will faithfully bring that good work to completion until the day Jesus comes back. Is that not one of the most comforting and encouraging things you’ve ever heard? It might be “two steps forward and one step back” throughout our lives. I know, for me, it usually is. But rest assured that you can’t outsin God grace.
So, very briefly, here are four applications of all of this. Observing the dynamics of God’s grace toward Abraham in Genesis 20 and considering the various dynamics of his grace toward us today should lead us to live in these four ways.
First, be grateful but not presumptuous. Be grateful for God’s grace, but don’t presume that he’ll always shield you from all of the painful consequences of your sin. He may have shielded Abraham from a lot of consequences in Genesis 20, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll always do that in every situation. Just think about King David in the book of 2 Samuel. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered, God forgave him, but there were still severe consequences for David in the form of incest among David’s children and the terrible family drama that resulted from that as well as a civil war in Israel as David’s son Absalom sought to take the throne by force. So, don’t presume that God will shield you from all of the earthly consequences of your sin.
Second, be prepared for significant change in certain areas of your life to take some time. The reality is that some sins just prove to be more difficult to eliminate than others. I’ve heard it compared to different things trying to turn around physically. For example, a person who’s walking can turn around almost instantaneously and walk in the opposite direction. However, if someone who’s riding a bicycle wants to turn around, it’s going to take a few moments, right? They’ll have to slow down before they can make the turn and then begin pedaling other direction. The process of turning around will take even longer for the person in a car that’s traveling 60 miles an hour. And it’ll take even longer than that for someone in a speedboat that’s traveling at maximum speed through the water. And, at the far end of the spectrum, we’re told that large cargo ships take an enormous amount of time to turn around. It takes them miles to slow down enough to even begin to make a turn.
Similarly, there are some sins that are so deeply engrained in our lives and so stubbornly persistent that walking in victory over them on a consistent basis often just takes time. So don’t be discouraged if repentance of a certain sinful tendency takes a while and proves to be a process. Don’t give up. Keep striving, in the power of the Holy Spirit, toward consistent and lasting change.
Then, third, be aware that God uses imperfect people all the time. If you’re a flawed person who doesn’t have it all together, welcome to the club and rest assured that God still wants to use you for his Kingdom—just as he continued to use Abraham in Genesis 20. Thankfully, God doesn’t pick the people he’s going to use the way middle schoolers in P. E. class pick people for their dodgeball team. Instead, God often chooses to use people who might seem to show less potential than others and who are more flawed to do great things for his Kingdom so that it’ll be clear that he’s the one accomplishing those great things rather than us. You know, Satan loves to try to use our sins to convince us that God can’t use us. And Satan does that in order to discourage us and get us off mission. Don’t let him do that. Keep seeking to reach out and engage people with the gospel and serve God faithfully. Let God’s grace overshadow your weakness.
And, finally, be patient with the failings of others. You know, it’s amazing how we can receive so much of God’s patience and grace and yet be so quick to be impatient and ungracious toward the people around us. The reality is that people sin—and will sometimes sin against you. They’ll also often do things that just irritate you and make your life inconvenient and get on your nerves. And, in many instances, it just takes time for people to get to a point in their spiritual maturity where these irritating things aren’t as much of an issue any more. So, don’t expect other people to learn in a day what it took you a decade to learn. Exhibit the same patience and grace toward them that God’s exhibited—and continues to exhibit—toward you.
So, those are four ways we should live in light of God’s patience and grace in Genesis 20. And, as we’ve said, this patience and grace are only available because they were purchased by Jesus on the cross. Every ounce of grace we’ve ever received or ever will receive flows out of Jesus and what he’s done on our behalf. You know, it’s interesting how, as we look at Genesis 20, God doesn’t heal Abimelech directly but insists on doing so through Abraham’s prayers. God tells Abimelech in verse 7, “Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live.” Then, after Abimelech does so, verse 17 tells us, “Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.” So, God was determined to use Abraham as the vehicle of healing for Abimelech and Abimelech’s household. Similarly, it’s through Abraham’s descendant Jesus and him alone that we’re redeemed from our sins and experience the many facets of God’s saving grace.
More in Genesis: In the Beginning
May 28, 2023Genesis 28:1-22: Astonishing Grace
May 14, 2023Genesis 27:1-46: God’s Triumphant Purpose
May 7, 2023Genesis 26:1-35: The Promise of God’s Presence