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Genesis 23:1-20: A Foretaste of the Promise

April 9, 2023 Speaker: Josh Tancordo Series: Genesis: In the Beginning

Topic: Default

Genesis 23:1-20: A Foretaste of the Promise

We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Genesis, and today the next passage we come to is Genesis 23:1-20. It says,

1 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2 And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. 3 And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, 4 “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” 5 The Hittites answered Abraham, 6 “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.” 7 Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. 8 And he said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, 9 that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.” 10 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, 11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” 12 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13 And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” 14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” 16 Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants. 17 So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over 18 to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites. 

May God bless the reading of his Word.

Let’s pray: Father, your word is a lamp to our feet and a light for our paths. Shine your light brightly this morning. Help us to see everything we need to see about who you are, what you’ve done, what you promise, what you teach, and what you desire for our lives. Minister to us by your Holy Spirit, for it’s in Jesus’ name we pray, amen. In 2019, a 90-year-old woman in France decided to sell her house and have most of her belongings auctioned off. So, she enlisted the help of an auctioneer, who visited the house to try to determine what the various items in the house were worth. And there was one painting hanging in the woman’s kitchen that caught the auctioneer’s eye. The picture had been there for so many years that the elderly woman couldn’t even remember where it had come from and was pretty sure it was just an old painting that was relatively worthless. But the auctioneer encouraged her to have the painting appraised. So, she did, and it turned out to be not just any “old painting” but one that was actually 800 years old and painted by a renowned Italian painter named Cimabue, sometimes known as “the father of Western painting.” Its estimated value was in the millions and, after several months, ended up selling at auction for over 26 million dollars. So, this 26-million-dollar painting had been hanging in this woman’s kitchen for decades, and she didn’t even know it. She assumed it was just an ordinary painting. 

And we might easily assume the same thing about Genesis 23. At first glance, this chapter of Genesis seems to be a rather ordinary passage. It tells us how Abraham’s wife Sarah dies at the ripe old age of 127 and how Abraham purchases a plot of land where he can bury her. It’s the kind of passage that you could easily read and think to yourself, “Alright, this passage has some things that are good to know but nothing that sticks out as all that significant.” 

Yet, as we’ll see this morning, there’s a lot more to this passage than initially meets the eye. Not only that, you might also be wondering what this passage has to do with Easter. What could Abraham purchasing this field possibly have to do with what we’re celebrating today on Easter Sunday? Well, as it turns out, everything. It has everything to do with what we’re celebrating today. 

But in order to understand the full significance of this passage, you have to be aware of some very important background information. Just as knowing who painted the painting in that French woman’s kitchen is essential for understanding the value of the painting, knowing some background information from previous chapters in Genesis is likewise essential for understanding the significance of Genesis 23. 

And the key piece of background information for us to be aware of is the promise God had made to Abraham regarding the land of Canaan in Genesis 12:7. It says, “Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” God then repeats this promise not just once and not just twice but three additional times in Genesis 13:14-15, Genesis 15:18-21, and Genesis 17:8. So, we have this promise from God about the land of Canaan stated on at least four separate occasions throughout these chapters of Genesis. Not only that, it’s also repeated to Abraham’s son Isaac in Genesis 26:3 and to Isaac’s son Jacob in Genesis 28:13. However, it would be a long time before this promise was actually fulfilled—a period of approximately 1,100 years, in fact. 

So, with that in mind, let’s look again at our main passage of Genesis 23. Sarah dies, and Abraham purchases a plot of land in order to bury her. However, he doesn’t purchase just any plot of land. Notice, in verse 2, how the text goes out of its way to emphasize that Sarah’s death took place…where? “[I]n the land of Canaan.” And then, in verse 19, the text again goes out of its way to emphasize that the field Abraham purchases is located…where? “[I]n the land of Canaan.” You know, if I didn’t know any better, I might begin to think that there’s something significant about this field being located in Canaan. Notice that verse 19 doesn’t just say that the field was located to the east of Mamre or in the region of Hebron, even though that would have presumably been a sufficient amount of information for the original readers of Genesis to know where the field was located. No, the author wants us to know that this field, and the area in which the field is located, is part of the larger land of Canaan—the same land that God had promised Abraham on at least four separate occasions would one day be given to his descendants. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. 

So, in reality, what we see happening here in Genesis 23 is that Abraham obtains a foretaste of the land God had promised him. That’s the main idea of this chapter. Abraham purchases a field in order to bury Sarah and thereby obtains a foretaste of the land God had promised. 

However, it that were all there is to this passage, we might rightfully wonder what all of this has to do with us. After all, we’re on the other side of the world from the land of Canaan and thousands of years removed from these events. So, how could Sarah’s ancient burial plot possibly intersect with our lives? I mean, it’s pretty cool that Abraham was getting a foretaste of the land God had promised him. But is that more than just a neat factoid for us to know about Abraham? 

Well, as it turns out, there is indeed more to the story. The key link between all of this and us today is that the Promised Land—the land God promised to Abraham—is actually intended to foreshadow the heavenly inheritance God promises to all of his people. That means those of us who are Christians are looking forward to a Promised Land as well. And that’s not just a random comparison either but one that’s grounded in the Bible itself. In Hebrews 11:8-10, we read, 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 

So notice, according to verse 10, what was Abraham looking forward to? Was he just looking forward to the physical land—the land of Canaan—that God had promised him? No! Instead, the text says, “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” That’s the ultimate Promised Land that Abraham was looking forward to. The ultimate Promised Land is a “city that has foundations,” meaning that it’s solid and stable and firmly established. Unlike earthly cities, this city isn’t going anywhere. And that’s because, as this verse says, its “designer and builder is God.” God himself—the master architect—is the one who designed and built this city. 

We’re then given a stunningly beautiful description of this heavenly city in Revelation 21:2-4. John writes, 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” This is what those of us who are Christians have to look forward to—a heavenly paradise, free from all suffering, in which we’ll get to dwell in the glorious presence of God himself for all eternity. That’s our Promised Land. 

And as we wait for that promised land, the New Testament refers to us as “sojourners.” Just as Abraham refers to himself as a “sojourner” in Genesis 23:4, we also, as Christians, are said to be sojourners in 1 Peter 2:11. Peter actually refers to us as “sojourners and exiles,” which are two categories that overlap quite a bit. Perhaps the closest modern parallel to this are those we typically call “refugees.” For example, as a result of the war in Ukraine, I’m sure we’ve all heard about Ukrainian refugees who have been forced to leave their homeland and temporarily relocate to places like Poland and other nearby nations. They don’t intend to stay there permanently but are simply residing there temporarily until they’re able to return home. They are, we might say, sojourners. 

Similarly, Genesis states that Abraham was as sojourner as he waited for the Promised Land, and 1 Peter states that Christians today are sojourners as we wait for our Promised Land in heaven. And that’s where our hearts should be. You know, I can only imagine how much many Ukrainian refugees right now long to return home. I imagine they miss their homeland dearly and yearn to be back there. They might be physically located in Poland or Germany or whatever country they’ve gone to, but their hearts are in Ukraine. 

Similarly, we’re called to set our hearts on the heavenly inheritance God’s promised us in the future. And that’s essentially what Abraham’s doing in Genesis 23 when he purchases that field in Canaan. He purchases that field as a way of actively anticipating and preparing for the day when the entire land of Canaan would be his own. As one commentator writes, “Abraham was so sure that his descendants would get the land that he wanted Sarah’s bones to be there when they got there! By owning a part of the land he was prophesying [about] its ultimate ownership.”

And, as we read ahead in Genesis, we see that Sarah isn’t the only one who’ll be buried in the cave located in that field. In Genesis 25:9, when Abraham himself dies, his son Isaac buries him in that same cave. Then, in Genesis 49:30-31, we learn that that both Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried in that same cave. And in Genesis 50:13, we learn that Isaac’s son Jacob was buried in that same cave as well, being laid to rest alongside his wife Leah, who also had been buried in that cave. Then, in the very last lines of the book of Genesis, Genesis 50:24-26, as Jacob’s son Joseph is preparing to die in the land of Egypt, he makes his brothers swear that, when God brings then out of Egypt, they’ll take his bones with them and lay them to rest in the Promised Land. 

And, sure enough, 400 years later, Exodus 13:19 records how Moses takes Joseph’s bones with him as he’s leading the Israelites out of Egypt. The Israelites then have to carry Joseph’s bones around with them for 40 years as they wander in the desert. To be honest, that kind of sounds like a lot of work. I don’t know if they cast lots to determine who would have to do that for the day or how their system worked, but somebody—some poor Israelite who couldn’t catch a break—had to lug around Joseph’s bones every single day throughout that 40-year period. Then, in Joshua 24:32, we’re told that Joseph’s bones are finally laid to rest at a place you can probably guess—in the very same cave Abraham had purchased way back in Genesis 23. 

And you might wonder, why was that such a big deal? Why were the patriarchs of Israel so insistent that their bones be buried in that cave? It’s because that was their way of anticipating the land God had promised. They were exhibiting faith that God would give them that land and demonstrating that their hearts were already there.

Likewise, we also are called to set the gaze of our hearts on what’s to come. Paul tells us in Colossians 3:2, to “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” He also says in 2 Corinthians 5:7 that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” And we know from the context of that verse that he’s talking about a forward-looking faith in the heavenly inheritance God’s promised us. 

And you’d think that we’d naturally want to do that and that our hearts would instinctively be drawn toward heaven. For example, many of you are probably planning to go on a vacation somewhere this summer. Do you not, at times, find yourself daydreaming about that vacation, wishing you were there, eagerly looking forward to that time away? And that’s just a simple vacation that’ll be over before you know it. How much more should we look forward with eager anticipation and even longing in our hearts to the heavenly inheritance God’s promised us? 

Come to think of it, why don’t we spend more time looking forward to that and daydreaming, as it were, about heaven? Why is it so easy for us to lose sight of what God’s promised? Maybe we lose sight of it because of the trials in our lives that sometimes have a way of consuming all of our attention. Or maybe we lose sight of it because of the endless distractions we have in this technological age. There are plenty of things that can hinder us from fixing our gaze on what’s to come. 

So, let me encourage you to be all the more deliberate about having the forward-looking faith of Abraham and setting your heart not on this present life but on the life that is to come. Just as Hebrews 11:10 states that Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God,” let that be where your gaze is directed as well. 

And here’s why it’s so important for us to do that—five reasons why fixing our gaze on eternity is so central for the Christian life. First, it gives us a joy that transcends our circumstances. Instead of having a superficial happiness that rises and falls based on how well or poorly things seem to be going on our lives, fixing our hearts on heaven gives us a transcendent joy that rises above those ever-changing circumstances. This joy is present even in the midst of suffering—because we know that any suffering we face is just temporary and will soon be replaced and eclipsed by the glories of what’s to come. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 

Second, fixing our gaze on heaven provides particular comfort in the midst of grief. As we’ve just said, it helps us in the midst of all trials but especially in the midst of grief—such as the grief we experience at the loss of a loved one. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we still grieve, but not as those “who have no hope.” We find a moving example of this in the aftermath of a tragedy that’s still fresh on all of our minds—the tragic shooting last week at Covenant School in Nashville. The school was operating under the leadership umbrella of a church in Nashville, and one of the children killed in the shooting was the nine-year-old daughter of that church’s pastor. On the day after the shooting, the pastor issued a statement to reporters regarding his daughter that consisted of a single sentence: “Through tears we trust that she is in the arms of Jesus who will raise her to life once again.” “Through tears we trust that she is in the arms of Jesus who will raise her to life once again”—speaking, of course, of heaven. That’s the hope and comfort Christians have even in the midst of the most unimaginably difficult circumstances.

Then, third, fixing our gaze on heaven guides us as we seek to love other people. And it does so by reminding us of what’s truly important in a person’s life, which is being ready for eternity and confident that we will indeed go to heaven when we die. So, since that’s what’s most important in a person’s life, it follows that the most loving thing we can do for someone else is to get them thinking more about their eternal future. And if they’re not yet a Christian, loving them means helping them understand how they can have hope for eternity through Jesus Christ. In other words, the most loving thing we can do for someone in that situation is to share the gospel with them. And having our gaze fixed on heaven puts us in a state of mind where we’re especially aware of that and inclined to do that. 

Then, fourth, it also motivates us to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. When our heart is set on heaven, we hold earthly possessions and various other earthly treasures with open hands. And we’re willing to sacrifice those things in order to make an eternal impact. Because we understand that earthly treasures are just temporary and that the real treasures are the ones that are eternal. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-20, 19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” So, a heavenly mentality leads us to forego earthly treasures in our pursuit of heavenly treasures. It leads us to use our brief earthly lives not to accumulate as much stuff as we possibly can here on earth but rather to make an eternal impact and gain eternal rewards. 

And, finally, a fifth reason why fixing our gaze on heaven is so central for the Christian life is that it energizes us to live heavenly lives here on earth. This is sort of a catch-all reason that includes every way in which thinking often of heaven makes a difference in the way we live here on earth. The seventeenth-century Puritan Richard Baxter writes that “Our liveliness in all duties, our enduring of tribulation, our honoring of God, the vigor of our love, thankfulness, and all our graces; yea, the very being of our religion and Christianity depend on [thinking] serious thoughts of our [heavenly] rest.” Baxter also states that frequent mediation on heaven is “that duty by which all other [Christian] duties are improved.” He even recommends that Christians spend at least half an hour each day just thinking about heaven and considering the glories of what’s to come. 

Now, of course, I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage that some people are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good. The problem I have with that statement, though, is that, personally, I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone like that. Instead, to put it bluntly, the only out-of-balance people I’ve ever met are people who claim to be Christians but are so earthly-minded that they’re no heavenly good. They’re not useless in earthly endeavors because of their heavenly-mindedness. Rather, they’re useless in heavenly endeavors because of their earthly-mindedness. 

C.S. Lewis writes, “A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did [the] most for the present world were…those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set [in motion] the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this [one]. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

So, that’s why fixing our gaze on heaven is so central for the Christian life. It gives us a joy that transcends our circumstances, it provides particular comfort in the midst of grief, it guides us as we seek to love other people, it motivates us to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel, and it energizes us to live heavenly lives in every other way while here on earth. 

So, where, then, does the resurrection of Jesus fit into all of this? You may recall me saying at the beginning of the message that the resurrection of Jesus, which we’re celebrating this Easter Sunday, has everything to do with what we’re talking about from Genesis 23. So, how does the resurrection fit in? 

Well, as it turns out, the resurrection of Jesus is the key to all of this. In Genesis 23, Abraham obtained a foretaste of the Promised Land in the form of the field he purchased. Similarly, the resurrection of Jesus functions as a foretaste of our future as well. 

In 1 Corinthians 15:20, Paul writes, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Think about that. In his resurrection, Jesus is what Paul calls “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”—“fallen asleep,” in this context, being a euphemism for death. So what does that mean—for Jesus to be the “firstfruits” of those who have died? Well, the idea of firstfruits actually goes back to the Old Testament. And it literally refers to the very “first fruits” of the harvest each year—the portion of the crops that was ready to be harvested before the other portions of the crops. I guess, today, for those of us who aren’t farmers, you could compare it to a tomato plant. The tomatoes don’t all become ripe at exactly the same time. Some of them become ripe before others. So, the very first tomato that you pick off of that plant would be the “firstfruits,” as it were. 

And, of course, we understand that a key feature of the firstfruits is that they’re an indicator of what the rest of the crop will be like. I don’t pick a tomato off of the plant today and expect to see an orange on the plant tomorrow. No, the firstfruits indicate the nature and also the quality of the rest of the crop. 

And that’s the way Jesus functions in his resurrection. Just as the firstfruits of the harvest were an indicator of what the rest of the harvest would be like, Jesus’s resurrection gives us a foretaste of what our resurrection will be like. It shows us what God has in store for us, as Christians, when he’ll one day raise us up from death to life in heaven. So, as we think about Jesus this Easter and the way he resurrected from the dead, we can be reminded of the glorious things God has in store for his people. Jesus’s resurrection foreshadows our resurrection. And we can even go beyond that and say that it guarantees our resurrection. The whole idea of firstfruits is that there’s a confident expectation that the rest of the harvest will follow. Likewise, by raising Jesus from the dead, God the Father was effectively giving us his pledge and promise that our resurrection will follow as well.

So, coming back full circle to Genesis, just as Abraham received a tangible foretaste of the Promised Land in Genesis 23, we today have likewise received a tangible foretaste of what God’s promised his people in the resurrection of Jesus. So, Easter is a day that should remind us of what’s to come—the glorious future that awaits those who put their trust in Jesus.  

And that’s the key. This glorious future isn’t something we automatically get to experience. In order to enjoy the unimaginable blessings God has in store for his people, we have to recognize that God’s holy and that our sin separates us from this holy God and even makes us deserving of God’s punishment in hell for all eternity. There’s no glorious future for those who have rebelled against God and died in that rebellion. Instead, there’s just punishment—and it’s a punishment that we fully deserve. 

However, the good news of the gospel is that, in his love, God’s sent us a Savior in the Person of Jesus. God knew that there was no way we could ever rescue ourselves from our sins, so he sent Jesus to this earth to rescue us. And the way Jesus did that was by living a perfectly sinless life and then dying on the cross to pay for our sins. Essentially, Jesus acted as our substitute. Even though we should have been the ones to suffer for our sins, Jesus stood in our place and suffered the punishment we deserved. You know, it’s been said that the measure of someone’s love is what they’re willing to give. And never is that more true than in the gospel, where God gave us his own Son to pay for our sins and thereby purchase our rescue. 

Then, of course, Jesus didn’t stay in the grave but victoriously resurrected from the dead so that he now stands ready to save everyone who will put their trust in him. That’s the response that’s required on our part. We have to put our trust not in our religious observances, not in the fact that we come to church on Easter Sunday, not in our efforts to be a good person. Instead, we have to put our trust in Jesus and him alone as the only way we can be forgiven of our sin and be made right with God and gain entrance into heaven. So, if you haven’t done that yet, I can’t encourage you enough to do so even today. Don’t let yourself leave this building without being sure about where you’ll spend eternity.