April 23, 2023

Genesis 25:1-34: God’s Undeserved Favor

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: Genesis: In the Beginning Topic: Default Scripture: Genesis 25:1–34

Genesis 25:1-34: God’s Undeserved Favor

We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Genesis, and today the next passage we come to is Genesis 25:1-34, so I’ll be reading a selection of verses from that passage. It says,

1 Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 3 Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. 4 The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. 6 But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country. 7 These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. 8 Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people…. 19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” 24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. 

May God bless the reading of his Word.

Let’s pray: Father, we find it written than “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Help us to view your word that way this morning—not merely as an interesting subject for study or as a helpful resource for various situations but as our very life. May we experience it as that, through the ministry of your Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen. 

A well-known theologian named A. W. Tozer once said that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Think about that. “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” And, as Tozer goes on to explain, the reason our view of God is so important is because it affects every other aspect of our lives. We ultimately live out who we believe God to be. Our beliefs about God are kind of like our spiritual DNA. Just as our bodies are a manifestation of our physical DNA, our lives are a manifestation of our beliefs about God. We’re constantly living out our view of God. 

For example, the level of anxiety we have when we’re going through a tumultuous time speaks volumes about what we really believe about God’s sovereignty and wisdom and goodness. The amount of time we spend in prayer speaks volumes about what we believe about God’s power and faithfulness. The degree to which we love others says a lot about what we believe about God’s love for us. Our willingness to forgive people reveals what we believe about God’s heart of forgiveness toward us. The degree to which we walk in holiness reveals what we really believe about God’s holiness. So, even if we’re not consciously thinking about God all the time, we’re still living out our view of him every moment of every day. Our view of God defines the way we live.

So that means, if we want to grow spiritually, that begins with enlarging our view of God and deepening our knowledge of him. Imagine planting an oak tree in a very small container—maybe something the size of a yogurt cup. How big do you think that oak tree is going to grow? Not very big, right? Because the yogurt cup is going to limit its growth pretty severely. That tree will grow as much as it can but will then be hindered from growing any larger because of the small space in which its roots are confined. Try as it might, it’ll never be able to outgrow that yogurt cup. And in a similar way, you and I will never be able to outgrow our view of God. If we have a small view of God and a very surface-level knowledge of him, we’ll never be able to grow beyond that. So, in order to grow spiritually, it’s critical that we pursue a deeper and richer and more biblical view of God. Just about everything else about us—especially spiritually—rises and falls based on that. 

And the passage we come to this morning in our journey through Genesis brings us face-to-face with an aspect of God’s character that many people have found difficult and provocative and about which many Christians, even among those who are here this morning, might not be sure what to think, at first. Yet, it’s not something we’re going to shy away from in our examination of Genesis 25—because God’s revealed it to us for a reason. It makes a very important contribution to our view of God and, therefore, as we’ll see, to the way we live our lives. 

In verses 1-6 of chapter 25, we’re told that, after Abraham’s first wife Sarah dies, Abraham marries another woman named Keturah and has six additional sons through her. However, verse 5 tells us that “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac.” He then sends his other sons away to live elsewhere—just as he’d previously sent Ishmael away—so that there won’t be any competition or conflict between those sons and his son Isaac. And the reason for that, as we’ve seen repeatedly in Genesis, is that Isaac’s the one God had chosen to be the recipient and conduit of his covenant blessings. Even though Abraham had numerous other children, God chose Isaac to be the one whom he’d uniquely favor and through whom he’d fulfill his promises to Abraham—specifically, the promise of becoming a great nation, the promise of possessing the land of Canaan, and the promise of being the one through whom blessing would one day flow to all the families of the earth. Those promises are stated first in Genesis 12 and then repeated numerous times throughout the subsequent chapters. And they’d all be fulfilled not through Ishmael or any of Abraham’s other children but through Isaac. He’s the one whom God had chosen. 

Yet, as we press onward in Genesis 25, we see that God’s sovereign choice doesn’t stop there. It continues with his choice not only of Abraham’s son Isaac but also of Isaac’s son Jacob. After recording Abraham’s death at the ripe old age of 175, the passage tells us in verses 21-26: 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” 24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob….

So, when Rebekah inquires of the Lord about why such an intense struggle is happening within her womb, she’s told in verse 23 that “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” We then learn that the older child is Esau and the younger child is Jacob. So, contrary to the nearly universal cultural practice of ancient times, in which the firstborn son was favored above the rest, God says that things are going to be different this time. Instead of the older son Esau being favored above Jacob, Jacob is actually going to be favored over Esau. 

And that’s the main idea of this entire passage. God sovereignly chooses Jacob over Esau as the one whom he’ll uniquely favor. Again, God sovereignly chooses Jacob over Esau as the one whom he’ll uniquely favor. By the way, for God to be sovereign simply means that he’s in control. 

And, as we’ll see, that exercise of God’s sovereign will is monumentally significant. In order to see just how significant it is, we’ll have to temporarily leave Genesis 25 and spend some time examining Romans 9—because it’s in Romans 9 that the Apostle Paul brings to light the full significance of God sovereignly choosing Jacob over Esau. As we’ll see, God’s choice of Jacob over Esau illustrates why some people today are saved from their sins while others aren’t. 

To give you an idea of the context of Romans 9, Paul writes this chapter in order to explain how it is that God’s promises to Israel haven’t failed even though the majority of the Israelites aren’t saved. And Paul begins his explanation by stating in verse 6, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” In other words, not every ethnic Israelite is a true Israelite. There are a lot of people who are biologically descended from Abraham and who are ethnically part of the Israelite nation but who actually aren’t true Israelites in their hearts. They don’t have hearts that trust in God or want to follow God. And that makes them not true Israelites. 

It’s similar to the way we might describe someone who lives in Pittsburgh but doesn’t really do many of the things most people would expect a loyal Pittsburgher to do. Let’s say they’re a big Baltimore Ravens fan and they’ve never stepped foot in a Primanti Brothers restaurant and they have no clue whatsoever about Pittsburgh’s history as a producer of steel. So, even though someone like that might technically live in Pittsburgh, I’m pretty sure most people in the city would say that they’re not a true Pittsburgher. And, in a similar way, Paul’s distinguishing between an ethnic Israelite and a true Israelite with the implication that only true Israelites are the legitimate recipients of God’s promise. So the point is God hasn’t broken his promise to Israel because only the true Israelites—the ones who have put their faith in Jesus—are legitimate recipients of God’s promise.

But here’s the provocative part. The reason many ethnic Israelites aren’t true Israelites, Paul says, is ultimately because God hasn’t chosen them to be true Israelites. Let that sink in. Yes, they’ve rejected their Messiah. Yes, they have no interest in following God. Those things make it appropriate to say that they’re not true Israelites. But the ultimate reason they’re not included among the true Israelites is because God hasn’t chosen them to be a part of the true Israel. Paul illustrates this in verses 7-13 by going back into Israel’s history and pointing out how God chose Isaac above Ishmael. Even though both Isaac and Ishmael were biologically descended from Abraham, God chose Isaac above Ishmael as the recipient of his promise and as the son who would experience God’s redemptive blessings. Not only that, God did the same thing with Isaac’s two children, Jacob and Esau. He chose one over the other—Jacob over Esau. And that’s where Romans 9 intersects with our main passage of Genesis 25. God chose Jacob over Esau. In Romans 9:12, Paul even cites Genesis 25:23, where God tells Rebekah that “The older will serve the younger.” 

And Paul goes out of his way to emphasize that God’s choice wasn’t based on anything good or bad in either of these men. Verse 11 states that God made his choice “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” In other words, God’s choice was made on the basis of nothing but his own sovereign will. It’s not like God looked down and saw that Jacob was a little more deserving of salvation than Esau. No, God chose Jacob over Esau before either of them was even born and on the basis of nothing but his own sovereign will. And if you’re sitting there right now thinking that that’s a little hard to swallow, I think you’re right. But that’s what Paul says here. And as we’ll see, he’s going to say that even more clearly in the subsequent verses. 

Look at verses 14-15: 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” In other words, God has the right to choose those to whom he extends mercy. It’s his decision to make. A lot of times, we assume that just because God’s shown mercy to some, he’s somehow obligated to show mercy to all. Yet, that’s just not the case. 

You might compare it to the President of the United States deciding who, if anyone, he’s going to pardon. Let’s say 1,000 convicted prisoners all write letters to the president asking for a pardon. And let’s assume, for the sake of illustration, that all of these prisoners are guilty of the crimes of which they’ve been convicted. So does the president owe a pardon to any of these prisoners? Of course not. They all deserve to be in prison. They’ve committed crimes. The president doesn’t have to pardon any of them. And if he does choose to pardon some but not others, he has every right do that as well. He wouldn’t be unjust for pardoning 100 instead of the full 1,000. 

And, in the same way, God doesn’t have to show mercy to anyone. Mercy, by definition, is undeserved. God doesn’t have to extend it to even a single individual on the face of this earth. He could send everybody to hell, and that would be a just and righteous thing. That’s what we deserve. So, when you think about it, the truly astonishing and provocative idea isn’t that God would choose to show mercy to some and pass over others. Rather, it’s that he would show mercy to anyone at all. That’s the question we should be asking. “Why does God show mercy to anyone?” So, the decision of whether to extend or withhold mercy is God’s decision. As he says in verse 15, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.

Then Paul continues in verses 16-18: 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. So, here again, God has the right to show mercy selectively—“on whomever he wills” as verse 18 states. God sovereignly chooses those whom he’ll save.

Moving on to verse 19: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” So let’s look at this objection Paul anticipates. When I read this objection, it confirms for me that we’ve been interpreting things correctly so far. If your interpretation of verses 6-18 doesn’t naturally raise the potential objection of verse 19, then you’re not interpreting things correctly. The objection raised in verse 19 should naturally follow from a proper understanding the preceding verses. And I believe the interpretation I’ve been suggesting for verses 6-18 does naturally raise the objection Paul states in verse 19. And that objection is basically this: If God is the one who ultimately chooses who’s going to be saved and who’s not, then how in the world can he still hold people accountable for not being saved? Is that really fair? That’s basically what Paul’s asking in verse 19. 

But look at his response in verses 20-21: 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?  Wow. That’s heavy. Paul’s basically saying, “Who do you think you are to ask that question?” Who are we as creatures to think that we have any right at all to act as a judge over our Creator? And not only do we not have that right, who are we to think we even have that intellectual ability? 

It would be kind of like my three-year-old son questioning how fair my rules for the house are. His brain isn’t anywhere near developed enough to properly evaluate the fairness of those rules. And that’s the case infinitely more so with us and God. Who are we to presume that we can sit as a judge over him? And, in fact, it really shouldn’t surprise us that there are some things about God that we just can’t understand. You might compare it to an ant looking up at a human. When an ant stands on top of his anthill and looks up at a human, that ant can’t even begin to comprehend the thoughts or the nature of that human. He has no clue about the thoughts or nature of the human he’s looking at. And that’s just one finite creature trying to figure out another finite creature. How much less are we, as finite creatures, able to comprehend the being or the ways of the infinite God? 

So, the point Paul’s making is that God’s sovereign in choosing who he’ll save and who he won’t. Just as he chose Jacob over Esau back in our main passage of Genesis 25, he likewise chooses some people today over others. 

However—and this is a very important “however”—that doesn’t mean people don’t make voluntary and willful decisions for which they’re rightly held accountable. In the very next chapter of Romans, Paul talks about how people are called to embrace the gospel and are personally responsible for doing that. He writes, in Romans 10:9, that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” He then says in verse 13 that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Similarly, back in Genesis 25, we see that it’s Esau’s own behavior that deprives him of his birthright as the firstborn. He’s the one who decides, of his own volition, to sell his birthright to Jacob—and for a bowl of stew, no less! So, Esau has no one but himself to blame for the loss of his privilege as the firstborn. Notice how verse 34 doesn’t say that God took Esau’s birthright away from him but rather that “Esau despised his birthright.” Yet, at the same time, of course, Esau’s voluntary decision was indeed a part of God’s sovereign plan. 

So, where exactly does all of this leave us? Well, it leaves us with the conclusion that God sovereignly chooses people for salvation and yet that people also make voluntary and willful decisions for which they’re rightly held responsible. Both of those statements are simultaneously true. I don’t understand exactly how they fit together, but I believe that they ultimately do fit together. Both truths are clearly taught in Scripture—not only in the passages we’ve looked at today but in numerous other passages as well—so I simply believe them both. 

It’s similar in many ways to the Trinity. Every true Christian believes in the Trinity, which is the teaching that God is three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and yet that he’s also one God. And those two truths would seem to contradict each other. How can God be three and one? Nobody in 2,000 years of church history has been able comprehensively answer that question. Yet, we recognize that as the teaching of Scripture. In various places, Scripture refers to the Father as God, the Son as God, and the Holy Spirit as God. Yet it also says very clearly that there’s only one God. How can we reconcile those things? We don’t know. But we believe them both because Scripture clearly teaches both. We just chalk it up to the fact that God’s infinitely more complex than we can understand. 

And I believe we should approach the truth of God’s sovereignty in the same way. Rather than trying to explain away what the Bible teaches, I believe we should just accept what it teaches and humbly acknowledge that the ways of God are beyond our comprehension. There is a way in which God can determine who is and isn’t saved and at the same time hold people responsible for the decisions that they voluntarily make. Perhaps in heaven, we’ll understand that. But for now, we just believe both of those things since we see both of them taught in the Bible. 

And I know all of this is very intellectual and very abstract, but understand that it’s incredibly significant for our lives. And here’s how. Very briefly: three applications of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in saving people. 

First, it inspires us to higher heights of worship. As we reflect on God’s sovereignty in passages like Genesis 25 and Romans 9, we come face-to-face with a God who’s wonderfully and gloriously beyond our ability to comprehend. We’re reminded that we don’t have God figured out. And that’s a very good thing—because any being that we could completely comprehend wouldn’t be worthy being called God, now, would he? So, the fact that we can’t understand all of the thoughts and ways of God shouldn’t hinder us from worshipping him but should actually inspire us to worship him as a God who’s truly God. 

You know, at the end of Romans 11, after Paul spends three chapters unpacking ideas related to God’s sovereignty, he very appropriately closes that section of his letter with a profound expression of worship to God. He declares in Romans 11:33-36: 33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. That should be your heart and my heart after studying the passages we’ve studied this morning. 

Then, a second application of all of this is that it enables us to have a deeper gratitude for God’s grace. You know, I remember as a kid playing different Mario games. I played these games on a Super Nintendo, so that tells you how long ago it was. And usually on these Mario games, there were bonus levels you could unlock by doing different things. And that’s kind of the way I see the passages we’ve studied this morning functioning. These passages, and many others throughout the Bible that talk about God’s sovereignty, should unlock new levels of gratitude toward God—because they help us see even more clearly that being saved from our sins isn’t something we’ve earned for ourselves in even the slightest or most subtle way. It’s not even something we’ve obtained through our own ability. Instead, salvation is truly a gift of God from beginning to end. He gave it to those of us who are Christians not because we had managed to make ourselves more suitable recipients than others but simply because of his own sovereign grace. The fact is that God loved us when we were utterly unlovely and saved us when we were utterly undeserving. And that should elicit our deepest gratitude—as we see how marvelous God’s grace really is.

Then, finally, an understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation helps us share the gospel with greater confidence. You know, one of the most common hesitations people have about embracing God’s sovereignty is the fear that embracing God’s sovereignty will lead us to neglect our mission of sharing the gospel with people. After all, if God’s already chosen who’s going to be saved and who isn’t, why would we try to persuade people to be saved? Wouldn’t that just be a waste of our time since everything’s already been determined anyway? 

And the extremely short answer is that God’s issued a sovereign decree not only of who will be saved but also of the way in which they’ll be saved—which is through us sharing the gospel with them. God’s decreed not only the end but also the means to the end. That’s why we share the gospel. God has both a chosen people and a chosen plan, and we’re a part of God’s chosen plan for bringing his chosen people to salvation. And since we have no idea who God’s chosen and who he hasn’t, we share the gospel with everyone. That’s the very short answer. 

So, God’s sovereignty in salvation shouldn’t be a deterrent from sharing the gospel. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. God’s sovereignty should actually be an encouragement for us to share the gospel with confidence. We can share the gospel with the confidence that God will indeed draw his chosen people to himself and lead them to respond positively to our message. There’s a level of success that’s, in a sense, guaranteed. 

We see this in Acts 18. In this chapter, Paul’s trying to spread the gospel in the city of Corinth and is facing some heavy opposition. So, in order to keep him from becoming discouraged, Jesus appears to Paul in a vision. And here’s what he says. Acts 18:9-10: 9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Did you hear that? That’s God’s sovereignty. “I have many in this city who are my people.” So understand what just happened there. Jesus used the truth of his sovereignty not to deter Paul from evangelism but to encourage him to evangelize. He basically guaranteed Paul a certain level of success. So, as you embrace what the Bible says about God’s sovereignty, you should be equipped to share the gospel with even more enthusiasm and confidence. 

And, on that note, if you’re here this morning and haven’t yet put your trust in Jesus, I’d like to invite you to do that. It would be a grave mistake to come away from the truths we’ve examined this morning with some kind of fatalistic attitude about your own salvation. Remember the twin truths we talked about: not only is God sovereign, he’ll also hold you responsible for your decisions, and rightly so. If you’ll allow me to be quite blunt, that means, if you reject Jesus, you will end up in hell—and it’ll be nobody’s fault but your own. 

Thankfully, though, God gives an open invitation to anybody who desires to be saved from their sins and from the punishment their sins deserve. As we’ve already seen, in Romans 10:13, Paul states clearly that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That invitation is for you. So take your focus off of God’s role and start thinking about your role. Your role is to put your trust in Jesus. Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for your sins and then rose from the dead, triumphing over sin and death once and for all. And he now invites you to put your trust in him for rescue. Don’t give yourself a headache worrying about whether he’s chosen you or not. That’s silliness. Just receive the gift of salvation he’s offering you. Then, you’ll know that you’re among those he’s sovereignly chosen.

other sermons in this series

Oct 22


Genesis 50:15-26: God Meant It for Good

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Genesis 50:15–26 Series: Genesis: In the Beginning

Oct 15


Genesis 48:1-50:14: Jacob’s Blessings

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Genesis 48:1– 50:14 Series: Genesis: In the Beginning

Oct 8


Genesis 47:1-31: Prosperity in Egypt

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Genesis 47:1–31 Series: Genesis: In the Beginning