Abraham: Conversing With God

Genesis 18:1-8; 16-33

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / June 21, 2006

Knox Presbyterian Church ‘Summer Fellowship’


            To help us frame the context of God’s interaction with Abraham in Genesis, chapter 18, it will benefit us to skip ahead to the first verse of chapter 19. There we read “Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom” (19:1).


            This verse assists us in our understanding of chapter 18 because of the presence of the definite article. It is not just any two angels who come to Sodom, but “the two angels” who come to rescue Lot. The inclusion of the definite article points us backward to a previous reference to these particular angels.


            Chapter 18 begins, “Now the Lord appeared to (Abraham) by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth” (18:1,2).


            How are we to read this? Is it the case that the Lord appears with three men? Or, is it that the Lord is among the three men? Admittedly, theories abound on the configuration of these three visitors, but the natural reading of the passage leads me to conclude that what we have here is a pre-Incarnation appearance of the Lord Jesus in human likeness, accompanied by two angels also in human likeness.


            As the passage progresses you have Abraham conversing with the Lord, and in verse 22, we read that “the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom.” How many men? All three? Chapter 19, verse 1, would indicate that there were two men who turned away and went toward Sodom—that is, the two angels.


            Of course, the accompanying angels are not to be our focus this evening, but rather, it is Abraham’s interaction with God, which is to be instructive to us in our present relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.


            Indeed, the latter portion of Genesis 18 teaches us a great deal about prayer, and so we will spend much of our time with this theme.  Additionally, as we wade through this dialogue between Abraham and the Lord we need to bear in mind two prevailing themes: Friendship and judgment.


            Abraham’s conversation with God is made possible because of an existing friendship and is occasioned by the pending judgment upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.


            The reason we can safely describe Abraham’s relationship with God as ‘a friendship’ is a biblical one. Abraham is referred to as the “friend” of God three times in Scripture.


            The first occurrence of such a reference is found in 2Chronicles 20, within the prayer of Jehoshaphat. There we read, “God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before Thy people Israel, and give it to the descendents of Abraham your friend?” (2Chr. 20:7). Similarly, in the New Testament, James notes that Abraham “was called the friend of God” (Jas. 2:23).


            Perhaps the most significant reference to the relationship between God and Abraham is found in Isaiah 41, where the Lord Himself is speaking, “Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendent of Abraham My friend” (Isa. 41:8).


            Now, some may wonder why I labour this point of friendship. The reason is this:  It seems to me that the unique and personal nature of this exchange between Abraham and the Lord is, in large measure, a function of their very special relationship.


The scene is extraordinary—the Lord appears in human likeness, along with two angels in human likeness, for the purpose of keeping Abraham up-to-date with the Divine agenda! The scene is indeed rare, and the scene is occasioned by friendship.


It is also worth noting that nowhere else in the Old Testament do we have the Lord referring to someone as His ‘friend’. Among a host of godly men and women in the Old Testament, only Abraham is referred to in this manner. And while we know that God had close dealings with Moses, and others, we are therefore compelled to regard the Lord’s relationship with Abraham as a particularly special one.


Once we understand this, we gain insight into why the Lord says to His angels in Genesis 18, verse 17, concerning Sodom and Gomorrah, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?


It seems to me that the Lord has every right to hide from Abraham what He intends for Sodom and Gomorrah! The Lord God is the ruler of the Universe and as such, He answers to no one. As the apostle Paul has noted, “How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?” (Rom. 11:33, 34). If God chooses to reveal His particular will, that is terrific—but He is, by no means, obligated to do so.


In our own dealings with people, we know what it is like to keep certain things to ourselves. There are certain things about us—certain things that have happened to us, which we do not want the world to know. And yet, many of us have not entirely kept quiet—we have trusted friends, we have shared sensitive information with those we are closest to.


Beloved, this is what we find in Genesis 18. The sharing of delicate information is occasioned by a close friendship, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?


Now, in our text, God does not say specifically to Abraham that He is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but He does say, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry” (18:20, 21).


No doubt, such an announcement alarmed Abraham, causing him to reply in a way that appears as if he is negotiating with God. But, of course, friends can do this—friends collaborate on important matters. Friends speak frankly to one another. And lest we lose site of the nature of their relationship, we read in verse 23 that “Abraham came near” to the Lord when making his reply.


Abraham’s reply, in that he is conversing with God, is naturally regarded as being tantamount to a prayer. As such, we are able to learn a great deal about prayer from Abraham’s example. Moreover, because this is a dialogue, where two parties are speaking, we also learn some things about the nature of God from this passage.


First, as we look to Abraham’s prayer, we see that it is marked by audacity. It is a bold prayer—Abraham pleads by appealing to the Lord’s character, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” (18:23-25).


I don’t know how this intercessory prayer strikes you, but instinctively I want to flash a warning sign that reads, ‘Danger! Do not attempt this kind prayer at home.’ You see, an audacious prayer can be a dangerous prayer unless there first be an existing friendship with the Almighty. Just as there is a particular way to approach an earthly king, and a manner in which one speaks to an earthly dignitary, there is a manner which is appropriate for addressing the Lord of the Universe.


And the reason, Abraham can be so daring with the Lord is because he has a developed friendship with the Lord. This principle of boldness coming from familiarity likely resonates with our experience in dealing with other people. It certainly resonates with mine. Gone are the days when I could say exactly what was on my mind to anyone and everyone.


I am much more timid than I used to be in terms of how I engage a person in conversation. With some exceptions—my spouse, and my closest friends, know all too well how I am able challenge them. I am bold with those who are closest to me in a way I would never dream of speaking to someone I scarcely knew. Conversely, those who are closest to me feel comfortable calling me to account when I fall out of step with that which is sensible.


The principle of praying with audacity then, is a relative principle. As such, I submit to you that the audacity of our prayers should be proportionate to our proximity to God. To speak to the Lord the way Abraham spoke, without the existing friendship, goes beyond presumption—it is outright dangerous.


Not only was Abraham’s prayer bold, but it was a prayer marked by tenacity. Abraham, through his persistence is able to extend the length of this dialogue.  In response to Abraham’s initial challenge, the Lord replies favourably, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account” (18:26).


Again, my instinctive response to that would be: ‘Super! Thanks so much Lord! Great spending this time with You, I’ll now be on my way.’ But Abraham keeps going, pushing the envelope, so to speak,  Suppose there are only forty-five? … Suppose forty? …  Suppose thirty? …  Suppose twenty?” (18:28-31). Abraham’s persistence persuades the Lord to say that He would not destroy the city if ten righteous persons were to be found (18:32).


As with most dialogues and prayers recorded in Scripture, we are not provided with a verbatim account here. And admittedly, we can read Abraham’s prayer in just a few seconds. But this prayer is written in such a way as to suggest a very lengthy conversation between Abraham and the Lord took place that day. Abraham intercedes no less than six times for Sodom. Abraham’s prayer is tenacious.


And lest we think that Abraham’s relationship with the Lord has made him unduly cavalier in his prayer, we should also note that Abraham’s approach to God is marked by humility. While Abraham must have recognized, in some sense, his privileged position as God’s friend, this is not something that Abraham presumed upon.


There is no indication in Abraham’s intercession that he felt God was obligated to accommodate him. Quite the contrary, Abraham recognizes that this is not a relationship of equals, and so he prays in verse 27, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.


To have humility before God comes from apprehending our standing before Him. Abraham understands this and it causes him to intercede for his own well-being even as he intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah. It is recorded that, at least twice, Abraham pleaded for himself, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and shall I speak” (18:30, 32).


Yes, Abraham’s prayer was marked by audacity; yes, his prayer was marked by an unyielding tenacity, but Abraham’s prayer was also marked by genuine humility.


So these traits should mark our own prayers. Relative to our proximity to the Lord—in proportion to the depth of our friendship with God, we are to pray boldly for that which we regard to be consistent with God’s character.


Secondly, we note that God often draws on us when we pray. That is, the Lord is no celestial genie compelled to grant wishes upon the first request, but rather, the Lord often engages us in such a way that requires us to be persistent in prayer.


And thirdly, understanding that the Creator is not obligated to His creation in anyway, we should not presume to be owed anything from God. As such, we should come before God with genuine humility.


Now, isn’t it curious to read on and to see that in spite of repeated intercessory prayer by Abraham—prayer marked by audacity, tenacity and humility—Sodom and Gomorrah are nonetheless destroyed?


Here we have, in one sense, a model prayer; we have from Abraham an exemplary prayer to help us as we pattern our own prayers. And yet, in another sense, we note that something is fundamentally missing—we note that Abraham’s prayer is an unanswered prayer in that one of Abraham’s chief aims was to have Sodom and Gomorrah spared from destruction.


This negative result teaches us something vitally important about prayer. This negative result teaches me that even though I may be appropriately motivated in my prayer, even though I may say accurate things and present arguments in a reasonable manner, and even though I may have an existing relationship with God, this is no guarantee that God will respond in accordance to my personal preferences.


We are reminded in this account, with Abraham conversing with the Lord, that prayer is not magic.


I’m afraid to report that I have come across Christians who view prayer in this way. I have seen individuals use the phrase, “in Jesus’ name”, like it was some magical incantation to get whatever they want in prayer.


Can you imagine the implications, if this was the case? If praying "in Jesus' name" was some magical incantation that forced God's hand, can you imagine what would be going on in heaven when we prayed?


You would have someone praying, 'God, do this for me . . . in the name Jesus', and then God would say, 'Ah shucks, they said the magic phrase! This is going to mess up everything we are doing in the kingdom, and now we have to answer this prayer.' This is not how prayer works.


What then do we find? Abraham’s prayer may not have changed anything for Sodom and Gomorrah, but there can be little doubt that Abraham’s prayer helped to change Abraham.


That’s because at the heart of prayer is a relationship. At the heart of prayer is a relationship, and not a list of wants.


And because Genesis 18 describes a two-way conversation between Abraham and the Lord, we have the opportunity to observe some things about the Lord.


The first, and I think most obvious thing, is that God desires to have relationships with His creation. We see this in His friendship with Abraham. The fact that the Lord sought Abraham out, that He received hospitality from Abraham, and that He was unwilling to shield Abraham from His plans for Sodom and Gomorrah teaches us this.


Secondly, we are also reminded in a most sobering way that a Holy God cannot overlook sin. We see this in the eventual destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.


Now, bring these two aspects together, and what do you have?


Beloved, these are two key ingredients of the Gospel.


The God who wants to be in relationships with His creation is a God who cannot overlook sin.


The God who appears on the scene as Abraham’s friend, also appears on the scene as Sodom’s judge.


And, no doubt, this kind of pattern—this mixture of friendship and judgment could have repeated itself indefinitely throughout history. But thankfully, this pattern was interrupted when the second member of the Trinity came in the person of Jesus Christ—and on this occasion He came not to judge sin, but to overcome it on the cross!


            Because of the cross of Christ, all who possess faith like Abraham can possess a relationship with the Lord like Abraham. And, prayer is the way we get on in this relationship.


In other words, prayer is the means by which we draw near to God.


And, at the end of the day, if we have been able to draw near to God, surely we have gained the most precious thing in the Universe. Amen.