Genesis 18:16-33 Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
Here’s an important question that we all need to answer. It’s one that I thought I knew the answer to long before I actually did. How bad does someone need to be before it is just/fair/right for God to condemn them to death? Growing up I assumed I was good with God because: 1) I believed in Him, 2) I tried to do some things He liked (like going to church occasionally), and 3) Because I wasn’t as bad as the really bad people. In other words, I imagined hell to be reserved for those who outright denied God and for the famously wicked people like Hitler and Satan. So let me ask you, is it ever fair for God to send someone to hell? And how bad does someone need to be before it would be right for God to do so? The answer to those questions is at the heart of this passage.
In the beginning of chapter 18 we see that God visited Abraham and Sarah. In vs.1-15, which we looked at last week, we saw two specific reasons for this visit. First, God wanted to eat with Abraham; demonstrating His friendship with Abraham and His intention to fulfill the covenant quickly. Second, God wanted to make sure that Sarah was a believing participant in the covenant; He did so by reminding her of His unending power in the face of her doubt. Having completed these two tasks, God turned his attention to a third reason for His coming. In this next section we find that God also came to see if the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were as wicked as He’d heard and if so, to destroy them (to condemn them to death). For many, that is both confusing (did He really need to come down to find that out) and harsh (would He really wipe out entire cities). In the course of the sermon I hope to help make it less confusing and rightly frame the harshness; but more importantly I hope to help you see both the perfect justice and unending mercy of God in new and significant ways.
The main point of this passage is that God’s judgment is always just. Let’s pray that God would help us to see His perfect holiness, our sinfulness, and the just judgment that flows from the mingling of those two things. Let’s pray also that God would freshly impress us with His patience, mercy, and grace for those who hope in Him.
GOD PREPARES TO LEAVE (16-21)
So, having accomplished two of His purposes, God turned his attention to a third. Thus the text says,
16 Then the men set out from there [from Abraham and Sarah’s home], and they looked down toward Sodom…
God came to eat with Abraham, ensure Sarah’s participation in the covenant, and handle some business with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (which we’ll see more clearly in the coming verses and chapters).
Before we get to that, consider again Abraham’s hospitality. From the time of the men’s arrival through their departure (remember that this was the LORD and two angels appearing as men), he assumed responsibility for their comfort and well-being. The text says that Abraham welcomed the men into his home, washed their feet, fed them from the best of his possessions (1-8), and then “went with them to set them on their way” (16). Remember this, Grace, hospitality is decidedly Christian, urgent, humble, rewarding, and costly. And it is these things toward others because God is these things toward us. Let us be gospelly-hospitable people.
From there we find a remarkable glimpse into the heart and mind of God. We get to look in on God’s thought process. He truly understood Abraham to be a friend and an active participant with Him in the covenant. Thus, in vs. 17-19 we find God deliberating with Himself whether or not to fill Abraham in on His plans.
17 The LORD said [to Himself], “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
This a shockingly clear look into the way God thinks. Would you consider the wonder of that? What a remarkable thing it is to see God contemplate bringing Abraham in on His plan to judge the nations. God’s reasoning seems to be something like this: “Abraham is the beneficiary of My covenant promises. He will become a great and mighty nation. The other nations will be blessed through him. I have chosen him, I know him (literal translation), and he is My friend. All of this is not only for Abraham, but also for his children and his children’s children. I will know them as well for I have chosen them as well. My charge to Abraham is to charge his descendents to walk in obedience—in righteousness and justice—that they too might know My blessing. But what I am about to do might seem to fly in the face of all of that. It might seem like I’m snuffing out the light before Abraham has a chance to spread it. It might seem like I am acting unjustly if I do not help him understand what’s happening here. To tell him might be too much for him, but to withhold this from him might cause him to stumble. Should I hide this from him or reveal it to him?”
Can you imagine it, Grace? The God who made heaven and earth, the King of kings and Lord of lords, has befriended this man in such a way that contemplated inviting him in on His counsel and allowed us watch as He did. Of course Abraham didn’t understand all of this at the time (that gift is reserved for those of us who have Genesis), but such is the love and kindness of our God. Thus God determined to tell Abraham of His plans. And so the LORD said,
20 … “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
In all of this there are a handful of keys and lessons for us.
We see another reiteration of the covenant (18-19). God was not backing down one bit on His promises.
We see that God knew and chose Abraham before Abraham knew and chose God (19). While there is a good deal more that might be said about this, it’s important for us to recognize the simple truth that if this were not the case, we’d be entirely doomed; for apart from God’s intervening grace Abraham would have been left in Ur and would be left in our sin (Romans 8:7).
We see that God chose Abraham for a specific purpose (19). God did not choose Abraham so that Abraham could go about life doing whatever he felt like with God’s stamp of approval attached to it. Instead, we see again that Abraham was blessed in order to be a blessing (“all the nations on earth shall be blessed in him” 18). And so it is for you and me. Every blessing that you have in Jesus (especially Jesus!) is meant not to hoard, but to share with the world. Grace, how can you turn your blessing into blessing?
We see that God had an even more specific purpose for Abraham as well. He was called to lead his family, even into future generations. “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice” (19). God meant Abraham to pass on his faith to his offspring. Parents, we would do well to consider our own sense of responsibility to our children in light of this. Our fundamental duty as parents hasn’t changed. We too are called to lead our families in righteousness and justice in Jesus.
We see that in some ways Abraham’s faithfulness to his calling was tied to his own ability to experience covenant blessing. “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (19). In some ways God’s covenant with Abraham was unilateral (God would fulfill it Himself). In other ways, though, Abraham was required to be an active participant. If Abraham didn’t do these things he would not receive God’s promised blessings. But Grace, don’t miss this, the great news of the grace of God, though, is that God always meets the requirements He gives to His people. God requires certain things from us for sure, but He also meets them for us. That’s the simplest way to understand the cross and the Christian life. God provides for us the righteousness He requires of us in Jesus.
We see that it was a “great” “outcry” against Sodom and Gomorrah that drew God’s attention (20). Special note is made of the magnitude of the cry. This was no ordinary plea for justice. It was great. And it was on the basis of the greatness of that cry that God determined to check it out.
Grace, while we’re not sure of the origin of the cry, we are sure that God is never indifferent to the pleas of His creatures. Even if it might not seem like it at times, God hears us. You have never uttered a single word or thought a single thought that did not come before a caring God. For that reason, Grace, we must recognize prayer for what it is: one of the most significant disciplines in the life of a Christian. It is one of the most important expressions of our hope in God, love for God, and longing for the will of God. Would you consider coming on Wednesdays or Saturdays or early on Sundays?
Likewise, we see that it was the “very grave” (20) sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that drew God’s attention. Just as it was no ordinary cry against the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, they were, evidently, no ordinary sins either. Something truly wicked was taking place.
And we see that God determined to take a look for himself whether the cries were true (21). Was God truly unaware? Was His vision really limited? Of course not. The point, then, is not that God lacked knowledge or needed a better vantage point. The point, as the next section makes crystal clear, is that God never acts unjustly. He decided to “go down to see” only as a means of helping Abraham understand what He was up to.
God’s relationship with Abraham was such that He chose to reveal His plans and the reason for His plans to Abraham. What’s more, as we’re about to see, God loved Abraham in such a way as to allow Abraham to question His plans and reasons. All of that leads us to the final part of this sermon. Having wrapped his mind around God’s plans, Abraham would plead with God to be just in His execution of them.
ABRAHAM PLEADS WITH GOD TO BE JUST (22-33)
In last week’s text/sermon we saw that God is able to do whatever He chooses (“Is anything to hard for the LORD?!”). The question of this section, Abraham’s driving burden, was whether or not God would use His unlimited power fairly. Abraham should have already known the answer but this passage suggests he didn’t. In other words, the question still looms over us, “How bad does someone need to be for hell to be just?”
To that end, one of the most common responses I hear to expressions of God’s judgment and wrath are, “That’s not fair”. How could a loving God possibly be just in wiping out an entire city; men, women, and children? Again, that’s at the heart of this next section, and at the heart of the question Abraham put before God.
22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
The angels left but God remained to again entertain Abraham’s doubts. “God, you are all powerful. You can do whatever you choose,” Abraham said. “But your plans sound harsh. I hate to say it, but they sound unjust. Surely, there are some righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Surely there are some who do not deserve your wrath. Will you wipe them out too?”
Remember, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was among those living in Sodom. Perhaps this drove Abraham’s audacity (to question the fairness of God) more than genuine doubt. Whether that was the case or not, Abraham pressed in on God. In response, God assured Abraham that He would not wipe out the righteous with the wicked, Abraham pressed the question six times; each time with increasing timidity (Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord…I who am but dust and ashes…Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak…Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord…Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once). “If there are fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, or ten righteous, will you destroy them along with the wicked?” And each time God patiently assured Abraham that he would not.
Shockingly, God promised Abraham that He would not only be just, but also that He would be merciful. That is, God promised that if He found any righteous people in the city He would spare the whole city on their account. That’s almost unbelievable when you think about it. Consider the amazingness of that grace, Grace.
And therein we are confronted with our question once again, “How unjust or wicked does someone need to be before it is right of God to destroy them?”. I want to close this sermon, then, with two admonitions as a means of answering that question. First, believing ourselves to be righteous and actually being righteous aren’t the same things. And second, we don’t want justice.
Believing Yourself to Be Righteous and Actually Being Righteous Are Two Very Different Things
That’s the reality of living in this fallen world. Our consciences are a gift but they are not to be trusted. In 1 Corinthians 4:4, the Apostle Paul made this clear of himself saying, “I am not aware of anything against myself [my conscience is clean], but I am not thereby acquitted [I can’t trust my conscience]. It is the Lord who judges me [God alone knows for sure the state of my heart].”
As I mentioned at the beginning, when I was young my conscience was basically clear before God, but it shouldn’t have been. I stood ignorantly condemned before Him. Likewise, is there any doubt that if a survey had been taken among the people of Sodom and Gomorrah that the majority of its inhabitants would have felt morally justified? An in an astounding parallel is there any question that the majority of the people in the US today—many of whom are engaged in the exact same behavior and driven by the exact same thinking as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah—believe themselves to be morally upright? Believing yourself to be righteous and actually being righteous are two very different things.
God’s word alone gives the world the standard by which we are to measure ourselves and God’s Spirit alone is the trustworthy judge of our measure.
The basic distinction between righteousness and wickedness for Abraham was this (15:6): those who were hoping in God and had chosen to surrender to God (like Abraham) were “righteous,” while those who rejected God (like the Sodomites) were “wicked”. To say it in slightly different terms, those participating in the covenant by faith were righteous while those who rejected God and His covenant terms were wicked.
The simple fact that this passage, along with the rest of the bible, helps us to see that no one who is just will be destroyed by God. That is, we see here that there will never be collateral damage in God’s acts of judgment. But what the bible also helps us to see, and that which Abraham seems to be missing, is that there is no one who is righteous (Genesis 6:5; Romans 3:10-18). Truly, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). All of us, apart from God’s grace, are wicked and stand rightly condemned before God. Abraham’s righteousness was not really his, it was credited to his account by God. Thus, believing yourself to be righteous and actually being righteous are two very different things. Ask God to sift your heart, Grace! Ask God’s people to help you see your heart as well. God uses the Church to reveal sin that is hidden from you.
We Don’t Want Justice
All of this means, then, that we do not want what’s fair. Grace, the heart of the Christian faith is the reality that if God were “fair” to us, we’d all already be in hell. We’ve all sinned and the wages of sin is death—both physical and spiritual death. The judgment of God was most certainly fair for the Sodomites. You and I and all who are still alive have not gotten what’s fair or we would have already faced the same fate as the men and women of Sodom. Let me say that again, if you are still alive, life is not fair. Regardless of the suffering or difficulty you’re going through (and I know that some of you are going through real suffering), your life is better than you deserve. That’s a harsh word to be sure, but it is the gospel truth.
More remarkable still, not only have we not gotten what’s “fair,” God is constantly pouring out mercy and grace on the whole world. Every time someone treats us kindly or the ground produces food or the sun warms us, we are experiencing the grace of God. In other words, not only are we not in hell (which would be fair), we all also experience countless blessings every day. And all of this is for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Most remarkable of all is the fact that God has not only allowed us to live and to experience blessings on earth, but He offers to forgive us and free us and love us and keep us and bring us into His family to receive blessing and peace and everlasting life; to give us the righteousness of Jesus.
The point in all of this is that we don’t want fair (that’s what Sodom got). We want mercy and grace and God offers both in unlimited quantities in Jesus to all who will receive it in faith.
So how bad does someone need to be before hell is the just reward for their sin? The question is reasonable, but a bit misguided. It starts in the wrong place. Let me reframe it by just a bit. The justice of hell is not based ultimately on the nature of the crime committed, but on the value of the being it was committed against. That is to say, we don’t punish people for killing dogs in the same way that we punish people for killing people even though the crime is the same, because dogs and people aren’t the same. Therefore, since God is infinitely valuable, any offence against God must be infinite to be just. Hell is fair, not because our crimes against God are so heinous, but because God is so valuable!
In all of this we learn that God’s judgment is always just. That is, God always wields His unlimited power rightly. But we also learn that God is not only just; He is also merciful and gracious. That was Abraham’s only hope even as it is our only hope. Therefore, acknowledge your sin before God, that it is worthy of death because of the greatness of God, and then look to Jesus the greatest display of the greatness of God and find forgiveness.