Alan H. Linton, Bristol, England
All quotations are from the New King James Version
Those of us who live in New Testament times are uniquely blessed, for God has revealed Himself to us in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, John 1. 14; 14. 9; 2 Cor. 4. 6; 1 John 1. 1f. Those living in Old Testament days were not so privileged, although they often longed to 'see' God. Moses, for instance, prayed, 'Show me Your glory', to which God responded, 'You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live', Exod. 33. 20. Yet, from time to time, especially in the early part of the scriptures, individuals were granted a personal revelation of God. Seven of these unique 'appearances' (called theophanies), are recorded. They include Hagar, Gen. 16; Abraham, Gen. 18; Jacob, Gen. 32; Moses, Exod. 3; Johsua, Josh. 5 and Gideon, Sud. 6. We may well ask how this apparent paradox can be explained. The New Testament teaches that the Lord Jesus is 'the image (visible form) of the invisible God', Col. 1. 15, and, since 'no man has seen God at any time', John 1. 18, these Old Testament theophanies must have been pre-appearances of Christ in the form of an angel or man. They were obviously very important occasions for the persons concerned, and each visitation was for a particular purpose which we shall seek to learn as we consider them individually. In this first study the theophany granted to Abraham will be considered.
Abraham's encounter with God in a visible form occurred when three 'men', probably dressed as Bedouin tribesmen, visited his tent as his guests at Mamre in the shimmering heat of noonday. Of the identity of one of the three guests there is no doubt. He is addressed as the 'Lord', v. 1, as the One who creates life, v. 10, as the One to whom nothing is impossible, v. 14, and as 'the Judge of all the earth', v. 25. Abraham lived before any part of scripture was written but, at certain times in his life, God spoke to him revealing His will. On this occasion, however, Abraham is visited in person. What were the reasons for this visit? We will consider three.
1. To bring Sarah into the Way of Faith, vv. 9-15
Imagine Abraham's amazement when his unknown visitor asks after Sarah by name. Was this his first realization of the identity of his guest? Already, Abraham had been brought into the way of faith concerning God's promise of a son, for we read, 'He believed in the Lord', Gen. 15. 6. But the fulfilment of the promise of a son to Abraham, could not take place until Sarah, too, is brought to faith. Unbelief is one thing that hinders God working. We see how necessary this was, since when Sarah from behind the tent curtain heard the visitor say that at the appointed time she would give birth to a son, she laughed in her incredulity and said, 'After I am grown old, shall I have pleasure, my Lord being old also?' God rebuked her unbelief with the response, 'Is anything too hard for the Lord?' It was as a result of this encounter with the living God that Sarah was inspired to believe. The writer to the Hebrews confirms this, 'Through faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed and she bore a child when she was past the age because she judged Him faithful who had promised', Heb. 11. 11.
2. To teach Abraham something of God's character and ways, vv. 16-21
When the three visitors left to make their way in the direction of Sodom, Abraham accompanied them on the first part of their journey. Two of the men went on ahead but the Lord remained behind to talk with Abraham. Pause to consider this amazing sight. God is recorded as walking, thinking, speaking, acquainting Himself with the situation, just like a man! John White wrote, 'The Lord of far-flung galaxies, the Creator of life and all that exists, the All-powerful, All-knowing God, the Inscrutable, the Judge of angels, demons and people is taking the trouble to explain His actions to an individual and is talking to him without condescension, but in terms he can understand'. God mused, 'Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?' Elsewhere we read that God . . . is taking the trouble to explain His actions in terms we can understand Abraham was called the 'friend of God', 2 Chron. 20. 7; Isa. 41. 8; Jas. 2. 23, and, as His friend, he is now to be entrusted with knowledge of God's thoughts and plans. Abraham became God's confidant. But more than knowledge, Abraham is being taught that God's plan to judge the cities of the plain was absolutely just. God knew that subsequently Abraham would 'command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice'. Thus Abraham was visited in order that he be instructed in righteousness. We too, can enjoy a similar relationship. Jesus said, 'No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you', John 15. 15.
3. To move Abraham to pray for the doomed cities,, vv. 23-33
God's plan to destroy Sodom, having been revealed to Abraham, leads him to intercession. Previously, Abraham by God's help had delivered the kings of the cities of the Jordan plain from the ravages of defeat, but now God reveals to him that they are to be destroyed. Have God's purposes changed? No wonder Abraham's impassioned prayer is concerned for the fate of the inhabitants of the cities, but also for the justice of God. 'Would you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Far be it for You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked . . . Shall not the judge of the whole earth do right?' Prayer for others is both a privilege and a responsibility for God's friends. But prayer is much more than making requests; it includes a sharing with, and taking counsel with God on matters of importance to Him. It is not like so many of our prayers to which, after stating our request, we add, 'If it be Your will'. This is right, since all prayer must be subject to God's will, but so often we fail to wrestle with God to learn what His will is. Abraham knew that God meant what He said in pronouncing judgement on the cities, yet he believed that if God promised to save the cities, He would keep it. Abraham's prayer is a strange mixture of fear, humility and boldness; the step by step decrease in fives and tens is not Abraham haggling with God, but indicates his probing to see how far he could go without overstepping God's purposes. Repeatedly we read, 'Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak . . . again . . . this once.' How graciously the Lord responds after each request, 'For the sake of fifty . . . forty-five . . . forty . . . thirty . . . twenty . . . ten, I will not destroy it.' That day Abraham learned more of the compassion and goodness of God than ever before. Prayer had changed him. 'So the Lord went His way . . . and Abraham returned to his place'. Had Abraham's prayer for the inhabitants of the plain been answered? In the next chapter we read, 'And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow. . .' Whilst Sodom was destroyed, Lot was spared. Thus God magnified His mercy and fulfilled Abraham's desire. God did not 'slay the righteous with the wicked'.
This amazing episode illustrates not only the pattern of true intercession, but also the influence of righteous men in world affairs. God indicated that if ten righteous persons were found He would save the cities from destruction. And we are reminded of the words of the Saviour, 'You are the salt of the earth', Matt. 5. 13. Salt preserves against corruption - Christians are spiritual disinfectants and their righteous lives can restrain the course of evil.