We often find it easy to write off and dismiss the spirituality of others. We focus on failings rather than the strengths. Imagine you had to compile a list of words you thought best described Sarah from reading Genesis. What would you include? Perhaps topping most of our lists would be words such as: impatient, Gen. 16. 2; harsh, 16. 6; headstrong, 21. 10; cynical or unbelieving, 18. 13.
In the five passages of scripture in the New Testament that refer to Sarah, not a single negative characteristic of Sarah is recorded.1 Only her positive spiritual attributes are described, qualities we may have overlooked. Two passages, in particular, highlight Sarah as a godly woman whose example we are to follow. These are Hebrews chapter 11 verse 11 and 1 Peter chapter 3 verse 6. Interestingly, both books were written with the express purpose of encouraging Christians undergoing persecution and hardship. Also, in both passages, Sarah is mentioned with reference to her husband Abraham. In Hebrews chapter 11, she is viewed as a woman who moved together with him, united in faith. In 1 Peter chapter 3, she is described as a woman who was subject to him, recognizing Abraham as her God-ordained head. As such, Sarah is a role model to married women who wish to honour God, although the example of Sarah’s godliness and faith we can all seek to emulate.
The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jewish believers who were under intense pressure to return to Judaism. At the time of writing, the tangible and visible elements of this ancient religion were still evident. The colossal temple building that Herod the Great had constructed in Jerusalem was the envy of the world. Along with its priests and sacrifices, it stood as an emblem to the Jews, consolidating their misplaced confidence in the superiority and permanence of their religion. The writer of Hebrews reminds Christians, who had rejected Judaism and were facing persecution, that ‘we see Jesus’, Heb. 2. 9. The surpassing greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ is laid out before them. He is ‘so much better’ than any of the Old Testament characters or Jewish institutions they had held so dearly, Heb. 1. 4. Yet, He is understood and apprehended by faith.
In Hebrews chapter 11, Sarah is listed among the catalogue of Old Testament heroes, whose faith is to be followed. She is one of two women recorded, along with Rahab who by faith ‘perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace’, v. 31. Perhaps ‘woman of faith’ would not be the first epitaph we would think of for Sarah. After all, she did laugh with incredulity on hearing that she would bear a son in her old age, Gen. 18. 12-14. Inwardly, she mused, ‘Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?’ The Lord, looking upon her heart, 1 Sam. 16. 7, saw her unbelief, and with a gentle rebuke reminded her, ‘is anything too hard for the Lord?’ Contrast Sarah with young Mary, described in the opening verses of Luke’s Gospel, still, perhaps, only a teenager at that time, Luke 1. 26-35. Some 2,000 years after Sarah, Mary heard the startling news of two impending births. Like Sarah, her elderly cousin Elisabeth was, miraculously, about to bear a child. Far more astounding, however, was the miracle that God would accomplish through Mary herself. She had never known a man, yet Mary would conceive and give birth to a child, fulfilling that sign of signs heralded centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah, ‘Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’, Isa 7. 14. The child would be no less than Immanuel, God incarnate dwelling with us, the long-promised Christ and Saviour of the world. Like Sarah, Mary was reminded, ‘for with God nothing shall be impossible’, Luke 1. 37. How remarkable was the response of this young woman of faith? In contrast to Sarah, she implicitly accepted the promise of God. Simply believing God, she said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’, v. 38.
A redeeming feature of Sarah is that she promptly learned from her mistakes and was open to the loving discipline and encouragement God had provided. Hebrews also reminds us, ‘For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth’, Heb. 12. 6. We read of the renewed faith of Sarah in Hebrews chapter 11 as she laid hold of the promises of God. In verse 11, we read, ‘through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised’.
Note the word ‘also’. Sarah was united with her husband Abraham in faith. He too had laughed, except with joy as he realized that God was about to achieve the impossible through a frail old man like him, Gen. 17. 17. God had chosen ‘the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty’, 1 Cor. 1. 27. Romans chapter 4 describes the great faith of Abraham. Despite the deadness of Sarah’s body and his own body, as far as bringing children into the world were concerned, he ‘against hope believed in hope’ and ‘staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God’, Rom. 4. 20. This elderly couple were united together in faith and were blessed by God accordingly.
Through the goodness of God, Sarah learned to laugh again, Gen. 21. 6. This time not with the cynical laugh of unbelief, but, like Abraham, with the joy of resting in El-Shaddai, the all-sufficient God, 17. 1. Sarah soon held in her arms her ‘child of promise’, Isaac, whose name means ‘laughter’. In fact, the Hebrew name ‘Yitzhak’ sounds like someone laughing! Paul uses the picture of Sarah and Isaac in Galatians chapter 4 verses 21 to 31, cp. Rom. 9. 9. Hagar, Sarah’s slave, had given birth to Ishmael, a child born according to the flesh. In contrast, Sarah, a free woman, had brought the child of promise into the world. Paul concludes that ‘now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise’. We are no longer slaves under the law but sons and heirs of God through Christ, Gal. 4. 7.
There is much we can learn from Sarah’s progress in trusting God. Like Sarah, we are all on a journey of faith. This journey commences by faith and continues in faith. Four times the scriptures remind us, ‘the just shall live by faith’.2 We all struggle, at times, on the journey of faith. Sometimes we have doubts. We may question what God has said about the past or present, or in what He has promised for the future. Like Sarah, God may need to encourage, challenge or test our faith. God sees our heart and knows our thoughts. Yet, through personal trials and His word, which is ‘a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’, Heb. 4. 12, God can reveal to us whether our faith is real or not. The storms of life can bring us to the point where we exclaim, like Paul in Acts chapter 27 verse 25, ‘I believe God’.
The Apostle Peter also refers to Sarah in his first Epistle. From first-hand experience, Peter knew what it was to have his faith tested in a time of crisis. Seeing his Lord being taken and crucified was such a traumatic experience that the Lord Jesus likened it to the violent shaking of wheat in the sifting process. With this crisis approaching, the Lord Jesus had strengthened and warned Peter, ‘But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren’, Luke 22. 32. Peter, the man of ‘stone’, soon crumbled. Despite his failure, Peter went on to follow in his Lord’s footsteps. Throughout the centuries, the two letters written by Peter have strengthened the faith of countless believers in times of crisis. The central message in Peter’s first letter is unequivocal. In the face of persecution or unjust treatment, whether in society, 1 Pet. 2. 13-17, or in the work environment, vv. 18-20, we should not react or retaliate. Rather we should imitate the Saviour, vv. 21-25, ‘who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously’, v. 23.
In chapter 3 verses 1 to 6, Peter writes to encourage married women, especially those suffering harshly at the hands of unbelieving husbands. He exhorts them, not to be preoccupied with time-consuming and expensive activities in order to enhance one’s outward appearance, but rather to cultivate the inner adornment ‘of a meek and quiet spirit’, ‘a gentle and peaceful spirit, [one that is calm and self-controlled, not overanxious, but serene and spiritually mature]’, Amplified Bible. Such demeanour speaks more powerfully than any words and is a powerful force in winning an unbelieving husband for the Lord. The Apostle Peter uses Sarah, in verse 6, as an illustration of this attitude. Although Sarah was marked by outward physical beauty, Gen 12. 11, she is as an example of a godly woman who demonstrated an inner beauty of heart ‘which is in the sight of God of great price’.
In verse 6, we read that she called Abraham ‘my lord’, a common title of honour and respect in ancient times. Interesting to note the occasion when this happened, when Sarah inwardly laughed out of unbelief in Genesis chapter 18 verse 12, the occasion we have considered already. Like the writer of Hebrews, Peter also reminds us, not of Sarah’s failings, but of her positive attitude of heart. Clearly, Sarah was no shrinking violet. Yet with a heart submitted to God she inwardly expressed these words, acknowledging that Abraham was the God-ordained head over her. She appreciated in part what we now appreciate fully through New Testament revelation, ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church’, Eph. 5. 22, 23.
In summary, Sarah is an easy character to misjudge and underestimate. The New Testament draws attention to Sarah’s spiritual qualities as the true complement of her husband Abraham. The two of them moved together on their journey in faith as ‘joint heirs of the grace of life’, 1 Pet. 3. 7.
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