A Wavering FaithErwin W. Lutzer | September 11, 2005
Selected highlights from this sermon
God had chosen to test Abraham. The test came without warning and without instructions. In the land of plenty, a famine took place. God wanted to see what kind of response Abraham is going make—and Abraham responded by not consulting God and leaves the place of God’s blessing.
Abraham failed the test.
Through this episode in Abraham’s life, we learn a lot about ourselves and about God’s promises and purposes.
The story can be told a thousand times. A businessman has an expense account and he can buy what he wants. He can even take out cash, as long as he provides receipts for how he spends it. But his credit card was maxed out. And when the company said that he had to at least make the minimum payment, he decided to take some of the money from that expense account and use it toward his credit card, arguing that this is not stealing because he fully intended to replace the money he had taken. And that’s not stealing.
The problem is that he was discovered and he was questioned about where the money went. His alibi worked for a while, but eventually like alibis generally do, was exposed as a fraud and he was fired from his job.
It’s amazing how truth-telling or lying becomes important down the road in our lives. What we do when we are in a tight place really reveals the kind of character that you and I really have. It’s the tight places that bring to the surface our values and our core convictions.
Abraham was in a tight place. God had called him to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and to go into a land that He would show him, because the call of God always has to supersede a call to our immediate families. That is to say that, even the call of God is more important than his country and his kindred, as seen in the life of Abraham. He comes into the land, he has an altar, and there he worships the Lord God in the altar, and he has a tent as we learned last time. His fellowship with God is constantly being renewed because wherever he goes he builds another altar which prefigured the coming of Jesus.
But then a test came to him, a test that would show whether or not he had really learned to trust God. Could he trust God to take care of him in “the land” that he’d been given? That was the test. And one of the things that Abraham was going to have to discover is that backsliding—that means turning away from God and doing our own thing—always has more burdens than blessings. You do it for the blessings, but you end up with the burdens.
The story of course is found in the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis. And as we go through this we are going to walk with Abraham through his experience. Then we are going to end up with some life-changing lessons, and we trust the Spirit of God today to do something in our hearts that is absolutely permanent and eternal.
Let’s look at the experience that Abraham had. First of all, God chose to test him. He’s in the land by obedience to the command of God. And it says in chapter twelve, verse ten, “Now there was a famine in the land,” last part of the verse. The famine was severe in the land. That was the test chosen by God for him.
You say, “Well the text doesn’t say that God chose it for him.” But we know that God stands at the back of natural disasters even if the immediate cause is some kind of a weather pattern, even if the immediate cause of an earthquake is a fault in the heart of the earth. The ultimate cause standing behind all that is God.
And so God chose this test for Abraham. Also, notice that the test came after Abraham was in fellowship. The previous verses say it so clearly that, “Abraham built an altar and he called on the name of the Lord.” And also it was a famine in the land of plenty. God tested him in the very area in which he had been given promises. Because as we noticed in the previous message that God says to Abraham, “This land is yours.” And God gave him the title deed, “to you and to your descendants.” And it is right there in the midst of those promises of God that he has this severe test. The test comes without warning and without instructions.
Years ago when our children were small we bought them a bicycle. I still don’t know why but we did not bring it home as a bicycle. We brought it home in a box, and the box had instructions at least. Now I have to tell you that I knew that if I were going to put it together our kids would have graduated from college before I would have been finished. So, I hired a young man to come and put it together which he did in an hour or two.
But, it had instructions. It said in effect: “If you do this right you will end up with a bicycle. And what you have to do is do point A, B, C, D, all the way along the line, and this is what it should eventually look like even though it doesn’t look like that now.”
The trials of life come without instructions. You can’t see what it’s going to look like; you can’t see its purpose. All that you have are the bits and pieces that are dumped unto your lap without an instruction book, because God wants to see what kind of a response Abraham is going to have. So, first of all we’ve looked at the trial that God chose for Abraham. A trial right in the middle of the land he’d been given—a famine—a severe famine in the land. God often tests us in the area of promises and in the area of our strength.
Well, we move through the text and we discover that Abraham fails the test. There is no evidence that he prayed about his decision. But look at the tight place that he was in: he had 300 people, you remember, to care for: herdsman, servants… The Bible says that—300. That’s a lot of people to care for. And, when you’ve got a famine coming in the land, the temptation is to do whatever you have to do to supply their needs. And so he does not consult God. God has said this is the land, this is approximately the boundaries as he understood them. Later on God is going to give a new set of boundaries that are much greater.
A famine comes into the land and the Bible says in verse ten that Abraham went down into Egypt. Now, that is true topographically. If you look at a map you know where Israel is and that’s where Abraham was. It was the land of Canaan at that time. You go down into Egypt. But it also meant that he went “down” spiritually.
Now in order to find out what happened there in the land you need a little bit of background. In those days it was customary if a man went to a country like that and somebody liked your wife that you might be killed so that the man who liked her could marry her. Tough culture, but that’s the way it was. But, if you were to say that you were with your sister you wouldn’t get killed. But somebody would have to negotiate with you regarding her, and maybe during those negotiations you could work out some kind of a deal and tell the truth.
Abraham is scared, he’s really, really scared. So as they go into the land you’ll notice that he suggests to Sarah his wife that they tell a lie. This is not Abraham at his best. You’ll notice it says in verse eleven, “When he was about to enter Egypt he said to Sarah his wife, ‘I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; (the Elizabeth Taylor of the day,) and when the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister that it may go well with me because of you, that my life may be spared for your sake.’”
Ah, come on, for your sake? Abraham…it’s for your sake! She’s not going to get a whole lot of benefit out of this, especially if she ends up being the wife of somebody else. This is for your skin, thank you. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her they praised her to Pharaoh.
Now, you must understand something here—that technically Abraham was not lying. According to chapter 20 of the book of Genesis where he does the very same thing with Abimelech, he later explains and says, “Well, she is my sister. She’s my half-sister—we have the same father but a different mother.” Sarah was actually a half-sister to him. So he could actually say, “She’s my sister,” and be speaking the truth in a manner of speaking.
But, what he wanted to do is to have them misunderstand it and to think that she was not his wife. That was really the point that Abraham was after. And so he tells this lie because when you leave the place of God’s blessing and decide now that you are going to do everything on your own, that you’re going to take care of yourself in your way, now deceit begins to enter into your life. And that’s what happened in the case of Abraham.
Now, he tells the lie and what happens? Blessings come to him! You’ll notice it says, “That when Pharaoh saw her they praised her; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” Ouch! Abraham, you’re willing to sacrifice the chastity of your wife to save your neck? “And for her sake he dealt well with Abraham. And he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys and camels.”
Wow! Abraham could have gone on television and he could have said, “I believe in the doctrine of prosperity. Here I am in the land and people told me not to go there. They thought it was a bad idea but look at how God has blessed me. I’ve got more cattle than I can count! I’ve got silver, I’ve got gold! Surely this is a sign of God’s blessing!”
Could I speak candidly today? I may? Thank you, my brother. In a case like this, you and I are majority, all right? Prosperity is not always a sign of the approval of God. Not even in the Old Testament, where prosperity was more directly linked to the land and so forth, as it is in the New Testament. That’s a whole different subject we are going to cover sometime in a series of messages.
But, there are people who are prospering today and they are doing it deceitfully. They are prospering and they are manipulating others to prosper, and that is not a sign that God is approving either of their lifestyle or of their methods. And Abraham is here and he is prospering under the good hand of the pagan Pharaoh.
Well, we’ve looked at the test God chose for him—the famine in the land. We’ve also spoken of the fact that Abraham failed the test. He didn’t stay in the land, and he didn’t ask God what to do. He did the expedient thing and then lied to get what he wanted when he wanted it. Because after all, you have to depend on yourself, you can’t depend on God. And he ended up being richer than ever, though he was a backslider.
What is God’s response to all this? Well, we read of it in verse 17: “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh.” That’s a shock! Wouldn’t you think that the text would say, “Now the Lord afflicted Abraham?” Isn’t he the problem? I think so. He’s the one who is walking in disobedience; he’s the child of God who knows better than this. But the Lord afflicts Pharaoh.
This says something very gracious about God and His dealings with His people. The Lord afflicts Pharaoh because God has a purpose for Abraham and Sarah. God had promised the land to Abraham and his seed, and we do not serve a frustrated deity. We do not serve a God who becomes confused and does not know what to do when one of His children ruins His “perfect plan.” He is never at a loss. His options are more than you and I could ever possibly count. And so we serve a great God.
And God said, “I’m giving you the land, to you and to your seed. Thus I will preserve Sarah and I will preserve you.” And God sends this plague. We don’t know what it was. Maybe it was sexual diseases of some sort that would keep Pharaoh from cohabiting with Sarah. Bu at any rate, the Egyptians themselves knew that this must be the hand of God, this must be because of Abraham and this must be because of Sarah.
Verse 18, “So Pharaoh called Abraham and said, ‘What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister,” so that I took her for my wife?’ Now here is your wife, take her and go.’ And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.” Get out of here!
Abraham, the man of God, rebuked by a pagan king. It’s tragic, isn’t it? Is there anything sadder than when the world looks at us they rebuke us for our ethics? Is there anything sadder than when we read in the newspapers that some Christian minister has been involved in financial mismanagement or shenanigans, if there is a word like that? If not, let’s say there is. Isn’t it tragic when the world looks at us and says, “Hey, look at what you have done”? Pharaoh sends them on his way in embarrassment and shame, escorts them out of the land. Just leave! Get out of here!
There are four life-transforming lessons from this passage. Four lessons, that if they became a part of our lives and the fabric of our lives we might live differently when we are tempted to backslide, when we are tempted to wander away from God, when we begin to learn that backsliding always has more burdens than it has blessings.
The first lesson is this: the sin of unbelief leads to other sins. At root, all sin has at its nucleus unbelief, because unbelief says, “I know better than God. If I follow Him I’m not going to have the pleasures that I know I should have, I’m not going to have the advantage that I know I should have, I’m not going to have what I think should be coming to me. I’m going to be treated unfairly. Following God is not as profitable as following my own way.” So we do our own thing, and at root is unbelief.
Luther said, “It is not possible to deliberately sin unless one first thinks wrongly about God.” What he meant was we sin because we don’t think God is good and has our best interests in mind. That’s what happened with Adam and Eve in the garden. “If you were good you’d let me eat of the fruit of the tree. But you’re not good, so I am going to go do it anyway, and then I will be like God and take you on.” That’s what lies at the root of our sin.
Notice also that Abraham had the faith to go but not the faith to stay. You and I can have faith for the call of God and then lack faith for the care of God. God can lead us to salvation and we trust Christ for our salvation. But, we don’t have enough faith to trust Christ for our sanctification, namely our being shaped as holy persons.
And yet the Bible says, “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” The faith by which you were saved is the faith by which you live. The faith that took Abraham into the land should have been the faith to sustain Abraham in the land; same faith, same God.
Now as a result of this unbelief and his subsequent sin, what do you notice about this passage? The one thing that we notice is there is no altar in Egypt. Abraham built altars, we learned in the first part of the twelfth chapter. Basically he went to Bethel and built an altar; he comes to Shechem first of all and builds an altar. No altar in Egypt, no fellowship with God there.
I was talking to a man one time who got involved in a series of sins that kind of spiraled out of control. And he said, “You know during that period of time, I never read my Bible and I never prayed.” The altar is gone. You know, it’s pretty hard to be a hypocrite. It can be done, but why read the Word if the fellowship is gone? I may still belong to God, but the fellowship is gone and the sweetness of communion isn’t there. There’s no altar in Egypt.
There’s also no witness in Egypt. When he was being escorted out of the land, could you imagine Abraham turning around and saying, “Oh Pharaoh, by the way Jehovah is the true God! Why don’t you believe on Him?” Excuse me? Spare me! Some of you don’t witness because your colleagues know you too well. And you say, “Because they know me and because of what I’ve done, my witness is compromised because I am living in Egypt and doing as the Egyptians do,” so to speak.
You know that you could make that right. You know that you could go and you could confess and you could own up. And, you could even ask your colleagues to forgive you for what you’ve done so that you could regain the kind of credibility that you and I need in order to witness. But, at root is unbelief. Will God take care of me or won’t He? If I do what is right, will He sustain me or is He going to leave me hanging? That’s the question. It all has to do with faith, or lack thereof.
A second lesson is that you never backslide alone. If the first lesson is that the sin of unbelief leads to other sins, the second sin is that you never backslide alone. You always take someone with you, and often those who are closest to you.
When Abraham decided to lie, he got his wife involved in lying with him and for him. But that wasn’t the end of it. Abraham recovered from his backsliding but his nephew Lot did not. We’re looking into the next message already; we are anticipating it in chapter 13.
But, you’ll notice that when they have this discussion about the land and this disagreement it says in chapter 13, verse 10, “And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan valley was well watered everywhere, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt in the direction of Zoar.” There was some Egypt that got into the blood of Lot. And, he ended up jeopardizing his own life and his own testimony in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham escaped the effects of Egypt, but his nephew never got Egypt and its sins out of his heart.
And then of course it was there when they were in Egypt that they acquired Hagar the Egyptian, with whom Abraham is going to have a relationship. Ishmael is going to be born, and that’s why it’s so important that you listen to all of these messages and be here for them, because we are going to discuss Ishmael versus Isaac. We are going to discuss the way in which the Muslims view Ishmael and Isaac and the whole bit. But that’s still in the future. But for now just know that the Egyptian named Hagar was almost assuredly acquired when they were in Egypt, and all of the problems and the challenges that are going to be brought about because of that.
Also, his kids ended up doing essentially the same thing. Abraham had a son by the name of Isaac, as we know. Isaac ended up telling essentially the very same lie when he was in trouble. Jacob then, who is a son of Isaac, ends up being a deceiver. And it seems as if the sin of Abraham perpetuated—it did not stay with him but was passed on to his sons.
Now that’s not necessary to happen. If you had an alcoholic father, you don’t have to be an alcoholic. If you had a lying father you can be a person of truth by God’s grace. But, you’d be surprised how often the faults of a father are passed on to his children.
And so I remember when we were out on the farm and sometimes we’d have Sunday school picnics. I don’t know how many of you enjoy Sunday school picnics. I think they are primarily for kids, because we as adults stand around and talk, it seems to me. But, we used to have a three-legged race. You know, you tie your leg to somebody else’s leg, to somebody else’s. And whenever one person would go down he would always drag the others with him, because you never go down alone. Sin is never secret. It always has consequences beyond you and beyond the secret. It always ends up somehow having public impact. So the second lesson is that you never backslide alone.
The third is this: that it is better to stay in fellowship with God in Canaan in a famine than it is to backslide into a land of plenty. Maybe I should say that again. It is much better to be in a famine in the land of promise than to have plenty in the land of backsliding. It would have been better for Abraham to simply stick it out.
You say, “Well what would have happened?” May I say candidly that God would have had to provide for him because God says, “Abraham it is to you and to your descendants that I am giving this land.” And the purposes of God are irrevocable. It will happen; God would have taken care of them. But Abraham didn’t wait to give God a chance but did his own thing.
Backsliding has its rewards. Abraham had received wealth from Pharaoh when he backslid. It has its perks. But, it always has more burdens than blessings. It is always a bad idea. It is always better to suffer even if it means suffering in a famine than to turn your back on God and do your own thing.
There’s a final lesson, and that is that God is with us even when we backslide. God could have said to Himself, “Well Abraham, since you’re going into Egypt without asking Me, and since I intended you to stay in the land which I had given you and trust Me there, I’m out of here! Go ahead, do your own thing!”
What’s God doing? He’s crossing the border into Egypt, of course God being everywhere, but at the same time we speak this way. He goes with him into Egypt, He is there. He gives Pharaoh some plagues so that he will be delivered. God is wooing Abraham, God is moving Abraham, and then He has Pharaoh shove Abraham out of the land and God is bringing him back.
And notice what it says in chapter 13 now. He goes into the Negev (which is the desert) as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been, key word now, verse 3 of chapter 13, “In the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made the altar at first.”
There it is: the altar is back, church is back and God is back. Most importantly fellowship is back. My conscience is clear before the Lord. All the issues of sin that clouded my conscience have been taken care of. I’ve done it now; I am back in fellowship with God. And the detour of the “Egypt”s of our life waste our time, waste our energy, and furthermore they impact others negatively and they are always a bad idea. But God is there. Some of you have known that.
I received some information recently regarding a young woman—Christian young woman, quick relationship with a man, pregnant. Is God there? Yeah, God’s there. God is there to help, God is there to minister, God is there to cause repentance and restoration and healing and help. God never abandons His people, even when they go to Egypt. He’s there to bring them back!
[Robert Robinson] wrote a wonderful hymn that we often sing. And then he himself fell into sin. And when he was living in sin he met a woman who said, “You know, I have come across a poem that has meant a great deal to me,” and the woman quoted the poem. And Robinson began to cry because he said, “I am the author of the words that you have just quoted.” “Oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above!”
Can you identify with him? God sends plagues to Pharaoh. What does that connect in our minds? Later on the seed of Abraham is going to be in the land of Egypt for 400 years and God is going to get them out. How? By sending Pharaoh some plagues. And this is a picture already here of how God is going to get His own people out of Egypt. Pharaoh sent Abraham out and a different Pharaoh is going to send the children of Israel out and say, “Get out of here!” And the last plague is going to be the lamb that was slain on the doorpost to keep them from the final plague.
Today God has His arms outstretched and says, “Oh backsliders, I will heal your backsliding!” “Behold we come to Thee, for thou art our God,” it says in Jeremiah. Some of you have wandered far away from God. Some of you have never come to Christ as Savior who died, who is our connection with God, without whom we cannot be born again, without whom we cannot come into God’s presence.
And even as I am speaking to you today the Holy Spirit is wooing you, too, and saying, “Come to Me, come to Me. Receive my gift of salvation, receive My Son.” And others of you He is saying to you, “Come back, come back. Why are you doing your own thing? Leave Egypt, get back to the altar, get back to fellowship, get back to Me.” Yes, that’s what He’s saying.
Let us pray. “Father, in our need come to us. We can all say, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” doing our own thing and making our own decisions. Dating who we want to date, going where we want to be, choosing our entertainment, our vacation, without any reference to You. Bring us to that point of submission we pray.”
And now if God has talked to you, would you talk to God, whatever it is that He has brought to your attention? If you have never received Christ say, “Jesus today I embrace you as mine.” If you know Him, come back to Him. “Father, do in our hearts all that is pleasing to you to come back. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.”