Abraham, Lot, and the God of Justice and Mercy
Passage: Genesis 18:1–19:38
How do we relate to a God of justice and mercy?
One of the realities of being a doctor is the difficult business of telling people bad news. Doctors check us over to see if everything is in good working order but when it isn’t, they have to tell us. How the doctor tells us this bad news can make all the difference in how we receive it. One of the characteristics that people look for in doctors is good bedside manner. Are they able to make us feel cared about and listened to? Are they able to explain medical topics in a way that we can understand? Are they able to deliver bad news gracefully and gently? We don’t only want our doctors to be competent at fixing our problems, we want them to be skilled at delivering the bad news when we have a problem.
What are bad ways to deliver bad news?
What are good ways to deliver bad news?
This evening we are continuing our series called Beginning the Journey Home in the book of Genesis. We are currently following the story of Abraham, whom God chose as an instrument to bring humanity back home. In Abraham, all the nations of the earth will be blessed because from Abraham’s family comes Jesus.
Now, Jesus was all about this good news of God’s rescue plan to bring wayward sinners back home. But Jesus also gave a lot of bad news. I’m guessing that if I went into your cupboards, I wouldn’t find a verse about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah on one of your coffee mugs. I’m also guessing you haven’t made a canvas print for your wall with your favorite verse about Sodom and Gomorrah on it. In fact, when people want to criticize the Old Testament, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and 19 is a favorite place to go. Many people think that the God who is revealed in the Old Testament is fundamentally different from Jesus. The God of the Old Testament, people say, is grumpy, full of anger, and is always sending fire and brimstone on people. You want proof? Look at Sodom and Gomorrah.
The other classic story is the flood. Sodom and Gomorrah is really a mini version of the flood. In both, God sees the grave sin of humanity. In both, God administers justice in response to it. In both, God saves one family from the destruction. Both these stories, people say, show just how mean and horrible the God of the Old Testament is.
Jesus, on the other hand, is full of love, kindness, gentleness, and mercy. But what may be surprising is that on several occasions, Jesus taught on the story of the flood and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. He used them to illustrate the seriousness of God’s judgment for those who reject him and used them as a warning.
But this story is not all about judgment and God’s justice. This story is also about salvation and God’s mercy. But we need both because we will never taste the sweetness of God’s mercy until we recognize the seriousness of God’s justice. A solution is only necessary because there’s a problem. Salvation is only necessary because there is bad news.
The big question this passage answers is: How do we relate to a God of justice and mercy? How do we relate to a God of justice and mercy?
This story breaks down into two parts. First, Abraham’s interaction with the heavenly visitors then Lot’s interaction with them.
Abraham and the Heavenly Visitors (Genesis 18)
Genesis 18 and 19 cover less than 24 hours. Genesis 18 starts us in the heat of midday with Abraham sitting in the entrance to his tent out of the hot sun. When three visitors approach, Abraham shows them the kind of hospitality typical of Middle Easterners. He invites them to sit beneath a tree, have their dusty feet washed, and enjoy a morsel of bread. When they accept his offer, he launches into preparing a feast fit for royalty!
As they eat, it soon becomes clear that this is a visit from God himself. God again tells Abraham that at this time next year, Sarah will be pregnant. Listening in the tent behind Abraham, Sarah laughed to herself: “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” She’s 90 years old, she’s way past menopause, and Abraham is no spring chicken either. Then the LORD asked: “is anything too hard for the LORD?”
From here, the conversation shifts. The three visitors depart from Abraham toward Sodom. Back in chapters 13 and 14, we already learned the character of Sodom after Lot, Abraham’s nephew, went to live there: the men are great, wicked sinners against the Lord and their king is surly and ungrateful. Now as the LORD with his two angels leaves Abraham to go to Sodom, he pauses and wonders to himself whether he should inform Abraham of his plans. Verses 17 to 19 say:
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.” (Genesis 18:17-19)
God doesn’t need to reveal his plans and purposes, but he contemplates revealing them to Abraham. Why? Because God is using Abraham in his plans and purposes. Abraham is part of God’s plan to bring blessing back to the world - to bring us home to him from our wandering. God has chosen Abraham so that his family will keep God’s ways by doing righteousness and justice. God has a special relationship with Abraham. Because of this, God reveals his plans. Verse 20 says:
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.” (Genesis 18:20-21)
God is investigating the situation at Sodom and Gomorrah because he has heard the great outcry about their very grave sin.
What happens next is perhaps surprising. The two angels with God head on their way to Sodom but the LORD remains by Abraham. As they watch the angels journey on in the distance, Abraham steps closer and asks in verse 23:
“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?” (Genesis 18:23b-25)
Abraham’s concern is that when the wickedness of these cities is confirmed and God sentences them to their due punishment, that there will be some righteous living in this wicked city who will then suffer the same fate as the wicked of the city. He keeps the conversation general, but surely he has his nephew Lot in mind who is living in Sodom. Abraham points out that it would be wrong for the righteous to be put to death with the wicked. Then, in verse 25, he asks this powerful question that we should all memorize: shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? The assumed answer is: yes. The Judge of all the earth will always do what is just.
In the previous conversation, the question God asked was: is anything too hard for the LORD? Here Abraham asks: shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? God responds in verse 26 by saying: “‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.’” (Genesis 18:26).
In humility and submission, Abraham starts asking God to lower that number from 50 to 45, from 45 to 40, from 30 to 20, and finally from 20 to 10. Why does God engage in this conversation with Abraham? Abraham is charged with teaching his family to keep the ways of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice. Here, God allows Abraham to explore and learn for himself the truth of God’s justice and righteousness. The question stamped over all of it is: shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? The answer is: Yes. God always does what is just for everyone every time.
The Bible clearly teaches that our eternal destiny is determined by our response to Jesus. Trust in Jesus leads to eternal life and rejection of Jesus leads to eternal death. That’s the clear teaching of Scripture and anyone who teaches otherwise has strayed from the truth.
But this truth brings up questions for us like, “What about those who have never heard about Jesus? What will happen to them?” This is one of the objections I hear the most to Christianity and one I hear a lot of believers struggling with.
It’s important to remember that people are not condemned because they don’t believe in Jesus. People are condemned because of their sin. We are condemned because in God’s law court, we are all found guilty of failing to love God with our whole selves and failing to love others as we love ourselves. No one does that. We do the opposite: we are very good at loving ourselves at the expense of loving others. Believing in Jesus is the way to be rescued from the just sentence we deserve. And this offer of salvation comes completely from God’s grace: we don’t deserve it. God would still be totally just, fair, and good even if he never offered anyone salvation in Jesus. But even if we still wonder how it is fair that we were born in a country with massive access to the gospel while others are born in jungle villages where there isn’t even a mention of Jesus ever, we can be assured that the Judge of all the earth will do what is just. We can trust that God will always do what is right, good, and fair.
But besides people who never hear about Jesus, we also can trust God in cases where someone hears the gospel but they don’t have the capacity to understand and respond. We might ask, “What about babies and small children? They can’t understand the gospel yet, so what happens to them? Or what about people with cognitive disabilities who are unable to comprehend? What about them?” Our answer should never be dismissive or cold but always filled with love, compassion, and gentleness. You may know someone who has lost a child or you have perhaps experienced that terrible loss yourself. The Bible doesn’t speak to this directly or clearly, but we know that the Judge of all the earth will always do what is just. We can trust God to do what is just and good and right and fair in those cases. We can place it in his hands and not try to make a definitive judgment ourselves.
On the other side, we may look at the evil in the world or the evil done to us and wonder, “Is anything ever going to be done about this? How is it fair that bad people go on doing bad things and never see justice?” Some of us have had horrible things done to us or said to us. Some of us know people who have had horrible things done to them or said to them. In those situations, even if our human justice system fails to call them to account, we can put our trust in God and say: “I know that the Judge of all the earth will do what is just. No evil or wickedness will be unaccounted for.”
From Abraham’s interaction with the heavenly visitors by the Oaks of Mamre, we follow the two angels to the city of Sodom where Lot interacts with them.
Lot and the Heavenly Visitors (Genesis 19)
The angels met Abraham in the heat of the day, but when they arrive at Sodom it is evening. Lot is sitting in the city gate and upon seeing them, greets them and welcomes them to stay the night in his home. Lot shows them hospitality just like Abraham did. They decline, because after all, they have been sent to investigate and confirm the grave sin of Sodom. But he presses them and they agree.
Inside his house, Lot prepares a feast like Abraham did. But when the men of the city hear of Lot’s guests, they come banging at the door demanding that Lot bring them out so they can “know” them. Many places in Scripture use this phrase to mean knowing someone sexually. We are seeing Sodom’s wickedness on full display. Instead of taking care of these guests to their city with proper hospitality, the men want to gang rape them.
Lot goes outside to convince them otherwise. He offers his two virgin daughters as a replacement to them. Lot is committed to caring for and protecting his guests, but the way he goes about it is morally questionable because he fails to care for and protect his daughters. The crowd lashes out at Lot so the angels intervene and pull him back inside. Then they warn him of the coming judgment: they are about to destroy this place. They tell him to warn his family and get out. Lot leaves to warn his sons-in-law but they pay no hee d because they think he is joking.
When morning comes, Lot and his family are still in the city so the angels again tell him to get out. But he keeps lingering so finally they grab him and bring him out. But on the way out, Lot engages them in a back and forth just like Abraham did but for very different reasons. In verse 17 of chapter 19 they say: “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.” (Genesis 19:17) In response, Lot says in verse 18:
“Oh, no, my lords. 19 Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die. 20 Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” (Genesis 19:19-20)
While Abraham pleaded for the salvation of others, Lot pleads for his own salvation. But what he thinks will save his life is to remain in the Jordan Valley. If you remember, Lot learned to trust in worldly security from his uncle, Abraham, when they went down to Egypt. Now, even as one of the cities in the Jordan Valley is being destroyed and he is being led out by angels, he is concerned with worldly security. It seems he isn’t really getting the reality of what is about to happen.
God grants Lot’s request and he arrives in the city of Zoar at daybreak. Then God rained sulfur and fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Three people watch. Lot’s wife looks back but because she does is consumed by the fiery downpour. Abraham watches with the LORD watch from afar, seeing that God did not find at least ten righteous in the city so it was not spared and not knowing whether his nephew was consumed in the fire.
The last memory we are left of Lot is him leaving Zoar to live in a cave where his daughters get him drunk and sleep with him to get pregnant because they are afraid they won’t have the chance to marry again and have kids. Like their father, Lot’s daughters are trying to prevent something bad from happening but their methods are morally questionable. Their kids become the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites who give Abraham’s family, the nation of Israel, lots of problems later on.
The good news is that God is both just and merciful. Both are good news! The good news is that God never lets sin or evil go unpunished. You can be sure that God will never be a corrupt judge. He can be bought or paid off. He always renders a completely just verdict. All lawbreakers will be help to account.
The big question this passage answers is: how do we relate to a God of justice and mercy? The first answer is: Like Abraham, we trust that he will do what is just. Like Abraham, we trust that he will do what is just.
The bad news is that we are all lawbreakers who will be held to account and the verdict will be “guilty.” Because God is just, we will all be declared guilty in his law court. The good news is that God is merciful so he has paid the penalty for our law breaking so that we can be forgiven.
That’s why the second answer is important: Like Lot, we need God’s kindness, grace, and mercy. Like Lot, we need God’s kindness, grace, and mercy. We are all like Lot. He doesn’t want to leave the life he is living surrounded by sin. He likes it. It’s comfortable. Even if it’s going to bring him death, he wants to stay. He only escapes because the angels drag him out. None of us would leave our life of sin unless God came into our lives, changed our hearts, and brought us out. Lot is rescued but he doesn’t deserve it and neither do we.
We have a hard time seeing God as both at the same time, probably because we rarely see anyone else being both at the same time. Think about parents. Often one parent is all about justice, enforcing the rules with high standards. Then the other parent is all about mercy, letting the kids get off the hook and not following through on punishment. Or you act like you have multiple personalities, switching from one to the other - one day stomping around angry and yelling and the next day just letting anything go. We have a hard time being both just and merciful at the same time and we have rarely seen someone be both to us at the same time.
But we need a God who is both. All mercy and no justice doesn’t exist because without justice there is no need for mercy. Boundaries, standards, limits, and direction are good, healthy, and necessary for us. All justice and no mercy means the relationship is in jeopardy any time we can’t measure up to the standards because there is no forgiveness offered.
Jesus embodied both. Jesus is the perfect image of God’s justice and mercy with flesh on. We think grace and mercy means God lowers the standards but Jesus did quite the opposite. If anything, he didn’t lower the standards but made them even more explicit so that people knew without a doubt how much God required of them. Go read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 through 7. Jesus totally followed God’s standards in the Old Testament and taught that others should as well summed up as love God with your whole heart and love others as yourself.
But he also taught that as sinners prone to wander from God, we are totally dependent on God’s mercy. If we have any hope of a relationship with God, we need to abandon all our own efforts to make ourselves right with him and instead throw ourselves on his grace, mercy, and kindness.
At the cross, we see the clearest and most intense combination of God’s justice and God’s mercy. God is so full of justice that sin will not go unpunished and God is so full of mercy that he takes the punishment upon himself. At Jesus’ death on the cross, he burned in the fire of Sodom and Gomorrah in our place. At Jesus’ death on the cross, he drowned in the waters of the flood in our place. At the cross, we see the seriousness of God’s justice and the sweetness of God’s mercy. The more we come to grips with the fact that we should suffer the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah, the more we are able to be thankful for God’s mercy and kindness in rescuing of us from it. Without knowledge of how terrible it would be to come under the judgment of God, we will take God’s mercy and grace for granted.
Jesus embodied God’s justice and mercy and now he sends us as him ambassadors to represent that same justice and mercy.
In Living as Family, we show a picture to the world of what it looks like when God’s justice and mercy takes up residence in a community who have been transformed by it. Our world doesn’t know how to do either of them well. As a family, we can call each other to a higher standard - to live in a manner worthy of our Lord - while at the same time showing mercy, love, and kindness to one another when we fail. If you were to take a survey of what people don’t like about the church, what do you think some of the words they would use to describe the church would be? [Judgmental, hypocrites] One of the most powerful ways we can show the world what our God is like is by sticking with each other even when we hurt and disappoint one another. Telling someone else that they hurt you and working through it is one of the best ways to be a light in our dark world.
Jesus also sends us to love as servants. Then as we look outside to people who think the church is full of judgmental hypocrites, how transformative would it be to love them as servants - to put God’s mercy into action?
Lastly, Jesus calls us to go as messengers of his good news. There can’t be good news without the bad news. The message, “You can be saved and forgiven” doesn’t make sense unless people acknowledge that they have something from which to be saved and something for which to be forgiven. Both Jesus and his early disciples often told people about God’s judgment before they told them about God’s salvation because hearing of the judgment to come made them aware of a problem and looking for a solution.
But there were also instances where Jesus didn’t need to warn of judgment. Usually, Jesus talks of judgment with prideful people who think they have it all together and people who have rejected him in unbelief. He gives them bad news so that they might repent. He gives good news of forgiveness and salvation to those who are broken, downcast, humble, and repentant. He gives good news to those who are beaten up and weary. To people looking for a Savior, Jesus gives good news.
The big question this passage answers is: how do we relate to a God of justice and mercy? The last answer is: Like Abraham, we desire and pray for the salvation of others. Like Abraham, we desire and pray for the salvation of others.
It can be scary and challenging to give people bad news. When telling someone about God’s judgment, which 4Gs do we need to remember and how would they help?
Everyone you meet who hasn’t trusted in Jesus is like someone living in Sodom with God’s judgment impending. They are guilty and under his wrath. And we once were too. We need to see what we were saved from so that we can be filled with gratitude for God’s rescue in our lives that we wouldn’t have experienced unless he came into our lives and carried us out.