By Robert Neely
In the days after 9/11, all of us living in America were especially aware of threats around us. The U.S. government even created a terrorism warning scale on which different colors described the current threat level. For years, that threat level color appeared on the tickers at the bottom of news broadcasts, alongside weather forecasts and the latest headlines.
The reason this threat scale was so prevalent is that we all want to be aware of the threats around us. But the truth is that we are far too often unaware of the threats on the inside.
This is especially true as we live out our Covenant relationship with God. The threats that come from inside us are usually more damaging to this relationship than any external threat could be. Still, too often we get it backward and focus on the external threats instead of the internal threats.
This certainly happened to Abraham and Sarah in the story we find in Genesis 20. Abraham and Sarah were afraid as they lived in a place called Gerar because they believed there was “no fear of God in this place.” (v. 11) They were especially afraid that the king of Gerar, Abimelech, was going to kill Abraham and take Sarah as his wife.
Why would Abimelech do such a thing? There are a couple of reasons. The first would be any physical attraction he had to Sarah. Also, Abimelech could stake a claim to Abraham’s household and wealth through this kind of relationship.
So Abraham and Sarah lied, as they had in Genesis 15, and said that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, not husband. Believing Sarah was available, Abimelech sent for her. But before they could sleep together, God revealed to Abimelech that Sarah was married.
The face that this happened before they slept together is important. “Abimelech had not gone near her.” (v. 4) That’s because a few chapters before, Abraham and Sarah had been promised a son within a year. Sarah was not yet pregnant, and if she had slept with Abimelech, he could have claimed that any son was his heir, not Abraham’s.
Had that happened, the child of Covenant that God had promised Abraham and Sarah would have had questionable paternity. In the days before DNA tests, this could have called the entire Covenant God had made with Abraham into question. How could anyone have known for sure that God had kept His promise?
So God stepped in immediately to prevent any paternity questions by making sure Abimelech did not sleep with Sarah. In fact, Abimelech and his entire household suffered with some form of barrenness or sexual dysfunction. (v. 18) This left no doubt about whether the king had slept with Sarah. God told Abimelech that he knew the king had done nothing wrong: “I know you did this with a clean conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. This is why I did not let you touch her.” (v. 6)
When Abimelech learned that Sarah was married, he went back to Abraham to confront him about his lie. He asked Abraham to explain himself, and then he asked Abraham for help. Abimelech even gave Abraham and Sarah gifts in an attempt to get their blessing.
Abraham prayed for Abimelech, and God healed him and his whole household. The blessing of children returned to Abimelech’s household through Abraham. As God had promised back in Genesis 12, He had blessed the one who had blessed Abraham.
Abraham had thought that Abimelech was threatening the fulfillment of God’s promises, but Abimelech had done nothing wrong. The ugly truth was that Abraham himself, the bearer of the Covenant, was the biggest threat to the fulfillment of the covenant.
What Abraham did in this passage is all too familiar to us. We know that the bearer of the promise is the biggest threat to relationship with God because we too have acted faithlessly in ways that have threatened the Covenant.
Abraham threatened the Covenant through a failure to trust. He did not trust God to do what He had promised to do; instead, he was afraid Abimelech would kill him before the promise was fulfilled. So instead of walking in faith, Abraham deceived Abimelech, and because he did, God went to extreme lengths to protect the Covenant. Abraham’s harm impacted Abimelech and his entire household.
We need to admit that, like Abraham, we do not always walk in faith. We act faithlessly in ways that violate our Covenant relationship with God. We are faithless when we forget God, overlook God, disobey God, distrust God, and sin against God. This faithlessness takes different forms, and all of them violate the Covenant relationship God has made for us. Someone must pay the price for this violation. The Covenant was cut in blood, and now someone must pay in blood for the violation of that Covenant.
Thankfully, Jesus died Himself for the times when we do not die to self. Even when we are faithless, God is faithful to His Covenant promises. Grace is the engine that makes Covenant work. God is so committed to atonement that He intervenes. He intervened to protect the Covenant when Abraham lied to Abimelech, and He intervenes on our behalf as well. He does this through the sacrifice of Christ. The price that must be paid for our violations of Covenant was paid by the blood of Christ. This is why the idea of atonement is so tied in with forgiveness. Jesus sacrificed Himself to atone for the ways we have broken Covenant so that the Covenant relationship can continue.
We respond to this sacrifice, this grace, by walking in faith. Sin is a struggle of faith. We don’t trust that God will give us what we need, so we grasp onto possessions instead of being generous. We don’t trust that God will provide fulfilling relationships, so we exploit others to gain popularity or to find sexual gratification.
But it does not have to be this way. Instead of being faithless, we can walk by faith. We can have faith that God is going to do what He has promised. We can have faith that the way God fulfills His promise will be even greater and even better than we can imagine. We can have faith by obeying God and by embracing the responsibility that God calls us to take on.
And as we walk by faith, we will find ourselves living in faithfulness. We will be honoring our Covenant relationship with God not out of obligation but out of trust. We will live with grace because we live by grace.
And as we do we will find that the threats against our Covenant relationship with God will slowly disappear, because we are focused on dealing with the threats on the inside and not just the outside.