Favoring Worldly Standards Over God’s Word (Genesis 16:1-6)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles once again to the book of Genesis. Our passage for today’s sermon will be Genesis 16:1-6. If you do not have a Bible with you this morning, or if you’d like to follow along in the translation I will be preaching from, please make use of one of the pew Bibles where you’ll find this passage located on page 11.

In our recent sermons from the book of Genesis, we have continued to talk about this man named Abram and how he was finding it more and more difficult to believe God’s promises—God’s promise for numerous offspring and his promise for a land in which they could dwell. But so far in this discussion, very little has been said about Abram’s wife, Sarai. Yes, we have talked about Abram’s struggles, and we know that part of his struggles were related to the fact that Sarai had not been able to conceive a child—a problem which cast considerable doubt on God’s promise about numerous offspring. But, so far, there has been no real mention about how she was holding up during these passing years where it didn’t seem like God’s promises were any closer to coming true. So far, the focus has been pretty much on Abram as the husband, and very little has been said about Sarai, his wife.

Well, in today’s passage, that is going to change. Yes, this morning, we are going to get a glimpse at Sarai’s perspective on things. How was she feeling about God’s promises seeing that she and her husband had been in Canaan for about ten years now without any real progress being made with regard to offspring or the possession of this so-called “Promised Land?” How was she feeling as she eased closer and closer to a point where it would become truly impossible for someone her age to conceive and give birth to a child? And, was she, like Abram, coming up with her own plan to produce an heir for their family?

Well, in today’s passage, we are going to find an answer to each of these questions. And, by answering these questions, we are going to learn a great deal about the dangers of favoring worldly standards over God’s Word. Yes, we are going to see how easy it is to become so accustomed to and comfortable with the so-called “normal, everyday way of doing things,” that we forget that God has set us apart to live and act differently than those around us—even when it makes life more difficult and even when it makes us seem odd to everyone else.

Worldly Standards Are Not Always Bad

Now, before I go any further, there are some things that need to be said. First of all, it needs to be said that not all of the world’s standards are in direct opposition to God’s Word. Yes, there is often a great deal of overlap in the way Christians and the unbelieving world approach a variety of different things. For example, honesty and integrity are things that are spoken of in a variety of circles. No one really respects a liar and a cheat. And, most people believe that parents should love and protect their children, and many unbelieving parents in this world have done as good if not better in some cases than Christians parents have when it comes to loving and caring for their children. So, we should not act like Christians are the only people in this world capable of living in a manner that most people would respect and appreciate. That is not true at all. In fact, I know many unbelievers who I greatly admire for the ways they conduct themselves in business and with their families.

So, as Christians, we can’t simply say, “Well, if that is the way the unbelieving world does things, then we have to find another way of doing it.” The truth is, believers and unbelievers alike are people who have been created in God’s image, and it makes sense, therefore, that not everything unbelievers do is going to be something that is in contradiction to God’s way of doing things. Again, we can’t reject the way the world views things and approaches things just because a great many people in the world are not following Jesus. We have to be more discerning than that.

But We Will Approach Things Differently

But, as Christians, we DO have to be discerning. And we do have to consider whether or not the popular approach to doing things in this world is in line with the biblical approach to doing things in this world. And we have to be willing to reject the popular approach whenever that approach contradicts what God’s Word teaches us about the way we ought to conduct ourselves as God’s people. Remember, God intends for us to be set apart and different from the world. And being set apart and different from the world (or being holy) means that we will oftentimes approach the problems we face in life in ways that are different than how our friends and neighbors approach them. It means that we will often reject popular solutions to life’s problems in favor of biblical solutions to life problems. And yes, that means people will often think we are strange and even archaic in our thinking. But, as followers of Jesus, we have to trust that God’s ways of doing things are the best ways of doing things—no matter if everyone else around us thinks they have a better, more modern, and more reasonable solution or approach to life.

Now, one of the areas where we are going to frequently find ourselves living and acting in ways that are different than everyone around us is within our families. While, as I said earlier, there is often a great deal of overlap between the way Christians approach things and the way the unbelieving world approaches things, the biblical view of the family often does stand in contrast to a more worldly view of the family. And, while we might think that this is something new for those of us living in the modern world, as we are going to see in our passage for today, that is not really the case. The biblical model for the family is something that has always been a bit different from the world’s model.

So if you haven’t already, go ahead and turn with me in your Bibles to Genesis 16 and follow along as I read verses 1-6.

1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. 4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her. (Genesis 16:1–6 ESV)

Just Normal Life

Now, earlier, I pointed out that not all of the world’s standards are in direct opposition to God’s Word. There is, indeed, often a great deal of overlap in the way that the Bible tells us we ought to live our lives and the way many of our unbelieving friends and neighbors believe they ought to live theirs. But, again, that is not always true—the world does indeed have it is own way of doing things much of the time. And so, I also need to point out that more often than should be the case, we as believers frequently end up getting caught up with the world’s normal and acceptable ways of doing things without even noticing or thinking about whether or not it is a biblical or acceptable way for God’s people to go about life. We can do this almost innocently even. When everyone else around us is doing things a certain way, even our friends and neighbors who we consider to be “good” people, it can be difficult to notice that the way they are going about this area of their life is not ideal for us as God’s people. It is not ideal for us who have committed ourselves to obeying God’s Word and trusting in his promises.

And that is exactly what is taking place in this passage for today. Let me explain to you what is going on here. Let’s forget for a minute that we are talking about Abram, the father or our faith, and Sarai, his wife. Let’s just pretend that this is a run of the mill couple living in this part of the world at this particular time in history.

So, you have this man and woman, they have been married for many years and have been struggling to have children for most of them. And, at this particular time in history, children were very important, and the absence of children in a family was seen as a disgrace. Yes, it was important for a variety of practical reasons that families during this time period would have children, but it was also important for the reputation of the family—and particularly for the wife whose whole identity was often wrapped up in her ability to produce children and build up a family for her husband.

So, you have this man and this woman who are not able to have children. And the blame, of course, falls on the wife and she is tired of being ashamed, and she genuinely wants to give her husband a child—particularly a son. And, though we are trying to forget we are talking about Abram and Sarai here, can you imagine the pressure that would have been on her to produce a child so that God’s promise to her husband would be fulfilled?

Well, it’s not like this woman could run down to a fertility doctor to seek help. There was no such thing in her neck of the woods. But, I am sure there were some old wives tales about what a woman in this situation could do to increase her chances of conceiving, and I am sure that in this case, she had paid attention to those things and given them a shot many times. But, having exhausted her resources, there was still one thing left that she could do—and it was something very common in this part of the world at this particular time.1 You see, if a woman was wealthy enough at this time in history to have a personal servant who was very close to her, she could choose to have that servant serve as a surrogate mother for her child. You see, because the servant was hers, the child would be hers as well. And the birth of this child would take away the shame she felt as a barren wife who was incapable of providing an heir for her husband. This was indeed a very normal and acceptable way of doing things in Abram and Sarai’s day. It was not something anyone looked down upon or had any reservations about.

But, that is not what’s important for us as God’s people. What’s important for us as God’s people is whether or not it was a biblical solution to this problem they were facing? Was it biblical for Abram to enter into this type of relationship with another woman? Was it something that was in line with God’s plan and God’s Word? That is the question. Because, as we have already said, just because something is acceptable in our culture, doesn’t mean that it is acceptable to God—no matter how many so-called “good” people we know and respect are doing it, and no matter how much we have become comfortable with it ourselves.

God’s Word To Abram Was God’s Word To Sarai

So, let’s remind ourselves about what God has said to Abram, and then let me argue that God’s Word to Abram was also God’s Word to Sarai.

As we have seen over the past several weeks, God had made two main promises to Abram. He had promised him that he would be the father of a great nation of people—a nation of people that would eventually come to be known as the nation of Israel. And he had also promised to give this nation of people a place to dwell. And, we have seen how God led Abram away from his home to the land of Canaan and how he has revealed to Abram that this particular land would be the land that he would eventually give to Abram and his descendants.

Now, it would be easy to say, “But, these were promises to Abram, not promises to Sarai. And there was no guarantee from God to Sarai, that she would ever have a child and would ever be a part of these promises.” That certainly seems to be what Sarai was beginning to think. But, the truth is, based upon what the Bible tells us about the marriage relationship, God’s promises to Abram were necessarily promises to Sarai as well.

If you look back with me at Genesis 2, I want you to notice what God says to the first husband and first wife in the twenty-fourth verse. In this verse, we can begin to see why God’s promises to Abram about offspring were in a very real sense promises to Sarai as well. In Genesis 2:24, God says that when a man and woman come together in marriage, they actually become one flesh. And this is important for two reasons. It is important because when a husband and wife are joined together in a union this close, a promise made to one is pretty close to a promise made to the other. If someone promises to give me a million dollars, that is not just a promise to make me rich, it is also a promise to make Lara rich as well—and vice versa. Because, when a man and woman are joined together in marriage, what happens to one in many ways happens to the other. And this is certainly true of God’s promises of blessing—particularly when the promise is regarding something God limits to the confines of the marriage relationship, something like procreation for instance. And that is actually the second reason that what God says about marriage in Genesis 2:24 is important for showing that his promises to Abram were promises to Sarai as well. If a man and woman are joined together in a one-flesh union, and that one-flesh union is the God-approved place where children are to be conceived and born, God could not have been making this promise to Abram without also having Sarai in mind.

And so, as difficult as it was, what Sarai needed to do here was trust God’s promises to Abram, and trust that God’s design for marriage—being between one man and one woman—precluded any relationship between Abram and Sarai’s servant, Hagar, that would or could result in children for this family.

There are a lot of people who look at the Old Testament and assume that because so many men had multiple wives in the Old Testament that God was fine with that sort of thing back then. But, it is important to remember that just because the Bible records factual details about the way people were living doesn’t mean that God approved of the way they were living. In fact, what we have going on in those situations is exactly what we are talking about today. We are talking about situations where God’s people see what others are doing and assume that it is okay for them as well. They saw other people who had multiple wives, and saw that some of these people were pretty good people, and it was so common that they just assumed it was okay for them too, forgetting what God said about marriage being a one-flesh union between one man and one woman. But, when you look closely at the Bible, what you will see is how it usually paints polygamy in a negative light by highlighting the problems that normally resulted from those relationships. The greatest of which is the downfall of the whole nation of Israel, which was due in great part to Solomon being led away from the faith of his father, David, by his many pagan wives.

But, getting back to our story for today, let me reiterate that because Abram and Sarai had entered into a marriage relationship that the Bible defines as a one-flesh union, God’s promises to Abram about offspring were indirectly promises to Sarai as well. And this is because the only God-approved way for Abram to produce children was with his wife, Sarai.

Unfortunately, though, just as Abram had done before, Sarai found herself struggling to believe God’s promises—she found herself struggling to believe that God was going to give her and Abram a son. And then, like Abram, who concocted a plan for an heir which involved one of his servants, Sarai came up with her own plan for an heir that involved one of her servants. But, remember, it was not something she pulled out of thin air, it was something she had seen before in the culture in which she lived, and decided that if it had worked out fine for others, it would work for her and Abram as well. This was her plan to take away the shame. And she might not have even been intentionally or blatantly rejecting God’s plan to give Abram a son in the way God always intended for children to be born—in a marriage relationship between one husband and one wife. But she might have just become so accustomed to what she had seen done time and time again in the culture in which she lived, that she came to believe that there was nothing wrong with this way of doing things. Maybe without even knowing it, she had become comfortable with an unbiblical solution to her problem because of her overexposure to it.

Application

And so, this brings me to the point where I’d like to make some modern-day application for us.

Just Because Society Approves Of Something Doesn’t Mean God Does

The first thing I want to make sure that I drive home this morning is that just because society overwhelming approves of something and sees it as good and appropriate doesn’t mean that God sees it that way. This is really the main point of the sermon. It is so easy for us to get used to certain ways of doing things in society, and it is so easy for us to get used to seeing “good” people doing things in that way, that we might, without even recognizing we are doing it, forget what God’s Word has to say about the issue and come to see something God disapproves of as something good and normal. Now, it would be easy for me to get into specific examples here, but when you get specific it can sometimes take away the opportunity for a broader application, so I’m going to avoid specifics today. But, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of things that have become normal in modern society which God’s Word says we should avoid. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of things that Christians have slowly become comfortable with because everyone is doing it.

But, we have to remember that sin is not always something that is disapproved of by our culture. In fact, sometimes our culture is going to celebrate sin (Roman 1:32), and sometimes they are going to do it to the point where many Christians will be blinded by our culture’s overwhelming approval of it and forget what God’s Word says on that topic altogether. And the next thing you know, you have Christians who are doing the same sinful things as their unbelieving friends and neighbors—and sometimes doing it without thinking there is anything wrong with it. So we must be careful that we do not let society’s broad acceptance and approval of something blind us to what God’s Word really says about it.

We Must Resist Trying To Obtain Something God Has Prevented Us From Having

The second point of application I’d like to make from this passage is that we must resist trying to obtain something God has clearly prevented us from having. What do I mean by this? Well, look back up with me at verse 2 from our passage for today. Notice what Sarai says to Abram in that verse. She says, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children.” So, it is God who has prevented Sarai from having children up to this point, and she knows it. And yet, she tries to do an end around on God and get what he was keeping from her. Friend, never, ever try to do that. If God is keeping something from you, and you know it, trust that he is doing so for a reason and don’t try to come up with your own plan to get what he is preventing you from obtaining. That is not going to work out well for you—I promise. It is never good for us to have something that God doesn’t want us to have. That will never work out well.

Going Against God’s Plan Always Has Unintended Consequences

And one of the reasons it is not going to work out well for you is because going against God’s plan always has unintended consequences. That is my third point of application from this passage. You see, human solutions to problems that only God can solve, only create more problems. Though this is getting a bit further in the story than where we got today, Bryan Chapell is right when he points out that “Sarai’s proposal that Abram have a child with Hagar was in accordance with custom, but the rivalry that ensues after Hagar’s pregnancy with Ishmael reveals the effects of any deviation from God’s plan.”2

Did you notice what happened between Sarai and her servant when Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child? That’s right; it created a bunch of strife and tension between the two ladies who presumably got along well before. We are going to get into this in detail next week, but Hagar began to treat Sarai differently, and Sarai ended up treating Hagar so badly, that Hagar fled from Abram and Sarai taking the baby that Sarai had wanted so badly with her. And even when Hagar comes back, Sarai wants nothing to do with the baby that she originally intended to raise as her own.

Again, the point is, whenever we go against God’s plan, there is always going to be unintended consequences. So, we must learn to trust God’s plan and stop trying to solve problems that God does not intend for us to solve. We must stop trying to take matters into our own hands when we decide we don’t like the way things are going in God’s hands. Instead, we have to learn to trust in God, and that doesn’t mean that we try to help him out so that things will go the way we want them to go. It means trusting in God no matter how things are going from our perspective. We must remember, that God is working all things together for our good.

Husbands Must Lead Their Families In Spiritual Matters

Now, the final point of application that I want to make today is really only directed at all the husbands in the room—but God might use it in other ways as well. The final point of application that I’d like to close with today is that we husbands must do a better job leading our families in spiritual matters. You can’t help but notice in this passage the similarities between what is taking place here with Sarai coming to Abram and offering him something that is not only going to be sinful but is also going to cause a lot of problems for them—you can’t help but notice the similarities between what is going on here and what took place in Genesis 3 when Eve approached Adam with a suggestion about eating the forbidden fruit. There is very similar language here, and it is not by accident. We are supposed to make the connection.

But, we are also supposed to recognize that just as in the case with Adam and Eve, Abram should have stepped up and protected his wife and his marriage from the poor decision she was making, and he should have refused to go along with Sarai’s plan. And did you notice that after everything goes down, Sarai pretty much blames Abram for it anyway? And while she was certainly guilty for what she had done, there is a real sense where Abram, as the spiritual leader of his family, was responsible for what she had done. He was certainly responsible for what it had done to their family—and to Hagar even. He, as the husband, was the spiritual leader of his household, and he was the one whom God had given the responsibility to protect and lead in spiritual areas. And in this instance, he was a total and absolute failure.

Again, what Abram did was akin to what Adam did—he went along with his wife’s suggestion even though he knew it was against God’s will. And in doing so, he failed his wife as the spiritual leader of his family. As Adam had done, Abram has now done. And unfortunately, many of us have not learned from their mistakes, and we do not take seriously the responsibility we have as husbands to serve our wives and our children as the spiritual leader in our homes. And when don’t do that, our families are ripe for the picking by Satan.

Conclusion

Well, we are going to go into a lot more detail with this story next week, but we will stop here for today. For now, let me close by reminding you that our measuring stick in this world is not what society as a whole has decided about something, but what God’s Word has to say about it. That’s right, in this case, there is no safety in numbers, but only in the inerrant Word of God that never changes and never leads us astray. Please understand that while going with God’s Word when it contradicts popular opinion is never easy, that it is also not going to be easy to find yourself standing before God one day saying, “Yeah, but everyone else was doing it.”

So, let us all be careful that we are not favoring worldly standards over God’s standards. Let’s make sure we are listening to God’s Word, trusting in God’s Word, and obeying God’s Word no matter if we are the only ones. While not the easiest path in life, I promise you that it will be the safest in the end because it is the only path that will keep us out of the weeds and within God’s will for his people. As our Scripture reading from earlier this morning said, “For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalms 1:6 ESV).

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  1. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 444-445; Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, vol. 2 of Word Biblical Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 7. ↩︎
  2. Bryan Chapell, eds. Gospel Transformation Study Bible Notes. Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), paragraph 439. ↩︎