The Prayer of a True Friend (Gen 18:17-33)


Previous text: Friendship and Intimacy (Gen 18:1-16); Why God Choose Abraham (Gen 18:19).

Abraham is known in the Bible as God's friend (2 Chron 20:7; Isa 41:8; James 2:23). What is a friend? Tim Keller says, "A true friend always lets you in, but never lets you down." True friends share their hearts with you, hiding nothing, as God did with Abraham (Gen 18:17,20-21), and as Jesus did with his disciples (Jn 15:15). True friends are also faithfully committed to their friends, regardless. Prov 18:24 says, "A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother" (ESV).

We often think that Christians should be totally submissive to God. Of course this is true. But in this breathtaking passage (Gen 18:17-33), Abraham comes before God in prayer not as a "Yes man." Rather, as God's friend, he "bargains" and "pushes" God boldly, almost unashamedly, and yet with the utmost of humility, respect and awe (Gen 18:27,31).

What 6 things can we learn from Gen 18:17-33 about the prayer of a friend of God (often known as intercessory prayer)?

  1. Abraham's prayer is initiated by God.
  2. Abraham's prayer is persistent and specific.
  3. Abraham's prayer is bold.
  4. Abraham's prayer is humble.
  5. Abraham's prayer is deeply theological. (...longest part...)
  6. Abraham's prayer is for the city.
  7. Abraham's prayer is not answered in an all or nothing way.
I. Abraham's Prayer is Really Initiated by God

Abraham's prayer is regarded as an exemplary model prayer in the OT. Yet, this prayer did not really "originate" from him. Rather, it is God's thoughts and words that come to Abraham that leads Abraham into this passionate prayer (Gen 18:17,20-21). Truly, no one would be able to pray at all if we didn't have God's general promises in his Word that he is a prayer hearing God.

II. Abraham's Prayer is Extremely Persistent and Specific

He simply does not give up. He comes back again and again. He knows exactly what he wants and he is set on getting it. The Bible calls us to prevailing, continual and relentless prayer (1 Th 5:17; Luke 18:1). The gospel produces this kind of prayer. This kind of prayer is a good indication that the gospel is in our life. The gospel gives us a sense of our helplessness and weakness, so we pray fervently, knowing we cannot bring this out ourselves. Also, the gospel gives a confidence that God is for us and is on our side (Rom 8:31). Without that kind of hopefulness, we can't stick at relentless prayer.

III. Abraham's Prayer is Bold

His boldness and temerity takes the breath away (Gen 18:27,31-32). It is far more aggressive than most people would ever feel free to be before God. However...

IV. Abraham's Prayer is Passionately Humble

He is filled with fear and trembling, calling himself "dust and ashes" (Gen 18:31). He repeatedly recognizes that his own audacity and boldness is a great risk, and that God has every right to be angry with him (Gen 18:30-32). Yet, he has absolutely no sense of entitlement. It is remarkable that someone so aggressive would have so little sense that he deserved to be listened to. His assertiveness is not based on any belief in his own worthiness. He is either desperately concerned for those he is praying for, or very very confident in God's grace and mercy, or both.

V. Abraham's Prayer is Deeply Theological

Abraham is not simply crying out in prayer. He is also reasoning theologically, appealing to God on the basis of his truth. From the outset of his prayer, he argues from the "given" that God is absolutely just (Gen 18:25). He is not simply bringing a grocery list, but seeking biblical understanding and appealing to God on the basis of truth. He is asking, "This is true, so wouldn't this be true?" Not only are his emotions and heart obviously engaged, but so is his mind. The best prayers (both for changing our hearts and engaging God) are prayers based on and filled with Scripture.

What is the theology behind Abraham's prayer? He hits upon a remarkable theological logic. He stands before God, as it were, as a defense attorney. According to commentators, "Abraham approached him" (Gen 18:23) is a legal term meaning "to approach the bench." A lawyer can not simply plead with a Judge or jury, but must make a case on the basis of the law, the truth. Abraham is truly being an "advocate" for Sodom.

The logic of the case is best stated in Gen 18:24: "Will you...not spare the place for the sake of the...righteous...?" His argument to God is "You won't let the righteous perish for the sake of the wicked, but why not let the wicked live for the sake of the righteous?" (Gen 18:23-24) "Could there not be a situation where the righteousness of the few 'cover' the unrighteousness of the many?" Abraham's radical logic is "'Could not a small number of guiltless men be so important before God that his minority should cause a reprieve for the whole community?' The law of guilt transference has as its counter-point the law of substitution. What is amazing is how his courage increases during conversation as Yahweh's grace is willing...until he arrives at the astonishing fact that even a very small number of innocent are more important in God's sight than a majority of sinners...so predominant is God's will to save over his will to punish!" (G. Von Rad, Genesis, 208-209)

In Josh 7:24ff, 1 man's sin (Achan) caused his entire family to be punished. Abraham's logic is "Why couldn't this corporate responsibility work the other way as well? If 1 man's guilt can be transferred to the many, why can't the righteousness of the few cover the guilt of the many?" To Abraham's amazement--and ours--he finds that the idea of "imputed righteousness" is valid before God. He finds over and over again that yes, God will cover and spare the guilt of the many if there were only a few truly righteous persons among them. Abraham found that God's desire to save us is so "preponderant" over his desire to judge that someone else's righteousness could save us if we are in solidarity with him.

But this new concept seems to fail, as Abraham stops his appeals at 10 righteousness persons (Gen 18:32-33) and goes no farther. Why? 10 was the number traditionally considered the minimum for a synagogue. It was the minimum administrative number for constituting a believing community in a city. Abraham may be unwilling to go farther than 10 because of the importance of a believing community for a city, not just believing individuals.

But the real reason Sodom is not spared is not because the principle failed, but that there were no truly righteous persons in Sodom. Even Lot was very flawed. However, Abraham's prayer of intercession uncovered the principle of imputed righteousness, that God could save and cover guilty sinners with the righteousness of another (Rom 5:15,17-19).

VI. Abraham's Prayer is for the Unbelieving City

Abraham's prayer has been called "high priestly" because he comes before God on behalf of others, like Moses and Paul who interceded before God for their people (Exo 32:31-32, 33:12-17; Rom 9:3). But who is Abraham praying for exactly? Surely, he is praying for Lot and his family (Gen 19:29). But Abraham is also praying for the whole city of Sodom, with all his wicked inhabitants (Gen 13:13). "Will you...not spare the place...?" (Gen 18:24) Abraham is pleading for God's mercy for a city filled with injustice and evil.

VII. Abraham's Prayer is Not Answered in an All or Nothing Way

In a sense, God turns him down and does not "spare the place" (Gen 18:24). Yet God listened to and heard his prayer (Gen 19:29).

Only Jesus fulfills Abraham's prayer: Abraham prayed for people who might have killed him if they lived, but Jesus prayed for people who would kill him (Lk 23:34). Abraham risked his life before God to save the wicked city, but Jesus gave his life for the people (Heb 7:25-26). Jesus is the one truly righteous one whose righteousness saves us (2 Cor 5:21).

Only Jesus and the Gospel enables us to pray like Abraham: No one can pray better simply by trying harder. They can by believing and rejoicing in the one to whom Abraham is pointing.

It impossible to be as aggressive and humble in prayer as Abraham was. Outside of the gospel, we may feel like "dust and ashes" and that we don't deserve to go to God. Or we may feel that we are good enough to go to God, but we would never have Abraham's humility and passion for lost people.

Only if we know that in Christ we are both simultaneously lost sinners and yet legally righteous and accepted (simul justus et peccator), will we have the dynamite in the heart that will lead us to pray like Abraham and care for our city as he did.

Ref: The Friend of God, What are we put in the world to do? Leader's Guide, p 141-144. Tim Keller.

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