Prayer for the Nations
If I was to ask you this morning, “So, how was your week?”, how would you answer? Maybe you’d say “great.” Maybe you’d be a bit more honest and say “well, this part of my week was great, but this part was difficult.” Whatever your answer would be, I wonder how different your answer would be if I had asked you, “So, how was your prayer life this week?”
Gulp, right? Prayer is one of those things that’s hard to talk about because it’s so guilt-inducing. Most of us probably feel like we’re bad pray-ers. Some of that comes from the fact that prayer is hard and we’re weak and sinful people who often resist doing the things that we should.
But I sometimes wonder how much our struggle with prayer comes from not understanding prayer properly. I wonder how many of us sabotage our own prayer lives by sneaking in unbiblical assumptions about prayer and what it is and what it’s for. And that’s why I think this morning’s passage can be so helpful to us. Because it we listen in, today’s passage has so much to say to us about the nature and practice of prayer, and I really I think these truths have the power to liberate us and give us fresh joy in our practice of prayer. At least that’s what I’ve been praying the Lord will do for us.
There’s two big sections in the message today. The first, “Abraham Intercedes,” walks through the passage, and looks at how Abraham was invited to know God’s plans, and how he interceded for Sodom in response. Then, we’ll look at what we can learn from these patterns about our own lives of prayer.
I. ABRAHAM INTERCEDES
Let’s begin with the passage, and verse 16:. “Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way” (Genesis 18:16).
Remember that they’re by the Oaks of Mamre, near Hebron, which is up in the mountainous area of what would later be Judea. And they look down towards the Dead Sea towards Sodom. This is a signal that their attention is shifting away from Abraham’s family towards that city, and our attention is shifting as well, because for the rest of chapter 18 and all of chapter 19, Genesis is going to be focused on Sodom.
And like a good host, Abraham sets out with them to send them on their way. But as he does so, Abraham gets a lot more than he bargained for. Rather than just a send-off, Abraham gets drawn into the councils of God as he’s invited to know God’s plans.
1. Abraham is Invited to Know God’s Plans
a. God’s Question
And this process all begins with God’s question in verse 17, where we read that “The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’”
The word there for “said” can be used to refer to someone speaking to themselves, and that seems to be the idea here. We are being shown God’s internal thought process here as He considers whether or not to let Abraham in on what He’s about to do.
Why is God asking Himself this question? Why would he invite Abraham to know what He’s about to do? Verse 18 tells us—“seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” Abraham is not just a nobody. He’s the father of a great nation through whom the earth will be blessed.
And how did this come about? Verse 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 18:19).
The Hebrew here for “chosen” is more literally “known,” as the NJKV translates. Out of all the people on the earth, God has known Abraham in a special way, so that He might train his family after him to keep God’s way by doing righteousness and justice, so that God might bring to Abraham what He promises.
This is to important, because in an almost off-hand way, God’s words to Himself about Abraham give us an important window into how the Lord thought of Abraham and His plans for Him.
Like we saw last week, even though Abraham stumbled, even though he needed Jesus to die for His sins, the overall direction of his life was one of obedient faith. And the Lord’s comments here show that this wasn’t by accident. This was the plan. God’s plan was that Abraham might train his children and descendants in right behaviour and a right direction through a right relationship with the Lord.
Notice that it’s Abraham, as a dad, who is tasked with training his children in God’s ways? This pattern continues all throughout the Scriptures right up to “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). God wants dads to disciple their kids.
And that last phrase in verse 19 is really important, because it suggests that God’s promises to Abraham were dependant, in some measure, upon whether Abraham did that or not. Just look: God chose Abraham, that he might train his children and household after him to follow the lord, “so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (v. 19b).
This is really interesting, because it suggests, in some measure, that God’s promises to Abraham were dependant upon Abraham’s faithfulness in the covenant. That suggestion first came out in chapter 17, when God said to Abraham, “Walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you” (17:1-2).
And in chapter 22 we’re going to read “because you have done this… I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (22:17).
Before chapter 17, none of these promises to Abraham were conditional. They were all one-sided: God said “I will do this; I will do this.” And now we find out that God has these expectations for Abraham, and that His promises depend on Abraham’s faithfulness.
One way we can look at this is to say that even though God’s grace took the initiative, Abraham needed to respond to this covenant love in an appropriate way. Much like our response to God’s gospel love today. He has saved us by grace, and we respond by living to please Him.
And, like Abraham, our response to God’s grace is empowered by God’s grace to us. It’s not like He saves us and then sits back to see what happens. The very grace that calls us empowers us to respond in a way that pleases Him.
So that’s one angle. But from another angle, we can just appreciate the tension here. God’s promises are both one-sided, and they require a faithful covenant partner. And that tension is never fully resolved until the arrival of Christ, who as God fulfills all of God’s promises, including the promise of atonement, and who as a man steps into our place and fulfills the role of a faithful covenant partner and a perfectly pleasing son.
And all of this comes from God’s question, to Himself, in verses 17-19, about whether or not He should invite Abraham to know what He is about to do.
b. God’s Answer
God’s answer to that question is a hearty “Yes,” which we see in verse 20. Listen in as he tells Abraham what He’s about to do: “Then the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 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).
Notice that God doesn’t say that He’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. That’s just implied. That’s just assumed. It’s assumed throughout this passage that if a city is wicked and its sin is very grave, or serious, then God will do the just and righteous thing by destroying it in judgement.
But God doesn’t do that without a thorough investigation first. That’s what this language about “I will go down to see” suggests. It reminds us of chapter 12 when God went down to see what was happening at the Tower of Babel.
This language might seem strange to us because we know that God is present everywhere and sees and knows everything. He doesn’t need to “come down” to see anything. But these words, as well as what we’ll see in chapter 19, portray a God who is actively interested and invested and involved in the world He made.
He knew all about Sodom’s wickedness. He didn’t have to send two angels there to experience the abuse first-hand. But He did. Because that’s the kind of God that He is. He is gracious and compassionate and slow to anger. Sodom will not be destroyed before they’ve been given a thorough chance to be tested.
But that is where this is headed. The fact that it’s not spelled out here, but is just assumed, brings some uneasy tension into the story. It’s like we’ve got something looming on the horizon. But Abraham knows that something is up.
So let’s just review what we’ve seen here so far: Abraham is invited to know God’s plans. God asks whether He should tell Abraham what He’s about to do, and He answers His own question by telling Him.
Let’s make sure we don’t miss that Abraham didn’t ask for this or make himself worthy of this. God reveals His plans to Abraham because God had already chosen Abraham to be an instrument of blessing. This is all by God’s invitation and the pure mercy of God.
2. Abraham Intercedes In Response
Now we might ask why God tells Abraham what he is about to do. And the answer is seen in what comes next: Abraham intercedes for Sodom.
“Intercede” means asking God to do something on behalf of someone else. And before we actually look at his interaction with God, we want to make sure we see that this is what God was after. This is why God told Abraham what He was about to do. He was inviting Abraham to intercede for Sodom.
That shouldn’t surprise us. God doesn’t do things for no reason. If He told Abraham what He was going to do, He had a purpose. And that purpose is seen in verse 18, when God repeated that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.” God’s intention was for Abraham to bless the nations. And so God tells Abraham His plans for Sodom in order to invite Abraham to be a blessing for Sodom by interceding for them.
We also see this in verse 22: “So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord” (Genesis 18:22). The two angels, as two witnesses, head down to Sodom, but the third person here remains with Abraham. It’s like those moments when you’ve said goodbye, and some people leave, and that one person is staying around and you know that either they want to say something to you, or they’re giving you a chance to say something to them.
It’s interesting that there’s an alternate way of reading the Hebrew text here so that it actually says “the Lord remained standing before Abraham” which several of our English translations take note of. All of this suggests that what comes next, as Abraham intercedes for Sodom, is no accident. This is what God was after when He invited Abraham into His councils.
Abraham’s words themselves are fairly well known. He begins by drawing near and asking the Lord, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23). That’s his main concern. Is God going to be just? Is He going to destroy the righteous people along with the wicked?
Notice that Abraham has no problem with the idea of God judging the wicked. But it’s the question of whether God will include the righteous within that judgement that bothers him.
It’s not hard to imagine Abraham’s concern here for his nephew Lot, whom he knows lives there in Sodom. He doesn’t want to see Lot be destroyed. But it’s also interesting that Abraham never mentions Lot. And that’s lead some studiers of this passage to argue that Abraham is concerned for Sodom and God’s righteousness regardless of Lot.
The structure of his intercession is straightforward. He begins with 50 people. And once he’s received an assurance from the Lord that He won’t destroy Sodom if 50 righteous people live there, he moves down to forty-five. Would God destroy Sodom if forty-five righteous people are there? Then forty. Then thirty. Then twenty. Then ten. And when he’s hears that the Lord won’t destroy Sodom if ten righteous people are found there, he is apparently satisfied and ends his requests.
That’s the structure of his intercession, starting with 50 and moving down. But within each of these requests he makes, there’s a few key elements that keep resurfacing. And that’s what we want to look at in turn here, as you can see on our outline: three observations about Abraham’s intercession for Sodom.
a. He Knew Who God Was
We want to start by noting Abraham’s intercession is based on knowing who God was, and appealing to God’s character. Verse 25, in his first request, contains probably the most important words in this whole section: “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 18:25).
He knows that God is the judge of all the earth. And he expects him to do what is just. And he knows that treating righteous people as if they are wicked is not just. And so his whole request is based on this knowledge of God’s character, and this assumption that God is going to do what is right. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
b. He Knew His place
Now if verse 25 was all we had, we could get the idea that Abraham thinks he knows better than God, or is above God in some respect. But in the rest of his words, we see multiple reminders that Abraham knows his place. He knows who God is, and he knows who he is, and he knows that he is way below God.
We see this in verse 27: “Abraham answered and said, ‘Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” Compared to God, he’s nothing but dust—which is true, because that’s what he’s made from!
Verse 30: “Then he said, ‘Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak.’” Abraham knows that he’s on thin ice here in the sense that he’s just a man, talking to God. He doesn’t assume that he knows better or that God needs to listen to him.
The same thing comes out in verse 31: “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord.” And verse 32: “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once.”
Abraham knows his place. He’s way below God. He has no right to demand answers from God. His requests are shot through with deep humility.
c. He Persisted
And yet, as we see in our final observation here, Abraham persisted in his requests. That’s what’s so noteworthy about these verses. Starting at fifty, then forty-five, then down by tens to ten, Abraham slowly and persistently questions God about how His justice will work itself out for Sodom.
Abraham’s humility is matched by his boldness, a boldness that knows that he’s been chosen by God and invited into this conversation with Him. He gives God multiple opportunities to shut him down, but as long as the Lord is allowing him to speak, he humbly yet boldly continues to ask until he’s satisfied and can rest in knowing God will be just.
II. We Pray
Now chapter 33 ends by telling us that this conversation between Abraham and the Lord drew to a close: “And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place” (Genesis 18:33). We know that the story of Sodom isn’t over yet. Next week, chapter 19 will tell us how the two angels went to Sodom and were treated terribly, and Lot and his family were evacuated form the city, and Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with fire from heaven.
But today we stop and remember that before Sodom was destroyed, it was interceded for. And we marvel that God deliberately gave Abraham the opportunity to do this.
And from this, we can learn a great deal about prayer in our own lives and experiences today.
Now just wait, you might think. Is it really accurate to call what Abraham is doing in this passage prayer? Wasn’t this more of a face-to-face conversation? And one response is that yes, what Abraham does here does have some significant differences from our experience of prayer. Most of the time, when we speak about prayer, we are thinking about talking to God when He is not immediately present. Calling on His name when we can’t see His face.
And so yes, I want to acknowledge that what Abraham experiences here is not exactly “prayer.” And yet—and yet!—there is a lot of overlap between what Abraham does here face-to-face and what we do in prayer. And that’s what we’re going to see here as we move into the second part of our message and consider the lessons for prayer for us from Abraham’s intercession. Though the mode is different—we don’t get to have a face-to-face conversation with God—we’re going to see there’s a lot that’s the same.
1. We’ve Been Invited to Know God’s Plans
And that begins as we begin to consider that, like Abraham, we’ve been invited to know God’s plans.
Remember that’s where it all begin for Abraham. God took the initiative to share with him what He was doing. And prayer starts in the same place. God takes the initiative by revealing His plans to us.
Now you might be thinking, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. God has never told me any of his plans.” But that’s not what Jesus thinks. Jesus told His disciples in John 15:15, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
Just think of what Jesus has made known to us through His words and the words of His apostles. He’s made known to us His identity. He’s made known to us His central place as the fulfillment of Scripture, so we can finally see how all of the Old Testament points to and culminates in Christ. He’s told us His plans for the world in the future—that He would reign over a redeemed humanity on a new creation; that all things would be united in Him. He’s told us His plans for the present—that His Spirit-empowered church would be engaged in making disciples, learners of Jesus, from all nations.
Over and over the New Testament speaks about the “mystery” of Christ, which doesn’t mean something hard to understand, but it means something that wasn’t clear but is now clear. And it refers to the fact that God has revealed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the opener of history and the heir of all things.
And that’s huge. Abraham didn’t know that. David didn’t know that. He just glimpsed it, but it was a mystery to him. But it’s been revealed to us (1 Peter 1:12).
And so we need to appreciate that. We sometimes wish God would break down all of the details for us: what car to buy, what house to live in, what job to take.
Meanwhile, God has told us the big picture—where all history is headed and the what the whole goal of our lives is. And He’s also told us what’s going to happen to all of the people who don’t come to seek forgiveness in Jesus. And He’s told us to give our lives to the great cause of making disciples of Jesus.
So, like Abraham, we’ve been invited to know God’s plans. Sometimes, not at the level of detail we’d like. But if we zoom out, we’ve been told so much. God has not left us guessing at what He’s up to.
2. We’ve Been Invited to Pray in Response
And so, moving on to our second point, we can see that, like Abraham, we’ve been invited to pray in response. And this isn’t a brand-new idea. Throughout all of Scripture, most prayer is offered in response to God’s revealed plans. We pray in response to what God has told us.
Just think of the Lord’s prayer. Jesus gives us six requests to bring before God. Each of those six requests are things that God has told us, other places in Scripture, that He will do. His name will be hallowed. His kingdom is coming. His will will be done. He is going to provide for, forgive, and protect us. These are His plans that He’s told us about.
And in response, Jesus tells us to pray. To partner with God by asking Him to keep His promises and fulfill His plans.
a. Knowing Who God Is
And looking more specifically, we can see that as we pray, we pray in response to our knowledge of God. Just like Abraham, our prayers are based on our knowledge of the person and the character of God.
Think about the Lord’s prayer and where it begins. “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9b). There’s profound reflection there on the character of God as someone who knows and cares for us as a father, but also far above us as the one who dwells in heaven. Jesus repeats these truths when He prays in Luke 10:21 and begins with “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.”
Many of the prayers in the New Testament come from the pen of Paul, who just as often appeals to the person and the character of God. In Ephesians 1 he tells the Ephesians that he does not cease to give thanks for them, remembering them in his prayers, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may…” and then he goes on to share his requests (Ephesians 1:16–17).
Or think about how Paul’s instructions on prayer are grounded in the knowledge of God. 2 Thessalonians 3 says, “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:1–3).
Like Abraham, our knowledge of who God is should fuel and inform and direct our prayers.
b. We Know Our Place
Second, like Abraham, we also know our place. Just think again of the opening lines of the disciples prayer, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
If God is the Father, then that means we’re the children. If God is in heaven, that means we are on earth. If God’s name is being honoured as holy, that means ours isn’t.
And so we have this wonderful mix of humility and comfort. Humility as we remember, like Abraham, how low we are compared to God. Think of Paul’s humility in Ephesians 3:14 as he “bow”s his “knees before the Father,” taking a position of humility and lowness before a king.
But along with that is the comfort as we consider that, like children, we’ve been summoned to know Him. Listen to how humility and comfort come together in 1 Peter 5:6-7, where Peter tells us “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7).
One of the ways we humble ourselves is to give God our anxieties, through prayer, because we know that this mighty God cares for us.
We know who God is, and we know our place in humility and comfort.
c. We Persist in Prayer
And finally, like Abraham, we persist in prayer. Even if, on our own, we wouldn’t have the boldness to perish in prayer, Jesus has told us to persist in prayer. Jesus has told us to pray and to keep on praying.
“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily” (Luke 18:1–8).
Short version: keep praying. You’re not getting on God’s nerves.
Ephesians 6:18 tells us to be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:18).
Faithful prayer is ongoing prayer.
So let’s step back and wrap this all up. Prayer begins with God. Prayer is His idea. God has taken the initiative to reveal His will to us, inviting us to know His plans, and then He invites us to partner with Him by praying, persistently responding to what He’s told us with a deep awareness of who He is and who we are in light of who He is.
Seen this way, prayer is not a burden, but a deep privilege. The person in charge of the universe invites us to tap in to the very outworking of history as we know what He’s up to and to partner with Him in prayer. How incredible is that.
And getting started is as easy as opening your Bible. In the Bible, we discover God’s will and what God is up to in the world, allowing us to pray in response. In the Bible we discover who God is, allowing us to pray with a deep awareness of His person and character. In the Bible we discover who we are, enabling us to pray with deep humility and the comfort that our Father hears us. In the Bible we receive fresh fuel for persistent prayer, as each passage gives us the chance to ask “What is this passage telling me about God, and who He is, and what He’s up to in the world?”
Now there’s other ways I’d love to encourage you to pray today. I’d love to encourage you to sign up for our missions prayer updates, so that you can partner in the mission and bless the nations by praying for our missionaries. I’d love to encourage you to join us at our monthly prayer services, where we deliberately pray for the mission of God in the world. And by the way, nobody is forced to pray out loud if you come, so don’t be scared.
I’d love to encourage you to download the Operation World app on your phone, where you can pray for the nations of the earth, or the Joshua Project app, which gives a daily reminder to pray for an unreached people group. These are really practical ways we can be a part of God’s mission to bless the nations through Jesus, the offspring of Abraham who died to bring people from every nation to Himself.
But most importantly, want to encourage you to open your Bibles, and see what God has told us about what He’s doing and who He is and who we are, and to humbly, confidently and persistently pray in response.
In the quiet of these next moments, would you ask God to help you want this? And would you ask God to help you do this?