Abraham and the Three Men

A Bedouin Tent in Israel

Why do Christians believe that Jesus is God?  Is it because he healed people?  Other great men of Israel also healed people.  Is it because he raised Lazarus from the dead?  The bones of Elijah also raised a man from the dead.  Is it because he ascended into heaven?  Enoch and Elijah were also taken up by God into heaven.  What makes Jesus different than all these others? 

Jesus claimed not only to speak for God, but to be God. But why would anyone believe that he, a man, could be God? Because this was not the first time he had appeared in Israel! The mysterious “Son of God” had appeared over and over again as the Angel or Messenger of the Lord—in human form! All this was to prepare the way for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Jesus himself refers to these appearances in John 8:56 when he says: “Abraham your father was glad that he would see my day, and he saw it, and rejoiced.” In the next verse, the people said to him: “The Jews therefore said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am’” (John 8:57,58). What does this mean? What does it mean when he says, “I am”? This is a reference to God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush, that he is the Great “I Am” (Exo. 3:14). By saying this, Jesus is claiming to be God, and that he was God long before Abraham was born. But when did Abraham see Jesus?

Perhaps the most famous encounter is in Gen. 18. As it says there, in verse 1: “And the LORD appeared to him [to Abraham] at the oaks of Mamre. And he was sitting at the tent opening in the heat of the day” (Gen. 18:1). This story, it tells us, is about an appearance of God to Abraham. Some people are confused by this verse. They think it means that God first appeared to Abraham before the events that followed. But actually, this is a short introduction to the passage, as you can find very often in the book of Genesis.

For example, Gen 1:1 says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And then in verse 2, it says, “And the earth was formless and void...” Some interpret this to mean that God created the earth and then destroyed it. Is this true? No not at all. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is a short introduction or title for the section that follows. And there are many other examples like this in Genesis (Gen. 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, etc.). Gen. 18:1 just means, ‘Now we’re going to hear the story of when the LORD appeared to Abraham at Mamre.’

What does it mean that “he was sitting at the tent opening in the heat of the day” (Gen. 18:1b)? The “heat of the day” tells us it was summer time. In winter it’s cold all day long. But in the summer, the Bedouin, some of whom still live in tents today, open up the whole east side of their tents. This allows the air to circulate, while still blocking out the afternoon sun. So sitting just inside the opening of the tent was the most comfortable place to sit: you were in the shade of the tent, but close enough to the opening to feel any breeze that might blow by.

But in the next verse it says: “And he lifted his eyes and he looked, and behold, three men were standing opposite him; and he looked and he ran from the opening of the tent to meet them, and he bowed down to the ground” (Gen. 18:2). What is this? In the first verse it told us that this story is about God appearing to Abraham. But here we see three men appearing to Abraham. Who are these men?

First of all, did you notice when this meeting happened? Verse 1 told us it was in the “heat of the day.” When is the heat of the day? From about 12:00 noon to 3 pm. In the summer in Israel, it can be very hot at this time of day: even up to 40 degrees C. In the days before air conditioning, almost nobody would go out at this time of day. Many people rest, like Abraham was doing in the opening of his tent. It’s a kind of siesta time. Today, many shops and businesses are closed during this time. Then they open up again at about 4:00 in the afternoon or later, when people start moving around again.

But suddenly Abraham sees these three men standing there. Where did they come from? Nobody went out walking during this time of day unless there was an important reason. So what are these men doing? And why didn’t Abraham see them sooner? Usually you can see people coming from miles away in the desert. There are very few trees or bushes to block your view. And when people or camels walk in the desert, their feet kick up dust that you can see from a long way away. The desert can be a dangerous place. Several times Abraham had to fight people in the desert. So you know he was always alert to what was going on around his tent. So how did these men sneak up on him so suddenly?

But what’s even more puzzling is the way that Abraham rushed out to greet them. Even though it was very hot, he ran out to meet them, and then he prostrated himself on the ground before them. Now the hospitality of the desert is famous, even today. Visitors to a desert tent are shown great honor as guests. If you visit a desert tent, the owner will greet you with a welcome and give you some coffee to drink. He will even offer for you to stay the night. But Abraham does much more than the usual. Why does he act this way?

Gen. 18:3: “And he [Abraham] said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass by your servant.” This also unusual. If you remember, there were three men standing there. But Abraham only speaks to one of them. Why did he do that? Was there was something about one of the men that identified him as being different than the others?

Let’s look back at verse 2 again. In Hebrew, it says that Abraham “lifted his eyes and he looked (vi-yar in Hebrew),” he saw the men, and then “and he looked (again, vi-yar).” He looked twice, then he ran and bowed down before them. What is happening here? It’s what we call in English a double take: he looked, but then he looked again more intently. There was something unusual about these men that got his attention. That’s when he ran to greet them. What did he see? And why did he call only one of them “Lord”?

Gen. 18:4,5: Then he said, “Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and recline under the tree; and I will get a bit bread, and you will refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have passed by your servant.” And they said, “Yes, do as you have said.” Even today in the desert, people wear sandals, because of the heat. But when you wear sandals in the desert, your feet get dirty and sweaty and uncomfortable. So it’s a very nice gesture of hospitality to get water for your guests so they can wash their feet—or even to wash their feet for them. Do you remember when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples?

Gen. 18:6: “So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, knead three measures (seahs) of fine flour and make bread.’” What kind of bread was this? This is talking about the round, flat bread that is still popular in Israel today. Abraham told his guests that he would get a little bit of bread for them. But actually he tells Sarah to make 3 “seahs” worth. A seah was about seven liters. So that’s 21 liters of flour! That’s a lot of bread.

Gen. 18:7: “And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant, and he hurried to prepare it.” Usually a calf was reserved for special parties and celebrations. Do you remember the fattened calf in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:23)? The father killed it for a very special event: a big party when his son came home again. But to do this for some strangers that just happened to stop by? This was an amazingly generous act for Abraham to do for these visitors.

Gen. 18:8: “And he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he set them before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they ate.” Do you know what curds are? This is a cheese like cottage cheese. It’s very easy to make, and was a very popular treat in the desert: especially when you eat it with some fresh flat bread. Yum!

Did you notice, Abraham’s guests are reclining against the tree and eating, while he is standing there watching them eat. Is this how you treat your guests? If you have visitors, will you feed them while you stand there and watch? No, normally you will eat with them. And of course, this is also the custom in the desert. You will sit or recline with your visitors while they eat. So why is Abraham standing like this? This is what a servant would do in the presence of his master. Later in the time of the Tabernacle and the Temple, the priests were never allowed to sit down in the inner courts. Why? They were there serving God, so they always stood, as servants would stand when they serve their master. Abraham is clearly showing us that these men, or at least one of them, is a very important person. Otherwise, Abraham would be sitting and eating with them.

Gen. 18:9: “Then they said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ And he said, ‘There in the tent.’” Why is Sarah in the tent? This is the normal way of life in the desert. Have you ever seen what the desert wives wear? They wear a veil over their faces when they are in public. Why? Because in the desert, people are very isolated. There may be one tent here and another way over there, maybe even miles away. This can be dangerous. If someone comes to your tent and they like your wife, maybe they will kill you and take her away. So the wife is always hidden. If you go to visit an Arab friend at his house, you will never see his wife. She will be hidden in the kitchen, behind a screen, the whole time. This actually happened to me and my wife one time. We went to visit someone at his house in Bethlehem, but we never saw his wife. She was hidden in the kitchen the whole time.

Gen. 18:10: One of the men continued: “And he said, ‘I will surely return to you at this time next year; and look, Sarah your wife will have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, which was behind him.” Even though Sarah stayed hidden inside the tent, she was still listening very closely! And notice that it was only one of the men who speaks and gives this prophecy. And he does not say “we” will return, but “I” will return. Here again, we see that one of these three men was different than the rest.

Gen. 18:11,12: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; the way of women had ceased for Sarah (Sarah was past the age of childbearing). And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘Since I have become old, has there been any pleasure for me, my lord being old also?’” The idea of having children at her age seemed like a joke to Sarah. She was almost 90 years old! That kind of thing just wasn’t happening any more.

When she says “my lord” here (“my lord also being old”), who is she talking about? She’s talking about Abraham. At this time, Abraham was 100 years old. But why does she call her husband “lord”? This is what Peter is talking about in 1 Pet. 3:6, when he said, “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord…” This is the way, Peter says, that believing women should treat their husbands. Why? Well, do you want your husband to be a noble man, a knight in shining armor? If you treat him that way, you help him to be that way. But if you don’t treat him that way, for sure he won’t be that way. You know the saying, behind every great man is a great woman. If you want your man to be great, help him to be great.

Gen. 18:13: “And the LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Will I indeed bear a child, when I am old?’” Wait a minute—who’s talking here? The LORD. But a moment ago, Abraham and Sarah were having a conversation with one of the three men (vs. 10). But now it says that God (“the LORD”) is the one talking to them. Who is talking to them: the man or God?

Gen. 18:14: He continued, “Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Now this is also strange. Because this one that the Bible says is the LORD (in vs. 13), now says, “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” In other words, this one who is described as the LORD talks about the LORD as someone different than himself. He doesn’t say, “Is anything too difficult for me?” No, he says, “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” Well now, if he is the LORD, why does he speak of the LORD as if he were someone other than himself? It sounds as if the Bible were talking about two LORDs.

Gen. 18:15: “Sarah denied it however, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. And he said, ‘No, but you did laugh.’” This verse is very important. Why? First, it tells us that Sarah heard what the LORD said, too. If verses 13 and 14 were something that the LORD spoke spiritually to Abraham during his conversation with the men, Sarah would not have heard it. But Sarah did hear it, and she responded to it. But this was not the voice of God speaking audibly from heaven! If so, the visitors would also have heard it, and been shocked and amazed. But that’s not what happened. Everything continues as if it was simply a conversation between the men and Abraham and Sarah. But one of these men speaking to them is identified as God and speaks as God!

The other important thing is Sarah’s reaction: she was afraid! Why was she afraid? Would you be afraid if someone told you you’re going to have a child? No, of course not. Either you’d be happy at the thought of having a child, or maybe you wouldn’t believe him, but you wouldn’t be afraid. So why was Sarah afraid? Because the man knew her thoughts. She hadn’t laughed out loud. In verse 12, it says that she “laughed to herself.” Let’s just say this means that she laughed quietly. If you laughed quietly and someone heard you, would you be afraid? No. Maybe you’d be embarrassed. But you wouldn’t be afraid. So why was she afraid? Because she knew that no one could have heard her reaction. She was totally silent. And he couldn’t have seen her, because she was hidden inside the tent and his back was toward her (vs. 10). Yet he knew the thoughts of her heart. That’s why Sarah was afraid.

Gen. 18:16: “Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off.” The visit is over, and the men leave to continue their journey. Where are they going? To Sodom.

From near where Abraham’s tent was at Mamre, high up in the hill country, there is a beautiful view down toward the Dead Sea and Sodom, just as it says in this verse. You can see out across the Dead Sea. Sodom was on the other side.

Gen. 18:17: “And the LORD said, ‘Will I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’” Here again, one of the men is called “the LORD.” And he decides to tell Abraham of his plan to destroy Sodom.

Gen. 18:20,21: “And the LORD said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and I will see if they have done entirely according to its outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.” This is why the three men were walking toward Sodom: because God was going there to judge the city.

Gen. 18:22: “Then the men turned away from there and walked toward Sodom, and Abraham was still standing before the LORD.” Now what does this mean? Two of the men left, but Abraham was still standing there in front of the third man, who was the LORD. How do we know that only two men turned away? Let’s jump down to Gen. 19:1: “And two of the messengers came to Sodom…” How many were going to Sodom? Three men. But here only two arrive, and are called messengers, or as this word can sometimes be translated, angels. What happened to the third one? He stayed behind, talking to Abraham. So here we have the mystery solved for us. One of the three men was God, the other two were angels.

Why did God tell Abraham that he was going to destroy Sodom? Maybe because Abraham’s nephew Lot was living there in Sodom. So how did Abraham react to this news? “And Abraham drew near and he said, ‘Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’” (Gen. 18:23). Abraham was concerned about Lot and his family.

So Abraham begins to bargain with the Lord: “What if there are fifty righteous within the city; will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it?” (Gen. 18:24). Surely you wouldn't kill the righteous along with the wicked! Surely you would spare the city for fifty righteous people! “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25).

So God says, okay. If there are fifty, I’ll spare it. “So the LORD said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account’” (Gen. 18:26). But as a matter of fact, Abraham's not sure there are fifty righteous there.

So then he says, what about forty-five righteous people? If there are forty-five will you destroy it? God says, okay, I won’t destroy it for forty-five (Gen. 18:27,28). But Abraham’s still not sure about that many. After all, he knows Sodom. So he says, what about forty? (Gen. 18:29). Then thirty (Gen. 18:30). Then twenty (Gen. 18:31). Then ten (Gen. 18:32). What is Abraham doing? This is an example of Middle Eastern bargaining, like in the markets (the shuks) of the Middle East today. Abraham bargained God all the way down to ten righteous people. But after agreeing to ten, God walked on, the interview was over; and the situation didn't look good for Sodom (Gen. 18:33).

But if this one who stayed talking with Abraham was God, why did he refer to “the LORD” as someone different than himself (in 18:14)? Who is this man who is God, but speaks of God as different than himself? This is exactly the meaning of the Son of God: God with us, yet different than the Father God in heaven. This is also how Jesus appears in the New Testament. Jesus is a man that is also God, and who speaks of God the Father as different than himself.

One of the most famous verses to help us understand this appears in the next chapter, chapter 19, when God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. It says: “And the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD from the heavens” (Gen. 19:24). Who are these two Lords: one in the heavens above, the other destroying Sodom and Gomorrah on the earth? One is the Lord, the man, who was speaking with Abraham just a few verses earlier. This is the Son of God, whom we know as Jesus. The other is the Father God in heaven. God here, and God there. This is the foundation of the Christian teaching of the Trinity.

This is not the only place the Son of God appears in the Old Testament. He appears many, many times. God spent many, many years preparing the world for Jesus, so that when he came, the disciples would recognize him, and would understand his ministry and understand who he was. This is one of the most important reasons that Christians believe that Jesus is God, because he has announced himself to us as God through all of human history. Why did he do this? So that when he took on flesh as Jesus, we could recognize him as the Son of the living God.

Do you know that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the foundation of the Christian faith: that Jesus is Lord, that he is God! And if he is God, that means that we need to obey what he says. Because as he has shown us over and over again, he is a good and a merciful God. Everything he does, he does for our good and for our benefit: even the things that don’t look very good in our lives—even tragedies that sometimes take place. God uses them in the end to create a great blessing for us and for other people.

Maybe you have something in your life right now that’s causing you trouble. Maybe it’s in the area of relationships, maybe it’s in the area of business, maybe it’s in the area of health. Maybe it’s something else. God knows. He hears even the silent whispers of the human heart, just like he heard Sarah. Maybe we cannot see the LORD standing in front of us this morning, like Abraham did. But he’s still here. He’s here by his Holy Spirit. And he’s here to meet with you and talk with you like he did to Abraham. When God spoke to Abraham and to Sarah, what did he say? He made them a promise. Did you know that God wants to give you a promise today, too. The Bible is full of his beautiful promises. And so many of them, the best of them, are promises to you. God loves you, and he wants to spend eternity with you. Do you love him, too?

Let’s pray… Lord, open our hearts, so that we can experience the presence of your Holy Spirit here today with us. We have heard your Word. Now it’s up to us to receive your Word and your truth into our hearts. Jesus is no stranger to us. We see him throughout the Bible. But will we be as Abraham and run to meet him, and bow at his feet? Will we rush quickly to serve him with the best of what we have? Will we receive his promises to us: promises of good and blessing that the world can never take away from us? Yes, we might laugh at first, we might be amazed at how wonderful your promises are. But your promises are true and faithful. And you will do everything that you have promised for your people.

Right now, just allow the Holy Spirit to minister to you, no matter what the problems are that you are facing. Allow the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of your heart, so that you can see Jesus standing here, waiting to talk to you and to minister to you. Receive his love into your heart this morning. May his blessing be upon you, in Jesus name.