When we last saw Abraham, it was late in the afternoon on the last day before Judgement Day. The countdown has begun, there are less than 14 hours left on the clock, and Moses — the writer — has carefully set the scene for us: for the last twenty plus years, Abraham has been living up on a mountain, in a tent, in a grove of ancient trees, while his nephew Lot has been living down on a very rich plain, in a house, in a very wealthy city. Abraham has just entered into a covenant with God, so he is safe from whatever is about to happen. But what about Lot? Two times, now, Lot has rejected the opportunity to live in Abraham’s household, under the protection of Abraham’s God. Is he going to get another chance to repent and return?
That is the question Moses wants his readers to be asking.
And this whole episode is part of a larger section where Moses is wanting to show his people, God’s people, how we are supposed to live our daily lives under the looming shadow of Judgement Day.
But so far Abraham has no idea that the storm clouds of judgement are looming over the land. For him, this day began like any other day. Three visitors showed up around noon, which gave him the chance to show hospitality. So he invited them to join him for a snack, which turned into a major feast, which then became very interesting when one of the visitors spoke up and promised that, by this time next year, Sarah would have a son. And by that point Abraham must have realized that he was actually eating with his God, the Creator and Lord of the universe.
Still, as the feast comes to an end here, Abraham does not yet know why God has come to visit him in this human form.
He is about to find out:
 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way.  Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”
Now: this is another example of God talking to himself, reasoning within himself…which is significant. So far in Genesis, Moses has only given us insight into God’s thought processes at crucial turning points in history: at times of creation and at times of judgement.
And sure enough, it turns out that God is thinking about creation at this point:  “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.  For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
When God led Noah and his family out of the ark onto the newly cleansed earth, he was re-creating mankind, in a way. He was giving humanity a fresh start. And the fact that this “fresh start” went bad so quickly was meant to show us that we need more than just a new environment, we need new hearts. We need to be re-created from the inside-out.
That is the re-creation God is talking about here. God has designed Abraham’s household to be like a seed of holiness planted in the midst of all the other nations of the world. And the idea is that, as Abraham’s household learns to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, and as his household grows into a great and powerful nation that keeps the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just — well then, holiness will spread into the surrounding nations and lead them back into proper worship.
But it all begins with Abraham: Abraham needs to direct his children and his household. He needs to train them in what is right and just. And in order for Abraham to train his family in what is right and just, Abraham himself needs to be trained further in what is right and just.
And so the Lord is discussing all this within himself, within his heavenly court. He is saying, “Abraham needs to learn more, so that he can train his household properly for the work I am calling them to do.”
So, having made his decision to include Abraham in the process, in verse 20 the Lord speaks out loud, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
So it turns out that God is not just thinking about creation, he is also thinking about judgement. Because apparently a couple of nearby cities have become so corrupt, and the outcry against them has become so loud, that it has actually reached God’s throne room in heaven and caught his attention.
Now, we have to understand that this is figurative language. God already knows every detail of what is happening in these cities. But this idea of an “outcry” has a particular meaning in Genesis, it has been used before. Right after Cain murdered his brother Abel, God told Cain that Abel’s blood “cries out to me from the ground”. So this “outcry” is the cry of the innocent when they experience bullying and injustice.
So God is not saying that he has just heard about what these cities are doing, he is saying that the mess they are making is getting so bad that it needs to be stopped. No doubt Sodom and Gomorrah started as little villages, and their small size limited their corruption and limited how much damage they could do. But now they have become so powerful that they are starting to victimize and murder and enslave their neighbors.
And so now God really needs to do something about it.
And what is God going to do? He is going to conduct an investigation.
And again, this shows us just how slowly and carefully God approaches judgement. Just like he did with Adam and Eve in the garden, just like he did before the flood, just like he did with the tower of Babel, God already knows what is going on, but he is still going to “go down“ and investigate and give these cities a chance to explain their half of the story.
The God of Abraham does not rush to judgement. He offers even the worst offenders a chance to confess their sins and repent.
 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.  Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”
And so now Abraham knows what we have known for a while now: Judgement Day has arrived.
Now, technically, the Lord did not say he was going to destroy these cities, he said he was going to go down and see how. But Abraham lives right next door. He has definitely heard the outcry of the innocent. In fact, back in Chapter 14 he had personal contact with the King of Sodom, who was rude and nasty and tried to take credit for God’s victory over the Eastern Kings. So Abraham knows what God is going to find when he visits.
So, Moses tells us, Abraham remained standing before the Lord, and he approached God. And this “standing before” and this “approach” are all courtroom words. Moses is describing Abraham as we would describe a lawyer who stands before the court and approaches the judge to argue a case. Which is exactly what Abraham does next:
 “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?  Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Now, it is obvious that Abraham is concerned about his nephew, Lot, who is living in the city of Sodom. He wants to make sure God’s judgement does not fall on Lot.
But it is interesting to notice that Abraham does not ask God to just save Lot. He asks God to save the whole city. Which is weird, right? Because would it not be easier for Abraham to say, “Lord, if you find fifty righteous people there, why don’t you just scoop them up and carry them away to safety before you destroy the city?”
But instead, Abraham is acting as a lawyer for the city of Sodom, not just for his nephew Lot. Abraham is asking for mercy: not just for his immediate relative, but even for the rest of the people.
Now: why? Why does Abraham care about the rest of the city?
Well, some years ago — if you recall — he spent some time with the citizens of Sodom. He went to war to rescue them — along with his nephew Lot — and he probably spend several days or even weeks travelling with them, bringing them home from their captivity. So he knows some of these people personally, and it is clear he feels compassion for them.
But — and this is also interesting — Abraham does not plead “Not Guilty”. The people are corrupt, the city deserves judgement, and Abraham admits that. So he does not base his defense on a “Not Guilty” plea. Instead, Abraham’s defense is based on the idea that, if there are 50 righteous people in the city, then this should be a reason for God to delay judgement.
Which — again — is weird. Why should the presence of 50 righteous people in a city of many thousands be a reason for God to delay judgement?
We will find our answer to that as we go along:
 The Lord said, “If — during the course of my investigation — I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes,  what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
So, even if there are only 10 righteous people in the city, this would be enough reason for God to delay judgement on all the other thousands of corrupt and abusive people.
And on the one hand we could say, “Wow, that is an amazing expression of mercy.”
But on the other hand, we could say, “Mmmmm…that almost sounds like the opposite of mercy!” Because, if these cities have become so corrupt and abusive that the surrounding nations have begun to cry out because they are being bullied and victimized, then surely the truly merciful thing to do would be to destroy these cities and save the surrounding nations from them. It seems like it would be wrong to delay judgement just because there happens to be 10 righteous people living there. Wouldn’t it be better for God to just scoop up those 10, save them, and then wipe out the rest, just like he did back in the time of the flood, when he saved 8 people in the ark?
So what is going on here? Why should the presence of 10 righteous people in a city of many thousands be a reason for God to delay juedgement, and delay redemption? And for that matter: why stop at 10? Why not 5, or 3, or 2, or 1?
Ahhhh. See, this is the question everyone asks at this point: why did Abraham stop at 10? Why didn’t he keep going to 5, or 3, or 2, or 1?
This is the question we need to answer. Because, by answering this question, we will actually end up answering our more important question: why would God delay bringing justice for the sake of 10, instead of just scooping them up and saving them before destroying the rest?
So: why did Abraham stop at 10?
Well, first of all, because he knows that God will destroy the city if he finds less than 10 righteous people there. He knows that if God finds less than 10 righteous people in the city, he will just scoop them up and carry them away before wiping out the wicked and saving the surrounding nations from them.
But that just leads us to our next question: why is 10 the cut-off point? Why not 5, or 3, or 2, or 1?
Well, this is why: for the ancient people of Israel, the number “10” was a representative number: a smaller number that represents a larger community.
So, for instance, earlier in Genesis, when Moses named 10 of the different nations that lived in Canaan, those 10 names represented all the rest of the nations that lived in Canaan. And, later in the bible, when David sends 10 of his soldiers to discuss terms with an enemy, those 10 men represent David’s entire army.
So, for ancient Israel, 10 was a smaller number that represented a larger community…and it was the smallest number you could use to represent a larger community.
So, for instance, several times in the Old Testament we find that 10 soldiers was considered to be the smallest effective fighting force. In those days, if you were going to send out a raiding party, conventional wisdom said you should send at least 10 men. And by the end of the Old Testament, Jewish scholars had extended this principle to say that 10 families is the minimum number necessary to form an effective worshiping community.
So what all this means is that, for Abraham, when he asks, “What if you find 10 righteous people in the city?” he is not actually talking about 10 righteous individuals, he is talking about 10 righteous heads of household. He is really asking, “What if you find 10 righteous families in the city?”
In other words, he is asking, “What if you find at least one true worshiping community, a community with at least 10 families in it?” This is why he does not ask about 5 righteous people, or 3, or 2, or 1: because 5 or 3 or 2 or 1 would not be enough to add up to one effective worshiping community.
But this just leads us to yet another question: why is Abraham so interested in whether there is a righteous, worshiping community in the city?
This is why: because Abraham knows that God plans to save the world through a righteous, worshiping community.
We tend to miss just how important this concept is because, in our modern world, we have been trained to focus on individuals. And that is good! That is biblical, because — remember — God’s plan to save the world begins with one righteous individual: a Messiah.
But God’s plan does not end there! Because the way that individual Messiah is supposed to save the world is by building a righteous, worshiping community.
So, for instance, God has called Abraham to act as a messiah, and he has made it clear what that means, right here in verse 19: Abraham is supposed to build a righteous household that will grow into a righteous nation. And what is this righteous nation supposed to do? It is supposed to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. And why is this righteous nation supposed to do what is right and just? Because that is how — verse 18 — all nations on earth will be blessed.
So, as we noticed before, Abraham’s righteous nation is supposed to be a seed of holiness that will grow up to lead all the surrounding nations back into the true worship of the true God, into the blessing of fellowship with God.
In other words: God plans to save the nations from judgement by planting a righteous nation in their midst.
Or, to put that same thought in the exact opposite way: if there is no righteous nation living among the nations, then the nations will not be saved from judgement.
And what Moses is trying to show us — on a literary level — is that Sodom and the surrounding cities are actually a model, a representation, of the rest of the nations of the world. If the nations of the world are going to be saved, it is only going to happen through a righteous nation living in their midst; in the same way, if Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be saved, it is only going to happen through a righteous community living in their midst.
But if there is no righteous community in these cities…then these cities will not be saved from judgement.
And so this is why Abraham is so focused on whether God will find 10 righteous people in the city. Abraham does not actually care if there are 50 righteous or 50,000 righteous. What matters to him is that there are at least the bare minimum needed to form an effective worshiping community. Abraham believes that, as long as there are 10 — or more — righteous families living and worshiping together in the city, then there is still hope that the people of the city might see that righteous community doing what is right and just — and some of them might even be led to join in that community of true worship, and so be saved.
So Abraham has been appealing to God’s patience, God’s desire that — if possible! — no one should perish, but everyone come to eternal life. Abraham the lawyer has been making the legal argument that, as long as there is a worshiping community doing what is right and just in the city, then God should delay judgement for as long as possible, so that more people from the city might have a chance to be saved.
Abraham knows that the longer Sodom and Gomorrah go on, the more they will corrupt and enslave the surrounding nations. Abraham knows that the most merciful thing God can do for the surrounding nations is put a swift end to these cities. And yet, knowing all this, still he stands before God and pleads mercy: not just for the righteous, but even for the enemies of God.
Moses has offered us, here, an extremely nuanced approach to these great questions about the nature of justice and mercy and who should get what. How long should judgement be delayed in hope that an abuser will see his sins and repent? At what point does a merciful delay in justice actually become injustice?
Ultimately, Moses’ answer to these very difficult questions is this: will not the Judge of all the earth do right? Ultimately, he is saying, only God knows how to do what is right and just in every situation. There is none righteous except God.
And, ultimately, that is why Abraham stopped at 10. He believes that the Judge of all the earth will do what is right. If God finds a righteous community of 10 or more in these cities, he will have mercy upon the cities: he will delay judgement in order to give them every chance to observe true worship and join in. If God finds a righteous community of 10 or less, then he will have mercy upon that remnant: he will lead them to safety, and wipe the cities out before their corruption and abuse can spread any further.
And for Moses’ people — the ancient people of Israel — this passage would have had a very immediate application. Because they are camped there in the desert just outside their promised homeland, they are looking across the Jordan River at all these huge pagan cities in the land of Canaan, cities that practice slavery, cities that torture captives to death, cities that force their wives and daughters into ritual prostitution, cities that burn their own babies alive as a sacrifice to earn more wealth from their gods. And the people of Israel are waiting for God’s judgement to fall upon those cities and cleanse the land so that they can inherit it. And as they wait there they are asking the question, “What kind of people are we supposed to be while we wait? What kind of lives ought we to live here in the shadow of Judgement Day?”
And this passage is a continuation of the answer Moses began last week. Last week Moses began by telling his people to pay attention! Watch for the Angel of the Lord to appear and lead them into the land of laughter and eternal joy. Now this week he is telling his people that, while they watch and wait, they need to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.
And this command is 10,000 times more important now than it was back in Abraham’s day! Because back in Abraham’s day the covenant community was just a single household: a few hundred people only. Really, just a small village. And their small size limited their corruption and limited how much damage they could do.
But now, in the time of Moses, Abraham’s household has already become a great and powerful nation…which means that their potential for corruption and damage is so much greater! Now that they are so large they absolutely must keep the way of the Lord. They absolutely need to do what is right and just. Because this nation is the seed of holiness that is supposed to transform the surrounding nations, the nations that will be rescued from the corruption and abuse of these Canaanite cities when God’s judgement finally wipes them out.
So the question that needs to be asked at this point is: what does it mean for ancient Israel to keep the way of the Lord and do what is right and just?
Well, Abraham’s conversation with God is the example. Abraham did not presume to know the correct balance between justice and mercy: he put his faith in God, trusting that the Judge of all the earth would do what is right. He did not try to direct God’s judgement where it should go; he did not try to direct God’s judgement away from his nephew Lot; he gave the whole process over to the Lord.
And this is very relevant to the situation of ancient Israel, because soon they are going to cross the Jordan River into an extremely rich land, a land as well-watered and green as the garden of the Lord. And this land will be empty. Abandoned. Because God has already promised that he is going to chase the people away with hornets and with irresistable fear: they are all going to be hiding in the cities. And so the people are going to be tempted to run ahead of the Angel of the Lord and just lay claim to every piece of land they can grab, conquer every city they come across. They will be tempted to capture and enslave the people for their own profit; they will be tempted to keep all the wealth for themselves, instead of giving the whole process over to the Lord.
But God has already told them that this process of cleansing the land is going to happen slowly, it is going to take many years, because — if he drives out the Canaanite nations all at once — the land will actually go wild and cease to be a rich land.
See, the Lord is patient. He is slow to bring judgement, even on people who really really deserve it! And when he does bring judgement he brings it at just the right time, in just the right amount. He is the only one who can balance all the complicated variables that are in play in situations like this.
Which means that, for ancient Israel, keeping the way of the Lord and doing what is right and just means listening to the Angel of the Lord, doing just what he says to do, and resisting the temptation to take judgement into their own hands. The Lord has promised that all nations on earth will be blessed through Israel, but this does not mean that every person from every nation will be blessed: only those who join the covenant nation of Israel. But the people of Israel do not know which persons are going to join and which ones are going to reject — only God knows that. So their only job is to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. Their only job is to live as a righteous, worshiping community in the midst of all the nations of the world: a working model of what it means to live under the rule of God, in hope that some might see, and repent, and so be saved.
And again, over the next few chapters of Genesis, Moses is going to have a lot more to say about how God’s people should live among the nations.
But what about us? What is our application?
Well, in one way, our modern application is the same. Like the ancient people of Israel, we are also living under the shadow of Judgement Day. Because we are God’s children we are not afraid of Judgement Day, but we do want to know how we are supposed to live while we wait for our world to be cleansed and made new. And this is Moses’ answer: we are called to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. This means resisting the temptation to take judgement into our own hands. We do not know who is going to join God’s family and who is going to reject, and it is not our job to decide. Our job is to keep the way of the Lord, do what is right and just, and give the whole process over to God, trusting that the Judge of all the earth will do right.
But, in another way, everything has changed.
Because Abraham is not just meant to be an example for us here, he is also a model for the Messiah who is to come, the Saviour that Moses has already written about several times. Right back at the beginning of Genesis, God promised that one day, one of Eve’s sons would grow up to set mankind free from slavery to death and judgement. And over the chapters that followed, God provided a number of messiahs, and the life of each one was written down to show us another aspect of what the final Messiah is going to be like.
First, there was Abel, who lived a life of true worship — and then got murdered for it.
Second, there was Enoch, who walked faithfully with God and confronted the false worship of his world — and then was rewarded by being taken away to live forever in God’s presence.
Third, there was Noah, who also walked faithfully with God. He built a new holy place where God could gather his people and save them from judgement.
And we have already talked about how Abraham’s life is really a more detailed expansion of Noah’s life. Abraham is also walking faithfully with God, he is also building a new holy place — a righteous family, a righteous nation — where God can gather his people and save them from judgement.
But now, through Abraham’s conversation with God, Moses is showing his readers even more about what the coming Messiah is going to be like. And we know this because this particular conversation is actually one-of-a-kind.
First of all, nowhere else in the Old Testament do we find a man talking back-and-forth with God for this long. If we count them, we find that this conversation has 12 interchanges, face-to-face. Which means that Abraham enjoys a one-of-a-kind relationship with the Lord; no one else in the Old Testament has this kind of relationship with God.
Second of all, nowhere else in the Old Testament do we find a man pleading with God for mercy on God’s enemies. There are several places where prophets plead with God to have mercy on God’s people. But Abraham is asking for mercy on God’s enemies, people who hate God.
And third, nowhere else in the Old Testament do we find God explicitly wondering within himself about whether to invite a man into his private counsels. Basically, what has happened here is that God has invited a human being to be part of his heavenly courtroom, to help make decisions about things like judgement and death.
And that is really astounding, isn’t it? It would have been shocking for the ancient people of Israel, because their concept of God was huge and terrifying. Remember, after Moses rescued them from Egypt, he led them to a mountain that was burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm, and a voice that shook the air and even scared Moses half to death. This is not the kind of God that a man can just walk up to and stand in front of and have a conversation —
But Abraham did. And this was Moses’ point: he was giving his people a glimpse of what kind of Messiah they were looking for. He was showing his people that, yes, it is possible for a righteous man — a human being, with human DNA — to enter God’s heavenly throne room and stand before him and even argue as a lawyer on behalf of God’s enemies.
In fact, Moses himself proved this point, because he also entered into the Lord’s direct presence several times, acting as God’s messiah on behalf of God’s people. But Moses never had the courage — or, perhaps, the permission — to plead for mercy on God’s enemies.
Well, Moses was right, of course. God did provide a Messiah just like this: a son of Eve, a son of Abraham, who is also the Son of God. In other words, Jesus has human DNA and God’s DNA. And in Jesus, all of the Old Testament messiahs were summed up: just like Abel, Jesus lived a life of true worship — and then got murdered for it. Just like Enoch, Jesus walked faithfully — and was rewarded by being taken up into his Father’s presence. Just like Noah, Jesus is building a holy place on earth and in heaven — the Church, a righteous nation made up of people from all nations. And just like Abraham, Jesus the Messiah pleads on behalf of his Father’s enemies.
Actually, Jesus went even further than that. The New Testament tells us that Jesus actually died for the ungodly. Usually, when someone chooses to die to save someone else, they do it to save their family or friends. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners — while we were still his enemies — Christ died for us. He died to purchase our freedom from slavery to death. He died to gather us into God’s nation. And now, as our brother, he is seated in our Father’s heavenly courtroom praying for us and for those who have not yet been redeemed, those who are still God’s enemies.
This is why we can say that everything has changed: we have a Messiah that Abraham did not have yet. We have a Messiah that Moses’ people did not have yet. They were looking forward in hope that one day their Saviour would come, and transform their nation, and through them transform all the nations of the world.
We are living in the fulfillment of all those promises. The ancient nation of Israel, that Old Testament seed of holiness, was transformed when Christ came and broke open the shell so that it could finally grow to fill the world with what is right and just. And quite naturally, as Christ’s transformed Jewish nation began to grow, it began to infiltrate and incorporate all the surrounding nations, taking them in and making them part of God’s household.
Now, some of the Jewish leaders were unhappy with this development: they refused to recognize that this was God fulfilling his promise to bless all nations through Abraham. So they pulled out of the movement. And that is why, ever since, the new nation that Jesus Christ created has looked more international and less Jewish. But if you look at the DNA of the Christian faith, you will see that Christ’s Church is in fact the tree of righeousness that has grown out of that ancient Abrahamic seed.
And as long as Abraham’s righteous seed, as long as Abraham’s righteous nation — Christ’s righteous Church — continues to live and worship among the nations of the world, then God is going to delay judgement for as long as possible, in hope that more might see, and repent, and be saved.
But all of that is beyond our control. We do not know when God will decide that enough is enough. We do not know who is going to be saved and who is not. We do not know when the Church will be taken out of the way so that judgement can fall. That entire process is in the hands of the righteous Judge of all the earth, who will do what is right.
So what are we supposed to do then, while we wait? What kind of people ought we to be?
Well, first — as we were told last week — we are the kind of people who pay attention. We watch for the return of our king. We live dressed for travel, ready to go at a moment’s notice. We do not invest too deeply in the things of this world.
And now, in addition: we are the kind of people who live in righteous community in the midst of the nations. We keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. We are salt and light. Above all, we love our enemies and we pray for those who persecute us, in hope that even those who hate God might see our good deeds and glorify him on the day he visits us.
That is our calling, friends, brothers and sisters. And it is a tough one.
So let’s approach the throne of grace now and ask our Father for mercy and the grace to help us in our time of need.