Laughter Transformed

Laughter Transformed

As we saw last week, Isaac, the child promised by the LORD to be Abraham and Sarah’s heir—when he was 75 years old and she was 65—was destined to be conceived 24 years later when Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 89. In considering God’s timing, we noted the delightful irony in God telling Abraham  to name his son Isaac—meaning “he laughs”—for Abraham had laughed upon being told that the child of promise who was to come from his own flesh and blood would not be Ishmael, whom he had fathered by way of Hagar, Sarah’s servant, thirteen years earlier. No, his yet-to-be-born child would come not only from his flesh and blood but from Sarah’s flesh and blood as well. And in this morning’s account we’ll see how it would now be Sarah’s turn to laugh as she overheard a conversation that took place between her husband and three mysterious strangers.

The chapter begins by stating, “1 The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” This is now the fourth time that Mamre has been mentioned. The first occurrence was in chapter 13 of Genesis. After the LORD departed from Abram we’re told, “So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.”[1] Despite having been promised the land of Canaan—which his descendants, not he, would receive[2]—at the age of 75 when these references to Mamre were initially made, in Genesis 18 we’re told that at the age of 99, twenty-four years later, Abraham was still dwelling in a tent as a foreigner and stranger on earth in the land that the LORD had promised him as a possession.[3] But the important part to note in all of this is the LORD’s once again appearing to him.

This particular appearance occurred “while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.” The heat of day, probably early afternoon,[4] was a time when travelers would have needed refreshment. And here is where the “mysterious strangers” I mentioned enter the scene as verse 2 goes on to state, “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”  These men are “mysterious” because after verse 1 states that the LORD appeared to Abraham, verse 2 states that Abraham saw “three men standing nearby.” But who, exactly, are the three unidentified mysterious men with whom Abraham engages? Given the proximity of these two verses, it’s reasonable to assume that whoever they were, at the very least they were representatives of the LORD.

Well, after consulting various sources, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the men was a theophany—a manifestation of the LORD—and the other two were angels. Here’s why I say this:

First, it’s possible that Abraham recognized one of them as being a manifestation of God given that he “hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them” upon seeing them and that when he met them, he “bowed low to the ground”—bowing being an expressing of obeisance or reverential respect;

Second, when Abraham went to them, he only spoke to one of them saying, as recorded in verse 3, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.” Now what makes interpreting this passage more difficult is that what is rendered in our translation[5] as “my lord”—small “l”—is probably better translated as “Lord”—capital “L.”[6] If this is the case—and I’ve no reason to doubt the sources I used[7]—then, as one of them notes, “Abraham recognizes that one of his visitors is a divine manifestation.”[8] This helps to make sense of the remainder of this chapter as well as the next. Again, since the chapter opened by stating that the LORD appeared to Abraham and this is immediately followed by Abraham looking up and seeing “three men standing nearby,” it would make sense that one of these was a manifestation of God himself. And as we’ll see in verse 13, we’re once again told that while Abraham was in conversation with the three men one of them, referred to as “the LORD,” spoke to him. Throughout both chapter 18 and chapter 19 the LORD is distinguished from the other two men who are identified as angels in the opening of chapter 19;[9]

Last, at least for now, there’s general agreement that in all likelihood verse 2 in Hebrews 13 which we read earlier in the service, is referring to this passage from Genesis 18: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” So although Abraham recognized that one of the three was an appearance of the LORD, he hadn’t realized that the other two were angels. Apparently we don’t always know an angel when we see one!

Be that as it may, after hurrying out to meet the three men—and bowing down to them—and begging that they not pass their servant by, beginning in verse 4 we read how Abraham said to them, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” Notice Abraham’s gracious hospitality. He offers the men “a little water” to wash their feet, “rest under this tree,” and “something to eat” in order that they might “be refreshed and then go on [their] way.” Abraham’s generous offer of sustenance—by way of drink, shade, and victuals—would have been welcomed by any traveler. And we see that the three accepted his gracious offer as they answered him, “Very well, do as you say.”

We’re next told, verse 6, that “Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah.” And he told her, “Quick,… get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” The three seahs equaled about 36 pounds so it appears that Sarah was going to be baking a lot of bread, possibly to send some along with the men once they had eaten. And notice that he didn’t request just any flour but “the finest flour.” Having dealt with the bread, Abraham then went on to take care of the rest of the meal. As stated in verse 7, “Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it.” Notice all of the activity generated by the aged albeit vital 99 year-old Abraham in just these few verses:

When Abraham first saw the men, “he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them” (verse 2);

When the men accepted his offer, he “hurried into the tent to Sarah” (verse 6);

Not being content to be the only one running around, he urged Sarah to be “quick” about baking the bread (verse 6);

Next, “he ran to the herd” in selecting a tender calf (verse 7);

And then his servant, too, “hurried to prepare it” (verse 7).

Again, there was an awful lot of frenzied running around taking place! Yet despite all of the hurrying, it’s likely that these preparations took hours to prepare for the bread needed to rise before it could be baked and the calf needed to be slaughtered and prepared before it could be cooked. No matter how much hurrying was involved, this certainly wasn’t McAbraham’s! But finally, after everything had been prepared, we see how Abraham, verse 8, “then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them.” Though Abraham had offered the visitors but “a little water” and “something to eat” in verses 4 and 5, what he actually ended up presenting the men was a feast. And once all of the preparations had been made and brought to the men, as stated at the end of verse 8, Abraham “stood near them under a tree” as they ate. In other words, he stood as a servant, ready to wait upon them for anything else they might need.

And then we see the focus of our passage turning to Sarah starting in verse 9 as the men asked Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” Now if it is the LORD and his angels who are speaking here, there is no question that they knew where she was. But as we’ve noted before, the LORD ever seeks to engage with those who are his and one of the ways he does this is by asking questions. Abraham answered, “There, in the tent.” And next we see how one of the men—no doubt the one manifesting God—reiterated the promise he had made to Abraham which we considered last week. As stated in verse 10, after being told that Sarah was in the nearby tent, “Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”

Now the intended audience of this statement was probably Sarah herself for as we saw last week, Abraham had already been given this information by God[10] so this wouldn’t have been news to him. But it’s likely that Abraham had not yet told Sarah. Therefore, now the LORD was similarly disclosing this information to her knowing that, being in the nearby tent, she would’ve been within earshot of his conversation with Abraham. As we’re told at the end of verse 10, “Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him.” And before the account moves on, we’re reminded yet again in verse 11 that “Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.” Even allowing for greater longevity for people living at this time, 99 and 89 would still have been too old, humanly speaking, for Abraham and Sarah to bear a child. Yet as we’ll see, God Almighty, El-Shaddai, would graciously and faithfully demonstrate just how powerful he really is in making it possible for aged Abraham and barren Sarah to unite and conceive the child of promise.

Next in verse 12 we’re again reminded how aptly named the yet-to-be-born laughing baby Isaac would be. For as last week we saw Abraham laugh to himself upon being told by God that the child of promise, born of his own flesh and blood, would not be Ishmael, as he had assumed,[11] but would be born of his wife, Sarah, so here we’re told that upon learning the very same information, “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” In other words, Sarah, like Abraham, couldn’t believe her ears. Had one of the men really said that this time next year she and Abraham would have a son? Was it really possible that she, who would be 90 when this son was to be born; she who was “worn out” and Abraham who was old, would “now have this pleasure”? In Sarah’s response we have yet another expression of disbelieving for joy for such an occurrence would be too good for it would have been physically impossible for her who was barren and aged. Therefore, of course Sarah laughed to herself and no doubt shook her head at the very thought of it all.

And then the identity of the man who had been speaking to Abraham is disclosed in verses 13–14 as we’re told that the LORD then said to Abraham, “13 Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Is anything too hard for the LORD? Is anything too hard for God Almighty?[12] Is anything too hard for El-Shaddai? Of course not! As the One who created the natural world, he has full power and authority over it. Nothing is beyond his providence. Nothing is beyond his scope of power. And God Almighty is a God who is true. If he says he will bring something to pass, it will come to pass. If he declared that Abraham and Sarah would be the father and mother of nations and that kings of peoples would come from them, then this would certainly come to pass;[13] If he declared that Abraham and Sarah not Abraham and Hagar; not Eliezer, Abraham’s servant—would have a baby who would represent the beginning of the fulfillment of this promise of nations and peoples, then it would certainly come to pass. For the only correct answer to, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” is “Absolutely not!”

Now at the point at which the LORD asked Abraham why Sarah had laughed, she must have made her way out of the tent or in some way made herself visible for as we see stated in verse 15, after the LORD asked Abraham why Sarah had laughed, we’re told, “Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’” So she herself was now speaking to God directly. But the LORD corrected her, no doubt gently, and said, “Yes, you did laugh.” With this we see, again, how Isaac was a child born of laughter. For his father, Abraham, had laughed when he was told about his birth; and now his mother, Sarah, laughed when she was told about his birth. Therefore God Almighty, the joy-giving, promise-keeping LORD had them name this yet-to-be-born baby, “He laughs,” or “Isaac.”

Now I want to jump ahead briefly to Genesis 21 so that we can see how this theme of laughter continued once Isaac was born. For laughter that initially had been grounded in disbelief for joy was transformed into laughter that was filled with both joy and belief.[14] Now we saw in verse 10 of chapter 18 that one of the men promised Abraham, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” And verse 1 in chapter 21 makes clear that that man was God himself as it opens with the fulfillment of this promise in declaring, “1 Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.” God Almighty is a true God. God Almighty is a promise Maker; God Almighty is a promise Keeper. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, he was gracious to Sarah despite her being “worn out” and her lord Abraham being “old.” For, at the age of 90, she did indeed “now have this pleasure” that she had called into question upon first overhearing the LORD make this promise to her husband.[15] Yet—big surprise!—everything took place just as God had stated it would. For God was gracious to Sarah just as he had said; and he had done for Sarah just as he had promised; and he did so at the very time that he had promised.

Now as Abraham had done with Ishmael, his son by way of Sarah’s servant, Hagar, so now he did with his son by way of his wife, Sarah, as we read in verse 3, “Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.” Again, in naming these babies Abraham acknowledged publicly that they were his.[16] We further see that Abraham was obedient not only in giving his sons the names that the LORD had chosen for them but also in circumcising Isaac even as he had had Ishmael circumcised[17] fourteen years earlier[18] as a sign of the LORD’s covenant with him.[19] As stated in verses 4­­­–5, “When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him.Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.”

And then we return to Sarah in verses 6–7 as we’re told how her laughter of disbelief had now been transformed into joyous laughter for “Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.’ And she added, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’” Who would have thought, indeed?!

Dear sisters and brothers, let’s embrace the truth about God being declared in these passages. For a foundational teaching taught us is that nothing is too hard for the God who made us and everything that exists. What is more, this God who made the entire world wants us to engage with him. He desires for us to draw near to him. He is a personal God who loves and cares for us. But he isn’t simply loving, he is also powerful. He is God Almighty, El-Shaddai, who will do everything he has promised he will do. And though he hasn’t promised us an heir when we are beyond our child-bearing years, he’s done far more than this: he has promised us that the Messiah, his Son Jesus Christ, Abraham’s heir himself will give his eternal life and unite us to himself by his Holy Spirit if we but believe and receive him. And if this possibility of eternal life with our loving and heavenly Father causes you to laugh in disbelief; if this possibility of eternal life with no more sadness—or tears—or suffering—causes you to disbelieve for joy, then I say to you this morning, believe for joy for God who made us; God who loves us; God who is Almighty—and good—and great—and kind will one day transform the disbelief for joy of all who believe and receive his Son into belief for joy. So let us believe and receive and ever proclaim the wonder of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, who not only brings joy to this world but will bring eternal joy to all who are his. So let us proclaim his joy to one another and to others in order that they might know about and experience for themselves God’s transformative laughter.

Let us pray


[1] Genesis 13:18. The other two mentions are found in chapter 14 Mamre where mentioned twice, once when a man comes to Abram there to let him know that his nephew, Lot, had been captured (Genesis 14:13: A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram) and there’s an incidental mention of Mamre at the end of the chapter in Genesis 14:24 when Abram told the king of Sodom, “I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.”

[2] As the LORD disclosed to him in Genesis 15:13–15: 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.”

[3] See Hebrews 11:9: By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.

[4] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Genesis 18:1.

[5] NIV—I use the New International Version since this is the version of the Bibles purchased by the church to be placed in the pews.

[6] According to the Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 18:3: “The term here (Hb. ‘Adonay) is a distinctive one for God in the OT (e.g., 20:4). The polite term of respect ‘my lord’ (Hb. ‘adoni) has a slight difference of spelling, affecting the last vowel (e.g. 23:6).” The Reformation Study Bible note on this same verse agrees: “This Hebrew term unequivocally refers to God.”

[7] Both the Reformation ESV Study Bible and the Zondervan NIV Study Bible identify the three men as the LORD with two angels.

[8] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Genesis 18:3.

[9] Genesis 19:1: “The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground.” Emphasis added.

[10] Genesis 17:15–16: 15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

[11] Genesis 17:17–18: 17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

[12] When the LORD appeared to Abraham, he revealed himself as God Almighty. See Genesis 17:1: When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.”

[13] Respectively, the LORD said this to Abraham, Genesis 17:6 (I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.) and concerning Sarah, Genesis 17:16: I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.

[14] See also Hebrews 11:11: And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.

[15] Genesis 18:12: So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

[16] Regarding Ishmael, see Genesis 16:15: So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne.

[17] Genesis 17:23: On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him.

[18] Abraham was now 100 and was 86 when Ishmael was born. Genesis 16:16: Abraham was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

[19] Genesis 17:10–11: 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.