What Does it Mean ‘By Faith Sarah Though Barren Was Enabled’?
By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
How is this possible?
Sometimes, many times, the promises of God are so big that they are almost laughable. Or in the case of Abraham and Sarah, the promises of God are the cause of laughter.
When God came to this elderly couple and said they would have a baby, they laughed. How could this be since she is old and barren?
How can a man who was crucified be raised from the dead?
The power of God, that is how.
The story of Abraham and Sarah helps us to see the power of God. It also helps us to see the role and impact that faith has in the life of the believer.
Hebrews 11 is known as the faith chapter, and tucked away in that chapter are a few lines honoring a woman who at first laughed at God’s promise but eventually saw its fruition with her own eyes. She held the promise in her arms.
What Is the Context of Hebrews 11:11?
Hebrews 11 is known as the faith chapter. In this chapter, the author of Hebrews outlines several characters within the Old Testament and how they were examples of faith. All of these stories are to show us what faith looks like.
And each story is driving to the conclusion of the suffering servants of God who kept holding on in faith. It’s a couched exhortation, calling upon his hearers not to abandon the faith. It reaches its climax with Jesus enduring the cross because of the joy that was set before Him.
Hebrews 12, then, is the call, which all of these examples motivate. Do not grow weary or faint-hearted. Keep trusting in Jesus. That is what the author is encouraging his hearers to do, and this “cloud of witnesses” are cheering them on.
One of those cheering them on is the example of Sarah. Think about her story. She was childless all those years. It was a source of deep shame for her. It’s one thing to wrestle with barrenness when you are 25 or 35. But when you are 90 years old, that is one of those longings that has already been shut away.
A 90-year-old woman, and one who has never given birth, is likely not thinking “tonight could be the night” that she finally conceives.
She’d have given up that dream many years ago. It simply wasn’t part of her story. It had to be laughable, then, when an angel tells her and Abraham that she will have a baby.
And when the promise was delayed, Sarah did what we all so often do. She took matters into her own hands. She convinced Abraham, who it seems was a little too easy to convince, that he ought to try to have a child with their servant girl.
But that is not who the promise would come through. Sarah matters. It is Abraham and Sarah who the promise will come through. Not just Abraham.
This birth would be miraculous. And indeed, it was miraculous. She was, as it says in Hebrews 11:11, “given power to conceive.” A 90-year-old woman gave birth. Her laughter somehow had turned to belief. She trusted in the promise even when it seemed that all hope was gone.
Thus, she is an exemplar of faith in this long list of witnesses. Can you hear her as she tells her story to those the author of Hebrews is writing to?
“I know it feels hopeless right now. I know it seems as if all the cards are stacked against you. It seems as if evil is winning, and all the promises of God are becoming void. I know that you want to give up. I know what it’s like to let hope die. And I know what it is like to laugh in the face of God when he gives promises to you.
But he is giving an even bigger promise to you than he gave to me. He is saying to you that in Christ, he is making all things news. He is saying that through your unity in Christ, you have everything you need for life and godliness.
Oh, dear friend, do not abandon these promises. Hear my story. I was 90 and gave birth. God can do anything. He can redeem your situation. He will come true on His promises. Don’t abandon Him. Keep trusting.”
Do you hear her story?
Is it Really Sarah Who Was Given the Power to Conceive?
It might seem a little surprising that Sarah is in this story. After all, she is the one who laughed at God. She might be a better candidate for a chapter on doubt than in a chapter on faith. But here she is. Or is she?
There is an alternative text or reading that would have Abraham as the one receiving power to conceive rather than Sarah. The NRSV captures this alternate reading when it says:
“By faith he [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old — and Sarah herself was barren — because he considered him faithful who had promised.”
That reading sounds even more plausible when we consider that the phrase “the power of procreation” is literally “the power of laying down seed.”
That is not an action, which is typically attributed to a female. In this reading, then, it is Abraham who receives the power to produce sperm, which is so powerful it can impregnate his 90-year-old wife.
Even though it is plausible to see Abraham as the subject, it is still likely that Sarah is the subject and the one who receives power to conceive.
In order for the above scenario to make sense, the phrase about Sarah would need to be construed as dative. And there is simply no textual evidence for doing that. Thus, Schreiner points out that “the best solution grammatically is to accept Sarah as the subject.”
This is not meant to be an accusation of those who might want to read Abraham as the subject instead of Sarah.
Yet, it is interesting that adopting this position puts us in a place similar to what Abraham and Sarah were in with the original promise. Does Sarah matter? Is the promise only about Abraham’s “seed”?
We see in the story of Hagar that Sarah absolutely does matter. It will be through both Abraham and Sarah that the promise will come.
This is just a little tidbit in the scriptures to remind women you matter. You are not just a vessel for children to enter the world. You are a person who matters. When you read the story of Sarah, be encouraged by this.
How Do We Apply it Today?
The story of Sarah is a reminder that God redeems our deepest hurts. As he promises in His Word (Isaiah 54:1), he takes the deepest hurt of the barren woman and causes her to shout for joy. This happens with Sarah long after she had even dreamed of having a child.
Ultimately, it is through the “seed of the woman” that is promised in Genesis 3 that we will all have redemption. It is through the fulfillment of this promise to Sarah that God would create another miraculous birth. It is through this line that the Lord Jesus is born. Another example of hope in an unlikely circumstance.
So, when we hear Sarah’s story, let us hope. It is meant to encourage our faith and cause us to “lay aside the sin which so easily entangles us” and to press on in faith. The Lord will be true to His promises. He will lead us home.
The story of Sarah is also a story of grace. It is a reminder that our sarcastic and unbelieving laughter is not the end of the story.
Sarah could be known as a woman of great doubt. But the Bible does not portray that as her final story. Instead, she belongs in the faith chapter. Philip Hughes explains:
“Her incredulous laughter is, humanly speaking, readily understandable in view both of her barrenness and of her advanced age. But it does not ipso facto stamp her as one who was devoid of faith. Immediately after laughing she heard the Lord say to Abraham… It is more reasonable to conclude that this admonition (Genesis 18:13), together with the repetition of the promise, dispelled any unbelief that had arisen in her heart; and that she then denied her laughter, awed by what she had heard (“A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews”).
May the story of Sarah lead you to hope in the promises of God.
For further reading:
Why Did God Bless Abraham and Sarah Even after They Disobeyed?
How to Live Out Faith Found in Hebrews 11
Who Were Abraham's Sons? Ishmael and Isaac in the Bible
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