“Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah, as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.” —Genesis 21:1
Quite often we say about someone who was a devoted Christian that he or she was a true saint. I have heard children say it about their father: “He was a saintly man,” or about their mother: “She was a real saint.” However, without questioning the wonderful spiritual example a father, a mother, or some other person may have been to us, when we call a person a saint, and wish to be biblical about it, we must always remember that a saint is always that only because of God’s grace. In fact, a saint—a word with the original meaning of “one called to be holy”—is by nature a sinner saved by grace.
One of the saints of old mentioned in Scripture of whom that description is certainly apropos was Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Abraham is called in the Bible “the father of all believers.” He was indeed a great man of faith. Yet he also had some serious lapses of faith in his life. Sarah does not receive the equivalent title of “the mother of all believers.” Yet, like her husband, she, too, was a person of faith. And, like her husband, she also suffered some serious lapses of faith. Hence, we could well call Sarah a mother by grace—that is, a mother who though a sinner, experienced the rich grace of God—not only in her salvation, but also in becoming the mother of a covenant child, and of a covenant people.
Sarah’s Special Heartache
First of all, however, we should note that Sarah had a special heartache—one that she carried for most of her life—in fact, for almost ninety of the 127 years she lived. Her heartache was that God had not given her any children until she had reached the age where she was no longer able to bear a child. We read in Genesis 18:11, “Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years. And Sarah was past the age of childbearing.” At that time Sarah was eighty-nine years old. Indeed, the special burden of Sarah is mentioned already when we first read about her in Genesis 11. She had married Abram in Ur of the Chaldees (at which time she was called Sarai), and before Abram left Ur to follow the call of God to go to a land God would show him, we are already informed in Genesis 11:30, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.”
Sarai moved with Abram from Ur to Haran. Abram was seventy-five years old at that time, and Sarai was sixty-five. Then, after spending some time in Haran, Sarai followed her husband as he moved on to Canaan. Sarai was also a beautiful woman. Her great beauty is mentioned several times in Scripture. Her original name Sarai meant “my princess,” perhaps because she looked like one. Indeed, because of her beauty Abraham lied several times about her being his wife, claiming she was his sister. Technically she was. Sarai was Abram’s half-sister, sharing the same father Terah but having a different mother. Another thing about Sarah’s situation was that she was married to a rich man, for that is what Abraham was. By today’s standards, he would have been a millionaire. So, Sarah had beauty and wealth.
However, she lacked something that she deemed much more precious, something that neither beauty nor wealth could buy. She was not a mother, and it pained her deeply. To be sure, Sarai realized that her inability to have children was not her doing. She recognized the hand of God in it, as she told Abram in Genesis 16:2: “The Lord has kept me from having children.”
Yet, though she recognized God’s hand in it, her heart bled within her. Why? Well, for one thing, because God created woman to bear children. That was a woman’s greatest blessing and calling, and still is. It may sound strange to many modern ears to hear that. Under the influence of the today’s secular, feminist culture, many scoff at the role of women as child bearers and mothers. They claim that a woman, like the man, can just as well find her chief delight and fulfillment in a career and other aspirations.
To be sure, the Bible does not deny that a woman can meaningfully function and serve with her gifts in other ways beyond the home and caring for children. Yet her chief fulfillment , certainly when married, and the way God has made woman biologically and emotionally, is that she can bring forth children into this world. Hence, it is a great heartache for such a woman—even more so than for the man, her husband—when God in His inscrutable will does not always fulfill that desire. We must always remember those who carry such a burden in our prayers.
However, another reason this was a heartache for Sarah was because she knew the promises God had made to her husband Abram. He would become the father of a great nation and the progenitor of an offspring whose number would be like the stars of the sky and the sand by the seashore. Sarah was certainly aware of these divine promises. But how could they be fulfilled if she was barren? Would she have the privilege of being the one through whom they would come to fruition? So this was a difficult test for her. And as the years went by, she must have wondered more and more whether God would indeed give Abraham offspring through her.
Sarah’s Lapse into Sin
Sarah got desperate at last, and her desperation led her into sin. One such sinful lapse is recorded in Genesis 16, which again begins with her plight: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.” Frustrated by her barrenness, she urged her husband Abram to take her maidservant Hagar as a concubine and conceive children through her. Concubines and polygamy were not unusual in the time of Abram. Even men of God practiced it, and God did not expressly condemn their action. Nevertheless, it was not God’s desire. He had instituted monogamy before the fall of man as the pattern for marriage. It was no wonder that polygamy among God’s children always led to marriage and family problems.
Abram should not have consented to his wife’s urging. He, as well as Sarah, had a lapse of faith in the promise God had already made to them to give them offspring. They took matters into their own hands without consulting God. And it led to problems later on. The birth of Ishmael from Hagar was a source of further aggravation to Sarah. Her unkind treatment of Hagar was another evidence of Sarah’s sinful nature.
God’s Gracious Gift
However, despite Sarah’s sin, she was not only a child of God but also became the recipient of his special grace. God made a covenant with Abraham to be his God and the God of his descendants. That covenant promise also included Sarah, who would become the mother of those descendants. So at last God fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah. Genesis 21 begins: “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.” What a great miracle and blessing this was for this old couple! For neither Sarah nor Abraham was any longer physically able to reproduce. They were the Old Testament parallel to the New Testament couple Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. They received from the Lord the gift of a special son, in a miraculous way.
Abraham named his son Isaac, a name that means “he laughs.” Abraham had laughed in disbelief when God told him at the age of ninety-nine that he and Sarah would have a son the following year. And Sarah, too, had privately and unbelievingly laughed at this announcement. But at the birth of Isaac they had both laughed with joy. Sarah’s response to this amazing gift of God’s grace was: “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
What a surprise of joy God brought into her life! It’s a joy that especially mothers experience after the pain of childbirth. The pain is immediately forgotten and replaced with the joy of the gift of a child from the Lord. So, God was indeed gracious to Sarah.
However, that was not the only joy in His gift of a child to her. It was even more special in that through the gift of this child, God was fulfilling His covenant promise to Abraham to make him into a great nation who would become God’s covenant people. That nation was not only the Jews but would also later include Gentiles. It would ultimately be fulfilled in that holy, elect nation of all true believers. They would become the true seed of Abraham. But God chose to bring this about through the womb of Sarah. In addition to the account in the book of Genesis, there is one other Old Testament reference to Sarah. It is found in Isaiah 51:2, where God says to His people: “Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many.”
We noted earlier that Sarah’s name originally was Sarai, which means “my princess.” Then God changed it to Sarah, as He changed Abram’s name to Abraham. Sarah also means “princess.” However, she was no longer just Abraham’s princess, his honored wife. But as God said in Genesis 17:16, “I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
Who was the greatest king that would come from her? The Lord Jesus Christ, as to his human nature. Jesus came from the line of descent going back to Sarah and Abraham. That is the greatest way in which God was gracious to Sarah in making her a mother. From her eventually the Savior of the world would come to earth. God gave Sarah Isaac to fulfill His greatest of all promises, the promise of salvation through the birth of His Son. That was no doubt God’s greatest gift to and through Sarah.
Sarah’s Godly Example
Sarah also showed God’s grace in her life through her godly example, as a woman saved by grace. This comes through in what Peter says of her in 1 Peter 3, where the apostle addresses Christian wives and mothers (and some of what he says would apply to single women as well). Peter emphasizes the importance of women showing forth spiritual beauty in their lives. In that connection he cites the example of Sarah. Sarah was a physically attractive woman, as noted earlier. However, Peter urges women not to be concerned about their external beauty but to cultivate a spiritual beauty, clothing themselves in the garments of purity and reverence. This is especially important as women live in a society filled with impurity and immodesty and lacking any respect for God’s will.
In addition, Peter urges Christian wives married to unbelieving husbands to show these godly virtues in their marriages. Instead of seeking to impress their husbands with their external beauty, they should show them “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” How counter-cultural that counsel is in our modern society! After this, Peter points us to the women of old, like Sarah, who put their hope in God. Sarah’s faith was not always steadfast. She fell into sin more than once. Yet ultimately she put her hope in God.
And thereupon, Peter continues and says about these saintly women of old: “They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.” It’s a statement that would no doubt set off fireworks today. Must women not only obey their husbands, but even call them “master”? Sarah did, but not in a fawning, slavish way. We can be sure that she also called Abraham by more endearing terms. She loved him as her husband, and he loved her as his wife. But she also recognized his headship over her. She respected him as her spiritual leader.
There is one critical incident in Abraham’s life, after Isaac’s birth, where Sarah’s role and name are never mentioned. It may seem a surprise to us. It’s the time God told Abraham to offer up his only son Isaac. We know what happened and how Abraham responded to this command—by an obedient faith. But what about Sarah? What did she think of this as the mother of her only son, a son born from her in her old age, the joy of her life? How did she respond to this incredible command of God to kill Isaac on an altar? We do not know. The Bible does not say. But is her response not implied in what Peter writes about her? As a woman of godly hope and reverence, and one who honored and obeyed her husband, can we not be assured that she was in accord with Abraham’s decision to offer up Isaac in obedience to God’s command, hard as it no doubt was?
Sarah was a woman of faith in God. Therefore her name, too, is mentioned in Hebrews 11 among those saints who lived by faith. She knew and trusted the One who so graciously included her in His covenant and granted her His grace. May she remind all women, mothers, and daughters today—indeed, all believers in Christ—that we must manifest a holy beauty before God and the world, in our godly conduct and reverential spirit in our daily lives and roles. Then we also will be true saints—recipients of God’s eternal grace who live out our calling to be His holy people.
1. This is not to say that in some sense every child born manifests the miraculous work of God.
Rev. James Admiraal is a retired pastor in the URCNA. He served most recently as the pastor of Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI. He also served several years on the board of Reformed Fellowship.