The Quiet Witness of Sarah

Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham by Matthias Stom. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the grand story of God’s redemption, Sarah might not be seen as a significant figure. Of course, she partakes of God’s promise to Abraham as his wife. And she is naturally recognized because it’s through her that the child of promise is born (Genesis 17:21). God also changes her name to indicate her status as the mother of many nations (Genesis 17:15-16). Beyond that, however, not much seems to come up.

A Not-So-Great Model?

Her character does not seem to be faith-inspiring like her husband. Recall her laughter of disbelief at the angel’s word (Genesis 18:12). We can also recoil at her harshness to Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6). That act, it might be noted, has had such massive influence over the course of history. When all these are considered, it seems nothing much can be made of Sarah. And it would appear that her only legacy is to be remembered as the mother of Isaac and the wife of Abraham.

Before we draw that quick conclusion, though, a ray of light pierces through the coldness of her unremarkable reputation. We find Peter’s comment in 1 Peter 3:5 singling her out as a model of the godliness and quiet submission of a spouse which is essential to the flourishing of a home

For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

1 Peter 3:5,6

In Genesis, she was acknowledged as the mother of nations, here she is elevated as the mother of all godly Christian ladies. The first honour looked to temporal dignity and earthly honour, the second looked to the spiritual status of those wo have been called out as a chosen generation and God’s special people. These are a people who, though grieved by various trials (1 Peter 1:6), are born to a living hope that never fades but is reserved in heaven (1 Peter 1:4).

An Epistle on Submission

Peter’s first epistle is a prescription for how the church militant is to live in God’s world amidst the suffering and trials they go through, just like their Savior. For just as Christ once suffered in order to bring us to God (3:18), his followers should likewise expect to endure trials, for by so doing they partake of Christ’s sufferings (4:13). This should lead to joy, however, for we will also partake of his glory.

Our imitation of Christ should lead us to shun lewdness and live for the will of God (4:2). The key principle which is to govern our conduct as we live out this life is submission. Submission to God in the same way as Christ did. For as a lamb without blemish foreordained from the foundation of the world (1:19, 20), Christ himself was obedient unto death (see also Philippians 2).

This principle of ultimate submission to God (4:19) plays out across different spheres. It should lead us to submit to the government and every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake (2:13). It should enjoin servants to be submissive to their masters (2:18). Within the church, it should lead the youth to submit to the elders (5:5), and for elders to serve their flock eagerly and with a caring heart like a shepherd after the example of the Chief Shepherd (5:2-4). In fact, this principle is to be imbibed across board by everyone being humbly submissive to one another (5:5 again and 3:8). Paul says much the same thing in Ephesians 5.

The same principle will govern the home as wives submit to their husbands (3:1) and husbands dwell with them with understanding (3:7).

A Model of Submission

At the heart of this great outworking of the principle of submission as both a theological ethic and a social principle is the figure of Sarah. Singled out among all the godly women in the Bible (from Deborah To Ruth, from Hannah to Mary), Sarah is presented as a model of that submission which is at the centre of the Christian life.

She wasn’t a ‘heroine’ as we normally expect (think courageous Deborah or persevering Ruth). Even in the great faith chapter, her contribution lay in the seemingly insignificant act of merely trusting God to give her a child in old age (Hebrews 11:11). But that was significant enough in God’s scheme of things.

Besides, there is much hostility to the term submission in modern culture. To many, it seems like an argument for inferiority between the sexes. However, we must remember that scripture sees submission and loving service as a posture that must be adopted by everyone towards others (see Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 5:21; 1 John 4:7; 1 Peter 4:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:11). While submission can be (and has been) exploited to oppress others, Jesus himself models submission to the father. We see it during the wilderness temptation (Matthew 4: 3-4). We find it in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepared to go on the cross (Matthew 26:39-42). Submission also characterized the Son’s relationship to his Father (John 6:38; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Philippians 2:5-9). If Christ could glory in his deference to the Father, we should not object to submitting to one another.

And perhaps there are some believers here and there wondering how they could be significant in God’s kingdom. Perhaps you wonder how to attempt great things for God, as William Carey puts it. And you are probably thinking you need to sail off for India (or maybe yours could be Canada or somewhere even less comfortable). You can learn a lesson or two from Sarah.

We remember her not for valour in battles nor for acts of fearless heroism, but for a life of quiet submission. Like the heir whom she would have several generations later, her gift to the world was laying down her life in godly obedience. She received honour by not seeking it. By doing the will of God right where she was, by submitting to the God-ordained authority within her home, she became a mother to all Christian mothers.

As Owen Strachan notes,

Biblical submission never means lemming-like mindlessness. It actually signifies the opposite—a joyful, wholehearted commitment to follow a worthy figure.

Submit to One Another

So don’t despise that hidden position or low profile job. Don’t assume you need a stage when you already have those little souls before you, of whom Jesus said heaven consists (Mathew 19:14). Don’t think winning the esteem and respect of men equals glorifying God. Submit to God right where you are. Serve him in the station his providence has placed you. Seek to display the beauty of that quiet and gentle spirit which God finds so precious.

Conclusion

Submission, observes Strachan again, is an ‘all-of-life reality, a posture, an approach, and a terrific privilege. If Jesus Himself gladly submitted to His Father, even when that submission called for Him to die for the church, how can we not joyfully follow suit? How can we not submit to God and honor His Word’s authority-submission dynamics throughout our lives?’

As we seek to glorify God in our lives, we will submit to him and his will. We will revere the authorities he has established in our lives. We will submit to one another out of reverence for God. And we will rejoice in this, for our submission is itself an aspect of our worship to the King of all the earth.

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