Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The Dynamics of Faith in the Life of Abraham

This is the third post of a series that looks at faith in the life of Abraham. To start at the beginning, click here.

Obedience was the Result of Abraham’s Faith

The City that Never Was

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10, The NET Bible)

Verses such as Hebrews 11:10 are curious. Why talk about Abraham and a city when Genesis mentions no city? Better yet, how can one talk about Abraham and a city when Genesis mentions no city? Would it not have been sufficient to say that Abraham looked forward to the time when his descendants would inhabit the land of Canaan? Instead Hebrews tells us that Abraham was “to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Did the letter writer have special revelation or did he somehow deduce this? What did Abraham actually know about this city he was looking for?

The key is to realize that Abram, in contrast to others before him, maintained his wandering life in Canaan by continuously choosing against city life. I have already presented evidence that a rootless life was tough. Lot fell short of it. So did others. For example, the Lord told Cain that he would be “A restless wanderer on the earth.” This was a judgment on Cain, because he had killed Abel. Cain, however, built a city and named it after his son Enoch. As another example, one could make the case that Abram’s father, Terah, was not up to the nomadic life and required that Abram defer God’s call until after Terah had died. During this time period, they lived in the city of Haran. In other words, many settled in defiance of God's commands or to find security in a fixed place. Abraham did not.

Furthermore, I infer from the Genesis text that Canaan, in Abram’s time, consisted of isolated city-states. Consequently, to be the founder of a city was to become a king. So, if he had desired, Abram certainly had the people to establish and maintain a city. Besides servants and their families, Abram had a standing army of 318 trained men to defend its walls. At any moment he could have said, “We stop and build here,” and it would have happened. So the writer to the Hebrews saw that unlike Cain, Lot and Terah, Abraham persevered and never settled. He concluded from this that Abraham must have looked for a different city. Not one built by him, but one with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. How much Abraham might actually have known about what was to come is strongly suggested by Jesus’ own words recorded by John:

Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56)

If Abraham saw and rejoiced over the coming of Jesus, he may also have understood the New Jerusalem described in Isaiah 54 and Revelation 21.

“O afflicted one, driven away, and unconsoled! Look, I am about to set your stones in antimony and I lay your foundation with lapis-lazuli. I will make your pinnacles out of gems, your gates out of beryl, and your outer wall out of beautiful stones. All your children will be followers of the Lord, and your children will enjoy great prosperity. You will be reestablished when I vindicate you. You will not experience oppression; indeed, you will not be afraid. You will not be terrified, for nothing frightening will come near you. (Isaiah 54:11-14)

And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among men and women. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:2-3)

The city possesses the glory of God; its brilliance is like a precious jewel, like a stone of crystal-clear jasper. It has a massive, high wall with twelve gates, with twelve angels at the gates, and the names of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel are written on the gates. (Revelation 21:11-12)

The wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:14)

The city’s foundations are named for the 12 apostles, its gates for Abraham’s 12 great grandsons. Its architect and builder is God and its inhabitants are Abraham’s physical and spiritual offspring. It is the eternal city on the new earth in the new heavens.

Abram’s faith resulted in obedience. In Genesis, Abram is the first to be commended for obedience. Hebrews 11:8 tells us that “By Faith Abraham … obeyed.” This fact is little emphasized in the Church today. In part, this comes from correctly seeking to avoid associating salvation with human effort. Nevertheless, the life of Abraham can be viewed as a “long obedience in the same direction[1] Furthermore, the idea is not foreign to Paul, the champion of grace. In his greeting to the believers in Rome, he wrote, “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name's sake” (Romans 1:5)

Wednesday: Abraham's Faith Transcended Obedience

<>< Test Everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

[1] This phrase is taken from the title of the book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction / Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene H. Peterson, Copyright 1980, Intervarsity Press.

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