Wednesday, May 14, 2003

The Dynamics of Faith in the Life of Abraham

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

Abraham’s Faith Transcended Obedience

The Binding of Isaac and The Strange Loop of Fulfilled Faith

This, then, brings us to the time when Abraham offered Isaac. The event is familiar to us, but a close inspection reveals a remarkable paradox.

The Lord’s angel called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “‘I solemnly swear by my own name,’ decrees the Lord, ‘that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the strongholds of their enemies. Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants.’” (Genesis 22:15-18, The Net Bible)

Verses 16-18 contain blessings to Abraham from the Lord “because” of what Abraham had done. Remarkably, there is no blessing here that the Lord had not already promised unconditionally!

  1. Abram will be blessed and be a blessing (see Genesis 12:2).
  2. All peoples will be blessed through him (see Genesis 12:3)
  3. Abram’s offspring will be given the land (see Genesis 15:7)
  4. Descendants as the stars of heaven (see Genesis 15:5)

This certainly exhibits the eternal nature of God who could see Abraham’s obedience before it happened, but it has broader implications on which James has a useful commentary:

But would you like evidence, you empty person, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:20-24)

Note the word “fulfilled” in verse 23. The paradox raised on Mount Moriah can be explained by acknowledging that salvation contains an implicit prophecy of kingdom works. For Abraham, the prophecy was fulfilled when he offered his son. For us it will be something else, but it will be something. As Paul says:

For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not of works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. With Abraham we have an actual example of this. God made promises to Abraham based on Abraham’s future obedience. The promises, in turn, were the reason Abraham obeyed. It is a strange feedback loop engineered by the eternal God.

A Final Meditation

Here is a final meditation relating Abraham, his faith, and his actions good and bad.

  1. The Lord made a free covenant with Abraham. It was made by God’s free choice and was not based on anything Abraham did or was. Similarly, our salvation is a free gift based on God’s grace and Christ’s death to pay for our sins.
  2. Although Abraham did well living as an alien and stranger in the land, and this was good evidence that he trusted God, he almost destroyed the possibility of the covenant’s fulfillment by consistently lying about Sarah’s relationship to him. The incidents represented a long-term problem in Abraham’s life and could even be viewed as compulsive and beyond his immediate control. Likewise, our Christian life is a blend of strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, any of us could fail to the point of nearly destroying the plans God has for our lives.
  3. The Lord forgave Abraham’s failures and blocked their covenant destroying repercussions. The Lord will also forgive our failures and block permanent damage in terms of His work for us.
  4. The Lord commended Abraham for trusting Him. He will do the same for us.
  5. The Lord tested Abraham’s faith at a point of readiness. He will test us to perfect us as well.

Our salvation is sure by the power of God to perfect our faith. However, the context in Hebrews suggests caution. Consider:

For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. (Hebrews 11:14-15)

Related to this is the kick-off verse for all of chapter 11:

But my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him. But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:38-39)

The “shrinking back” in 10:38 and the “opportunity to return” in 11:15 are the same. Faith in God and longing for pre-faith circumstances do not mix. Shrinking back is being like the seeds sown in rocky patches whose tender sprouts burned when the testing came. In modern terms, people “get saved” for many reasons and some of them are not valid. Accepting Christ only to avoid judgment or enter heaven is simply subtle self-interest and it will not stand. The Lord is interested in mutual relationship and affection.

Does this mean there can be no personal assurance of salvation?  Definitely not!  Although Hebrews 11:38 says that some will shrink back and be destroyed, verse 39 was written by someone who knew it could not happen to him by reason of his faith. In other words, there is a faith that is the kind that keeps trusting. So, faith and perseverance, like faith and obedience, go hand in glove. Faith is the foundation. Faith is that from which obedience, perseverance, and other forms of godly behavior come. Saints will persevere in the faith.

So let’s give thanks and praise to Jesus, the “author and perfecter of faith.”

Friday: TDB

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The Dynamics of Faith in the Life of Abraham

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

Abraham’s Faith Transcended Obedience

In the last two posts, I described how Abraham's faith was the foundation for a persistent obedience to walk the length and breadth of the land. I will now show how Abraham's faith transcended obedience. By this, I mean that his character constantly placed at risk, the Lord's plan for him. The Lord, however, consistently intervened to protect the plans that He had made for the man who believed. But before going there, let's look at the end of the story.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there. (Hebrews 11:17-19, The Net Bible)

Notice the passage refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.”  This is curious, because, in fact, Abraham had another son named Ishmael, but he was not of the covenant line and by Sarah’s request had been sent away. We must understand, then, that when Abraham was committed to inflict the fatal wound on his remaining boy tied to the altar, he was about to destroy the only means by which the covenant could humanly be fulfilled. But it was the same Lord who promised the covenant and commanded the offering. Abraham's faith was confident of a good outcome. Abraham’s obedience to God, who had asked him to come to this mountain and sacrifice Isaac, had been prompt and unflinching. Unchecked, he would have quickly and painlessly dispatched the boy and burned the remains. We know, however, that the Lord stopped Abraham and provided a ram instead. Such was the faith old Abraham had in the promises of the Trustworthy One.  

The younger Abram may not have obeyed so readily!

The covenant, of which Isaac was a crucial part, was progressively revealed to Abraham throughout his life. I have somewhat arbitrarily divided the revelation into four periods that lead to Abraham’s offering of Isaac to the Lord. The grand test of Abraham’s faith is best understood by relating it to these periods. Most of these periods exhibited good news and bad news. The good news was always an advance in Abraham’s understanding of the covenant and his faith in God. The bad news was that he always put the covenant in jeopardy.

The First Period

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a prime example of divine blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

The first period, recorded in Genesis 12 - 14, started when God called him and his family from Haran. It lasted for about 10 years. The main covenant revelations were:

  1. God will make Abram into a great nation.
  2. Abram will be blessed and be a blessing.
  3. All peoples will be blessed through him.
  4. Abram’s offspring will be given the land.

Although Sarai was sterile, Abram was still easily young enough, because of a residual pre-flood vitality, at 75 to be a father. The good news during this period was that he trusted God enough to leave Haran and wander about the land of Canaan for 100 years. However,

There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay for a while because the famine was severe. As he approached Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “Look, I know that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will keep you alive. So tell them you are my sister, so that it may go well for me because of you and my life will be spared on account of you.” (Genesis 12:10-13)

The bad news was that he lied about Sarai’s proper relationship to him. Although God had told him that his offspring would inherit the land, he showed his disregard for this piece of the promise by trusting God neither for his life nor for a child from Sarai and, thereby, jeopardized the covenant. In other words, Abram trusted best when he had some control of the outcome.

The Second Period

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield and the one who will reward you in great abundance.” But Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, what will you give me since I continue to be childless, and my heir is Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram added, “Since you have not given me a descendant, then look, one born in my house will be my heir!” But look, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but instead a son who comes from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Gaze into the sky and count the stars—if you are able to count them!” Then he said to him, “So will your descendants be.” Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord considered his response of faith worthy of a reward. (Genesis 15:1-6)

The second period, recorded in Genesis 15 - 16, began at a point of great frustration for Abram and lasted until Abraham was circumcised. Abram was about 85 years old, and still had no children. The main new covenant revelations were:

  1. Abraham would have a son from his own body.
  2. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars.
  3. Abraham trusted God, and righteousness was credited to him.

The good news during this period was that Abram trusted God to do the things He promised. On the other hand,

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not given birth to any children, but she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from having children, have sexual relations with my servant. Perhaps I can have a family by her.” Abram did what Sarai told him. (Genesis 16:1-2)

The bad news was that he, again, failed to count Sarai in the promise. Instead, he saw its fulfillment in Ishmael: the child Hagar bore him and in whom he developed a strong relationship. Indeed Abram greatly desired Ishmael to be the covenant bearer:

Then Abraham bowed down with his face to the ground and laughed as he said to himself, “Can a son be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, Sarah your wife is going to bear you a son and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm my covenant with him as a perpetual covenant for his descendants after him. (Genesis 17:17-19)

The Third Period

The third period, recorded in Genesis 17-20, began the year preceding the birth of Isaac and lasted until Sarah conceived. The main new covenant revelations were:

  1. Abram’s name became Abraham.
  2. Sarai’s name became Sarah.
  3. Circumcision was instituted.
  4. A child was specifically promised to Sarah within a year.

Abraham, himself, at this time was considered too old to have children. The good news during this period was that Abraham circumcised all males in his household. But an uncorrected problem in Abraham's life surfaced:

Abraham journeyed from there to the Negev region and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he lived as a temporary resident in Gerar, Abraham said about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her. (Genesis 20:1-2)

The bad news had multiple facets. First, the revelation concerning Isaac troubled him and he asked if the Lord might not still consider Ishmael as fulfillment. The second and more serious was how completely he again disregarded the promise to Sarah. During this period, the Lord directly promised to Sarah that she would have a son within a year. Thus began a very critical year. Although she could have conceived at any time, Abraham gave her to Abimilech as wife. The foolishness of this act is astonishing. By this careless act, Abraham created a situation by which the very paternity of Isaac could be left open to doubt and, thereby, jeopardized all the promises the Lord had made to himself and Sarah. Were it not for the Lord’s intervening through Abimelech’s dream, which redeemed both the situation and Sarah’s honor, the covenant would have become void. 

Later, Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac.

The Fourth Period

Sarah said, “God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” She went on to say, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have given birth to a son for him in his old age!” The child grew and was weaned. Abraham prepared a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah noticed the son of Hagar the Egyptian—the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham—mocking. So she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave woman will not be an heir along with my son Isaac!” Sarah’s demand displeased Abraham greatly because Ishmael was his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be upset about the boy or your slave wife. Do all that Sarah is telling you, because through Isaac your descendants will be counted. (Genesis 21:6-12)

The fourth period extended from Sarah’s pregnancy until Abraham was commanded to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering. During this period, Ishmael and his mother were sent away and Isaac became as it were Abraham’s only son. There was no bad news during this period. It was, instead, the time for Abraham to look back at the promises of God and their literal fulfillment. If at the beginning of the third period, Abraham didn’t have the sense to stop marrying off his own wife; during this period his faith grew to the point of immediate obedience when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac. It was during this period that Abraham, according to Hebrews, acquired the ability to reason that God would even raise Isaac from the dead in order to honor the covenant promises. After all, the Lord had created life in a dead womb.

Thursday: The Binding of Isaac and The Strange Loop of Fulfilled Faith

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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

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[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.

Monday, May 12, 2003

The Dynamics of Faith in the Life of Abraham

This is the second 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

From the beginning Abram obeyed God. No matter what else may be said, however, that obedience was the result of his faith. Hebrews puts it this way:

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)

Abraham “by faith” acted. By faith, Abraham obeyed the call of God, went out to Canaan, and lived as an alien or perpetual visitor in the land God had promised him. These verses reveal that Abraham looked forward to a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 

What did it mean for Abraham to go out? The original account of Abram’s call and leaving begins in Genesis 12:

So Abram left, just as the Lord had told him to do, and Lot went with him. (Now Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.) And Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they left for the land of Canaan. They entered the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:4-5)

The Scriptures are amazingly terse sometimes. The brevity of these two verses give the impression that Abram’s leaving was comparable to a next door visit. A somewhat expanded version would include these items, at least:

  1. Abram needed to settle whatever affairs he had active in Haran (like selling house and property).
  2. He needed to acquire provisions for a 300-mile trek to Canaan’s border for himself, Sarai, Lot, over 300 other people, and livestock.
  3. He had to walk away from “country, people, and father’s household.”
  4. He had to make the trip, itself. This, at the least, included activities to smoothly start and stop the parade of people, animals, and supplies each day. Seemingly inconsequential items, like water, become major constraints on such a journey.

In short, Abram’s setting out required detailed planning. It was far too difficult a journey to make on impulse. It required the certainty Abram had in the call of God and cannot be viewed as a small undertaking.

What did it mean for Abraham to live as an alien? Note that Genesis 12:4 tells us that Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran and Genesis 25:7 tells us that Abraham was 175 years old when he died. In other words, after leaving Haran, Abraham had walked the length and breadth of Canaan according to God’s command for one hundred years. For a century he never stayed any place long enough to mix with the Canaanites or participate in their idolatry.

One can more easily appreciate what Abram accomplished by realizing how much easier it would have been for him to settle somewhere. Consider his nephew, Lot. He never blended with Abram’s company and apparently maintained a careful accounting of what belonged to him. Eventually, the effort to maintain a separate togetherness proved too much and he and Abram parted ways; Lot had first choice and chose the easy ground.

Lot looked up and saw the whole region of the Jordan. He noticed that all of it was well-watered (before the Lord obliterated Sodom and Gomorrah) like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, all the way to Zoar. (Genesis 13:10)

This left Abram the rough hill country. But before long, Lot had pitched his tents near Sodom. A little later, he lived in Sodom whose wickedness, according to Peter, distressed him greatly. Apparently, however, the distress was easier than the rootless life Abraham led. 

So, Abraham continuously trusted the Lord to meet his needs, and the Lord met them continuously. Abram’s trust in God enabled him leave Haran and to confidently walk the length and breadth of Canaan as an old man. His life, goods, and people were secure and uncorrupted.

Tuesday: The City That Never Was

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