September 4, 2021 - Abraham

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Today we’re going to talk about Abraham. We want to take a look at his entire story and what we know about him. We tend to think of Abraham as a hero of faith, and to some extent, he is. But Abraham also had his rough edges. We hear various claims about Abraham from different religions. So what’s the real story on Abraham?

First, we must say that Abraham was not a made-up fictional or mythical character. When talking about ancient religious texts, we can’t make assumptions about what is real and what is legendary. Abraham’s original name (Abram) is found in Near Eastern texts from around 2000 BC. We have no specific references to our Abram from outside the Bible, but Genesis treats him as an historical character, and links him to characters from the 1900’s BC, specifically to the 4 kings who conquer Sodom. For more information on this, check out a post of mine called “Real People, Real History” on our website

Abram is born in a thoroughly pagan culture. He moves from Ur in southern Iraq to a city in northern Iraq which was a center of moon worship. His people worshipped a supermarket full of different gods. There seems to have been almost no knowledge of the one true God at this time. There was no Bible, and no missionaries to lead Abram to faith.

So God decides to replant the knowledge of God on earth through this one man Abram. From his descendants, God creates a nation to whom God will reveal himself, and through whom the unknown God will reveal himself to a world that doesn’t have a clue who God is.

Abram’s response shows us that in any culture, no matter how far they may be from God, people are capable of responding to the truth. Whether we grew up with Islam, Buddhism, or atheism, none of us is locked into what we were taught to believe growing up. Yes, people can give up what they once believed to follow the one true God, no matter what situation they are in. Abram grew up with no knowledge of God, yet (without human help) he rejects the false beliefs of his society. God doesn’t abandon Abram to live in darkness; God rescues him from falsehood.

And because God rescues him, the entire course of human history is altered. Abram’s detour from the faith of his ancestors becomes the main road for our entire civilization. If there is anyone who sincerely desires to know God, God will move heaven and earth to break through to that person. To anyone who sincerely seeks God and responds to the light they already have, God’s response is to give them more light. God reaches out to Abram, in a time and place where he could learn of God in no other way. The world has never been the same.

God gives Abram the faith and courage to leave his home and go to an unspecified land where God promises to make him into a great nation, and promises that by him all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (or “shall bless themselves” – we can read the Hebrew either way). Going, but not knowing – leaving home behind for an invisible future – that takes faith.

But almost immediately, Abram flunks his next test of faith. He lies to save his own skin. He passes off his wife as his sister, because he’s too afraid of his new neighbors to trust God to protect him. In chapter 20, he does it again! And no, God does not command him to tell this lie (despite the claim of a prophet from outside the Bible that God told Abram to lie). Abram fears men more than God. The pagan men he’s afraid of turn out to be better than him. And in both cases, the family blood line is threatened; another man comes close to hijacking the mother of God’s yet-to-be-born chosen people. Here, Abram hardly looks like a hero of faith.

In Genesis 14, Abram proves himself to be a warrior, in military action that required considerable faith. 4 kings from Mesopotamia invade Canaan and conquer 5 cities in the Dead Sea valley, including Sodom, where Abram’s nephew Lot is living. It took courage, but Abram gathers 318 trained men and chases that army that was too strong for Sodom more than 200 miles. Abram recaptures all the people and loot that this enemy army had taken. (Up till now, we had no clue that Abram could fight, let alone beat an enemy that had conquered 5 cities.)

When Abram returns from this battle, he is met by an uninvolved Canaanite king named Melchizedek, whom we are also told happens to be a priest of God Most High. Melchizedek appears to be maybe the only person outside of Abram’s household who knows the one true God. This king blesses Abram, and Abram recognizes that this man is a representative of the same God he worships. Abram responds in gratitude to God for his victory in battle by giving Melchizedek 1/10 of all that he has gotten.

But all this time, Abram continues childless. One of the frustrations of childlessness is that we find ourselves almost powerless to control the outcome. There is only so much we can do. And it was worse in Abram’s day than it is today. Back then, childlessness was viewed as an embarrassing slap in the face from God. Abram saw his childless condition as a contradiction of all the promises God had made to him. We can hear the frustration in his voice when he says in Genesis 15, “God, you say you’ve got a great reward for me someday, but what does that mean? I’m still childless, and all I’ve got to leave my estate to is some guy from Damascus who’s not exactly what I would call family.”

God answers, “No! You’re not going to leave your estate to an outsider. You will have a biological son of your own.” Then God tells Abram to look up in the night sky and says, “You see how many stars there are up there? You may be starting still at zero, but someday, that’s how many descendants you’re going to have.” As staggering as it must have sounded, it says that Abram “believed God, and God counted / reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

God takes an ordinary sinner like Abram and declares him to be righteous, not because of any good deeds he has done, but simply because he is willing to believe God’s promise, to take God at God’s word, even though God’s promise is beyond his wildest dreams. Because of his faith, God literally credits Abram on the account books as a righteous man. That’s the only way any of us can ever get right with God.

The apostle Paul points out in Romans 4: “If Abraham had gotten right with God by his own goodness, he would have had reason to boast. But he didn’t! He was saved purely by faith, not by any goodness of his own he could boast of.” In the same way, Paul argues, the only way that sinners like us can be put right with God is by believing that what Jesus did on the cross was enough to make us holy and pure and faultless before God. If you can believe that, Paul argues, you’ve got the faith of Abraham, the kind of faith that can save you and give you eternal life.

Notice that Abram’s faith does not keep him from losing patience with God. Again, his faith momentarily crashes and burns. In Genesis 16, Abram takes matters into his own hands. He and Sarah resort to surrogate parenthood, an act that was not commanded by God. In fact, one can rightly question whether this could be called a plural marriage. Abram gets a biological descendant, but God says, “That’s not the son I promised you.”

In Genesis 17, God makes a formal covenant with Abram, and changes his name from “Exalted Father” to Abraham, “Father of a Multitude.” At this point, God declares that Abraham and all the males in his household must be circumcised as a sign of this covenant. But before this event, in Genesis 15, back when Abram believes God, God goes through a covenant ceremony with Abram. Here, the 2 parties must offer sacrifices, cut the bodies of the animals in half, and then pass between the 2 halves, symbolizing death to whomever breaks the covenant.

God appears here like a burning torch, like he does later on Mt. Sinai. As Pastor Tim Keller points out, only God passes through between the parts. Keller argues that it was unheard of for the senior partner in a covenant to come and walk through the pieces, while the servant does not even have to take the oath. “Abraham knew what it meant, though he didn't see how it could be. It meant God was making the promise for both of them, and he was taking the curse of the covenant on for both of them! And what he was doing was, he was saying, “Not only will I be torn to pieces if I don't keep my promise, I'll be torn to pieces if you don't.”

The way that Tim Keller sees it, God is saying here to Abram and to all of us, “I will bless you no matter what…Even if I have to literally be torn to pieces.” And God did so, he says, because centuries later, darkness came down on Calvary, thick darkness, and in the midst of the darkness, he says, there was God in the person of Jesus Christ, who was literally torn to pieces that day by nails, spears, and thorns. What for? God was taking the covenant curse.

Are the blessings of God conditional or unconditional? Keller says: both! “Because on the cross, Jesus Christ absolutely fulfilled the conditions of the law so that God could love you absolutely, unconditionally. With his perfect life Jesus Christ completely fulfilled the terms of the covenant and he earned the blessing. But with [his] sacrificial death he completely fulfilled the curse of the covenant and that leaves the blessing for you, me, and anyone who lifts the empty hands of faith and asks for it. Jesus Christ fulfilled the conditions of the covenant so that we could be received unconditionally.”

All this was to confirm the covenant God made with Abram in Genesis 15, for which he takes upon himself the covenant sign of circumcision in Genesis 17 when God renames him Abraham. The promise that day was simply that God would give Canaan to his descendants, and make them God’s chosen people. But as Keller observes, God had a lot more in mind.

Only when there is no more natural possibility that Sarah can ever have a child does God put a deadline on his promise in Genesis 18 and say, “By this time next year, Sarah shall have a son.” By waiting until the mother is 90 years old and her husband is 100, God eliminates any chance that this child could be born by any means other than God’s promise. And God delivers on his promise. Several women in the past 20 years have reportedly given birth in their 60’s, and one at age 72. God is full of surprises. Here, God pushes the envelope ever further.

God’s answer to the prayers of a childless, hopeless couple like Abraham and Sarah reminds us that God’s chosen family line did not just happen, and if it had been up to nature, that family would not have happened. Looking back on the ancestors of their nation, the Israelites can say, “If it hadn’t been for God’s decree, we would never have been born!”

It doesn’t take faith like steel to be a winner with God. Surprisingly, God honors even weak and wobbly faith like Abraham’s, which means there’s also hope for us. But before too long, Abraham’s faith gets put to the acid test, and when it does, Abraham’s faith proves strong enough to amaze even the strongest believer.

But before that, in Genesis 18, we find Abraham pleading with God to have mercy on Sodom, the city where his nephew Lot lives. Abraham has no desire to see the people of Sodom destroyed. He takes no delight in the thought of God’s judgment. In Genesis 18, we find Abraham urgently bargaining with God, like a peddler on the street who won’t take no for an answer. Abraham bargains boldly, although he admits he has no right to ask what he asks, and God has no obligation to give him what he asks. Abraham pleads for mercy on Sodom, for the sake of whatever righteous few may remain in the city.

The ultimate test of faith for Abraham comes in Genesis 22. Here God speaks to his one and only chosen friend on earth, the friend to whom God has made great promises, and asks him to make the ultimate sacrifice. God asks him to give up his only child of an otherwise childless marriage, the son he loves more than words can express, a son who had come by a miracle.

Only a few short years before, there had been no Isaac. Abraham and Sarah had been childless for decades, for their entire adult lives. Then God promises to do the impossible for them: to make Abraham into a great nation through her. And God does it! Imagine the incredible joy they must have felt when it came true!

But now, God’s new request strikes like a lightning bolt from the sky. God asks him to offer this child as a burnt offering. God asks him to go all the way back to Square 1: no son, no heir, no descendants, no nothing. God’s request negates all the promises God has made, the hopes of an entire lifetime. Abraham is being asked to sacrifice all that he holds dear.

Abraham is faced with a test that pushes his faith to the very limits. God had never made such an unbelievable request before. How can Abraham know that this is God, and not the voice of an evil spirit? Abraham must know God well enough to recognize God’s voice when he hears it. If anyone ever had reason to ask, “God, what are you thinking?”, Abraham did.

Why does God require Abraham to go through this ordeal of faith? The answer is: because faith has to be tested before it is put to heavy-duty use. Faith must be tested to see if it can stand up to the hard realities of life or to the challenges of falsehood. Abraham’s faith must be proved to be of the toughest quality if he is to be the ancestor of a new people of faith.

The faith of the future Hebrew people cannot be stronger than the faith of their ancestor. It takes one kind of faith for Abraham to forsake his home and set out for the land God promised him without a clue where he is going. It takes a very different kind of faith to trust in God’s promises when God asks you to permanently let go of all that God has promised you. Without such rock-solid faith, however, how can the faith of Abraham pass the test of time? How can that faith last for centuries after he is gone?

God wants to see what Abraham will do when put to the strongest test. God wants to see, which does Abraham love more? Is it God, or is it this son that God has given him by promise? God can prove it only by making Abraham choose between the two. There’s a huge difference between faith that helps us survive trials where we have no choice, versus faith that makes us choose to voluntarily surrender an irreplaceable blessing, faith that requires us to give up what we hold most dear or gives us our greatest happiness.

Abraham puts his trust in God. He says “God will provide,” even though he can’t see how. His trust is an open-ended trust. He does not dictate how God must provide. He is willing to step out in faith, even if no deliverer comes. He does not know for a fact that God will provide a substitute to bail him out. The NT says that Abraham puts his trust in God, believing that God could even raise Isaac from the dead if necessary. To him, God may be hard to understand, but God is reliable.

Abraham plunges forward in faith. He binds Isaac, lays him on the altar, and raises the knife to slay his son. But God STOPS him. Unlike God’s supposed command to practice polygamy as a test of faith, where God does not stop the practice, but allows it to continue for 50 years, in Abraham’s case, God does not allow Abraham to follow through on an act that God forbids elsewhere. As soon as God can see Abraham’s faith on display, God calls off the test.

God is VERY pleased with the faith of Abraham. Here’s a guy who means business with God. Therefore, God doubles down on his promise to multiply Abraham’s descendants, and make them into a nation that will bring blessing to the world. And God provides a ram as a substitute for the boy. Amazingly, almost 20 centuries later, less than a mile away from this spot, God again provides a lamb that will end all need for sacrifices. Here, God steps into the shoes of Abraham by giving up his priceless only Son to save us from an eternity without God.

Abraham starts out with no knowledge of God, yet he grows in faith to where he is able to surrender all he hold dear to this God he never knew before. Yes, his faith flounders at times, but in the end, it proves to be as tough as steel. Next time on Biblical Words and World, we’ll be talking about another hero of faith who had his rough spots. Join us as we take a look at David!