by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca)
Today we look at the faith of a man over a long period of time. Let's read Hebrews 11:8-16. The hymn writer wrote about "all the changing scenes of life" and Abraham certainly faced some changing scenes and crises in his long journey. Before looking at some of the details we should note what Paul said about Abrahamic faith:
"Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Romans 4:3). And this is the kind of faith that God longs for from all people. "The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcized and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcized who are not only circumcized but who also follow the faith that our ancestor had before he was circumcized" (Romans 4:11-12). Here the circumcized are all the Jewish and Arab children of Abraham. But the Abrahamic faith that God has in mind is not only for them but for all people everywhere.
As we will see, Abrahamic faith is very simple. It is a personal relationship with the Lord (who is named ehyeh I AM, which became yiheye , or Yahweh, Jehovah, meaning HE IS, as Moses was reminded in Exodus 3:13-15). And of course the Lord of the Old Testament is the eternal Son of God who took birth among us and was named Jesus.
The problem was that the simple faith of Abraham was forgotten by Jews when they replaced a personal relationship with the Lord by the heavy burden of obeying the torah or law of Moses. As Paul explained, "The law (of Moses) which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not annul a covenant (with Abraham) previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise" (Galatians 3:17). We will look at the covenant with Abraham in a moment.
But first we might note that the Arab children of Abraham continued in the simple faith of Abraham for 2500 years till they were persuaded by Muhammad to obey the Qur'an. And of course one monstrous interpretation of the Qur'an is the idea that all people must be forced by Jihad (holy war) to submit to Allah and come under the sharia laws of Islam. That was the idea that motivated the young men who were willing to die and take thousands with them in the recent attacks on the towers in Manhattan.
But Christians have also been guilty of adding to the simplicity of Abrahamic faith by the rules which were invented in the Greek and Russian and Coptic Orthodox churches. Then for many centuries Europe came under the heavy hand of Roman Catholicism. When the Anglicans freed themselves from the power of the Roman Pope, they introduced a set of rules of their own. And the Evangelical denominations added a whole slew of other dos and don'ts. Paul had to fight the legalism which so quickly took over the Galatian church. "You foolish Galatians. Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus the Messiah was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?" (Galatians 3:1-2). "Just as Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness, so you see those who believe are the descendants of Abraham" (Galatians 3:6-7). So he appeals to them: "For freedom the Messiah has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). He wants them to live by Abrahamic faith and nothing extra.
Now let us go back to the account of Abraham's life in the first book of the Bible. "Terah took his son Abram and his son Lot son of Haran, and his daughter in law Sarai, his son Abram's wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldees to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there" (Genesis 11:31). Ur of the Chaldees had been a great Sumerian city that had ships trading all the way down the Persian Gulf to India. In Pakistan there are the ruins of the Indus Valley civilization with the cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, which were almost certainly Sumerian colonies. But the ancient Sumerian civilization was gradually taken over by Hamites under a leader named Nimrod who came across the Arabian desert from the area of the Red Sea (see Genesis 10:6-11). As a result of this the family of Terah and his son Abraham decided to leave the great city of Ur and move 800 kilometres north west across present day Iraq. They settled around the town of Haran in the area called Aram where they could live in peace.
His parents did not want to move any further, but Abraham felt he must leave his family there and move on to a land that the Lord would show him (Genesis 12:1). Abraham was given three promises which are still at the center of world history in our day. There was a promise about land, which was later described as the tiny strip of land from Dan to Beersheba. It was bordered by the Mediterranean on the west, the Jordan to the east, the Negeb desert in the south, and the foothills of mount Lebanon in the north (see Deuteronomy 24:3. There is a serious mistake when the word parat (overflowing river) is translated as the Euphrates instead of the Jordan (Joshua 1:4) - the Jews have never claimed the area east and north through Syria to the Euphrates).
Abraham was also promised he would the father a great nation. And most important of all through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. These three promises were never changed but their fulfilment depended on commitment to the Lord and his purposes. Twice the Jewish people were removed from their land. In 597 Jerusalem was taken by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people were exiled for 70 years. When the city fell to the Romans in AD 70, as Jesus had predicted, the exile of the Jewish people from their land continued for 1900 years till our own day.
Similarly the promise of the Jews being a great nation became true for a time under David and Solomon, but often throughout their history the very existence of Jews as a nation has been threatened. Jesus' complaint was that the temple in Jerusalem was meant to be a house of prayer for all nations, but it had become a den of thieves. And to this day Jews have never retained the vision of being a blessing to all nations. After a brief period of planting churches among other nations, the Christian church also failed to take the third promise seriously till very recently in the last two hundred years.
Now we go back to Hebrews 11:8 for the New Testament comment on the way Abraham's faith worked out when he moved into the promised land. When he left his family in Haran he had no idea what he was coming into. Similarly for any of us Abrahamic faith may take us into situations which we cannot picture till we meet them. The only assurance is that God will be with us, whatever we encounter. "By faith he stayed for a time in the land which he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents" (11:9). The land was certainly "flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 13:5), but he was considered a foreigner (like many immigrants with a foreign accent). He was unable to own any property till Sarah died, and the local people agreed to sell him a cave for a family burial place (Genesis 23:1-16).
Very soon he faced the problem of not having enough pasture for himself and his nephew, and when they had to divide the land he let Lot choose the Jordan valley (Genesis 13:8-12). Worst of all the people were Canaanites who were given to abominable fertility cults under the god Baal. He and his family had to adopt the language of Canaan from which both Hebrew and Arabic emerged. It is strange that the language of Abraham was originally Sumerian, but for modern Israel the language that was revived was the Hamitic Canaanite.
It was in this difficult situation that Abraham's faith turned to what God had in mind. "He looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:9). This city of God is described for us in the last book of the Bible. "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (we noted the name Lamb last week in the study of Abel's faith). And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of earth will bring their glory into it" (Revelation 21:22-24). The New Testament makes clear that in this city the love which we enjoy on earth will be perfected in the love of God and of one another. (This is very different from the terrorist faith that looks forward to men enjoying virgins for their eternal pleasure and drinking the wine they abstained from on earth - what hope there is for women is not mentioned!).
An essential part of any genuine Abrahamic faith is this looking to the final end of our pilgrimage. It is not that "pie in the sky" makes us so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. In fact Abraham was very active when he led three hundred of his servants in a surprise attack to rescue his nephew Lot from a vast army (Genesis 14:13-16). This aspect of Abrahamic faith is described as: "All these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. For people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland" (Hebrews 11:13-14).
Not many of us are called to have children in our old age, but we should note the words: "By faith he received power of bringing to birth" (a better translation than "procreation," Hebrews 11:11). The point is the distinction between receiving a promise (in this case having an heir) and receiving the power to bring it into effect. Similarly for us Abrahamic faith often involves first getting a promise or vision from the Lord, and then accepting the power of the Holy Spirit to bring it to pass.
Finally we need to face the very difficult problem of being guided in our faith pilgrimage. "By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac" (Hebrews 11:17). When he returned from the Jordan valley after saving his nephew Lot from being taken away into captivity, Abraham was met by Melchizedec, the priest-king of Salem, and they shared bread and wine together (Genesis 14:18). After the birth of Isaac Abraham found himself wondering whether he really loved the Lord more than the son given to him miraculously in his old age. The nations around practiced human sacrifice. Would he be willing to offer up his son and heir? "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him on one of the mountains that I will show you" (Genesis 22:2, the mountain was Mount Moriah, where Abraham had eaten with Melchizedec, and where the temple of Solomon was later built).
Obviously God had no intention of letting Abraham engage in human sacrifice, and he had a ram ready to offer on the altar. It is also clear that Abraham had the faith to believe God would provide an alternative. He told the servants "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." And when Isaac asked "where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son" (Genesis 22:5, 8). In our text we are told "He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead - and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back" (Hebrews 11:19).
What then do we make of the statement "No one, when tempted, should say, 'I am being tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one"? (James 1:13). But in the very next chapter James tells us "Was not our ancestor justified by works when he offered his own son on the altar? You see faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and was called the friend of God" (James 1:21-23).
There is one kind of testing which is for our good, as when a class
teacher sets a test to help students focus their study and see what they
need to make progress. But, as James explains, God will never test us to
engage in what is abhorrent to him. One good result of Abraham's faith
experience was that Israel from then on never imagined that human sacrifice
was acceptable to God. But certainly Abraham's faith was tested to the
limit, and in our faith walk with God there will be times when we are terribly
tested. In these times of testing we need to hold on to the fact that God
loves us totally and he will never tell us to do what is obviously wrong.