The Story of Abraham and God’s Redemption of Mankind – Part 2

God works out His purposes through the messiness of human history.

The story of God’s redemption of mankind in the Bible funnels through one man, Abraham from Mesopotamia. I introduced Abraham (known as Abram then) and his family in Part 1 of this series of articles.

Abram’s sister, Sarai, became his wife. Both of them were children of their father, Terah, by different mothers. Terah’s son, Haran, died in their homeland (Ur). The family with Lot, Haran’s son, left Ur and and traveled to a place they called Haran in southern Turkey, just north of Aleppo Syria.

Terah and Nahor remained in Haran, but God gave Abram the direction, “Go to the land that I will show you”, and the promise, “I will make you a great nation….”, and “Through you every family on earth will be blessed”. (Gen. 12:1-3) Thus, at the age of 75, Abram and Sarah left Haran and continued on to Canaan, and Lot went with them.

When they arrived at Shechem in Canaan, God renewed the promise as Abram looked out over the land: “I’m going to give this land to your descendants.” Abram built an altar there, Then, he continued on to the high country in Canaan, between Bethel and Ai, where he also built an altar and worshiped God. (Gen. 12:7-8)

Though God had promised him twice at this point to give Abram this land, Abram continued on. They traveled south out of Canaan, into the Negev desert, and they kept going further south to Egypt because of famine. (Gen 12:9-10)

Abram remained in Egypt long enough to accumulate some wealth before he started moving again. (Gen. 13:2) It is written that Abram “traveled from place to place” when he left Egypt. He seemed to be wandering.

He traveled north again, back to the Negev and eventually back to Bethel and Ai, where he settled down. (Gen. 13:3-4) It must have been some time, as he and Lot had accumulated so many animals their herds and servants couldn’t coexist peacefully. Thus, they parted ways. (Gen 13:5-13)

Lot settled south of Canaan in the Jordan Valley. Abram remained in Canaan, and God gave him the same promise a third time: “Look north, south, east, and west of where you are. I will give all the land you see to you and to your descendants….”; and “I will also give you as many descendants as the dust of the earth.” (Gen. 13:15-16)

Still, Abram moves again, this time south about 35 miles to another part of Canaan known as Hebron. Many years pass. Abram seems to be waiting for God to do what he said, and, for the first time, Abram begins to show signs of doubt that God’s promises would come to pass, . Perhaps, this is why God promises him a fourth time: “Your own son will be your heir” (Gen. 15:4); and “I will give this land to your descendants.” (Gen. 15:18)

When Abram was 86, however, Sarai takes matters into her own hands and offers her Egyptian servant, Hagar, to Abram. Abram agrees, Hagar conceives, but all is not well in the Abram household. Hagar disrespects the barren Sarai, and Sarai mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away. (Gen 16)

God comforts Hagar in her distress and says of Ishmael, “He will be free and wild”, but “[h]e will fight with everyone, and everyone will fight with him….,” and “[h]e will have conflicts with all his relatives.” (Gen. 16:12)

It seems that nothing is going right for Abram, and God promise takes on a sour taste. Is this the son through whom God will bless all the nations? This wild and contentious boy? Is the son of Sarai’s now despised Egyptian servant Abram’s heritage?

Continue reading “The Story of Abraham and God’s Redemption of Mankind – Part 2”

The Story of Abraham and God’s Redemption of Mankind – Part 1

As I start my third journey through Scripture from beginning to end in as many years, I am picking up on things I didn’t see the first two times through. In this series of articles I am tracing some stories in the great theme of God’s redemption of mankind through the descendants of Abraham.

Scripture is multi-layered contains many themes large and small. I expect a person can study Scripture for a lifetime and always be seeing new things. Today I am seeing something in the line of Abraham that I kind of knew already, but I am digging into it in more detail.

The intricate tapestry that is the 60-some writings of the Bible authored by 40 some different people over 1500 or so years always amazes me. That tapestry is often veiled to us, as if we were seeing it from the wrong side. Unless we see it from the side from which it was meant to be viewed, the picture won’t be clear to us.

When we read the stories of ancient people, they feel foreign to us today. For instance, Sarai (later known as Sarah) is the wife of Abram (later known as Abraham), and she is also his half-sister. (Gen. 20:12) They shared the same father, but they had different mothers.

We shudder at the thought today of a person marrying a close blood relative like that – a sister to boot! (Such close relations were later explicitly banned in Leviticus 18:9.) It was common a couple of thousand years before Christ, though. Perhaps this was due to limited spousal options and the greater distances people lived from each other.

We also need to understand that large segments of the Bible read like a narrative of things that simply happened, often without commentary. A recitation of the facts does not necessarily mean an “endorsement” of them. They simply are what they are, and we are often left to draw our own conclusions.

What we see throughout Scripture is that all people are deeply flawed, even the people with whom God found an audience. Ethical shortcomings have existed throughout every era of recorded human history. The Bible is nothing if not candid about the human condition.

I am setting the stage, here, for the point I eventually want to make about God’s plan to redeem all of mankind that weaves through the tapestry of the biblical narrative. I will have to lay this out over a number of articles.

In this article, I want to focus on Sarai and Abram and their origins. In Abram, who God renamed Abraham, God found a willing ear, and so God made His covenant with Abraham and gave Abraham a promise to bless not only Abraham and his descendants, but all the nations.

This covenant and promise becomes the central story of all Scripture and needs to be recognized to make sense of it. It is one of the biggest themes in the biblical narrative tapestry.

Continue reading “The Story of Abraham and God’s Redemption of Mankind – Part 1”

The Longing of Faith and the Pleasure of God

Faith is the exercise of rejecting all other choices in this life but God.

I recently gave a presentation on faith (and doubt). We moderns tend to think of faith as the opposite of doubt – as in proof or evidence, or the lack thereof – but that isn’t the way Scripture presents faith to us. Cosmological and fine-tuning arguments for the existence of God and so on are elementary.

We shouldn’t be commended for merely believing God exists. God has made himself obvious. (Rom. 1:20) Even the demons believe … and bristle! (James 2:19)

Rather, faith involves trust and relationship. It involves a willingness to rely on God, rather than rely on ourselves. A willingness to wait on Him, to trust Him, and to be confident in His goodness toward us. Faith is believing God loves us and desires us to love Him.

We receive God’s grace by faith; it’s not anything we do, lest anyone boast. Rather the grace we receive is the gift of God offered to us out of His love for us. (Eph. 2:8-9)

“Anyone who comes to God must believe He exists”

Hebrews 11:6a

Of course!

and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.”

Hebrews 11:6b

Faith is not just believing that God exists, but believing that He really does reward those who desire Him.

I had not previously thought of the story of Adam and Eve in the context of faith before. After all, they didn’t doubt God existed. God walked with them in the cool of the day in the garden. They knew God face to face!

When Satan tempted them, however, they lacked faith. They failed to trust that God was trustworthy.

It may not seem immediately obvious that the story of Adam and Eve is a story of unbelief, but I think it is. When Satan focused their attention on the seeming goodness of the fruit to eat and questioned why God would not want them to eat what was good for them, Satan was tempting them to doubt God’s goodness toward them.

Adam and Eve ignored God’s warning, determining for themselves what was best for them. Unbelief is an unwillingness to rely on God and a choosing to rely on ourselves and our own ability to determine what is best for us – rather then rely on God.

Adam and Eve were intrigued by Satan’s claim that eating the fruit would make them like God. They bought into the claim that God didn’t want them to be like Him, knowing good from evil. At the core of that temptation is the desire not to be dependent on God and to be self-sustaining, self-determining, and self-righteous.

Of course, God did want them to be like Him. After all, God made them in His very image! It was the very core purpose of His plan for them to be like Him!

Continue reading “The Longing of Faith and the Pleasure of God”

How the Moorings of the Gospel Were Secured

God’s promise to Abraham was given 430 years before Moses

I have taken some time to reflect on the unity for which Jesus prayed in relation to the story of Peter & Cornelius and the tension that continued in the early church over extending the Gospel to Gentiles (non-Jews). The tension that persisted at the heart of the early Church threatened to unmoor the Gospel from its footing.

In previous articles, I reflected on the deeply ingrained nature of the belief that the Jews were God’s people. They were entrusted with the Law of Moses, and they had protected the Law God gave them for well over a 1000 years, painstakingly preserving it, passing it down from generation to generation.

They were instructed by God Himself to drive out all the inhabitants in the land God promised them, to avoid intermarrying and being corrupted by the influence of “Gentiles” to worship their gods. Thus, Hebrew descendants of Abraham avoided association with others – Gentiles. Like the plague.

So intent on sticking to the script were Jews in the First Century, that they didn’t recognize God when He shed his deity and came to them as Jesus from Nazareth.

John says that God came to His own people, and they didn’t recognize Him. When the Word through whom the universe was created, the Word who “was with God” and “was God”, became flesh (John 1:1-3, 14), “his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:12) “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:11) John continues:

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

John 1:12-13

“His own” were the Jews. The “all who did receive him, who believed in his name”, were Gentiles (and Jews) who believed in what Jesus said and trusted in him. They became children of God, not because they were born into it, nor because they or anyone else desired it, but because God Himself desired them to be His children.

But these things were far from clear to the early Church. Even Peter, who lived with Jesus and knew him intimately, had difficulty with the idea that the Gospel should be extended to Gentiles.

In the previous articles linked above, I summarized how God gave Peter a vision that occurred three times in a row for emphasis, an audible voice, and the voice of the Holy Spirit, directing him to go with men who appeared just then at the door to summon him. Peter’s experience was orchestrated with an angel that visited Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, who was directed to send those men to “a man named Simon who is called Peter”. (Acts 10:5) Then God poured out His Holy Spirit on the Centurion and his household to emphasize to Peter his intention to extend the Gospel to the Gentiles.

But the tradition of shunning the Gentiles would not die easy. Despite the obviously divine orchestration of events to drive home God’s intentions to Peter, Paul had to confront Peter publicly in Antioch over the issue when Jews from Jerusalem came to visit, and Peter disassociated himself from the Antiochian Gentiles. (See Galatians 2-3)

Paul encountered the same issue in Galatia where people were insisting that the Jews continue to follow the Mosaic law. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described his confrontation with Peter. More importantly, Paul explained why the Mosaic Law no longer applied to the people of God – who now included not just the Jews, but everyone!

Continue reading “How the Moorings of the Gospel Were Secured”

Who Are the Righteous and the Wicked? Part III

Abraham’s faith was more than naked belief; it was belief that prompted him to act in trust in God.

“All Scripture is breathed out (inspired) by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….” (2 Tim. 3:16)

I was prompted in reading Psalm 1 to focus on the distinction between “the righteous” and “the wicked” in Who are the Righteous and the Wicked? Part I. As I began to dig into it, I observed that only God is righteous, and our righteousness depends wholly on our relationship to God. If we believe (trust) Him, he credits His righteousness to us. (See Part II) Abraham is our example: when he believed God, His faith in God was credited to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6 & rom. 4:3)

This is all very fundamental to Christianity. It might prompt us to make the assumption that people who merely believe God, believe the Bible (and go to church) are righteous. There is a fly in that ointment, however; and James identifies it in his letter.

James acknowledges that Abraham believed God, and his belief was counted to him as righteousness (James 2:23), but James digs a little deeper into what “the righteousness that comes by faith” (Rom. 3:22) really looks like. After all, even demons believe in God (James 2:19), but they aren’t righteous! The difference between the righteous and the wicked, therefore, involves something more than merely believing in God

We explored the idea that righteousness is something that flows from God, out of His very Being. It is not something God decreed, but something that God is in His very nature. Righteousness is not an abstract ideal that God lives up to; God is righteous. We don’t describe God in respect to righteousness; we know righteousness by knowing God.

It helps, perhaps, to take morality out of the equation and to look at it through a more scientific lens. Just as gravity is what it is and operates the way it operates (because that is how God created the universe), righteousness is simply what it is. Righteousness, however, isn’t something God created, like gravity; righteousness flows from the very nature and character of God.

To put it very simply: God defines righteousness by who He is, and righteousness is defined in relation to God.

Thus, we can only know righteousness in relation to God. We can’t be righteous, because only God is righteous. God credits His righteousness to us who believe (trust) in Him, but that is only the beginning.

Christians might call this being born again. We believe God; God counts us righteous; and, thus, He welcomes us into relationship with Him. A birth, however, is only the beginning.

When we dig deeper, as James did, we see a specific characteristic to the belief that Abraham by which God credited it to him as righteousness. That characteristic is something more than bare belief. Demons, who also believe, don’t have that characteristic (otherwise their belief would be credited to them as righteousness too). This characteristic is what James is getting at when he says that “faith apart from works is dead”. (James 2:26)

Abraham’s faith prompted him to action. James says that Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works”, and his “faith was completed by his works”. (James 2:22) Thus, Abraham’s faith was more than naked belief; it was belief that prompted him to act in trust in God.

Having some understanding of what makes a righteous person righteous, and what doesn’t, is essential to our relationship with God.

Faith that doesn’t prompt a person to action is not the kind of faith Abraham had; it is not the kind of faith that is credited to a person as righteousness. Faith that only prompts feelings is not the kind of faith that leads to righteousness. (James 1:19) The faith that leads to righteousness is faith that prompts a person to be a doer of God’s word. (James 1:22-25) It is faith that prompts love for God and love for neighbor, and that love is active! (James 1:26-27)

Faith that doesn’t result in a change from the core of a person’s being that emanates out into a change of heart and change in action is not the kind of faith that can be described as being born again. It is not saving faith, and it is not the kind of faith that God attributes as righteousness to people.