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Living by faith (3)

Abraham believed that God could raise from the dead

Scripture Readings

  • Hebrews 11:13-23
  • Genesis 22:1-19

Songs

  • This is the day, this is the day
  • Beneath the cross of Jesus
  • Break Thou the bread of life
  • My heart is filled with thankfulness

Introduction

My dear brother and sister in the Lord,

It was by God’s sovereign, saving grace that Abraham was saved from worshipping idols.  It was this saving grace that became Abraham’s whole life, his purpose, his reason for living.  Abraham was gripped by grace, his entire life became a walk with the God who plucked him out of the slavery of idolatry to serve Him as the only living and merciful God.  His life now was consumed by grace, and never after that did he feel at home on earth anymore.

But at first there was no land, no child, no home.  There was just God and his promise.  Abraham, in spite of external evidence, believed God.

Maturing faith

Like any sinful human being Abraham, in the space of twenty five years after he arrived in Canaan, looked at human ways to try to interpret God’s fulfilment of his promise.  In chapter 15 he asked God:

Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2–3, NIV)

Eliezer was head servant, sort of his personal butler, who was in charge of Abraham’s household.  Maybe he was to become his “son”.

The Lord answered:

This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4, NIV)

Abraham some time later tried to interpret the promise of the Lord again .  His own wife was barren and she felt obliged to, according to the heathen custom of the time, give her slave (her personal assistant) to Abraham to have a child with.  Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, who, according to the letter of God’s promise was his own flesh and blood, but not according to the promise. This arrangement did not work out either.  At that stage Abraham was eighty-six years old.

Faith Affirmed

Then, when the Lord appeared to Abraham again some thirteen years later, He reaffirmed the original promise to Him:

I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” (Genesis 17:1–2, NIV)

God went as far as to change his name to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude”.  God also told him that Sarai’s name will be “Sarah”, having an extended meaning of “princess of many” or “mother of nations”, and from her kings of peoples will come.

Marriage honoured

God’s purpose would only be fulfilled by honouring the marriage between Abraham and Sarah. Ishmael, the child of a slave,  will not be blessed like Isaac would be blessed.  Marriages are precious in the sight of God.  Both husband and wife, created in the image of God, through their covenant with one another under God’s over-arching covenant of grace, should live in obedience to God, and in faithfulness towards one another.  The children Abraham and Sarah (and later Isaac and Rebecca, even later Jacob and Rachel and Leah) would receive as God’s gift of mercy and grace would bear the blessing of blessings to nations – eventually this was fulfilled in Christ Jesus.

When God at that stage appeared to Abraham that He then announced the birth of Isaac. Some say Abraham found it ridiculous to the point that he fell face down on the ground laughing. I don’t think so: he found it so wonderful that he laughed with joy at the wonder of God’s grace.   When some time later God appeared again to be very specific about the birth date of the son, Sarah was the one who could not contain her laughter.

Once again we must assume that she did not find the idea of her falling pregnant at the age of ninety ridiculous, but rather that the news filled her with joy to the point that she burst out in laughter. God ordered that the boy’s name would be Isaac – meaning laughter, or maybe even joyful laughter.

Just to assure us that God is not planning to pull someone else into the household of Abraham to fulfil his promise, Abraham’s nephew Lot now disappears from the scene, having made the wrong choice to live in Sodom and Gomorrah.  He survived the destruction of the city, but his road and that of Abraham separated permanently.

Then in chapter 21:1-2 the good news:

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. (Genesis 21:1–2, NIV)

Faith made seen

The birth of Isaac certainly included Abraham and Sarah; it honoured their faithful obedience and trust in the promises of God, but ultimately it was God’s word.  It was his grace, and the result of his promise to them.  He did the impossible.  Hebrews 1:11-12 gives us the full picture:

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Hebrews 11:11–12, NIV)

Sarah was enabled:  God’s intervention caused it.  So it was with Samson’s mother, another figure born by the grace of God to destroy the enemy of God’s people.  He was a massive failure in faith, but even in his dreadful fall from grace he was a shadow which pointed to the eventual birth and ministry of Christ – also born from God, then without the need of a husband.

Sarah considered God faithful because He made a promise.  Abraham was as good as dead, but God did the impossible.

Romans 4 puts it this way:

Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:19–21, NIV)

For all those skeptics who do not believe in miracles, this is the message of the Bible.  It is all about miracles, all about God’s supernatural intervention:  the very act creation through the spoken word of God was a miracle;  so was his saving of Noah and his family in the flood; so was the calling of Abraham and Sarah; and the redemption of the people out of slavery of Egypt; and God’s sustaining grace through the wilderness for all those years; and the Red Sea, and the Jordan, and, and, and …  The birth of Christ was God’s direct intervention, so was his life miracle, death, his resurrection and his ascension.  The sending of the Holy Spirit is a miracle, the growth of the church is a miracle.  And so will the return of Christ be when He calls the living and the dead to appear before his judgement throne. When He takes us up to heaven, having sustained us and protected us from eternal hell and condemnation, that will be the most spectacular of them all.

In all of this, let’s align our faith in God as Abraham did:  it was not the miracles that made him believe, he never believed in the miracles itself, but in the God of the miracles.  When God promises, we focus on Him in the first place, rather on what He does.

Isaac, wonder upon wonder, was born when Abraham was 100 years old.  And Sarah prophesied that all who hears about this miracle of God will laugh with her.  Yes, Sarah, we share in your joy; we laugh with deep-seated soulful joy with you because God has kept his promises.  We laugh with joy because He kept his promise to send us his Son Jesus Christ.

One cannot judge Abraham and Sarah if they kept Isaac from harm, and maybe even spoiled him a bit.  They waited so long for him.  But had Isaac grown perhaps too dear to Abraham? Had he begun to take God’s place in the patriarch’s thinking? We cannot be sure of this, but if it was the case, this should remind us of many things that become too precious for us.

Faith tested

The Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee wrote that Isaac

… represents many gifts of God’s grace. Before God gives them our hands are empty. Afterwards they are full. Sometimes God reaches out his hand to take ours in fellowship. Then we need an empty hand to put into his. But when we have received his gifts and are nursing them to ourselves, our hands are full, and when God puts out his hand we have no empty hand for him. Isaac can be done without, but God is eternal.

In our Bible is written these terrible words:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2, NIV)

As specific as the Lord had been in the past about Isaac, to exclude Eliezer, Ishmael and Lot, so in the same way He is specific about Isaac: Take you son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and sacrifice him.

Between the lines we can almost read about Abraham who just did not sleep well that night.  It was early morning when he got up to cut the wood.  His servants could have done that, but Abraham was restless, and it was probably he wanted to kill time that he took the axe himself.  In his mind there were questions about the purpose of it all.  I think Abraham was puzzling over the problem. “How can God be true to his promise if I sacrifice Isaac?” he was asking. “What is God going to do to remain a God of honour?”

Came sunrise, he took his servants and set out for Moriah, the place God commanded him to go.

Faith worships in dark hours

What Abraham was doing during the three days it took to reach the region of Moriah. Three days are an eternity when embarked on such a task. What was Abraham thinking about during that “eternity”? I do not think he was imagining the sacrifice itself. I do not think he was asking whether at the crucial moment he would have the strength to go through with his assignment. Abraham was continuing to work on the problem of God’s promise. The reason I think this is that the passage may suggest that he solved it on the way to Moriah. We are told that when Abraham finally saw the place in the distance, he said to his accompanying servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

God made a promise to make Abraham a blessing to many nations.  In this promise he never doubted.  For him the matter was not in this first instance to have the courage to put Isaac on the altar; to him the issue was how God would provide. That he was asked to sacrifice Isaac was a big thing, let’s not underestimate this act of obedience, but what lived in his heart was the expectation that through all of what was about to happen God would provide a way to do as He promised.  God will find a way to honour his word and not change his mind about Isaac being the one through whom Abraham’s descendants will become as many as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore.

Faith knows God provides

God never asks more that what He provides.  Faith is to trust that what He demands He will provide.  Isaac had to learn this lesson through the obedience of his father.  That’s why, when he asked his father about the wood and the fire while there was no sacrifice, his father answered:

God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. (Genesis 22:8, NIV)

Hebrews 11:17-19 sheds the light brightly for us:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17–19, NIV)

Donald Grey Barnhouse puts it this way:

As Abraham and Isaac had walked for three days through country growing more and more desolate, and at the slow, measured pace of the burdened mule, his mind went around and around the matter, and he ultimately came to the calm conclusion that he was going to see a miracle. The method of his thought was as follows. God is not a liar. He cannot be mistaken. He told me, beyond question, that I should have a son, and there he walks before me. God has said that this son would be the one through whom he would fulfil all of his promises. Therefore, the son must live or God would be found false. And yet God commands that this son be put to death. Here, humanly speaking, is contradiction. But there is no contradiction in God. That is the foundation fact. There is power in God; there is wisdom in God; there is majesty and glory in God; but there is no contradiction in God. But what is to be done with God’s command to sacrifice my son? Since there is no contradiction in God, there is only one answer that my mind can fathom. God is going to perform a miracle and raise Isaac from the dead.”

And God did provide.  Not in the way Abraham might have worked it out for himself.  There was the voice of the angel of the Lord (many theologians argue that this angel, right through the Old Testament, was no one else the the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus Himself):

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12, NIV)

Abraham did not receive the promise to be the father of many nations because he was faithful to the point of almost sacrificing his son; quite the opposite: he received affirmation of the promises of God because God kept his promise.

Faith has a bright future

After Abraham too the ram in the thicket and sacrificed it in the place of Isaac, he called the place “The Lord will Provide.” (Future tense)  It became known as the Mountain of the Lord, the very place where Solomon’s temple would be built later (2 Chron 3:1), and where sacrifices where killed for the redemption of many.

It was just about there where they planted three crosses in the 33rd year of our Lord and Saviour.  God kept promise once again.  Although Israel crucified the their son of Nazareth, God provided in the Son of Man the lamb that would take away the sins of the world.

Barnhouse comments:

Our minds must go on in the logic of faith. We must call the name of our God Jehovah Jireh. The Lord will see to it. His wonderful mind will provide the way out of the dilemma. In fact, he has provided the way. At the mount of Calvary God saw to it. There love and justice met. There righteousness and mercy kissed each other. There the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, was provided in God’s perfect plan. All he asks of you is that you fix your eyes upon him and believe his Word that he is satisfied with that which he himself has done.”

Conclusion

Why do we call ourselves Christians?  Why are we followers of Christ?  Is to just to get something out of it?  What if that something is not there anymore?  This is where faith comes in:  Abraham trusted God who is faithful, even if it meant that he would give back to God what God promised him.  Faith means to put our faith in Him for what He is, not only for what He gives.  God is faithful and true, with Him there is not shadow of turning.  When our faith is tested, on the other side of it, we will find Him who called in the first instance – now carrying us through till we arrive in the city built by God Himself.

 

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