- Hebrews 11:8-10
- Genesis 11:27-12:8
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, today marks the first in a series of sermons on Abraham, the father of all believers. Our series will take us through episodes in the life of Abraham and his responses to the covenant grace of God.
The challenge of every sermon is to see the redemptive plan of God at work at any point of history, how it is fulfilled in Christ Jesus and what it teaches about the reason why God called his church into existence. May God help us to see that.
The sinfulness of man and the grace of God
It might help if we make a distinction between general history and redemptive history. Why? We might understand the Bible better that way.
Every minute of the past belongs to God. All history is therefore in the hands of God. He is the reason for history, and history explains the way in which God unfolded his plan with his creation.
Historical facts recorded in the Bible are correct, but not all history is recorded in the Bible. The Bible’s purpose was to record redemptive history. There are chapters in the Bible, like Genesis 5 and 10 which serves as “fast-forward” events; it probably covers hundreds of years. But the main message of the Bible here is to help us understand four major aspects of God and man: man is sinful, God is holy, God punishes sin, and no sinful event can ever put a stopper on the plan of God to save his elect.
This explains the pattern:
- man sins
- God’s holiness demands punishment
- God does not fully destroy man because of his sin
- God fulfil his promises in Jesus Christ
Babel: the plan of man against the plan of God
In a certain sense the story of Babel is a repeat of what happened in paradise: man wanted to be like God.
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)
Two things we see in this verse: they wanted to oppose God to be like Him and they wanted to oppose the command of God to fill the earth.
Their plans started with “Come!”. This was the inception of a plan which most probably came from the likes of Nimrod. The Bible tells about this man, who was a tyrant who had a kingdom (and this is the first time in the Scriptures we hear the word “kingdom”, not describing the kingdom of God. He established Babel and Shinar. A paraphrase of Genesis 10:8-12 might sound like this:
Cush became the father of Nimrod; he began to be a mighty despot in the land. He was an arrogant tyrant, defiant before the face of the Lord; of him it is said, ‘Nimrod, the mighty despot, is proud before the face of the Lord. And the homeland of his empire was Babel … in the land of Shinar. From this base he invaded the kingdom of Asshur, and built Nineveh, and Rehoboth-Ir, and Calah, and Resin between Nineveh and Calah. These made up one great city.
The Hebrew puts an emphasis on “for us”: the purpose of building the city was to point to their greatness and their achievement. When it comes to the tower that pointed to the skies, there are different ways to look at it. Did they really wanted to build a tower that reached as high as the heavens? The word “reach” is not in the original. Montgomery Boice asked this question: “Are we to think, then, that Satan was entirely absent from the original attempt to build a civilization without God? Was he absent from the formation of this first nonbiblical religion?” Boice quotes another scholar, Morris, who said,
“A great temple at its apex would provide a center and an altar where men could offer their sacrifices and worship God. The signs of the zodiac would be emblazoned on the ornate ceiling and walls of the temple, signifying the great story of creation and redemption, as told by the antediluvian patriarchs.
The problem was God was not in it. It was a man-made religion which glorified man and his achievements. Right through the Scriptures Babel represents false religion.
It is interesting that the same word used for “tower” here in other places in the Bible points to “greatness” and “importance”. In Ezekiel 38:23 we read about God: “And so I will show my greatness and my holiness, and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 38:23, NIV) In Isaiah 10:15 the same basic word is used to show how evil man attempts to magnify himself against the Lord. I think it is not impossible to think that Nimrod and his men had much of this in mind when they built their city and temple.
God put an end to this. Nimrod and his comrades thought they built something majestic, but God still stooped down from heaven – not because He had no idea what was going on there, but to exercise punishment. The “coming” of the Lord in most cases implied terror on sinners. In one swoop He confused the language of the people and they could not finish their work. Later, when the Spirit of God was poured out on Pentecost Day, this curse on Babel was redeemed: all people may now hear the wondrous deeds of God in Christ and repent to forgiveness of sin.
Fast forward to redemption
In what follows in Genesis chapter 11 we see, as it were, a fast forward over many years to the next event of redemption. We are presented with a list of names of the descendants of Shem, the son of Noah, out of which Abraham was born. We now move from grace in spite of rebellion, to grace presented in promise. We are now introduced to another big theme of the Scriptures: the Covenant of grace.
We usually find genealogies boring – and most of the time they are. But there is something in Genesis 11:10-26 which we should not miss: on average the men became fathers when they were 32-34 years old. But when we come to Abraham’s father we read he was 70. The story of Abram in the Bible begins when he was 70, and his wife was barren. This rises tension – how would God fulfil his promises to Abram? Redemptive history beyond this chapter hinges on how God dealt with Abraham.
Let’s go to the next problem. Abram was not better than anyone around him. This is what we learn from the Bible:
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. (Joshua 24:2–3, NIV)
Did you pick it up? Abraham and his father worshipped other gods! It was God’s plan to, through Abraham, call a nation in existence – his own covenant people – and from them the Saviour of the world would be born.
For God this was not impossible: a barren wife and old man who worshipped other gods would receive God’s grace. God did the impossible: by grace he redeemed and by grace He fulfilled his promises to them – and they believed!
This is God’s pattern through the ages, and it teaches us at least two things:
1. We are not saved by our own works. The great things of Nimrod came to nothing. God indeed resist the proud; all people and peoples receive redemption only because God wants them to have a part in his redemptive history. The apostle Paul sums this truth up in Ephesians 2,
“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3–5, NIV)
Abraham was not justified by works. Paul also writes in Romans,
“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. (Romans 4:2, NIV)
2. Abraham was not a good bloke and therefore got saved. This has enormous implications for everyone who stands before God and the only thing they are aware of is that they deserve death because of the holy God’s punishment on sin. There was the tax collector who knew he deserved nothing else but wrath, and then he called on the mercies of God, “Have mercy of my, for I am a sinner.” The Lord says he went home a righteous man. So, don’t have the devil tell you you can’t be saved because you are sinful. God showed mercy to Abram in spite of him worshipping other gods.
God does his miracle of redemption even when it seems impossible. Abram was and old man, Sarai was barren, but it is precisely in our weaknesses that God shows Himself powerful. Otherwise we would want the glory for ourself. The parents of Samson could not believe when the angel announced that they would become parents – but God gave them a son to deliver his people from their oppression. The parents of John the Baptist had the same experience, but God did the impossible: He gave them a son to become the forerunner of the Messiah. The message is the same today: Don’t think God can’t raise a people for Himself out of the valley of dead bones of our godless culture. He can, and He will. Nothing can stand in his way.
Promises on promises
On that black day of Adam and Eve’s fall in paradise, God gave them a promise: from them will come someone who would crush the head of the serpent. God did not forget that promise. After all the rebellions before the Flood and in the Tower of Babel, God stepped in to renew that promise, now in the different way.
He made a Covenant of grace with Abram. He did not deserve it, he did not ask for it, he did not qualify for it, he had no idea about how God would fulfil it. But he believed it.
Abram was slow in the beginning. He did move out of Babylon, but he then stopped over in Haran. Then God spoke to Abram,
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2–3, NIV)
“I will bless you”. It’s the blessing of God that made the difference, and the Bible says, “So Abram left.” Hebrews says he did not know where he was going, but he understood the promise God made to him to be real, and he believed God. That was accredited to him as righteousness. Ultimately he had his eye on more than just Canaan: his eyes were on his heavenly city, so real was his faith. To the people of Canaan the altars he built when he arrived there was to just another god; but Abram believed the One who took him from the hollow worship of idols to the real worship of the God who made the heavens and the earth and placed him in a covenant relationship of grace. That was what kept him going. With the altars he claimed the land God had promised to him.
My dear friend in the Lord, God is a God of grace. His holiness demands justice because of our sins. Ultimately, because it is all grace, He takes us as his church, not on account of what we have done, but because of Him who came long after Abraham, born from the loins of Abraham, Jesus Christ the promised Redeemer, who is our righteousness because of the sacrifice He made on the cross. If we believe in Him we should proclaim his greatness to the world we live in, so that the blessing given to Abraham becomes the blessing of the peoples.
Our God is rich in mercy. Our God keeps his promises. Let’s praise his Name.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 13 June 2014