Posts Tagged 'Abraham'

The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Part 2

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Our first greatest story was the story of Noah and the Flood. In that story we read about the very first covenant God made with a man:

Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22 | NIV84)

That was the first of many covenants God made with people over the centuries, but the greatest covenant in the Bible is the one He made with a fellow named Abraham:

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 | NIV84)

Some ten generations had elapsed between those two covenants and both Noah and Abraham were men of distinction. Noah, of course, because was the only decent man alive on the whole face of the earth at the time, and Abraham remains one of the most important figures, not only in Scripture, but in the overall history of the earth. He was the father of the Israelites through Isaac and the father of the Arabs through Ishmael. He is the ancestor the Messiah and the spiritual father of all believer who share in his faith.

And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:11-12 | NIV84)

And God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17, etc.) is far reaching. It promises the preservation of Israel as a nation, the Millennial hope, and even the ordering of world affairs at the end of the age.

Hearing and obeying

The story of Abram, later Abraham, begins at the tail end of Genesis 11 –

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. (Genesis 11:31 | NIV84)

So verse one of chapter 12 was probably the second time God came to Abram to call him to leave his relatives and the pagan culture in which he was living.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1 | NIV84)

The first call came while he was in Ur, this second call while he was in Haran, after the death of his father, Terah. Some people find it amazing that God would actually speak directly to human being, but what’s truly amazing is that this human being not only heard God speaking to him, but did what he was told!

So Abram left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. (Genesis 12:4 | NIV84)

Just like that, a 75-year-old senior citizen started life all over again, based on a covenant made up of three essential components. Two of those components sounded pretty good and would have made complete sense to old Abram: (1) Abram’s name would be great. Who wouldn’t want to be considered “great” among all the people of the world? Abram was already wealthy, but if he kept up his end of the covenant, he would become influential for all time; (2) God would make Abram a blessing to others. That’s a good thing too. It must have made Abram feel good to be told that he would a blessing to others! But it’s the first stipulation of the covenant that would have been a little hard for this senior citizen to swallow: (3) God would make Abram into a great nation. From the purely human perspective, that seems ridiculous. Now, it is true that Pierre Trudeau, a former Canadian Prime Minister, fathered a daughter in his early 70’s, but that’s an exception. Or exceptional, if you like. So the fact that God would think that Abram would go along with that part of covenant speaks volumes about how God viewed the man’s character. Abram was by no means perfect, but his heart was right.

Paul viewed justification by faith as the key blessing Israel has given the world. Yet wherever the Jewish people have traveled and lived, they have been a blessing to those around them. Think about this:

  • There are some 18 million Jews worldwide, or about 0.2% of the world’s population. Yet Jews make up 54% of the world chess champions, 27% of the Nobel physics laureates, and 31% of the medicine laureates.
  • In America, Jews make up a mere 2% of the population, but 21% of the Ivy League student bodies, 26% of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37% of the Academy Award-winning directory, 38% of those on a recent Business Week list of philanthropists, and 51% of the Pulitzer Prize winners for non-fiction.
  • Within Israel itself, Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial centers – a new Silicon Valley in the Middle East! For example, Intel is the number one employer in Israel, with more than 8,000 employees. The Israelis are responsible for much of the microprocessor innovation over the last two decades.
  • According to David Brooks: Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any nation on earth. It ranks second behind the US in the number of companies listed on the NASDAQ. Little Israel, with 7 million people, attracts as much venture capital as France and Germany combined. During the most recent world-wide economic downturn, Israel thrived by raising some consumption taxes but lowering the rest. Barclay’s stated that: “Israel is the strongest recovery story in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
  • Finally, the nation of Israel is nothing short of astounding in terms of its creativity, scientific genius and technological savvy. For example, between 1980 and 2000, Egyptians registered 77 patents in the US. Saudis registered 171. Israel registered 7,652 patents!! The current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, argues that Israel will become the Hong Kong of the Middle East, with its economic benefits spilling over into the Arab world. There is indeed some evidence that this is already occurring in Jordan and in the West Bank. An astonishing example of this innovation is the Israeli company Netafim, a company that produced the world’s first drip irrigation system, which consists of a series of plastic pipes with small holes that lie on the ground. This system revolutionized the way Israel made its desert bloom so that it became a leading supplier of fruits, vegetables and flowers to the European market. Today, Netafim is the number one provider of drip irrigation to the world and conducts business in 110 countries spanning five continents. This highly efficient system has helped nations produce 50% more crop yield while using 40% less water. Nations such as India, Vietnam and Philippines all benefit from this technology. However, nations such as Iran and its terrorist allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, despise the success and innovation of Israel and seek to destroy it. (http://graceuniversity.edu/iip/2013/06/13-06-01-1/)

Israel, one of the smallest nations on the planet, has made incredible contributions to humanity. Is it because the Jews are smarter than the rest of us? Or is it because of the covenant God made with Abram?

Abram stepped out in faith, but it was an imperfect faith to be sure.

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit a my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1 – 3 | NIV84)

It’s hard to believe the same man said this:

But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share.” (Genesis 14:22 – 24 | NIV84)

Yes, Abram had faith but time was marching on and, at least in private, Abram began to have his doubts. But he did exactly right by confessing them to the Lord. It’s not unusual for God to delay an answer to prayer until a situation appears utterly hopeless; then a solution will have to be of God’s doing and all the glory will be His and His alone.

Confirmation

In chapter 15, Abram addressed the Lord as “Adonai Yahweh,” or “Master Covenant Keeper.” The NIV translates the name as “Sovereign Lord,” and it tells us that even though the man had doubts, he still viewed God as trustworthy and dependable. And yet, Abram’s faith was conditioned by what he saw, or rather, what he didn’t see. He still had no children. Given that, he reasoned that one of his servants would have to do. How often do we limit God by our own reasoning? When we do that, we really short change God because we limit Him, or we put limits on Him. God is so much bigger and so much more powerful than we imagine.

Instead of chastising Abram for what seemed like a lack of faith, the Lord did something astonishing:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:4 – 6 | NIV84)

God would do something for Abram that the man could never conceive of: Give him natural descendants as numerous as the stars.

The patriarch trusted that God would keep His word and God considered that an act of righteousness – Abram was righteous because he simply trusted the Lord. This wasn’t the first time Abram exercised extreme faith in God. Here’s what Hebrews says:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8 – 10 | NIV84)

Abram, who later became Abraham, was a man of simple faith. He may have been had fleeting doubts which led to bad decisions, but his act of trusting the Lord’s word is legendary, and is considered righteousness, and as Paul would later write, an example of what justification of faith is all about (Romans 4 and Galatians 3). Salvation is an act of simple faith, just as Abram’s trusting God to keep His word was.

Some Messianic Prophecies, Part 1

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To be a Jew, living under the Law was, to say the least, burdensome. If you somehow managed to keep all the laws, the blessings would be wondrous. But many and varied were the curses that awaited those who broke any parts of the Law. In Deuteronomy 79 and 28, no less than 18 curses are listed. Of significance is this one in the New Testament:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13 TNIV)

Why is this verse so significant? Jesus Christ was “hung on a pole” or a cross, and He became a curse for us and He took upon Himself the curse and therefore the punishment for all our transgressions – for all our sins. He paid our sin debt; He redeemed us – saved us – from the curse of the Law and the wrath of God. Without the work of Christ, you and I would be hopelessly snared in labyrinth of laws no human being could hope to keep; we would be forever subjected to “curse of the law” for our entire lives.

God gave His people the Law, not make life hard for them, but to show them the impossibility of living a righteous life by simply trying to keep a set of rules and regulations. His people needed to acknowledge – to own up to the fact – that their means of salvation must exist outside of themselves. It’s not like God was keeping that means of salvation a secret. The coming of a Messiah had been prophesied for generations upon generations. In fact, a lot of Christians are astounded to find out that the very first prophecy concerning the coming of Christ is found back in the earliest chapters of the very first book of the Old Testament! God had barely finished creating the material universe when He gave the first hint that a Messiah would come.

Let’s take a look at that early Messianic prophecy, and some others. We’ll learn that God had been planning the redemption of mankind for a long, long time.

The Seed of the woman

In the Hebrew Bible, the very first word of the text is bereshit, which is translated, “in the beginning.” That phrase has become the title of the first book of the Hebrew Bible and our Old Testament, “Genesis,” or “origin,” or “source.” We can thank the translators of the Greek Old Testament for shortening the title down from “In the beginning” to “Genesis,” a much cooler title.

Genesis records the beginning or origin of many things, including the universe, our earth, human beings, the first cities and nations, and sin. It also records the very first prophecy.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15 TNIV)

That’s God talking, and that’s the first prophecy. Let’s check out the context so it makes some sense.

You know the story well; the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. The Devil, embodied as a snake or serpent, slithered into the Garden of Eden, tempted Eve to sin, she did, and in turn she tempted Adam, to sin. He did, and when God found out, here’s how He responded:

But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9 TNIV)

In fact, God asked the first human pair a series of four questions in all. When God asks questions, it’s usually not a good sign for the one being asked those questions. These are the questions:

• Where are you? (verse 9)
• Who told you that you were naked? (verse11)
• Have you eaten from the tree? (verse 11)
• What is this you have done? (verse 13)

Of course, as human beings are wont to do, both Adam and Eve blamed others for their sin. She blamed the serpent, Adam blamed Eve but ultimately he blamed God:

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12 TNIV)

It doesn’t take a theologian to know that blaming God for anything is a terrible idea. Adam’s words drip with irony. Eve was God’s idea:

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18 TNIV)

Adam’s pathetic excuse for his sin shows just how far he had fallen in such a short span of time. Adam saw God’s good and compassionate gift as the source of all his trouble.

In passing judgment, God issued a series of curses that would effect all of creation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the whole universe was spoiled simply because of Adam and Eve’s sin.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20, 21 TNIV)

The curses on the snake, the woman, and the man are brief. We are told the briefest details with not a peep from Adam, Eve, or snake. We have no idea what they thought. Oddly enough, the two people and the snake are not depicted so much as individuals involved in a personal crises, but are seen more as representatives. In fact, Adam and Eve’s story is not so much their story but ours – the story of all mankind. These two people are seen as the head of human race and the snake as something else that will dog the steps of every human being down through the time until this first prophecy is fulfilled.

In this prophecy, we read about “the bruised heel” of the coming Messiah. The promised Savior would be, and in fact was, the “Seed of the woman,” but He was also divine – the God-man. This Messiah, this Holy Seed, would bruise the serpent’s head – He would once and for all conquer sin. The serpent, Satan, would bruise the heel of the Savior, on the Cross, where He died, freeing all men from the curse of sin. John Borger:

God has defeated Satan through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s putting it simply, but truthfully. Jesus Christ would be the promised “Seed of the woman.”

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18 – 21 TNIV)

That’s the Christmas Story – the story we all know. It’s the story of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew refers to Him as the Messiah, which would have been natural since Matthew wrote His Gospel to show Jesus was the legitimate Messiah – the long awaited Savior.

But Jesus was also the promised Seed of the woman. So what’s very interesting about Matthew’s Gospel is that, contrary to Jewish tradition, he includes four women in his genealogy. That was unheard of in this time. The men were important, not the women. But to Matthew, four women were so important they had to be mentioned by name. Tamar was an adulteress. Ruth wasn’t even a Jew, she was a Moabitess. Rahab was a prostitute. And Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, have been stolen from him by David. The two things that unite these four women are highly questionable sexual activities and childbearing.

But Jesus was the Seed of the woman. By mentioning these four women, Matthew shows us two things: First, God uses all kinds of people, in this case women, even those who are obviously imperfect, in carrying out His plans.  And second, we see the absolute solidarity of Jesus with sinful humanity. Jesus came to sinful man in order to break the hold sin had on their lives and to break down the walls between God and all human beings. But to do those things, Jesus had to be born “the Seed of the woman.”

The blessing of Abraham

Moses, in writing the book of Genesis, covered some 1600 years of human history in the first six chapters. But he took 14 chapters to go through the 175 years of Abraham’s family history. Why? It’s because with Abraham and his descendants, God’s plan of redemption is made known. It all started with one man, continuing through his family and the nation that descended from it. Ultimately, from this one man, from this one family, from this one nation, would come the Messiah, completing the plan of redemption begun back in Genesis 3.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “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 12:1 – 3 TNIV)

If we look at Abraham’s call within the context of the book of Genesis, we see something simply amazing. By placing his call after the scattering of the nations at Babylon in the previous chapter, we realize that Abraham’s call is God’s gift of salvation in the midst of judgment. Furthermore, the account of Abraham’s call and blessing is not unlike an earlier account of a similar gift of salvation in the midst of judgment: the conclusion of the Flood. Abraham, like Noah before him, marks a new beginning – another chance for mankind.

Abraham is one of the most outstanding men of the ancient world. So important is Abraham that he is honored by the three largest world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Before his name changed to Abraham, he was known as Abram, which means “exalted father.”  The idea of a “new beginning” as God’s plan of blessing mankind is repeated over and over again throughout the story of Abraham and his family. But it’s also mentioned as far back as the days of creation:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. ” (Genesis 1:28 TNIV)

And here:

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1 TNIV)

The great promise given to Abraham and his descendants is just a restatement of God’s original promise back in Genesis 1. In a sense, Abraham is a new Adam, and the seed of Abraham is the “second Adam,” and new mankind. Those who bless Abraham, God will bless. Those who curse Abraham, God will curse. The way of life and blessing, once marked by two trees, is now marked by identification with Abraham and his seed.
But, who is Abraham’s seed, anyway? At the end of Genesis, we are given a clue:

“Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations be his. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk. (Genesis 49:8 – 12 TNIV)

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of this prediction from Jacob. This little prophecy in Genesis meant that beyond the tribes of Israel, the people of the world would become obedient to the One who was come to come. He was the final Seed of the woman.

Biblical Faith, Part 5

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In Matthew 17:20, our Lord made a statement that has echoed on and on for two thousand years and, generally speaking, it has been misunderstood for that long.

“It was because you haven’t enough faith,” answered Jesus. “I assure you that if you have faith as big as a mustard seed, you can say to this hill, ‘Go from here to there!’ and it will go. You could do anything!” (GNB)

Really? I’d wager you’ve had the exact opposite experience at least once in your life. Jesus wasn’t lying or exaggerating when He spoke those words. We simply don’t understand them. More often than not, we think with our hearts and not with our reasoning minds, so that we believe – we honestly believe – we can treat faith like a sort of magic charm, hauling it out when we get into trouble. But that’s not what faith is at all. Nor is faith a reward from God for our having faith. Some Christians actually believe this. Maybe you do; maybe you believe God rewards us when we exercise our faith. Granted, there is a germ of truth in this. In the initial stages of our walk of faith, God teaches us many things about our new Christian life, including how faith works. But as we get on in our Christian lives, we should quickly learn the inescapable fact that we do not earn anything through faith. Indeed, the real power of faith is that it brings us into a right relationship with God and it gives Him the opportunity to work in our lives as He sees fit.

Your experience, Matthew 17:20 notwithstanding, is probably the same as mine: God has to let you get to the very precipice of despair or hopelessness so that you will finally come into direct contact with Himself. God does this so that we will learn how to live a life of faith rather than an up-and-down emotional life based solely on the enjoyment of His blessings. Oswald Chambers said this:

The beginning of your life of faith was very narrow and intense, centered around a small amount of experience that had as much emotion as faith in it, and it was full of light and sweetness. Then God withdrew His conscious blessings to teach you to “walk by faith.”

Perhaps Chambers had in mind the words of the apostle Paul –

For we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7 NIV)

“God withdrew His conscious blessings.” A test of your faith. Faith by its very nature is so easily taken for granted, or taken advantage of, it must be tested. But really the testing of our faith is much more than that. We are a very self-centered people. We think everything is about us. But as far as the testing of our faith goes, it has more to do with God’s character being proven to be completely trustworthy under any and all circumstances, than whether or not our faith passes muster. We must know – we must be convinced in our own minds – that God means what He says He means and that He will do what He promises He will do.

Abraham had his faith tested like none other.

While God was testing him, Abraham still trusted in God and his promises, and so he offered up his son Isaac and was ready to slay him on the altar of sacrifice; yes, to slay even Isaac, through whom God had promised to give Abraham a whole nation of descendants! He believed that if Isaac died God would bring him back to life again; and that is just about what happened, for as far as Abraham was concerned, Isaac was doomed to death, but he came back again alive! (Hebrews 11:17 – 19 TLB)

The greatest trial of all

Taylor’s paraphrase bings out an interesting fact. Abraham’s whole life was essentially a test. Every movement Abraham took from the moment he left Ur was a test. Part of that test was the greatest trial any man could ever endure: God demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac.

Can you imagine the stress this caused in the patriarch’s mind? Here’s what he had been told by God –

Isaac is the son through whom my promise will be fulfilled. (Genesis 21:12 TLB)

All of the promises God made to Abraham were 100% dependent upon Isaac. He would grow into maturity and pass them on to his children. If Isaac were to die, God’s promises would simply evaporate; they would be meaningless. Can you see the conflict that surely must have been waged in the man’s conscience; the conflict between love for his son and his duty to God? Not only that, God had promised him an uncountable posterity through Isaac. So why would God now call on him to offer the boy as a sacrifice?

The simplicity of faith

Abraham didn’t have all the answers. He didn’t have any answers! Nor did he understand. All Abraham knew for sure was that he had to obey God in this. He’d already gone through something like this before, remember?

God had told Abram, “Leave your own country behind you, and your own people, and go to the land I will guide you to.” (Genesis 12:1 TLB)

Abraham was issued an impossible command, but he obeyed. And here, years later, God gave him another impossible command. Abraham knew what he had to do. He had to obey. But Abraham knew something else. After all the years of wandering, he knew God. He didn’t know how, but by now he had enough faith to know that God would work things out regardless of what happened to Isaac.

He believed that if Isaac died God would bring him back to life again

At the time of the patriarchs, this kind of miracle had never happened. Where did Abraham get this idea? Such was his faith. He reasoned with his mind – not with his heart – that God wouldn’t have him do anything that would jeopardize the promise. If Isaac died, then God would just bring him back to life. That’s the simplicity of faith in action. Abraham simply knew God would never do anything against His character. There was another man who had such faith: Job. In faith, he could write these words after he had lost everyone he loved –

“I came naked from my mother’s womb,” he said, “and I shall have nothing when I die. The Lord gave me everything I had, and they were his to take away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21 TLB)

Of course, in Job’s case, the death of his family was “accidental.” But here, Abraham was being asked to take the life of his son. He was obedient. He fully complied with God’s command. In fact, had not God intervened at the last second, Isaac would have been killed.

It’s a powerful lesson to be learned – a lesson not only dealing with faith, but another mystery: love. Abraham’s faith was surely tested. To his great credit, Abraham demonstrated that in spite of his shortcomings, he had unwavering faith in his God. But he also demonstrated something else every modern Christian needs to understand: he loved God above anything else in life, even his son Isaac. Abraham’s faith was vindicated because his special son hadn’t become an idol to him.

A reasoning faith

But Abraham’s faith wasn’t a blind faith. Nor was it a slavish, robotic devotion. Abraham knew precisely what God’s Word to him involved: The promise would come to fulfillment through Isaac, and his descendants. His faith was based on that word. It wasn’t based on emotions or feelings; it was based solely on what God had told him. How different we are from Abraham! Our faith more often than not is motivated by things as flimsy as how we may feel at any given moment. We “feel” therefore we pray and have faith. If we don’t “feel,” then we don’t have faith. Abraham had the same feelings and emotions we all have, but his faith wasn’t based on the love he had for his son or how he felt at the moment. It was based on the Word God had given him. That’s all Abraham needed. His faith was objective, and that object was the God. That’s why we read this:

Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:19 NIV)

“Abraham reasoned that God…” Abraham knew God. He knew the power God had – power to even raise the dead! When faced with his test of faith, Abraham “reasoned.” He recalled everything he knew about God. He didn’t just blindly rush headlong in obedience. He thought, then he obeyed. He was convinced in own mind as to the character of God. And based on what he knew about God, he knew he had to obey. He knew he couldn’t lose. This is some powerful faith Abraham had. Remember, he didn’t have a New Testament to read. Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead yet. This patriarch simply knew God so well, that as far as he was concerned, God not only could raise the dead, but that He would raise the dead.

Abraham’s faith vindicated

As is His custom it seems, at the last second God intervened and provided a ram for the sacrifice. He instructed Abraham to offer that ram instead of his son, Isaac. The young man was spared, snatched from the jaws of death by an act of God. And Abraham’s faith was vindicated. So was God’s character, by the way. That’s not an unimportant thing. When a believer obeys in faith, God’s character will always be proven.

We sing a lot of hymns about faith. There are many Gospel songs and even secular songs that speak of faith. There have been many movies made about faith. Even a movie about potatoes and faith! But if this story proves anything, it’s that there is a strong connection between faith and obedience. Or, put another way, they are two sides of the same coin. One can’t exist without the other. Abraham learned that lesson thousands of years ago, yet it so often goes unnoticed today so that many Christians haven’t made that vital connection.

Simon Kistemaker shows us the sequence of events in Abraham’s life that allowed him to have the kind of faith we all desire:

Abraham believed and loved God, who promised him a son. After many years of waiting, Abraham received this promised son and loved him. Then God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. If Abraham sacrificed Isaac, he would keep God but lose his son. If he disobeyed God, Abraham would keep his son but lose God.

Indeed.  The problem so many Christians have is that they would rather have the blessings given them by God than God Himself. Faith, true Biblical faith, is faith in God exercised against everything that contradicts Him. True and lasting faith is faith that trusts and obeys God “no matter what.” Maybe the greatest expression of true faith in the Bible is this one:

Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him… (Job 13:15 AV)

Biblical Faith, Part 4

rock-climber

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. (Hebrews 11:13, 14 NIV)

“These people,” the people mentioned thus far in Hebrews’ list of the heroes of the faith, were all commended by God as living their lives in faith, and eventually they all – all without exception – died in the faith. They lived and died continually exercising faith without having received what had been promised them by God. Every single one of them. That’s quite a statement to make, considering what we know about these men. Consider –

Noah. He was certainly a man of faith. For 120 years he built a big boat, big enough to house only his family, plus many, many animals, with only a word from the Lord to go on. He had no weather forecasts or anything else; just a word from God. In the face of mockery, he kept on. Yet of this man of God we read this –

When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. (Genesis 9:21 NIV)

When his sons saw him in such a state, they covered their eyes out of respect then covered him. Another son who witnessed the spectacle was cursed by Noah.

Abraham. Sure Abraham listened to his word from God, just like Noah did, and left Ur. But that’s not the whole story, is it? Here’s what God told him to do –

Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. (Genesis 12:1 NIV)

Here’s what actually happened.

He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. (Genesis 12:5 NIV)

So this man of faith wasn’t quite perfect. Then there’s this to contend with –

“Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” (Hebrews 11:13 NIV)

That’s right. This man of faith, when faced with a famine, chose to go down to Egypt but he was so afraid for his life that he got his wife to lie for him. It gets even better. A few years on, we read this –

Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her. (Genesis 20:1, 2 NIV)

So this “man of faith” had one serious character flaw: he was a liar. And not a very good one, at that.

Isaac. Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau.

The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 20:27, 28 NIV)

It’s bad form for a father to favor one son above the other, but Isaac was a real piece of work. He didn’t prefer Esau because Esau was more righteous than his brother. It was because of the food! Isaac was driven by his stomach. He was a man who was motivated by himself; his likes or dislikes, and his comfort.

He was also a liar who was willing to trade his wife for safety. Sound familiar?

Jacob. Here was a man who was bold enough to wrestle with God in order to get a blessing from him. There have been many sermons about how this is a positive thing, still, would you have the nerve to do that? But then there’s what the prophet Micah wrote concerning this esteemed man of faith –

All this is because of Jacob’s transgression, because of the sins of the people of Israel. What is Jacob’s transgression? Is it not Samaria? What is Judah’s high place? Is it not Jerusalem? (Micah 1:5 NIV)

Jacob was a deceitful schemer and that fatal flaw was passed on to the kingdom that bore his name. And he was a man of divided loyalties. While he didn’t use his wife for leverage, the fact is he took four wives, which led to a lifetime of problems which actually outlived Jacob.

These were the men whom God commended as living in faith and dying in faith. It’s difficult to understand the mind of God most times. To lump the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in with Enoch seems unreasonable. And yet, in God’s view, these imperfect patriarchs were as faithful as Enoch, the man who pleased God so much, God transposed him from earth to heaven.

What do we glean from this? God puts a premium on our attitude of faith but understands we are sinners. A moral or ethical lapse doesn’t automatically disqualify us from being people of faith.

…though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again… (Proverbs 24:16 NIV)

This might be one of the greatest verses in the Bible and one every believer should memorize. While there is no excuse for sin, and the Bible makes no provision for slipping into sin and remaining in it, it does teach that “you can’t keep a good man down.” In other words, the righteous will always get up.

We all have a problem

Like the patriarchs, we all have exactly the same problem: The sin nature. We are all prone to fall. Amazingly, at the youthful age of 22, Robert Robinson wrote these words many of us sing in church:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love…

While our sin nature has been dealt with by Jesus Christ through His work on the Cross, there is never a moment in our earthly lives when we are completely free from its influence. We may be “dead to sin,” but sin is very much alive to us, and it is always trying to lure us back into its clutches.

Our sin nature always wants that which the Holy Spirits does not want for us. And our sin nature isn’t subject to God and it will never be. That’s why God gave us a new nature: To counteract the downward pull of our sin nature. The good news is that God has made provision for our new nature to win. Our sinful nature wins only when we let it.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV)

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37 NIV)

There will never be a time on earth when the believer won’t be pestered by his sin nature. But you don’t have to give into it. You never have to yield to temptation. Ever. Granted, you’ll always be a sinner saved by grace, but as far as temptation goes, you have it within you to conquer it every time.

A New Testament example

Peter is a good example of this. Peter, the man whose confession was the foundation the Church was to be built upon, was always falling down.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:29, 30 NIV)

Talk about having faith! Peter actually got out of a boat during a storm and, doing what Jesus told him to do, stepped out in faith and walked on the water! He did something crazy; something nobody else had ever done before or since. But Peter did. That is, he did until he stopped walking by faith and started to look around. The storm made Peter sink.

Later on, this disciple of Jesus’ Peter denied Jesus three times. Not once, mind you, in blind panic, but three times. The last time was in a courtyard surround by other people. Peter could have sided with Jesus this time but he chose to side with the society he was with. He went out, and by himself he wept bitterly. He knew he had failed his Lord. And Jesus knew that he knew. Just as Yahweh never gave up on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our Lord never gave up on Peter.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” (Mark 16:7 NIV)

Peter was given one more chance. Peter’s spiritual growth wasn’t instantaneous. It was slow going. But in spite of his falling down, Peter’s heart was right, and he kept getting up. We like Peter because most of us are so much like him. We love Jesus. We think we’re fiercely loyal to Him. We have faith in Him and His Word. But the cold, hard truth is we do the same things Peter did, only fortunately for us nobody is keeping a record of our failings for generations to read about.

Peter got up and preached some powerful sermons when the Church was born and won many converts for the Lord. Thanks to Peter, the Gospel broke into the Gentile world. Peter laid the foundation for the ministry of the apostle Paul – all because he got up.

God chooses to use people, not angels, to do His work. And as we journey through this life, falling down then getting up only to fall down again, God sees what we will become, not what we are. That’s why men of questionable reputations Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all listed among the heroes of the faith.

Abraham’s token blessing

Looking back at Hebrews 11:13, notice this –

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised… (Hebrews 11:13 NIV)

Yet, that’s not the whole story, either. Back a few chapters we read this –

When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. (Hebrews 6:13 – 15 NIV)

Abraham never received the big promise – the promise of a land and of nationhood. He died a nomad. But God in His sovereignty gave Abraham the tiniest glimpse of that big promise in the form of a son, Isaac. Against all the odds, Abraham and Sarah had a son, and the seed of nationhood had been sown. God saw Abraham, not as a nomad living in tents on the fringes of civilization, but as the father of many nations, and God let him experience a small part of that. Isaac was to Abraham as Mount Pisgah was to Moses.

God sees you as you are in Christ, not as you are today. He sees you in Christ, already in the heavenlies.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus… (Ephesians 2:6 NIV)

You don’t see yourself in the heavenly realms yet. You see yourself as you are now; struggling to get through this life, one day at a time. You can’t see yourself as you’ll become because you can’t see the future because it hasn’t happened yet. But God sees the future – He lives in it – and in the future you are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms!

And that’s why these men, with all their faults and failings, were commended for their faith. That’s why they are heroes of the faith. God saw what they would become, not what they were.

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3 NIV)

ABRAHAM, MAN OF PRAYER

Did you ever wonder when the very first prayer was ever prayed? When in the history man did he decide he should pray to God? Believe it or not, the Bible tells us precisely when man began to pray:

Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD. (Genesis 4:23)

It’s hard to believe, but it took 4 chapters into the history of mankind before he prayed his first prayer. We might wonder why it took him so long?

The Old Testament is chock full of interesting pieces of historical trivia, like the one just mentioned. In the midst of it all, though, we find the wisdom of the ages. A lot of people, Christians included, think the Old Testament isn’t really all that important. They think what it has to say passe; that it’s irrelevant to our sophisticated sensibilities. But the apostle Paul, a highly educated man by anybody’s estimation, had this to say about the Old Testament:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

1. An ignorant prayer

So, all those stories and events and even trivia contained in the Old Testament are important for us to study; they give us hope. Tucked away in the pages of the Old Testament is recorded for us many prayers of the saints. As far as we know, Abraham’s prayer, found in Genesis 18, is the very first recorded prayer in the Bible. The thing about this prayer is that it is not a prayer of praise or a prayer extolling the virtues of God. In fact, the first prayer in the Bible is a question:

Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23)

This was not just any question Abraham was asking God, it was a question regarding God’s will. Previously, the Lord had told Abraham that He was about to annihilate the godless city of Sodom. Abraham, the friend of God, had his doubts, so he went to God for some clarification.

Doubting Thomas wasn’t first doubter in the Bible. Abraham holds that distinction. It was his opinion that God would be wrong in destroying a city, no matter how wicked it was, because in destroying all those wicked people, some innocent people would be destroyed, and as far as God’s friend was concerned, that would just be wrong. His prayer went on like this:

What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (verses 24, 25)

Now, that prayer sounds good, but was it? Really, Abraham was completely out of line praying that prayer because he had never visited Sodom. Abraham didn’t know the first thing about that city. It was a prayer out of emotion, not out of knowledge or reason.

2. God’s solution

God is reasonable, and He took the time to answer Abraham’s prayer before he prayed it! His answer is telling, not necessarily for the details is contains, but because in this answer, God is letting Abraham in on how He thinks. The real significant thing about God’s answer to Abraham is that it shows how important to God it was for His friend to understand why He had to do what He was about to do.

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (verses 17—19)

Abraham needed to know the thinking of God because he would “direct his children and his household.” In other words, the future of God’s people depended on what Abraham would teach them about God! Imagine if Abraham had been kept in the dark as to why God worked the way He did; what would he tell his descendants? They would be left with a terribly lopsided view of God! If the only thing Abraham was sure about was that God destroyed two cities completely, the good and the bad, what would that make God look like?

The last thing any believer in God should do is present God the wrong way to other people. God is not like the gods of nature worshiped in pagan religions. He doesn’t unleash the rains or the heat of the sun or the destructive power of wind just for the fun of it! Nor is God like a feeble old grandfather-type of man who can be manipulated into doing anything you want. God is completely balanced in everything He does. Abraham needed to know this.

What did God do? God decided not to hide from Abraham what He was going to do to Sodom. He gave Abraham all the details he needed to come to the right conclusion about God:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD. (verses 20—22)

Of course God already knew Sodom and Gomorrah were as wicked as He heard they were! He is God, after all! But Abraham needed to see God working. God had let Abraham see the inner workings of His mind, expose His will to the man, and Abraham then asked the question:

Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (verse 23)

3. Abraham’s real issue

God shared with Abraham what was on His mind, but what was on Abraham’s mind when he prayed? Was Abraham worried about all the righteous people that might be caught up in the wave of God’s judgment? Or did he have a particular person or persons in mind? Naturally, Abraham knew his nephew and his family was living down in Sodom and Gomorrah, and that’s who he was primarily concerned about.

Notice that Abraham didn’t let up. He started with 50 righteous people, then 40, then down to 30. In each case, the Lord assured Abraham that He would NOT destroy the cities if there were those numbers of righteous people living there.

Finally, Abraham stopped at 10 righteous people:

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” (verse 32)

Why did Abraham stop at 10? Why not 5? Or even 1? Imagine how good God would look if He preserved the cities for the sake of just 1! No, Abraham stopped at 10 because he finally got to the point of his prayer: Lot and his family.

4. Lot

Lot was a curious character. He was forever a thorn in his uncle’s side. Abraham would have been further ahead leaving him in Ur. But, even though he was living in a city with godlessness all around him, he was a righteous man:

…if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)… (2 Peter 2:6—8)

Lot was a righteous man who had no business living among all that unrighteousness. Yes, he was saved because he trusted God, but he was not living where should have been. Still, God had His eyes on Lot and because Lot belonged to God, he would never face judgment. There is a marvelous principle here: the righteous will never be judged!

5. Faith and doubt

We hear a lot about the relationship between faith and prayer. Often we are told the key to getting our prayers answered is faith. “Just believe,” the television preacher says. But is faith you need to get your prayers answered? What those peddlers of religion don’t tell you is that faith in and of itself has no power whatsoever. If your faith is in the wrong place, you’re just wasting your time. If faith, or belief, was all it took to receive something from God, the church would be full of healthy, good looking millionaires. It’s where you place your faith and in whom you believe that counts.

If you read Abraham’s prayer carefully, you’ll discover something that is actually very encouraging. He didn’t have faith. He didn’t approach God in complete trust. Abraham was full of doubts when it came to some things. Now, it is true that initially when God called Abraham to leave his home, he answered, apparently without question. And while Abraham seemed to hold onto God’s promise without ever losing his grip, the rest of his life indicates that Abraham had very shaky faith at the best of times. Time and again we see Abraham trying to do things his own way, as if he really didn’t trust God, after all.

The thing is, though, his doubts drove him to his knees in prayer! Why did he pray? Because in spite of his doubts, Abraham believed in God:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

Abraham may not have had perfect faith in God’s will concerning Sodom and Gomorrah, but he did believe in God wholeheartedly. When he prayed, he KNEW God would hear him; that God would answer back. He had his doubts because of circumstances, but Abraham believed in God.

Doubt is the beginning of faith. Don’t ever be afraid to come to God in doubt.

But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b—24)

If you have doubts, and if you are honest to God about them, as Abraham was, God will see to it that those doubts will be transformed into an unshakable faith. God isn’t seeking perfection, but He is seeking honesty.

HEBREWS, Part 11

Melchizedek blesses Abraham

A man without beginning of day or end of life

Hebrews 7

As we begin looking at this chapter of Hebrews, we need to understand and appreciate what its author is trying to do. He is building an exegetical and logical position hoping to eliminate any remaining dependence on Judaism that may have existed in is readers. It seems he had decided to convince his Hebrew-Christian readers of three things:

  • The priesthood of Christ is so superior to that of the Jewish religion, that it has replaced it. The old wine skins cannot hold the new wine, in other words. The old way of “doing worship” is finished, having been abandoned by God it must be abandoned by Christians.

  • Jesus Christ in His priesthood established a brand new covenant between God and His people, making the old covenant, with its reliance on ritualism and priestly forms completely obsolete. This new covenant is really a fulfillment of what the old covenant foreshadowed. Therefore, this new covenant is qualitatively superior to the old in every way possible because it is made up of substance, not shadow.

  • The work of Jesus Christ, and indeed His Person, are final and cancel out all other options. Having come to know Jesus Christ, having entered into a person relationship with Him, they could not go back to the old religion.

Many Christians find Hebrews hard to understand because they aren’t Jews; they don’t come from a Jewish background, so much of Hebrews is just so many words. But, while the non-Hebrew Christian does not have to contend with ghosts of his former religion coming back to haunt him, he does have to watch out for other ghosts. Ghosts like religious pride, legalism, compromise, worldliness, and others come back to haunt believers all their lives. Paul contended with this all-too common problem when he wrote a letter to the church in Galatia:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:1—3)

The remainder of Hebrews deals with the living Christ who is currently in Heaven, ministering at the right hand of God the Father. This subject isn’t dealt with much these days. You may hear a lot about the birth, death, and the resurrection of Christ, but it might be helpful if we stopped and considered the living Christ, and what He is doing right now, in Heaven, for us.

The writer to the Hebrews will help us with that, and be begins with a subject he brought up in the last chapter, but will explore much more in depth here in chapter 7: Melchizedek.

1. The order of Melchizedek, 7:1—10

This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.

This brings us back to 6:20, which indicates that this man Melchizedek is a type—a foreshadow—of Jesus Christ. In other words, there is something about Melchizedek that should remind us of Jesus. Melchizedek is a key figure in the Bible, yet he is mentioned only in a handful of verses in Genesis 14. In fact, his story is so brief, most Bible readers would be tempted to just forget all about him, except that his name pops up in Psalm 110:4, in reference to the coming Messiah:

You [the Messiah, Christ] are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

So, right away, we know that this man, Melchizedek, must be important if Jesus Christ is compared to him. And that’s why he deserves to be studied. The author briefly reviews the facts of Melchizedek as found in Genesis 14:18—20, then gives the reader an interpretation of the identity of this mysterious man.

a. His history, vs. 1—3

As the story goes, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, had moved into Sodom, the wicked city, and become one of its prominent citizens.  When a coalition of kings from the East defeated Sodom, Lot and many other citizens were taken away as captives. Abraham, feeling a sense of responsibility for his nephew, formed an army and went out and conquered those who had defeated Sodom, rescuing Lot and the other captives.

As he returned home from battle, Abraham stopped at Salem, which would later be known as Jerusalem, where he paid tithes to the priest-king of that great city, Melchizedek.

…and [Melchiedek] blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”   Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:19, 20)

Melchizedek was king of Salem, and priest of God Most High (verse 2). Nations outside of Israel combined the two roles—king and priest—into a single office, and single person. The Jews separated the two offices, but this combination of king-priest in one person becomes very important in this section as it relates to Christ.

Like Abraham, Melchizedek worshiped the one true God. It is truly remarkable that these two men, in a sea of heathens and pagans, found each other! Even during these dark times before the establishment of Israel and the giving of the Law, we find true believers. Somehow, Abraham sensed that Melchizedek was his superior, and Melchizedek in turn blessed Abraham in a way which only a greater person could do.

Abraham’s “tithe” was a kind of “thank offering” to God for victory in battle. This offering of a tithe showed the superiority of this Melchizedek and his right to receive it.

“Melchizedek” means “king of righteousness.” We need to note this carefully because, among other reasons, Jews viewed names with great significance; they revealed the nature and character and sometimes the position of a person.

“Salem” was another name for Jerusalem. It comes from the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace. So Melchizedek was also the “king of peace.” In Ephesians 2:14 Jesus Christ is called “our peace.” So we can see the similarities between earthly Melchizedek and the Son of God: both are known as “kings of righteousness” and “kings of peace!”

Verse 3 gives us even more similarities between Melchizedek and Jesus. He is described as being “without beginning of days or end of life.” This trait of the king of Salem sort of sounds like Jesus, who lives eternally and therefore has en eternal priesthood.

Some Bible readers, based on what is said in verse 3, take Melchizedek to be some kind of divine being—a heavenly creature in his own right. But that can’t be possible; the whole point of Hebrews concerning Melchizedek is to point out that he was a mere human being who bore a resemblance to Christ in a handful of ways. The fact that the Bible gives us absolutely NO information about Melchizedek’s past and future is taken by the author to be inspired: it shows that his birth, death, and genealogy was a type or foreshadow which resembled, in an imperfect way, the eternal priesthood of Christ.

So we can see how Jesus bore similarities to Melchizedek. The question, though, is why did the author feel the need to do this? It was Moses, the man his readers had so much regard for and who wrote Genesis, who declared Melchizedek to be a priest of God, even though he had no formal credentials, no official pedigree, no record of his birth date or even the date of his death. In these things, or in spite of these thing, Melchizedek was still considered, by the great Moses, to be high priest and like the Son of God!

For the Hebrew readers, this would have cinched the argument about Jesus being our great High Priest.

2. The greatness of his priesthood, vs. 4—10

Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! (vs. 4)

Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek and this fact demonstrates how great this priest-king was. Consider the greatness of Abraham for a moment. He had been given the ultimate “divine land grant!” To him and his descendants had been given the greatest promise even given to a human being from God. To Abraham, God appeared time and time again to reiterate and re-state His promise. God had the kind relationship with Abraham that He never had with any other human being. Yet this great man, Abraham, acknowledged the superiority of Melchizedek by paying tithes to him.

Now, Jews normally gave tithes to the Levites according to the Law, and the Levitical priesthood owed it existence to Abraham. But Melchizedek was not a Levitical priest, yet still received tithes from father Abraham! Not only that, this priest-king actually blessed the patriarch, further proving how much greater Melchizedek was than Abraham and his descendants, including Levi.

If this is the case, then, the the priesthood of Melchizedek must have been far superior to that of Aaron, since Levi in figure paid tithes to Melchizedek through his forefather, Abraham.

3. The old displaced by the new, vs. 11—22

The Jews believed that their access to God through their Temple worship was the high-water mark of possibilities; that things couldn’t get any better than that. But we read this:

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? (vs. 11)

Obviously, then, the Levitical priesthood was not perfect; it was, in fact, not the high-water mark of possibilities. Hebrews actually presents Jesus Christ as our great High Priest—the true high water mark; the greatest High Priest who ever lived. However, His genealogy is through the tribe of Judah, a tribe with absolutely no connection to the priesthood. So, then, how could Jesus Christ be considered to be a true High Priest? The answer is crystal clear, especially since the groundwork had just been laid—the discussion about the priesthood of Melchizedek. Jesus was not a typical Lecitical priest, but He is, in fact, part of a more ancient and honorable order of high priests than that of Levi:

For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (vs. 14—17)

In other words, the Law gave the Jews their priesthood, but that priesthood was meant to be temporary in duration. It met certain needs among the people of God for a time, but that Levitical priesthood was always meant to be a “stop-gap” measure, proposed by God, until another Priest came along, who, like Melchizedek, had no relationship with Law in regards to the preisthood. And when this great High Priest would eventually come along, the old priesthood would come to it’s predetermined end, replaced by the New Order—the New Covenant.

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. (vs. 18, 19)

So the Law did not make anybody perfect in any way, nor could it fulfill God’s purpose for man, but it did serve a purpose: it introduced a better hope. The Law prepared the way for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Law forced sinful man to stand away from God, but through Jesus Christ, the “better hope,” we can come boldly into God’s presence.

4. The upshot, vs. 23—27

Now, why is all this “Jewish stuff” so important to Christians? This group of verses, for the most part is why gives this whole discussion of Melchizedek its universal application. Think about what the writer says:

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (vs. 23—25)

The old priesthood, even though it came from the mind of God, was woefully inadequate to meet the needs of man for all time, therefore it had to be replaced by something much better. Jesus Christ is what makes the New Covenant work. He is more than a man. He is the only One able to save completely those who come to God. Why? Because unlike any earthly priest—or pastor, or spiritual leader, or parent—Jesus Christ will never stop working on your behalf and He will never give up on you because He cannot die. He is alive and will remain so forever and ever!

How shocking all this must have been for the Jews! Bound by rules, rituals, and regulations as they were, this was a whole new way of thinking. No wonder this letter was written. There is always the temptation to wander back into old habits, old attitudes, and old ways of thinking.

Jews and Christians alike should rejoice that both have such a great High Priest, representing them before God the Father in Heaven. Jesus is perfectly suited to that task. In Jesus Christ, God has given His people a great and powerful representative in His very presence. The high priests under the Old Covenant, as good and as effective as they could have been, did not produce godly people, But Jesus’ ministry for us is different; it is completely effective because it is permanent and it does change lives.

We can rejoice and praise God for the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ. We can find everlasting hope in Christ because He is able to save completely. We are able to cast all our cares—our burdens and our failures—on Christ because He has paid for all our sins.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

ABRAHAM: JUSTIFIED BY FAITH

Romans 4

Paul had just taught a doctrine known as “justification by faith.” To the first century Christians he was writing to, this must have sounded too good to be true, especially among the Jews, where works were so important. What if there were some readers of this letter who thought this “justification by faith” was a brand-new doctrine? Back in 1:7, Paul made the declaration that in the Gospel a righteousness from God was “revealed.” This might well suggest to some that this “justification” was a new thing, invented during this new Christian era, maybe even by Paul himself. So, now, Paul takes his readers back to the Old Testament to point out to them that this was no new doctrine at all. In fact, it is as old as Abraham! Justification by faith is just another part of the continuing plan of God for the redemption of mankind through His eternal purposes in the work of His Son.

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (4:3)

Abraham, a man held in the highest esteem by Israel, had a right standing before God. This was achieved, teaches Paul, not through Abraham’s good works, but through faith. Abraham’s sin was placed on Christ’s account, and Christ paid the full price. What was true for Abraham is true for believers today. If we view our life of sin as a kind of debt we owe God, then Jesus assumed our debt and our account has been completely settled by Him.

Paul’s choice of Abraham as an illustration of a person being justified by faith is a stroke of sheer brilliance. The Jews respected Abraham—he was the father of their nation, after all! But he was also a Gentile—a pagan Chaldean—who was credited with righteousness as a result of his faith. The truth about Abraham, though, is that he, like any believer, is received by God, not on his own merit, in his own name, but in the rights and in the Name of Jesus Christ. Abraham did nothing to earn his declaration of righteousness.

1. Contradiction?

Is that message at odds with the teaching of James 2:21—24?

Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

There really is no contradiction between the teachings of Paul and those of James; they are in reality two sides of the same coin. Romans 4:2 declares simply:

If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.

The justification that Paul is talking about is “justification by faith”; it is being justified before God, not before man. James, on the other hand, is talking about the evidence of Paul’s justification. The person who claims to have saving (justifying) faith in Christ is obliged to prove it to the people around him. How does he do this? Unlike God, man cannot see this “justification by faith.” But man can see how we live our lives! So the proof of our new position in Christ and before God must be manifested in our good works.

Paul, in writing about Abraham’s being justified by faith, quotes from Genesis 15. James, in writing about Abraham’s works took his illustration from Genesis 22. This incident in Abraham’s life is further explained by the writer to the Hebrews:

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)

What does teach us about justification by faith? Simply this: when we are justified by God, we are given a new position in Christ. It is up to us to live up that new position.

2. Wages and gifts

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. (verses 4, 5)

The the thing that distinguishes wages from gifts is work. Paul has established that justification by faith is a gift from God; it is undeserved and unearned by the one justified. This is the difference between wages and gifts: work. When a person works, he gets what he deserves—he exchanges his time and efforts for his employers money. In other words, the worker’s wages are an obligation to him from his employer. When a person does not work, there is no obligation for anybody to give that person anything. Anything that non-working person receives must be viewed as a gift; such is righteousness from God.

All of man’s work, his good work, is not good enough. No human being can live long enough to perform enough good deeds to tilt the scales anywhere near his favor, therefore, there is no obligation for that man to be paid a wage—he cannot be credited with the wage of righteousness. If a man is credited with righteousness, it is strictly because he has believed God; he has claimed God’s gift of salvation and God’s promises in faith.

3. David

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” (verses 6—8)

Abraham, a pagan Gentile who lived long before the Law, was justified by God. Now, Paul gives his readers another example of one justified by faith, but this time he uses a man born under the Law: David.

Verse 5 teaches that it is God who justifies the ungodly. Immediately after that, Paul begins a short discussion about David, a man we would never consider to be “ungodly!” What is Paul trying to get across to his readers? The key is the quote, taken from Psalm 32, verses 1 and 2. This psalm is David’s great “penitential psalm.” It is the confession of his great sin with Bathsheba and his acceptance of its consequences. Paul’s point in quoting this psalm is to illustrate that David’s works were evil; they were the acts of an ungodly man. What he did to Uriah and the sin of adultery were absolute evil in the sight of God. And yet David, because he experienced God’s forgiveness and justification, was able to write:

Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them… (Psalm 32:2)

Though David didn’t use the words, he is essentially describing what Paul is teaching: justification by faith! God treated David better than he deserved to be treated! God credited righteousness to David because his sins were forgiven. We know that David did nothing to merit this forgiveness except to exercise faith: he agreed with God about what he had done and how he needed to be forgiven. We all know the story: Nathan the prophet confronted David with the awful truth of David’s sin and deceitfulness, and David owned up to what he had done:

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. (2 Samuel 12:13)

From the mouth of two witnesses, three if you count Paul, then, comes the undeniable fact that under both the Old and New Covenants, man is justified before God by faith; there is no other way.

4. A sign and a seal

Some sharp-eyed readers of this letter during Paul’s day might have argued that since both Abraham and Paul were circumcised—that is, they acted in obedience to the Law—then obedience to the Law must be part of justification. In essence, works, in the form of obedience, precede justification. To this, Paul notes:

It was not after, but before! (verse 10b)

Paul exclaims that Abraham was justified by faith years before he was circumcised! What was the point of circumcision, then, as far as Abraham was concerned? It was merely a sign, an evidence that he had been justified by faith. One Bible scholar aptly observed:

We cannot doubt that circumcision was delayed in order to teach the believing Gentiles of future ages that they may claim Abraham as their father, and the righteousness of faith as their inheritance.

Another way to look at this is to conclude that Abraham was justified by faith as a human being, not as a Gentile or a Jew. Faith, not religion, is the standard for all human beings.

We now know from extra-Biblical writings that Paul’s message of justification by faith was understood by at least one member of the Roman church. Clement, the bishop of Rome from 90—100 AD wrote this:

It is through faith that Almighty God has justified all that have been from the beginning of time.

It wasn’t just to the Romans that Paul taught this landmark doctrine. In Galatians 3:7, he put it like this:

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.

Jew or Gentile; it’s immaterial to God who it is that comes to Him in simple faith. He freely justifies both.

5. Primacy of faith

It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. (verses 13—15)

The Roman believers have just learned that faith came before circumcision. In these two verses, Paul goes even further by stating that faith also takes priority over the Law. If circumcision, which was instituted only 14 years after Abraham was declared righteous proved that circumcision had nothing to do with anything, then the Law, which was instituted 430 years after Abraham was declared righteous, proves that that it had even less to do with anything!

The promise given to Abraham did not depend on his or his descendants keeping any kind of Law, because Abraham had been justified by faith! What exactly is this “promise?” It, naturally, has to do with Abraham becoming the father of many nations, but it specifies something in particular:

...all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:3)

God gave that promise, which also has a messianic implication, to Abraham long before either circumcision or the Law had been introduced. The great blessing of the promise came to Abraham from God on the basis of faith, not works.

6. What faith depends on

The remainder of this chapter speaks of the strength of Abraham’s faith. In the face of old age, Abraham’s faith in God remained young. How was this possible? Why did Abraham have such strong faith in God? The secret to strong, unwavering faith lies in verse 21:

being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

Faith is as strong or as weak depending on how we perceive the Object of our faith. If God is the Object of our faith, it will be rock solid and immovable. But if our faith is in our talents or our resources or the circumstances of our lives, it will be weak. We, like Abraham, must be “persuaded” that God is able!

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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