Sunday, February 19, 2017

Walking By Faith (Genesis 12:1-20)

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The Bible is a book of books and a story of stories. It is the story of people who lived long ago and far away, and yet, at the same time, it is our story, here and now. The narrative flows in the shape of an hourglass. It begins broad and wide, with a focus on God’s dealings with the whole world in creation. Then it narrows to God’s dealings with the human race. It narrows further with a focus on the descendants of one of Adam’s sons, Seth. It narrows again to focus on one man, Noah, and his sons. From Noah’s sons, the narrative narrows once more to the family of one son, Shem. And from Shem, the story takes on an even narrower focus as it turns to one of Shem’s descendants, Abraham. As the story goes on, it will narrow further and further, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, then eventually to David, then to Jesus Christ. It is here that the story finds it’s center. To this point, all preceding history raced toward. From this point, all subsequent history unfolded. As the story moves on from the center with Jesus Christ, it begins to broaden again. His twelve disciples begin to multiply, and the story begins to envelop Jew and Gentile alike until it ends with an innumerable multitude from every tribe and tongue, people and nation surrounding the throne of God for eternity in ceaseless worship.

We come today to one of those crucial narrowing points – the beginning of the account of Abraham. He is called Abram here in Genesis 12, for God will later change his name to Abraham in accordance with His divine purpose for his life. He will do the same with Abram’s wife, Sarai, who will come to be known as Sarah. The writer of Hebrews provides us with this succinct summary of Abraham’s story: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” Those two words “by faith” summarize Abraham’s entire life from Genesis 12 forward. He is an example to us all of what it means to walk by faith in God.

Yet, Abraham’s story has a far greater import than simply showing us what it means to walk by faith. It is through God’s covenant with Abraham that we see the unfolding of His promise-plan for the whole world, including ourselves. If we miss that en route to discovering the simple steps for walking by faith, then we have missed the most important thing about Abraham’s story. So we shall look at him under the heading of “Walking by Faith,” but with the understanding that it was through Abraham’s walk of faith that the purposes of God for the whole world were being carried out.

I. The walk of faith begins with the call of God’s grace (v1)

Different sports are governed by different rules. In football, the first possession of the game is determined by a coin toss. In baseball, however, the visiting team always bats first and the home team always bats last. But in the game of life, it is always God who makes the first move. All of our moves are in response to His initial moving. The walk of faith begins with the call of God’s grace.

Abraham did not suddenly decide that he would begin to walk with God by faith. He did not make the first move. In Joshua 24:2, the Lord says to the Israelites, “From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River (that is, the Euphrates River), namely Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.” It isn’t like God was searching the earth for a faithful man, and said, “Ah, here is Abraham. Him I can use!” No, Abraham was a pagan from a pagan family living in a pagan land. But God, in sovereign grace, chose Abraham as the vessel through whom He would bless the world. Abraham’s walk of faith began with God’s initiative in the sovereign call of His grace.

Inherent in this call of God’s grace is the call to leave the comforts of the familiar. God’s calling is always a call from and a call to. Before there can be movement to, there has to be movement from. So the call to Abraham begins with “Go forth from” -- “from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house.” These are all Abram has ever known. And now, by the calling of God’s grace he must leave them all behind. God is giving him a new start, and the past has to be left in the past. All of the ties to his pagan heritage have to be severed. By God’s grace, He sets Abram free from what would otherwise destroy him so that he can pursue God’s intention for his life.

It is only as God calls Abram from something that He can call him to something. And what He calls Abram to is a walk of faith. He calls Abram “To the land which I will show you.” That requires an immense measure of faith on Abram’s part. “Where are we going?”, he might ask. “I will show you when we get there,” would be the Lord’s reply. He will have to walk by faith as the Lord leads to an unknown destination that he will only discover when the journey is complete! He cannot do that while he is still enslaved to his pagan past. There has to be a clean break from all that, and a commitment of complete trust to follow God’s gracious calling as he walks by faith as the Lord directs him.

Friends, we find parallels to all of these aspects of the beginnings of our walk of faith. If you are a Christian, your walk of faith did not begin because you suddenly decided on your own that you wanted to turn over a new leaf in life. No, God moved in sovereign grace toward you and initiated your spiritual walk by choosing you and calling you. You might say, “No, He didn’t choose me! I chose Him.” If we have come to understand anything about the spiritual deadness and sinful corruption of humanity from these studies in Genesis, surely we must understand that there is no way a fallen human being in his natural state would ever choose God unless God had chosen him or her first. And this is precisely what Scripture dictates and demonstrates repeatedly. Our choice of God is only in response to His sovereign and gracious calling and choosing of us. And in that call, He beckons us to abandon the comforts of familiarity. We can’t move forward with Him by faith if we are still enslaved to our past! He sets us free from those snares so that in liberty we might walk with Him by faith wherever He leads us. Where will He take us? Seldom does He reveal more than one step at a time, but that is precisely the number of steps we are able to take. And with each passing step, He is preparing us for the next one before He reveals it to us. We need not know where He is leading, but that He is leading, and to follow by faith as He leads.

So this is how the walk of faith begins: by the call of God’s grace. Now secondly we see …

II. The walk of faith is fueled by the blessing of God’s promise (vv2-3)

If you are going to take a road trip, you have to have fuel in the gas tank. And unless you refuel, you will only go as far as that supply of fuel will take you. The car’s engine can’t run without fuel, neither can the walk of faith. Our walk of faith is fueled by the Word of God, for in it we find the blessing of God’s promises.

Notice the fuel that God puts into Abram’s tank as his walk of faith begins. Over and over again in the first three verses of this chapter, God tells Abram what He will do for him. No less than nine times in this chapter, God states directly or implies indirectly that his walk of faith will be carried along by the unilateral promises of God. He says repeatedly, “I will.” Abram’s journey is not fueled by what he promises do for God but by what God promises to do for Him, with Him, and through Him.

These promises are filled with blessings for Abram and his descendants, and for all the world through him. Notice the repetition of the word “bless.” Whenever God works on behalf of His people it is always for their blessing, but the blessings of God are not intended to stop with the believer. God’s blessings are intended to flow through His people to others. So, in verse 2, God says, “I will bless you.” But then He says, “And so you shall be a blessing.” In verse 3, He says, “I will bless those who bless you,” and then “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” So, the Lord says more about the blessings that will flow through Abram than He does of the blessings that will come to Abram.

Now let us behold the content of these blessings. God’s blessing of Abram consists of the blessing of prosperity. Now, we need to purge ourselves of this notion that the blessing of prosperity always and only refers to material wealth. Prosperity, in the economy of God, has to do with a state of well-being, and the locus of this well-being is as much a spiritual reality as it is a material or physical one. For Abram, this prosperity includes the prospering of his family and the prospering of his fame. He says, “I will make you a great nation,” and then “I will make your name great.” Remember how the settlers of Shinar in Chapter 11 attempted to gain greatness for themselves. They sought to build for themselves a great city and a great tower, and to make for themselves a great name. God brought an end to their efforts to achieve greatness apart from His blessing. Instead, God chose an obscure individual by His sovereign grace, and promised to bless him with the very things those men pursued by their own efforts. Humanly speaking, it was impossible for Abram to gain this greatness by his own efforts. In verse 30 of Chapter 11, we read that his wife Sarai was barren and childless. How could he become a great nation with a barren wife? It is impossible – that is, unless God accomplishes it for him. How is a nameless nomad going to gain worldwide notoriety, such that his name would be known and revered around the world even four millennia after his death? It is impossible, apart from the blessing of God on his life.

God promises Abram not only prosperity but protection. He says, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” By God’s gracious promise, Abram can live in security knowing that God is working on his behalf. Abram need not fear what others will do to him. His life is in the hands of a God who promises to deal with others on the basis of how they deal with him. No individual, no nation, no empire or power of the physical or spiritual world will be able to thwart God’s purpose or promise for Abram because God has committed Himself to the protection of His chosen man. Abraham can live at peace, without concern for defending himself or his reputation, because God has promised this to him.

In addition to the promise of prosperity and protection, God promised Abram the blessing of purpose. His life is not intended by God to be a reservoir of blessing but a channel of blessing. God is going to use him to be a blessing. It is a global purpose encompassing all the nations of the earth. The blessings of God will flow through Abram and his descendants to all the world’s peoples. It is all well and good to speak of Abraham’s descendants (the Jews) as “God’s chosen people.” But we have to be mindful of why they were God’s chosen people. They were not chosen so that they alone could be blessed by God. They were chosen by God so that the whole world would be blessed by God through them.

To understand how God would accomplish that, we must realize that this is more than a global purpose for Abram’s life and lineage. It is a glorious purpose. God’s promise to Abram to bless all the families of the earth will flow through Abram and through his seed. In verse 7, we read of God’s promise of the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. The word in Hebrew, however, is singular. God was going to bring through the long lineage of Abraham’s descendants a specific descendant, a singular seed, in whom all these promises of blessing would come to pass.

This is the very point the Apostle Paul is making in Galatians 3:16. He says, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,” that is, Christ.” Jesus Christ is the seed of Abraham through which the promise of God’s blessing to all nations would come to pass. The nations are treated by God in accordance with their treatment of Abraham because the lineage of Abraham is bringing into the world the One who would bless the world. Abraham and his descendants were chosen and blessed by God to be a missionary people pointing all nations to the one true God. So Abraham’s life and lineage has the unique blessing of having a global and glorious purpose – to literally bring the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to all the world.

In that sense, there is no way that we can emulate Abram’s example, for his role in redemptive history is very unique. But viewing him as a man who walked by faith, we can make application to our own lives. Our walk, like his, is fueled by the blessings of God’s promise. God has not promised us prosperity of health and wealth according to this world’s table of weights and measures, but a prosperity accounted by the spiritual standards of heaven. Greatness in the eyes of God is not attained by our own striving apart from God’s will and work in and through us. If God intends us to attain greatness in this world, it will be as a result of His blessing in our lives. But whether or not we attain it here and now, we will know true greatness as we enter the life to come and experience the glory of His everlasting presence. And as we walk with Him by faith between now and then, we can entrust Him with our safety and security, with our lives, our families, and our reputations, because He has promised to be the Defender of His people. And He promises to bless us in these ways and many more because He has a glorious and global purpose for us. Our walk of faith is fueled by the blessing of His promise to use us in His mission to bring Christ to the nations. What Abram and his descendants did biologically and historically, bringing about the birth of the Messiah for the world, we do spiritually and missionally as we take the name of Jesus and the promise of His salvation to the ends of the earth! In our walk of faith we are carried along step by step as the blessings of these promises fuel us and energize us. This brings us to the next observation …

III. The walk of faith is carried out through the obedience of God’s people (vv4-9)

With God’s gracious calling bidding us to walk, and the blessings of His promise providing fuel for the journey, it falls to us to take those steps and go. Verse 4 of our text does not say that Abram awoke from a dream and found himself in a strange new place. It says, “So Abram went forth.” He obeyed the Lord.

Notice the marks of his obedience. It was a careful obedience. He went forth “as the Lord had spoken to him.” Whatever the Lord told him to do, he did. God’s word was his GPS, directing his every step. It was also a committed obedience. Verse 4 says that Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran and began this walk of faith. Genesis 25:7 will tell us that Abraham lived 175 years. Time does not permit me to get into a discussion about the long lifespans of the patriarchs, but it doesn’t really matter how long Abram would live after this time. The point is that he’d lived three-quarters of a century before this time. Some of you are around this age. And when folks begin to reach this age, they begin to think that their time of serving the Lord is drawing to a close. Abraham’s time of serving the Lord was just beginning! Committed obedience refuses to make excuses. It overcomes them in obedience to the Lord’s calling to walk by faith.

The third mark of obedience I want us to see here is that it was contagious obedience. Abram didn’t begin to walk in obedience alone. Sarai came with him. So did Lot, his nephew. There were also “the persons which they had acquired in Haran.” Now, admittedly this could refer to bondservants who didn’t have a choice but to tag along. But a good case can be made that these individuals are those who chose to come to with Abram because they believed his testimony about God’s promises. They wanted to participate in those promises. The point is that because of Abram’s obedience, others came along with him in his walk of faith. His faith and obedience was contagious. People wanted for themselves what they saw in Abram’s life. Careful, committed, and contagious – these were the marks of Abram’s obedience.

Now notice the outcomes of his obedience. The promises of God were kept. I love how verse 5 says that “they set out for the land of Canaan; thus they came to the land of Canaan.” God kept His promise to show them the place He was leading them, and He ensured that they got there. God’s promises were not only kept, they were enlarged. In verse 7 says that the Lord appeared to Abram. He hadn’t appeared before, He had only spoken. But as a result of Abram’s faith in what God had said, the outcome was that he saw the Lord face to face. And notice how God enlarged His promise to Abram by saying, not just that He would take him to this place, but that He would give him this place in verse 7. “To your descendants I will give this land.” The fulfillment of this promise remained for the future. It didn’t happen then and there. In fact, Abram would not experience the fullness of the promise, but his descendants would. Verse 6 says that the Canaanite was then in the land. It belonged to them at that time. But in God’s own time, He was going to take that land away from the Canaanites as a judgment for their sin and give it to the descendants of Abram in accordance with this enlarged promise.

Another outcome we see here is that God’s promises were celebrated. Abram did two things when he entered the land. He built an altar and he pitched a tent. The order is important. Worship was the priority. Because God had been faithful to His promise, a celebration of His faithfulness was in order. After Abram built that altar in verse 7, he moved on to another place in the land, and there he pitched his tent and built another altar. The tent is picked up and moved from place to place. But the altars are left standing as lasting testimonies to God’s goodness and grace, and new ones are erected at every place to celebrate God’s promises at each point along the way. 

As we walk by faith with the Lord, we do so in careful, committed, obedience, trusting the promises of His word and putting aside all excuses. When others see this level of faith and obedience, they are drawn to it. They want it for themselves, and so it becomes contagious. God is blessing others through the blessings that He pours out on us. And He keeps His promises! Sometimes we wish that God would give us more than He has. He may, but He won’t until we follow through in obedience by faith to what He has already promised us. He enlarges His promises step by step as we walk with Him. And we celebrate His faithfulness to keep His promises as we worship Him. Our tents are temporary, because our lives are not permanent in this world. But our altars are permanent, lasting testimonies of our unbreakable relationship with Him and our unshakable citizenship in His everlasting kingdom. We began by walking in obedience to His word. The journey ends when we see Him face to face.  

One of the evidences of the veracity of God’s Word is how honestly the characters are portrayed. Abraham’s failures are not hidden, and we find one immediately following this monumental description of his faith and obedience. But the good news of this is our final point of emphasis …

IV. The walk of faith is assured by God’s purpose (vv10-20)

If our walk of faith depended on our ability to never stumble, trip, or fall, then it would be a tragic tale. But our walk of faith does not depend on our ability, but God’s. Abraham gives us a vivid portrayal of this reality. Almost immediately, we see God’s promise-plan being put to the test. If the upholding of God’s purpose for Abraham and the whole world rested on Abraham, it would all come crashing down here and now. But God Himself assures that His purposes will come to pass as we walk by faith, imperfect as our walk might be.

Notice that God’s purpose for Abraham is challenged by his temptations. In verse 10, he is tempted to abandon trust. Here in this land of promise, circumstances arise that cause Abram to at least temporarily give up on walking by faith and begin walking by sight. There’s a famine in the land. We do not know what deliberations occurred in Abram’s heart and mind, but we know what he concluded. God could not be trusted to provide in the midst of such a severe famine, so Abram took off for Egypt.

Not only was Abram tempted to abandon trust, he was tempted to abandon truth. In verses 11 through 13, Abram concocts a deceitful scheme to pass off his wife as his sister so that the Egyptians wouldn’t kill him in order to seize his wife for themselves. Notice, he isn’t all that concerned about her being seized, it’s the being killed part that he takes exception to. So he tells her to lie and say that she is his sister “so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live because of you.” He’s lying to save his skin. He doesn’t believe, at least in this moment, that God is able to deliver on his promise of protection, so he comes up with a lie to protect himself.

But I don’t want you to come away from this text being only impacted by the faults of Abram. I want you to be more impacted by the faithfulness of God! The assurance of our walk of faith depends entirely on His faithfulness! God upholds His purpose by His power. He supernaturally intervenes in the web of Abram’s deception and strikes Pharaoh and his household with “great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (v17). Not only does He uphold His purpose by His power, but also by His providence. God provided two important details here to preserve His promise-plan: a reasonable ruler, and a barren bride. Notice Pharaoh’s words to Abram in verses 18-19. “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” He has more integrity than Abram gave him credit for. God put that integrity into his heart as a means of upholding His promise to Abram. He could have ordered Abram to be executed, but he didn’t. He said, “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife?” Those words imply that Pharaoh had every intention, and may have even acted upon that intention, to physically consummate his marriage to Sarai. But in what would otherwise be the painful tragedy of Sarai’s barrenness, God was providentially preserving His promise to Abram. How convoluted this entire episode would have become had Sarai conceived a child by the Egyptian Pharaoh. Under normal circumstances, that would have happened. But these are not normal circumstances. This is God preserving His promise by His power and providence!

So Abram failed. He was deported from Egypt, and graciously he was allowed to take everything with him. Everything, that is but his testimony before Pharaoh and the Egyptians. That had been spoiled by his abandonment of trust and truth. Rather than bringing a blessing upon this people, Abram brought a curse upon them, even though they treated him better than he deserved. But in spite of Abram’s failures, God’s purpose, God’s promise and God’s plan did not fail! He upheld His purpose by power and providence so that His promise-plan for Abram and the world would not come to nothing.

Maybe you find yourself today in the ruins of abandoned trust and truth. Having resorted to your own schemes to protect and provide for yourself, you’ve seen it all come to ruin. Well, you may have made a mess of things. You may have stumbled and fallen. But you haven’t thwarted the purpose for which God created, chose, and called you. You can return to Him in repentance and trust that in His providence and power, He will uphold and fulfill His purposes in and through you, even as He did for Abraham.

“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.” He walked by faith. That walk of faith began with God’s gracious calling. It was fueled by the blessing of God’s promises. It was carried out by Abram’s own obedience, and preserved by God’s faithfulness even when Abraham’s obedience faltered. As a result, God’s promise-plan for Abraham and for the world through Abraham has come to pass in the person of Jesus. In Him, all the nations of the earth are blessed. In Him the scattered peoples of the world are gathered back together as one body – the church of Jesus Christ that is made up of those of every tribe and tongue and people and nation – those who are called by God’s grace to walk by faith just as Abraham did; those who are blessed by the promises of God’s word as Abraham was; those who by faith obey the Lord; those whom God upholds by His perfect faithfulness in spite of our imperfect faith. Thus God’s word says to us all, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).

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