Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Path of Reconciliation (Genesis 32-33)


The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote of the porcupine’s dilemma. He said that when it is cold, a group of porcupines might huddle together for warmth. But, the closer they get to one another, they begin to prick one another with their quills, forcing them to separate from one another. Schopenhauer compared this to an experience in human relationships. He said, “the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature.”[1]

Perhaps you have experienced this phenomenon. We desire to have intimate friendships and deeply meaningful personal relationships with others, but we often get hurt and we hurt others. We simultaneously push others away and are pushed away by them with our mutual prickliness. Christians are not immune to this. In fact, it may be suggested that we are especially prone to it because we have both an existential need and a biblical obligation to draw near to one another in Christian fellowship. And, on the plane of Christian fellowship, our emotions are raw and vulnerable, and we are all still “works in progress” at varying points on the journey of sanctification. Even in the church, we find ourselves mutually sticking each other with the pricks of our imperfections. So, whether in the church or in the world, if we are to ever have meaningful human relationships – if we are really going to obey the command of God to love our neighbors as ourselves – we must become experts at reconciliation. And thankfully the Word of God is not silent on this subject.

In our last study, we observed the tension between Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob. They were born in a struggle, and grew up at odds with each other. Parental favoritism, spiritual blindness, dishonesty and deception ripped away at the fabric of family life. We left off with Esau vowing to kill Jacob, and Jacob fleeing the Promised Land to save his own life. As Jacob departed, God met with him, and assured him of His divine presence and protection, and promised that He would bring Jacob back to the Promised Land. In the intervening chapters, Jacob met and fell in love with Rachel, but was deceived by her father Laban – a taste of his own medicine. As a result of that deception, Jacob was duped into marrying the wrong girl – Rachel’s elder sister Leah. He ended up taking both of them as wives, and fathered 11 sons and a daughter. He became prosperous, and the Lord prompted him to return to the Promised Land. He and his family and entourage snuck away in the dark of night, and Laban chased after them all. When Laban finally caught Jacob, the two made an uneasy agreement before the Lord. They said, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other.” This was not so much a prayer of mutual blessing, but a warning, as though to say, “You better not cross me again, because God is watching you!” They set up boundaries that neither was to cross again in order to harm the other (Gen 31:44-55). Jacob had put his conflicts with Laban behind him and was prepared to go back to the Promised Land as the Lord had prompted him. As he entered into the boundaries of the Land, the angels of God met him, as a reminder that God had kept all of the promises He had made to Jacob. And this is where our text begins.

You notice that immediately after Jacob was encountered by these angels his thoughts turned to Esau, his brother. The last time his feet had touched this soil, he was fleeing for his life from Esau’s murderous threats. Twenty years later, Jacob now finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Because of his agreement with Laban, he cannot turn back. If he is to obey the Lord, he must go forward. But going forward means crossing paths with the brother he deceived, who was intent on killing him. So Jacob has to discover the path of reconciliation with Esau if he is going to survive and fulfill God’s purposes for him and for the world through him.

Like Jacob, we often find ourselves between the rock and the hard place, with the only way forward being the path of reconciliation. Our human nature shrinks from this, leading us to look for detours or shortcuts, causing us to burn bridges instead of repairing them, or remaining idle and passively waiting for the other person to make the first move. None of these are God-honoring paths. The road less traveled is the one that makes the difference, in the words of Robert Frost. And that less traveled road is the one the Lord calls His people to take – the high road of reconciliation. So how do we do it? Let’s learn from Jacob’s example here in our text.

I. The path of reconciliation requires us to be prayerful and prepared (32:1-20).

Jacob knows that the road ahead will be a difficult one. He knows that he will either encounter Esau while on the way, or else once Esau finds out that he has returned, he will come after him later. Avoidance of the problem is not an option. He does not go into it blindly. He makes careful preparations. He does this by taking initiative and responsibility.

Notice in verse 3, after meeting with the angels of the Lord, Jacob takes the initiative to send messengers to Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. He does not wait to be found by Esau, and he does not leave anything to chance. He sends his messengers to the place where Esau lives. And notice how Jacob takes responsibility. The message he sends says, “Thus says your servant Jacob, I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants. And I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.” He takes responsibility for his past actions by treating him with humility and honor. There is humility in the character of his message. Though, by God’s sovereign choice, Jacob is rightly the “lord” of this relationship and Esau the “servant,” Jacob humbly puts himself in the lower position. He is saying in effect, “In the past, I have stolen from you; in the future, I long to serve you.” And then he honors his brother in the content of his message. He is seeking Esau’s favor instead of the fury that he rightly deserves. When he speaks of all the possessions he has amassed, he is not trying to brag about his wealth to his brother. He is saying that he has the means to compensate his brother for the wrongs that he has done to him. In verses 13-16, he separates from his possessions a collection of 550 animals as a gift to his brother. Several times, he speaks of “finding favor” or “appeasing” His brother with the present. He calls it a “present” in verses 13 and 18. But notice how he changes the word in verse 33:11 to “gift” in our English versions. The Hebrew literally reads blessing here. That’s an important word. Remember that their entire conflict has been a struggle over the blessing that Jacob stole from his brother. He sends this gift back to Esau as a way of saying, “Though I cannot undo what God has done, or cause God to change His sovereign decree, I can compensate you for the wrongs I have done to you, and in some small way be a blessing to you.” He takes initiative and responsibility. He treats his brother with humility and honor. Thus, he is doing all that he can to make the careful preparations on the horizontal level as one man to another to make restitution for the sins of his past.

But the horizontal preparation is not all that is required in advance of this meeting. He makes careful preparations, but he has no way of knowing how the message will be received by Esau. Therefore, there must be vertical preparations with God. Careful preparations are essential, but more essential are the prayerful preparations that must take place within Jacob in advance of the encounter with Esau.

The initial response that Jacob received from his messengers was disconcerting. Verse 6 tells us that the messengers indeed found Esau, “and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and 400 men are with him.” That’s a lot of people – in fact, it is the number of men which would comprise a standard militia! And this causes Jacob to be “greatly afraid and distressed.” He had carefully prepared to not be received well, hence the gift sent. But now he must be prayerfully prepared!

Verse 9 begins the longest prayer in the book of Genesis, and in it, Jacob demonstrates the transformation that God has been working in his soul to this point. Notice his confession in verse 10: “I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant.” He knows that he is nothing apart from the grace of God – nothing but a liar and a cheat. He confesses that, acknowledging that there is nothing good within him, but that all that he has comes from God’s goodness to him. Then notice his petition. “Deliver me!” In the Hebrew, it is equivalent to saying, “Save me!” He prays for God’s protection from his brother, saying, “for I fear him, that he will come and attack.” But notice, most importantly the basis of his prayer. He is praying according to God’s own word. In verse 9, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you.’” Jacob is recounting before the Lord that this journey back to his homeland was God’s idea. He is saying, “O Lord, I am doing exactly what you told me to do!” And then in verse 12, again, he says, “For You said, ‘I will surely prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered.’” He is taking God up on His word here, as if to say, “You are the One who made these promises to me, so You must be the One to keep them! If Esau kills me, Your promise will not come to pass! But You are God, and Your word must stand!” So Jacob demonstrates that his confidence in approaching his brother is not rooted in his own plans and strategies, but in God and in His Word, upon whom he casts himself in prayerful preparation for what is to come.

Here we see the first step on the path of reconciliation. When we have wronged another, we must be prayerful and prepared. We must make the careful preparations of taking the initiative and responsibility to approach the other person with humility and honor, offering to make our wrongs right. But we must also make prayerful preparations, confessing our sin before the Lord and entrusting ourselves to Him to bring about the outcomes that He desires in the situation.

Now, secondly, we see …

II. The path of reconciliation requires us to be broken and blessed (32:21-32).

As a part of Jacob’s preparations to encounter Esau, fearing the worst, he divided up his family and entourage into multiple camps in order to minimize the casualties to his loved ones. He sent them on ahead, undoubtedly hoping that they would miss crossing paths with Esau, who was on his way to meet Jacob. Jacob stayed behind, alone, preparing for a battle. But the battle in which he suddenly found himself was not the one he had been anticipating. In 32:24, we read that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” It is only in hindsight, after the battle had ended, that Jacob was able to recognize the One with whom he had been wrestling. Verse 30 says that he named the place Peniel, which means, “The Face of God,” saying, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” As God would later say to Moses, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live” (Ex 33:20). But Jacob had, because God graciously condescended to him in order to break him and to bless him.

The Lord allowed Jacob to fight hard against Him. He is gracious and patient with us, and allows us to do our best in battle with Him. Though He could lay us low with but the speaking of a word, He restrains His power that we might learn more of our own limitations and dependence upon Him. And since Jacob was not giving up, the Lord took the battle to a higher level. He touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh, so that his thigh was dislocated. But Jacob still did not give up the struggle. The Lord was prepared to let the battle end, but Jacob was not. Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He has to be thinking, “If I let you go, you might kill me!” Though Jacob did not yet know that his Opponent was the Lord, he recognized that he was no match for Him. So he pleaded for mercy. Hosea provides commentary on this event in Hosea 12:4, saying that Jacob “wept and sought His favor.” It had been the Lord’s desire to bless Jacob since before he was born. Jacob had thought at one time that the blessing of God could only be his by hook and by crook, not knowing that God’s blessing had been promised to him in the womb. And so in order to bring Jacob back to the place of blessing, God asked him an important question: “What is your name?”

Maybe you recall the last time this question was asked of Jacob? In 27:18, as Jacob brought in a savory dish to his father, Isaac asked him, “Who are you, my son?” And you recall Jacob’s answer: “I am Esau, your firstborn.” Again, Isaac asked him, “Are you really my son Esau?” (27:24). And again Jacob said, “I am.” What’s the old saying, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Jacob had come pretty close to doing just that. But God can never be fooled. And when He asks Jacob’s name this time, He gets an honest answer: “Jacob” (v27). His name meant, “one who grasps the heel,” and it was a way of describing a cheater. Uttering it was a confession, as if to say, “Lord, you of all people know what I am. I am a cheater and nothing more.” At last he was a broken man.

It was only as God broke Jacob that He could bless Jacob. He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” No longer is anyone to refer to Jacob in accordance with his past. There has been a transformation. He is no longer “the cheater,” he is now the “wrestler with God,” and his new, divinely given name is representative of his new, divinely transformed nature. God had broken him, and God had blessed him. And lest Jacob ever forget that, he walked away from the encounter with a limp that stayed with him the rest of his life.

Jacob was not prepared to face Esau until he’d been broken and blessed. God had to break him of his self-reliance, and bring him to the point of surrender. Jacob had to confess his past and let go of it, that he might be transformed by God for His purposes in the future. He would not strut into Esau’s presence, but he would limp toward him, mindful that the Lord alone could carry him through the attempt at reconciliation.

I wonder, have you been broken by the Lord? Has He broken you in repentance of your sins? Have you acknowledged before Him your true nature, that He may impart to you a new nature, as He did for Jacob? Have you been broken of your self-reliance, and come to the place where you desperately cling to God and cry out for His mercy? Have you been wrestling with Him, thinking that you might eventually overpower Him, only to find that He is not letting go of you, and will not let you win? Jacob prevailed in his battle with the Lord by surrendering to Him. We typically think of surrender as a defeat, and it almost always is – unless we are surrendering to the Lord. It is the only way to victory with Him! There are a lot of us who walk with a spiritual limp, but it is a badge of honor – a continual reminder that we are utterly dependent upon God and not our own strengths and abilities. We’ve been broken, but in that brokenness we have been blessed. We hobble along in God’s power, mindful of who we once were, and how He has transformed us. Having found peace with Him, we are ready to make peace with others.

III. The path of reconciliation requires us to be winsome and wise (33:1-20).

With the news that Esau was coming with a militia of 400 men, and with a conscience convicting him of his wrongdoing before they parted ways, Jacob was convinced that there was going to be trouble. Had God not crippled him at Peniel, Jacob might have either run away from the opportunity for reconciliation, or else undermined it by barging in ready to fight. With those options taken away due to his plaguing limp, Jacob had no other option but to face his brother in the most gracious demeanor possible. In addition to the gifts that he had sent in advance, Chapter 33 tells us that he came before bowing down to the ground, seeking to “find favor” in Esau’s sight (33:3, 8).

Thankfully, the Lord had gone ahead of Jacob and prepared the heart of Esau for the encounter. This is what Jacob had prayed for, and God answered in a big way. Esau didn’t come at Jacob with clenched fists but with open arms. In 33:3 we find that he “ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.” The wording reminds us of how the loving father received back his prodigal son in Luke 15:20: “he ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

Jacob and Esau have a warmhearted reunion and reconciliation here. Jacob came in with winsome humility, and Esau came in with a forgiving spirit in answer to Jacob’s prayer. When Esau inquired about Jacob’s entourage, Jacob gave God credit for his prosperity and he pressed upon Esau to receive the gift (the “blessing”) that he was offering him as restitution. Against his initial protests, Esau finally received the gift as a means of burying the hatchet. All was well with the brothers, perhaps for the first time in their lives. But then it got weird.

Esau is seemingly hospitable as he invites Jacob to accompany him to Seir, presumably to settle down as a neighbor to him. He offers him an escort to ensure Jacob’s safe passage. But Jacob politely declines the offer of the escort. The two are really trying to outdo each other with kindness and courtesy here in the final verses of Chapter 33. Finally Jacob persuades Esau to go on ahead, and let him “proceed at” his own “leisure,” given his limp and the pace of driving such a large entourage of people and livestock. He says, “Please let my lord pass on before his servant, and I will proceed at my leisure … until I come to my lord at Seir.” So in verse 16, Esau returned to Seir. And in verse 17, Jacob journeyed to Succoth and built a house for himself there. He never went to Seir, and he never intended to. What is going on here? Had Jacob backslidden into his old deceptive ways? I used to think that was the case, but then I did something I had neglected to do before – I read the text of the Bible carefully. What I find is that Jacob never told Esau he was coming to Seir. He simply said, I will proceed at my leisure until I come to my lord at Seir. That may never happen. He is basically saying, “Don’t worry about leaving the light on for me.” Nowhere in this passage does it say that Jacob had deceived Esau or done any wrong. Never again is this incident mentioned and nowhere is Jacob condemned by the Lord or anyone else for it. That does not, in itself, mean that he had done a good thing, but neither does it mean that he did a bad thing. When the Bible is silent, we need to be silent. The Bible does not indicate what Jacob’s motives were, what Esau’s reaction was, and neither does it defend or condemn Jacob for this. So we must treat the text as we have it.

One thing I have discovered as I have visited other cultures is the priority of hospitality and the practice of saving face. Notwithstanding any other factor that may be at play here in the hearts and minds of Jacob and Esau, there was a societal obligation for Esau to show hospitality to his brother. His forgiveness would have been deemed superficial and shallow had he not proven his genuineness with an offer of hospitality. And, on the flip side of that, Jacob could not have flatly refused the offer. It would have been like a slap in the face. As winsomely as possible, the two handled the situation with grace and kindness. But in addition to being winsome, Jacob had to be wise. The bottom line was that both of these men knew that their future would have to take them in separate directions. They both knew that they needed boundaries. Esau could forgive the past, and Jacob could earnestly seek the favor of his brother, but this did not mean that the two had to become best buddies or BFFs. Spiritually speaking, they were incompatible. Jacob was being transformed by God into a new man. Esau still didn’t know the first thing about faith. If Jacob ever misstepped in his relationship with his brother, intentionally or accidentally, all of Esau’s murderous rage would instinctively return. With the past covered by forgiveness and reconciliation, both men were free – free from guilt and free from vengeance – to pursue their own path for the future.

As we walk the path of reconciliation, we must do so winsomely. Kindness and courtesy, humility and honesty must characterize all that we do and say. Having prepared carefully and prayerfully, and having sought God’s forgiveness, we can trust Him to work in the heart of the one we have wronged to receive us and forgive us as well. But, there must be wisdom employed as well. We may discover that separate ways are the best way forward, but those divergent paths cannot be pursued until we have dealt with the past in repentance and grace.

Have you wronged someone? Be prayerful and prepared. Take the initiative and take responsibility for your actions. Be humble, and honor the other person as you seek to make wrongs right. Seek God’s forgiveness first, and then the other person’s. But pray fervently that God might be with you and that He might work in the heart of the other person. Let God have His way with you, breaking you that you would limp forward leaning on him, and blessing you with a transformed nature. In your encounter, be respectful and kind – winsome in fact. But as you put the past behind you and look toward the future, exercise prudent wisdom about the boundaries you need to maintain in the restored relationship.

Maybe you are the one who has been wronged. Put yourself in Esau’s shoes. Someone else has done something awful to you – lied to you, cheated you, deceived you, stolen from you, maybe worse. How can you find the grace to forgive them? If you are a follower of Jesus, you immediately have an advantage over Esau here. Esau was not a man of faith, and yet demonstrated great charity in dealing with Jacob. We who are believers in Jesus can do even better than this. We are new creations in Christ, transformed by His forgiving grace. We do not need to merely put the past behind us. We actively put the past under the blood of Jesus. We treat the sins of others in the same way that God has dealt with ours. You see, when we acknowledge that God has worked in Christ to reconcile us to Himself, forgiving us of our sins against Him, there is nothing that anyone else has done or can do to us that we cannot forgive. Nothing anyone does to us is ever as egregious as what we have done to God in our sinful rebellion against Him. And just as God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, He has given us the ministry of reconciliation by which we might reconcile ourselves to others, that we might mediate reconciliation between others, and most importantly reconcile men to God by pointing them to Jesus. What a powerful evidence of the Gospel of Christ we will present to the world when we are found offering the same kind of forgiveness to others which we claim to have received ourselves!

[1] Jon Maner, C. Nathan DeWall, Roy Baumeister, Mark Schaller, “Does Social Exclusion Motivate Interpersonal Reconnection? Resolving the Porcupine Problem.” Online: ~schaller/Maner2007.pdf. Accessed March 23, 2017. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Securing the Blessing (Genesis 25-28)

Important words can get overused and misused, causing them to lose the thrust of their original meaning. A few days ago, I was talking with someone about the word “pious.” At one time, this was the highest compliment that one could hope to receive. A pious person lives a faithful, godly life in the fear of the Lord. But today, if someone said that you are pious, you would probably not receive it as a compliment because it has come to refer to self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism. This is most unfortunate when it happens to important biblical words. I find that one of the most overused and misunderstood words that is tossed about today is the word “blessing,” or its derivatives, like “blessed” (which is customarily prefixed with a hashtag these days, #blessed).

When we speak of God’s blessings in our lives, we often apply the term very selectively. We refer to material, physical, and earthly prosperity as being “blessed,” but we tend to overlook the biblical categories of blessedness, found for example in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. There Jesus says things, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness,” and “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you.” We see bumper stickers and vanity plates on luxury cars that speak of being blessed, but we do not see them on broken down jalopies barely making it down the road. There are 112 New Testament references to being “blessed,” and none of them have anything to do with material prosperity.[1] So this notion that being blessed means having nice things, or having a lot of things, or having the right things, is missing the point of the Bible, and that leads to going to great lengths in the wrong direction in order to obtain that status of “#blessed.”

One of the central themes of the Bible is God’s intention and desire to bless humanity. When God blesses, He pronounces favor upon a person – not necessarily because they deserve it, but because He chooses to. In His blessing, He empowers the one He blesses to do whatever it is that the blessing entails. Among the 600 times that the Old Testament refers to blessing, there are cases in which one human “blesses” another, but in these cases, the “blessing” consists of a prayer or promise of God’s blessing being extended. When it comes to the family of Abraham, we have a very special case. Abraham was promised an unusual and unique blessing from God, and that blessing was promised to him and his descendants. So from one generation to the next, the blessing of Abraham would be passed down by a father to his son. That blessing bestowed upon each successive generation a privileged position, the protection of God, and participation in God’s purposes. As we examine how this blessing is transferred from one generation to the next, we come to understand something of how and why God blesses His people. Since we all long to experience the blessing of God, the subject is relevant and of interest to us today.

Through the lengthy portion of Scripture we have read, we discover first of all, that …
I. God’s blessing is not secured by worldly means.

We live in a culture that ingrains in us the idea that if you want something, you just go out and get it by any means necessary. If you want it, you should have it, and have it now, no matter what it takes to get it. While that kind of determination and drive may accumulate much in this world, it will never bring about the blessing of God. We find this throughout the story of the sibling rivalry between Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob.

Notice that God’s blessing is not granted on the basis of human standards. By most human  considerations, Esau is a far more commendable character in this story than Jacob. He is the firstborn son, and in that day and culture, this carried a lot of weight. One of the most fundamental threads in the fabric of society in the ancient world (and in many cultures still today) was what was known as primogeniture, or the rights of the firstborn. Though Esau and Jacob were twins, Esau emerged from the womb first, and was technically the firstborn. The firstborn son typically held a position of honor in the family. He was to be the leader and protector of the family when his father became invalid or died. The firstborn was expected to receive both the blessing of his father and the birthright of a double portion of his father’s estate. If a man had nine sons, his estate would be divided into nine portions, and the firstborn would receive two of those portions, with the other eight sons dividing seven portions among themselves. In the case where there are only two sons, as here, the firstborn would receive everything, and the younger would receive nothing.

Esau was a real “man’s man.” He was born covered in hair, with red skin or red hair (the Hebrew is hard to tell the difference). He grew up to become a skillful hunter and a man of the field. He was a great outdoorsman. And because Isaac had a taste for wild game, Esau was his favored child. By human standards, it seemed only natural that he would inherit the blessing of Abraham that God had promised, passed down from Isaac. But God does not operate by human standards, nor is His blessing granted that way.

Neither is His blessing granted by carnal senses. As we all know, we have five senses. You know what they are: touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. These are gifts of God for our benefit, protection, and enjoyment, and by them, we perceive the world and the things in it. We are a sensory people. But when we live only for the gratification of our five senses, or are driven primarily by them, we are sensual people. Sensual people live for the satisfaction of our carnal, or fleshly desires, rather than for the glory of God and the fulfillment of His purposes. This is the way we all come into the world. Paul says that we all “formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph 2:3). Until we know God by personal relationship, the sensual is all that we know. The gratification of our senses brings us delight. But it does not bring the blessing of God. We see that in our passage as we look at Isaac’s interactions with his sons.

They say that when we are deprived of one of our five senses, the others are sharpened. In Chapter 27, Isaac is said to have become blind. His “eyes were too dim to see” (27:1). So, he sent out his favored son to bring him “a savory dish for me such as I love, … that I may eat, so that my soul may bless you before I die.” Deprived of his sense of sight, and driven by his sense of taste, he became deceived by his sense of touch and smell. Jacob came in, at the prompting of his mother, with a savory dish and disguised by goat skins which made him “feel” hairy and smell “gamey” like his brother. Interestingly, even though Isaac paused to inquire as to whether this was really Esau or not, he was so intent on the savory dish, that he ignored the dead giveaway. In 27:22, he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Hearing is regarded as the source of spiritual truth in the Bible. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Contrary to popular belief, we do not now live in the “visual age.” God speaks to us from His word and calls us to believe in what we cannot see. Isaac denied his sense of hearing, and allowed himself to be deceived.

So God’s blessing is not granted by human standards and not by carnal senses. We also see that it is not granted by deceptive schemes. This entire passage is like a museum of liars and cheats. We often envision Isaac as a hapless victim who is taken advantage of by a manipulative wife and a scheming son. But Isaac himself is also up to a deceptive game here. Without the context of Genesis 25, Genesis 27 appears to be about a father who wants to give a blessing to his firstborn son. What’s the problem? Remember, in Chapter 25, it was the Lord who said, “the older shall serve the younger” (25:23). God had already established that Jacob was to receive the birthright and the blessing. Isaac was plotting to undo what the Lord had decreed, as if that were possible. Isaac and Esau were secretly attempting to defy God’s plan. Rebekah and Jacob were secretly attempting to force God’s hand. All of them were deceptively scheming, and none of them were able to secure God’s blessing by their tactics.

All of this teaches us that we can never secure God’s blessing by worldly means. We cannot rely on cultural customs, genealogy, physical stature or material prosperity, carnal desires and pleasures, or dishonesty and deception to gain God’s favor. Right cannot be done wrongly. God’s will has to be done God’s way. And His way is not to grant His blessing according to worldly means. So how does God bless people?

II. God’s blessing is bestowed by sovereign grace.

Ever since the fall of humanity into sin when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, our natural born state has been utterly hopeless. The Bible describes our condition as “enemies” of God (Rom 5:10) and “dead” in our “trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). As some have well said, the only thing a dead person can do is stink. If, according to the ancient Chinese proverb, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” then the journey to bring us to God from our sinful state must be infinite, and we are completely incapable of taking the first step. Therefore, whatever steps must be taken to bring the blessing of God into our lives must all be taken by God Himself. And this is exactly what the Bible declares and demonstrates from cover to cover, including in this story of Esau and Jacob.

Notice that before any action is taken by either Jacob or Esau, God chooses who will receive the blessing. Before they were born, the Lord said to Rebekah in 25:23, “Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.” As a demonstration of God’s sovereign choice of Jacob over Esau, when they were born, Esau came first, and Jacob “came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel.” It typified the struggle that would exist between them, and the preeminence that Jacob would have over Esau in fulfillment of God’s sovereign decree.

When Paul was describing God’s sovereign grace in Romans 9, he pointed to this passage as an illustration of it. He wrote, “for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, "THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER." Just as it is written, "JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED" (Rom 9:11-13).

That statement of God’s “hatred” of Esau troubles many readers, but we must understand that the contrast of love and hate in contexts like this has to do with a preferential choice. And that preferential choice was made on no other basis than God’s sovereign grace. It had to be! After all, both Esau and Jacob proved themselves to be unworthy of God’s blessing. Esau is not an innocent victim here. Though God had already decreed that Jacob would have preeminence, neither Esau nor Jacob knew this. Both presumed that the birthright belonged to Esau as the firstborn. So Jacob, on one occasion, tricked Esau into trading the birthright for a bowl of stew. Genesis 25:30 says that Esau was famished – meaning that he was dying of hunger. Jacob should have been hospitable and generous and given him the stew, but he was shrewd and tricky, and offered it to him in exchange for the birthright. Esau said, “I am about to die; so of what use is the birthright to me?” But the Bible says of Esau’s end of the bargain that he “despised his birthright” (25:34). Following his own physical desires, he dishonored his father and family by such a bad trade. And he continued to be driven more by carnal desire than spiritual insight. Chapter 26 tells us that he married, not one but, two Hittite women. This was a compounded sin – polygamy was bad enough, a complete rebellion against God’s design for marriage and family. But it was compounded by the fact that he married women from a pagan culture who worshiped and served idols instead of the true and living God. Spiritual compatibility is required for a God-honoring marriage, and Esau showed no concern for this. These women caused his parents much grief, and later, we will read that he adds another wife to the harem, this time from the Ishmaelites – another pagan people. It is no wonder that the book of Hebrews calls Esau “immoral” and “godless” (Heb 12:16).

But it is not as though Jacob was any better. Not knowing that the blessing and birthright had already been decreed to him by God, he went to deplorable lengths to defraud his brother and deceive his father in order to seize them. He was guilty of hardhearted greed, evil trickery, lies and even blasphemy as he covered up his lies by appealing to God granting him favor in 27:20. Who deserves the blessing of God in this passage? None of the above! And none would have it were it not for God taking sovereign initiative on the basis of His glorious grace and mercy.

The grace of God in blessing people who are undeserving is a scandalous and offensive thing to many. In fact, it always has been. It seems unfair for an unrighteous person to receive the blessing of God! In response to this, we must make three points of clarification. First, when all are completely undeserving, it is not unfair of God to allow some to get what they deserve, and others to get better than they deserve. This is Paul’s point in Romans 9, where he says, “What shall we say then? There is no injustice in God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’” (Rom 9:14-15). If I put a stack of hundred dollar bills here on the steps, and say, “I am willing to give every one of you a hundred dollar bill if you will come here and receive it,” that is my right. And if every one of you decides not to come here and receive it, but to walk away, am I being unfair if I chase down one of you and say to you, “I insist that you take all of the money!”? Not at all! It is mine to do with as I wish, and when all have rejected my offer, no one is deserving of it. But I still may choose one to give the whole sum to one. It is not unfair. It is an imperfect analogy, surely, but it illustrates the point. God desires to extend His blessing to all mankind. But all have turned away from His blessing in sin and rebellion. No one deserves it. How could it be unfair of Him to choose some and insist on them receiving more than they deserve? In sovereign grace, this is how He blesses some and not others.

The second clarification we must make is that God’s blessing in no way removes the temporal consequences of sin. Jacob sinned, and was blessed anyway. But the blessing of God did not prevent him from reaping what he had sown. He will suffer alienation from his family, threats from his brother, and in a subsequent passage, he will be deceived by Laban in his selection of a wife. So we must not think that grace provides us with a license to sin without consequences.

The third clarification is this: it ought to greatly encourage us that God chooses to bless otherwise undeserving people. This is not unfair – it is our only glory and ultimate hope! All of us, like all those in this passage, are undeserving of God’s favor! None of us can attain it on our own. One of the most encouraging things in the Bible to me every time I read it is how good God is to people who do not deserve it, and how He uses people who are deeply flawed with imperfections! If it were otherwise, I would live in utter despair! But the overarching message of the Bible is that God is willing to shower grace on undeserving people, and therefore there is hope for us all. And that hope is found in the ultimate demonstration of God’s blessing upon undeserving people: the gift of His Son Jesus Christ to save us from our sins.

This brings us to the final truth of how God’s blessing is secured:

III. God’s blessing is secured ultimately in Jesus Christ.

Though Isaac had intended to try to circumvent God’s plan by blessing Esau instead of Jacob, and though Jacob had deceived him wickedly in order to obtain that blessing, Isaac finally surrendered himself to the will of God. The blessing that he gave Jacob in Chapter 27 from his blind deception is given in even clearer terms in Chapter 28, this time with clear understanding to the purposes of God. In 28:3-4, Isaac bestows on Jacob and his descendants “the blessing of Abraham” and all that this entailed. Then, as though to confirm the blessing and provide assurance of it, God Himself appeared to Jacob in 28:10-22. Jacob saw a vision in a dream of a ladder reaching down from heaven to earth, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it, and God said to him, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.” As He had done with Abraham and Isaac before, God blessed Jacob with the promise of innumerable descendants and the title deed to the promised land. And again God reiterated, “in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” We have seen over and over again in these patriarchal narratives how this promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who brings the blessing of God to all peoples by rescuing humanity from the curse of sin.

It is only on the basis of what God will do for mankind in Christ that He can promise His everlasting presence and blessing on Jacob and those who come after him. All of God’s blessings to undeserving people prior to the cross pave the way for the cross where our redemption is completed. He is the blessing of Abraham that flows to Jacob in this account, and flows to us all in God’s saving grace. And how is Jacob to receive this blessing? By faith, the same as Abraham and Isaac before him, the same as all who receive the blessing of Christ here and now. Jacob’s faith in the promises of God was so significant that he went to great lengths – even improper lengths – to attain it. But it was not attained by those illicit means but in spite of them. It was attained by faith, based on the unchangeable sovereign decree of God’s grace to choose him. When God appeared to Jacob, by faith he erected an altar and called the place “Bethel,” which means “House of God,” and committed himself to walk with God in faith and obedience from that point forward. And we ourselves receive the blessing of God by faith as we are met by His sovereign grace and respond in faith and trust. As with Jacob, so with us – it is not based on what we have done or not done. It is based on the sovereign grace of God, who chooses to bestow blessings on the undeserving, and it is received by faith alone in Christ alone.

Jesus Christ is the true firstborn of God the Father who has inherited the birthright of the whole world and all it contains, and the Kingdom of God, that He may reign as Lord forever. He is the true “Bethel,” the house of God that God has established in whom all who come into His presence are gathered as one worshiping people of God. He is the ladder between heaven and earth, and the only means of accessing the presence of God. He said Himself, “You will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” referring to Himself (Jn 1:51). And He is the greater Jacob who reigns over the greater Esau. Remember when Jesus was born, the Magi came from the East asking Herod, the king of the Jews, “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2). That very statement has its roots here in the story of the blessing of God passing down to Jacob instead of Esau. You see, Herod the Great, though he bore the title “King of the Jews” was not born King of the Jews, and was not even a Jew. In fact, Herod was an Edomite. Look at Genesis 25:30 again: “Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.’ Therefore his name was called Edom (which means “red”).” Where does the story of Jacob (also known as Israel) taking precedence over Esau (also called Edom) find its supreme fulfillment? In the birth of the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, born King of the Jews, to reign as King of all kings! He was coming into the world, bringing the blessing of God with Him to bestow on all who receive Him by faith and commit themselves to Him as subjects to an almighty and everlasting King!

To Jacob, the Lord promised by His grace, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done I have promised you.” To those who belong to Him by faith the Lord Jesus makes even greater promises. Cleansing us from sin by the blood of His cross, and covering us with His righteousness, Jesus says to His own, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Heb 13:5). He says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). He says, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (Jn 6:39). He says, “I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn 14:2-3). We could ask for no greater blessing than this! God has given us Himself in the person of Christ! Though we do not deserve it, by His sovereign grace, He extends His blessing toward us, and asks us only to receive it by faith in the Lord Jesus.

[1] Vaneetha Rendall Risner, “What Does it Really Mean to Be #Blessed.” Online: Accessed March 16, 2017. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

God Will Provide a Lamb (Genesis 21:1-7; 22:1-18)


As we study our Bibles, sometimes we come across passages that strike us as, well, for lack of a better word, a little weird. We are so far removed from many of the manners and customs of the ancient world that we have a hard time relating to what we are reading. And the stranger the story, the more the critics of the Bible love to use it as a point of contention with Christians. Peter says that the “untaught and unstable” take the “hard to understand” portions of Scripture and “distort” them “to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:14-16). On more than one occasion, I have found myself sharing my faith with an unbeliever, only have them throw something out about God ordering Abraham to kill his son. In addition to the moral strangeness of this passage of Scripture, it is a favorite among those who accuse the Bible of containing contradictions. They will say, “How can God condemn human sacrifice in one passage and command it in another?” Leviticus 18:21 condemns the sacrifice of infants, and Leviticus 20:2 makes it a capital offense for a parent to offer their infants as sacrifices to the pagan deity Molech. It is a fair question, and one that deserves an answer if we are to give a reason for the hope within us (1 Pet 3:15). Of course, if we are going to answer the question, then we must understand this passage for ourselves, and I suggest that this is something many believers have yet to do.

The text before us is not one of problems, per se, but it is one of God’s promise, purpose, provision, and plan. Here we find God’s promises to Abraham coming into fruition, being challenged, and coming into sharper focus as he commits himself to walk with God by faith and obedience. As we see these things taking shape in his life, we come to understand something of God’s promise, purpose, provision and plan for us. And it all centers around the reality that God will provide a lamb.

We begin by considering …

I. God’s promises cannot be thwarted (21:1-7).

In our last study (Genesis 15), we looked at how God established and secured His covenant with Abraham, assuring him that the promises that would come to pass in his life and in his descendants were sure and certain because they rested on God’s faithfulness, and that alone. It was not a bilateral agreement, in which the terms demanded that Abraham do his part and God would do His part. No, God demonstrated that He would do all the parts! While Abraham slept, God proved Himself to be the guarantor of all of His promises.

This is of great encouragement to us. The hymnwriter surely described the human race accurately when he said that we are “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” If the security of God’s promises rested in our ability to bring them to pass, we would all be doomed! We do not have the ability to hold onto God, but we rest in His ability to hold onto us! And this is how we know that His promises cannot be thwarted.

In Chapter 21, we read of God fulfilling His promise to bring forth a son to Abraham. Beginning in Chapter 12, God repeatedly made promises to Abraham about how He would bless him and his descendants, and all nations through Abraham’s seed. But Abraham had no children, and his wife was barren and unable to conceive (Gen 11:30). In Chapter 15, Abraham raised a protest to the Lord, suggesting that since God had not yet delivered on His promise, a foreign born servant named Eliezer of Damascus would be his heir (15:2-3). But God’s response was, “One who will come forth from your own body … shall be your heir” (15:4). Keep in mind that Abraham was 75 years old when we first met him in Chapter 12, and time was ticking. Neither he nor Sarah were getting any younger and both were already well past the age of bearing children. So, in Chapter 16, they devised a plan to force God’s promise to fruition. Since Abraham would father a child according to God’s promise, and Sarah was barren, the plan was concocted for him to father a child through Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar. We need to note well that this was not God’s plan, and it violated God’s intention for marriage and family. The outcome of this escapade only brought frustration and chaos. Those ramifications are still felt in the world today as the nation of Israel, the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, are perpetually embattled by the Arab peoples, purporting to be the offspring of Abraham and Hagar. If we could reduce the Arab-Israeli conflict to a lowest common denominator, it boils down to the Islamic notion that Abraham’s firstborn child (Ishmael), born to Hagar, is the rightful heir to all of God’s promises, and that those promises have been stolen and supplanted by Abraham’s second-born child (Isaac), born to Sarah. The entire ordeal is evidence that there are long-abiding consequences to our sin. In Abraham’s sinful liaison with Hagar we learn that our sin brings hardship, frustration, and difficulty into our lives and the lives of others. One thing, however, that our sin cannot do is thwart God’s promises.

Not only are God’s promises not thwarted by human sin, neither are they thwarted by human inability. In Chapter 17, God declared to Abraham that He would yet bring Abraham a son to inherit the blessing of His promises. This time, He was more specific. Not only would the child be born to Abraham, as Ishmael was through Hagar, but this time God said that He would give Abraham a son by his wife Sarah (17:15-16). On the cusp of his one-hundredth birthday, and Sarah on the verge of her ninetieth, it seemed impossible! Sometimes we get confused by the fact that some of the earliest characters of the Bible lived impressively long lives – hundreds of years! Compared to someone like Methusaleh, who lived to be 969 years old, Abraham was barely old enough to get his driver’s license at the century mark! But it should not escape our notice that after the flood, lifespans decreased dramatically. Abraham would die at age 120, and that was a “good old age” at that time (15:15). To father children, and for Sarah to bear a child, was humanly impossible. As evidence of that, when God declared it to Abraham, the Bible says that “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (17:17). When Sarah learned of the promise, she too “laughed to herself” (18:12). The Lord’s response was “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” For man in and of himself, it was impossible! But with God, all things are possible (Mt 19:26; Lk 1:37). The things that God has promised us which are beyond our abilities are all within His ability! His promises are not thwarted by human inability.

Neither are His promises thwarted by human unbelief. When God promised a son to be born to Abraham and Sarah, and Abraham caught his breath from the hysterical laughter that overcame him, he said, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (17:17). And Abraham began to plea-bargain with God to allow His promises to pass to Ishmael instead. He found it difficult to believe that God would actually do this thing. Sarah did as well, saying from her laughter, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (18:12). From an earthly perspective, it would have been understandable for the Lord to say, “Well, then, if you do not believe Me, then I will not do it.” But He did not say that. The unbelief of Abraham and Sarah did not thwart His promises from coming to pass. And neither does the unbelief of any other human being limit God’s ability to bring about all that He has promised.

In spite of Abraham and Sarah’s sin, in spite of their inabilities, and in spite of their unbelief, “The Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him” (21:1-2). The irony of the situation was not lost on the geriatric couple. They named the child “Isaac,” in accordance with what God had commanded them (17:19; 21:3). “Isaac” means “he laughs,” calling back to the immediate reaction of Abraham and Sarah to God’s promise. Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. … Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (21:6-7). Indeed, it is a laughable thing in the ears of any human who hears such things. Who would have said it? Well, in fact, God said it! And when God speaks a word of promise, the fulfillment of that promise rests on His righteous, and not our sin. It rests on His ability, not our inability. It rests on His faithfulness, and not our faith or our lack thereof. Abraham and Sarah learned what we all must learn: God’s promises cannot be thwarted. He will deliver on every promise He has ever made, and there is nothing that any man, angel, or demon, can do to undo what He has promised.

The promises God makes are always inseparable from His purposes for which He is working in the world. He always has a purpose. That is a certainty. But it is not always certain to us what that purpose is. And as Abraham discovered in Chapter 22 …

II. God’s purposes may require our testing (22:1-2).

In the study of literature, we encounter a method of story-telling known as the “omniscient narrator.” The omniscient narrator is not one of the characters in the story, but knows everything about the characters, including their thoughts and emotions. The omniscient narrator also knows things that are going on that the characters do not know. So for example, we might be reading something like this: “It was a dark and stormy night. John and Sally were stranded in the woods. John was afraid, but he tried to be brave for Sally. Sally thought they may never survive the storm, but several miles away, a search party had assembled to find them.” You see, the narrator knows things that John and Sally do not know, and because he is the one telling the story, we know too. John and Sally do not know how each other feels or that there is a search party coming, but we do.

There are many stories in the Bible told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. This should not surprise us, for the Scriptures are inspired by God – the ultimate omniscient narrator. There are occasions when we know more about what is going on than the characters in the story. And this is one of those occasions. Abraham knew that God was calling him in Genesis 22:1, and so he said, “Here I am.” And Abraham heard what God said to him: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (22:2). But we know more than he knows. We know the reason why God said this. Verse 1 tells us: “Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham.”

There are several passages of Scripture in which we find God putting His people to the test. This idea strikes some as inappropriate, as though God were setting His people up to fail or leading them into an occasion to sin. It is a rule of biblical interpretation to always interpret difficult passages in light of clearer passages, and we have a very clear statement on this in James 1:13. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” So we know that is not what is going on here with Abraham. Instead, God’s “testing” of His people involves the proving and strengthening of character. It is not as though God does not know, for He knows everything, including the hidden secrets of our hearts and minds. Rather, the testing provides an opportunity for God to reveal that which He already knows. As Walt Kaiser writes, “there is no connotation of doubt or a desire to trick or deceive the one placed under the test. His testing was only concerned with obedience or the fear of God … in order to manifest to individuals and others the dispositions of their hearts.”[1] And this is what God is doing with Abraham here in this otherwise troublesome command to sacrifice his son. We know that, but Abraham does not. Yet, because we know that it happened to Abraham and a host of others in Scripture, we must not be surprised that it may happen to us on occasion. Like with Abraham, when it happens, we may not be aware until the test is completed. But we know that God’s purposes may require our testing in order to prove and strengthen our character.

Notice how God tested Abraham’s allegiance. When God called to Abraham in verse 1, his response was, “Here I am.” The Hebrew word used here is the word hineni. The most familiar use of this word is found in Isaiah 6, where God asks rhetorically, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” The prophet’s response is “Hineni.” “Here am I. Send me!” Inherent in the words “Here I am,” is a willingness to do whatever is asked. It is like when someone says to you, “Can you do me a favor?” And you say, “Sure!” And then they tell you what the favor is, and you think, “Hmm. Can I rewind the clock a bit and hear the favor before I tell you whether or not I will do it?” To say to the Lord, “Here I am!” is to say, “I am fully Yours, and will do all that you command me to do!”

Those are easy words to say in a solemn stained-glass Sunday sanctuary. But when the rubber meets the road Monday morning, are we as committed to the Lord as we said – or sang! – Sunday morning? A. W. Tozer once said, “Christians don’t tell lies – they just go to church and sing them.” Earlier in the service, we sang, “Content to let the world go by, To know no gain nor loss.” In another song, we sang, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know. Fills my every longing, keeps me singing as I go.” What if this week, God tested the truthfulness of your singing by taking from you all that you value in this world? What about when you come out of that long and tedious meeting, or when you are faced with frustrations at home or work? Is He keeping you singing? Is He filling your every longing? You see, you can say to the Lord all day on Sunday, “Here I am Lord! I am Yours and I am willing to do whatever You ask me to do!” That’s all well and good until He asks. Then what will our response say about our allegiance? God tested Abraham’s allegiance and He may test ours as well.

Not only did God test his allegiance, but we also see that God tested Abraham’s affections. We all know that the Bible has a lot to say about love. Do you know where the word “love” is first used in the Bible? It’s right here in verse 2, when God says to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love.” Abraham’s love for Isaac is understandable. The love that any good father has for his son is only natural. And the love that Abraham has for Isaac is all the more special because of how long he waited, and how the child represented the fulfillment of all God’s promises to him. Abraham truly recognized that Isaac was a gift from God, and he cherished the gift, as well he should. But I think it is significant that the word “love” occurs first here in the Bible. It does not occur in relation to man’s relationship to God, which should be our highest affection, but rather to God’s gift. Idolatry takes many sneaky and deceptive forms in our lives, and can most often be found when we elevate the gifts above the Giver in our affections. In God’s testing, He proves whether or not He is our first and greatest love. 

Watchman Nee, the great Chinese evangelist of the last century, said that Isaac “represents many gifts of God’s grace. Before God gives them our hands are empty. Afterwards, they are full. Sometimes God reaches out His hand to take ours in fellowship. Then we need an empty hand to put into His. But when we have received His gifts and are nursing them to ourselves, our hands are full, and when God puts out His hand we have no empty hand for Him.”[2] If this happens, then we must let go of the gift in order to take hold of the Giver. God tested Abraham’s affections by commanding him to place Isaac, his son whom he loved, on the altar. What might it be in your life that God is calling you to take to Moriah and lay on the altar? What love has usurped God from His rightful place in your heart? Abraham might have said, “What good would that do for God, for me to kill my son? What is God going to do with a dead boy?” Maybe we would ask the same: How is God going to benefit from us letting go of that which we cherish so dearly? And this my friends is where Abraham had to learn, and we must learn, that it is not for God but for us! The benefit is in us placing God foremost in our affections, for only as we love the Giver above all can we truly love the gifts that He gives in the right way. Abraham’s love for His son did not need to decrease, but his love for God needed to increase to the highest place. As a friend of mine has said, “God really doesn’t want your ‘Isaacs.’ He just wants more of you!”[3] He might have to test your allegiance and affection in order to get more of you, and He is willing to do so, for your own good.

Now we move on in our text to consider …

III. God’s provisions are received by faith and obedience (22:3-18).

There is a foundational spiritual principle that applies to all of God’s dealings with mankind: “What God requires, God provides.” He will not ask us to offer up to Him or render unto Him anything that He has not already provided to us. It is the very fact that God has provided an Isaac to Abraham that entitles him to require an Isaac of Abraham. Now, we have the benefit of knowing that God was testing Abraham, and we’ve read the end of the account. We know that God will halt Abraham’s hand before he puts the blade to the boy. Abraham, however, does not yet know that. But he knows that God will provide what God requires. And by his faith and obedience, he receives that provision.

Notice in verse three Abraham’s careful obedience. God commanded him to take his beloved son to Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering, so Abraham prepared himself to do just that. He saddled the donkey, marshaled the servants, split wood for the fire, and took Isaac and went. Verse 6 indicates that he took “the fire and the knife” as well. He left no detail out. He took everything he would need to do exactly as the Lord had said in complete obedience. So it is for us, when the Lord calls us to a task, no matter how difficult. We must prepare to follow through in complete obedience. Abraham did not know what the Lord would tell him to do next, but he was prepared to fully obey the last thing the Lord told him to do. Often you and I do not know what God’s next command for us will be, but we can rest assured that He will not reveal the next step until we have taken the first one. Until we have completely obeyed the last thing He told us to do, we cannot expect to discover what it is He would have us do next. There must be complete obedience.

Next we notice Abraham’s confident faith. God told him to go to Moriah, to one of the mountains “of which I will tell you.” Abraham went forth fully believing that God would show him the place, and verse 4 says that he saw the place from a distance. But it is in verses 5 and following that we see the confidence of his faith on fully display. In verse 5, he said to the young men who had accompanied him and Isaac, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Don’t miss the confidence of his faith. He says, “We will go, and we will return.” Now, how is that possible? How can Abraham take his son off to slay him as a sacrifice, and say that they will both come back? I suggest that even Abraham himself does not know how it will be possible. But he knows two things: God promised to fulfill all His promises through Isaac, and He told him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Though these things seem contradictory and incompatible, Abraham believes every word that God has spoken to him. Hebrews 11:19 says that Abraham “considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead.” He didn’t know how God would do it, but he believed by faith in all that God had promised, so he was confident that though he offer Isaac on the altar, he would bring the boy back with him.

And as the father and son walked along, Isaac became curious and said in verse 7, “My father! … Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham’s answer reveals his confident faith in the Lord. He says, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” Whatever God requires, God will provide. Abraham believed fully by faith that God would not require of him anything that God had not provided, and he was fully prepared to act on that confident faith. As he did, building the altar, arranging the wood, binding Isaac and laying him on the altar, he prepared to follow through in complete obedience and confident faith. And it was then, in verse 11 that the silence of heaven was broken with a word from the Lord delivered by His messenger angel.

The angel said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And again Abraham said “Hineni! Here I am.” These are the only words Abraham speaks to God in the entire passage, and he says it twice. “I am yours Lord, I will do whatever You ask me to do!” And the message from heaven confirms that this has been proven. “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Notice the phrase that is missing this time: “whom you love.” Abraham proved by his faith and obedience that the Lord had the preeminent place in his affections. And it was only then that Abraham noticed “a ram caught in the thicket by his horns” (v13). What God requires, God provides! And He provided the lamb to die in the place of Isaac as a substitute. So Abraham called the name of that place, “YHWH Yireh,” “The Lord will provide.” But until Abraham acted in complete obedience and confident faith, he did not receive what the Lord provided.

My friends, what God requires, God provides. And though His promises cannot be thwarted, and His purposes may involve our testing, His provisions can only be received as we walk with Him in complete obedience and confident faith just as Abraham did. Only as Abraham reinstalled God alone on the throne of his life could he truly receive his only son back from death to life by the provision of a substitute on his behalf. God always provides what God requires of us. And this brings us to the even greater truth of this passage.

IV. God’s plan is portrayed in detail.

God’s plan for Abraham was never isolated to Abraham. His plan for Abraham always encompassed the entire world, including us. It was so when God first called him in Chapter 12, and it remains so as God confirms His plan to Abraham in verse 18 here. “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” Throughout Abraham’s life of faith, God has been clarifying His plan for how He would bless the world through the singular seed of Abraham who was coming into the world. That blessing would not come through the offering of Abraham’s only begotten son whom he loved on the altar of Moriah, but in the offering of God’s only begotten son whom He loved on the altar of Calvary’s cross.
What God requires, God provides. And what does He require of us? Nothing but complete righteousness and perfect obedience. The bad news is that none of us is capable of offering that God. But the good news is that what God requires, God provides. If we were to ask God, “Where is the lamb?” God would point our eyes to Moriah – the very same mountain later known as Jerusalem, and He would show us the Lord Jesus stretched out to die on the altar of the cross. And He would point us to Him and say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Dying in our place, God’s only begotten Son, whom He loved, took our sin and the penalty of our sin upon Himself, and gives us His perfect righteousness which was demonstrated in His sinless life in exchange. He reckons that righteousness to us by faith as we yield ourselves to Christ as our Lord and Savior, our sacrifice who was offered in our place as a substitute. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. And thus, the seed of Abraham brings the blessing of God to all the nations of the earth as His good news goes forth beckoning all who hear it to turn to Him and be saved!

What God requires, God provides, and He has provided the Lamb to die in our place. We can look to Mount Moriah and see His cross, and say “The Lord has provided.”  

[1] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1996), 124-125.
[2] Watchman Nee, Changed into His Likeness (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1967), 62.
[3] Tom Hayes, God Doesn’t Want Your Isaacs (Saluda, NC: Paths of Revival, 1983), 5. 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Fear, Faith, and the Future (Genesis 15:1-21)


There are probably not three words that are more relevant to our present day than these: fear, faith, and future. Every evening on the news and every day in the papers and on social media, we read about people who are afraid. They are afraid of the conditions in the world and in our nation. They are afraid of economic and social realities that are, we must admit, quite frightening. And while it seems that Christian church and our message have become ignored at best, and vilified at worst, “spirituality” has probably never been more popular than it is today. Everyone it seems is willing to talk about faith. But what is faith? Does it have an objective anchor, or is it just some nebulous, emotional method of positive thinking? In other words, “in what do people place their faith?” For many, it is merely faith in faith itself. And of course all this affects how we view the future. Because of our many fears, we wonder what tomorrow will bring, what the next four years will bring, what the world will be like when our kids are our age, and of course, what will become of us and our loved ones when death comes our way. If our faith is not anchored securely in the only bedrock that will sustain it, then fear will overtake us and all the positive thinking in the world will only whitewash an ultimately pessimistic view of the future.

It may surprise us to discover that all of these modern concerns are well addressed in an ancient book – the Bible. In fact, in our chapter today – an account of a man who lived 4,000 years ago, we find relevant truths to address our fears, our faith, and our future.

As we begin to explore our text, we discover first of all …

I. God is the Remedy for our Fears (v1).

Well over 100 times in the Scriptures, the words “do not fear,” “do not be afraid,” “fear not” and the like are used. Now, there’s only one reason to ever tell someone to not be afraid. You only say that to people who are afraid! And so we find, on page after page of Scripture, terrified people who are confronted by the message of the Lord to fear not. We see it here with Abraham in the opening verses of our text. So what did he fear, and how did the Lord address his fears?

The Chapter begins with the words, “After these things.” Those are important words. In our study of the Essential 100 texts, we have jumped over Genesis 13 and 14, but they are crucial to understand where we find Abram in this passage. In Chapter 13, Abram and his nephew Lot parted ways due to a strife between them, and Lot chose to settle in the wicked city of Sodom. In Chapter 14, the kings of the surrounding lands made war with Sodom and its allies. One of the casualties of this war was that Lot was taken captive. When word reached Abram, he assembled a force of 318 men and went out to successfully rescue Lot and defeat his captors. Afterward, he encountered Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who blessed him, and the king of Sodom who offered to give Abram all the spoils of his victory over the oppressing kings. Abram wisely refused this offer, saying, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, for fear you would say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’” And our text unfolds “after these things,” with God appearing to Him in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram.”

Now, what is it that could have caused Abram to fear? He may have feared retaliation from the kings he had defeated. He may have feared that in turning down Sodom’s offer to give him its treasures, he had offended them as well. Perhaps he feared as well that he had refused riches foolishly, and should have taken them to secure his future. If that is so, then the Lord’s words to him make perfect sense. “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you.” That is, the Lord will protect him from the retaliations of the neighboring kings. And the Lord said, “Your reward shall be very great.” The phrase can just as well be translated, “I am a shield to you and your very great reward,” meaning that the Lord Himself is all the reward Abram needed. He didn’t need to fear walking away from the rewards of the wicked king of Sodom. This is a possibility.

But, as we examine the things that preceded our chapter, we discover that Abram never seemed to fear the neighboring kings or the loss of worldly riches. He seemed to give no thought to routing a massively superior collaboration of armies with a small band of 318 men. And he spoke with confident faith when he refused the treasures of Sodom. So, this does not seem to make much sense when we consider the larger context. So what was Abram afraid of? I suggest to you that he feared the greatest fear of all – the fear that overtakes any reasonable person when we consider what it would be like to stand in the presence of the holy God of the universe!

The sudden appearance of the Lord to Abram was enough to shake him to his core with fear and terror! But God’s word to him was one of encouragement, “Do not fear!” Who will shield us from the unmediated holiness and glory of God? God said, “I am a shield to you!” How can we expect to come away from His presence unscathed by the fury of His wrath? The Lord assures Abram, “Your reward shall be very great,” or “I am … your very great reward.” The One whom he rightly fears promises to be his shield and reward! As Abram stands in right relationship with God, he need not fear the Lord’s presence. He can rest in His presence, taking comfort and encouragement from the Lord’s promise to meet his every need with no other resource than God Himself.

What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of what others might do to you? Are you afraid of losing the earthly security of wealth, or never attaining it? Or have you come to fathom the greatest fear of all – the fear of being, in the unforgettable words of Jonathan Edwards, a sinner in the hands of an angry God? Let’s not consign that idea to an outmoded Puritanism! Remember that Jesus Himself said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28). And again Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

But hear the words of the Lord: “Do not fear. I am a shield to you, your very great reward.” This is God’s promise to all who are in right relationship to Him. So how do we come into right relationship with Him, that we may know Him as the remedy for all of our fears, our Shield and Very Great Reward? That brings us to our next point of emphasis.

II. God’s Word is the Basis of our Faith (vv2-6).

Sometimes people with good intentions try to lift our spirits with hollow words and meaningless platitudes. “Cheer up!” they say. “Don’t worry!” “You just gotta believe!” “Keep looking up!” “Have faith!” Whenever I hear things like this, I smile and nod while I think to myself, “Oh, wow, I never thought of just cheering up before! That’s great advice!” And it is all well and good to have faith, but faith is meaningless unless it is anchored to something sure and trustworthy. We all have faith – even and perhaps especially those who insist that they do not! But in what do we place our faith? Do we place our faith in faith? Do we place our faith in feel-good mantras, or in the myths of homespun folk-religion? Abraham learned that the Word of God is the only sure and certain basis for our faith. Notice how many times in this passage we find God speaking. It occurs over and over again. God’s word was where Abraham was to anchor his faith, and we must do the same.

Abram’s crisis of faith is spelled out in verses 2 and 3 with the question he asks of the Lord. “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” You may remember that when God called Abram in Chapter 12, He made him great promises concerning His divine plan for Abram and his descendants. Abram was 75 years old at that time, and his wife was barren, so the couple had no descendants. Now, more time has elapsed. Abram isn’t getting any younger. He wants to believe God’s promises, but there is a problem. These descendants that are going to be a part of God’s purpose and plan for Abram – they just don’t exist! His only heir is one who was born to one of his servants presumably, Eliezer of Damascus, who bore no genetic tie to Abram at all. God’s word to Abram was hard to believe at this point.

Verse 4 begins with the arresting word, “Behold!” It serves to snatch our attention and direct it to something of utmost importance. “Behold, the word of the Lord came to him.” Here in this moment when Abram was about to abandon faith in the word of God, that word comes to him again. And the word is direct and to the point: “This man will NOT be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And so we have the promise stated. Abram will yet have a biological descendant who will realize the fullness of all God’s promises to him.

The promise is not only stated, it is illustrated. The Lord took Abram outside in verse 5 and said to him, “Now look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Have you ever tried to do that? It is hard to do at my house, with all the light pollution of the city obscuring our view of the night stars. But if you ever get away from the city on a clear night, it is breathtaking and overwhelming. Some of you have been with us on mission trips – the remote Himalayan village of Ghatlang, or the rural backroads of Vermont – and we look up and see stars like we have never seen them before. That was Abram’s view – unobscured by city lights. How many can you count? At what point would you give up? God says, “So shall your descendants be.” Not just one to carry out the promise plan of God, but an innumerable multitude shining as stars in this sin-darkened world.

The promise was stated and it was illustrated, but it was not effectual for Abram until it was appropriated. He believed what God had said! Verse 6 says that he believed in the Lord. And then a miracle happened. He believed in the Lord, and the Lord “reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Don’t read over those words too quickly. Abraham, like all the rest of us, was not a righteous man. He was a sinner just like us. And he knew it. This is why he feared when the Lord appeared to him in this vision. But, because of His faith in the Lord and what the Lord had spoken to him, God reckoned righteousness to him. To reckon is to account something to someone that is not rightly theirs. If I walk into the bank and had a check to the teller and tell her to deposit it into your account, that is reckoning. Abraham lacked within himself the righteousness that God requires of us all. But God granted that righteousness to him on the basis of his faith.

It was not faith in faith, but faith in the Lord and in a very specific promise that the Lord had made to him. The promise is not merely that Abraham will have descendants as innumerable as the stars in the sky, but that a specific, singular heir will come forth from his own body who will be the embodiment of all God’s promises to and through him. This heir will bring about the blessing that God has promised through Abram to all nations of the earth. And this heir is none other than Jesus the Christ. Jesus said, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56). He saw, in the promise of God, the day that was coming when his descendant Jesus would fulfill all of God’s purposes and promises for him and for the whole world including you and me. Paul says in Galatians 3:8 that the Scripture (that is, the Word of God) “preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham.” And Abraham believed it, and God reckoned righteousness to him on the basis of his faith in the coming heir who would bless all nations.

Therefore, the Scriptures say, “it is those who are of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal 3:6). It is not merely those who have Abraham’s DNA spiraling through their being, but those who share his faith in the saving promises of God who are the true sons of Abraham. Before Christ came into the world, his true sons were those who, like him, looked forward by faith to the fulfillment of God’s promise with the coming of the Messiah into the world. And since Christ has come, Abraham’s true sons are those look back in faith on what Christ did for us – dying for our sins on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. It is that faith in Christ which God reckons as righteousness to those who believe in Him.

The theological term for this is justification. In justification, God declares us to be not guilty of sin, He removes that sin from us and places it on Christ in our place, and then He imparts to us the righteousness of Christ which is pleasing and acceptable in His sight. How can a sinner become righteous before God? It is not attained by posterity, as though Abraham could be saved by the fact that he would have many descendants. Neither can we be saved by having Christian parents or grandparents or children. Righteousness cannot be attained by prosperity, as though the riches which Abram spurned in Sodom could have made him right with God. Neither can we ever donate enough money to Christian churches, charities or causes to buy off God’s favor or become successful enough to make Him pleased with us. We cannot be justified by performance, as though there was anything Abram could do to earn favor with God (and we will see that in the latter part of the chapter). Neither can we ever do enough good works to outweigh the bad on the scales of judgment. There are no rituals to perform, no rites to undertake, and no rules to keep to make us acceptable to God. So what does it take? The answer is faith alone in Christ alone on the basis of the Word of God alone. It is this faith that God reckons to us as righteousness. As Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The one who has faith in Christ, anchored in the bedrock of God’s word; the one to whom God has reckoned righteousness by grace through faith – this is the one who is in right relationship with God, who can rest in the assurance that God will be a shield and a very great reward. But how can we know for sure that this truth applies to us? When doubts assail us, where do we find assurance? This brings us to the final point of emphasis in this text.

III. God’s Faithfulness is the Assurance of Our Future (vv7-21).

In verse 7, God places Himself as the guarantor of His promises for Abram’s future. He says, “I am the Lord.” In most English Bibles, you will notice that the word “Lord” occurs in all capital letters. This is a standard way of rendering the divine name YHWH. God relates to Abram on a “first name basis” if you will. Their relationship is a personal one. He calls Abram by name, and is known to Abram by name. He reminds Abram, “I am the One who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans.” He has led Abram to follow him by faith from his homeland into this new land, which God promises to give him to possess it. As we look back, we see how God’s been faithful to lead us thus far, and we can know that He will not fail us in the future.

Now, whenever we consider the bold and beautiful promises of God, we must admit that it is almost too much to take in. It was for Abram. His response is not unlike our own from time to time. He asks in verse 8, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” It is not that he does not believe – he obviously does. It is faith in search of understanding. It is equivalent to the cry of the man in Mark 9:24, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” And the response of the Lord to Abram’s plea for assurance is simply marvelous!

In verse 9, God says to Abram, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” I confess, if I were Abram, I would have probably said, “Um, okay, what does this have to do with anything?” But Abram complies with the Lord’s instructions, and he brings the animals and cuts them in two, and laid each half opposite the other. You have to picture a makeshift trail, with half of each animal lying on each side. The birds were not cut in two, presumably because of their small size, but they were laid opposite of each other.

Birds of prey did what birds of prey do – they saw this as a buffet and began to descend upon the carcasses to feast. But Abram drove them away. God was at work here, and he wasn’t going to let anything interfere with what was about to happen. In our lives, circumstances will sometimes arise that threaten to interfere with the outworking of God’s purposes. We must do as Abram did and drive those things away so we can see what God is up to!

Now verse 12 is key here. God is doing a work to bring Abram assurance of His promises, and what happens to Abram? He falls asleep. The Hebrew wording indicates that he fell into something of a spiritual euphoric trance. That is important because it illustrates the fact that Abram’s assurance lies not in anything that he can do, but solely in what God will do for him. While God does the work of establishing and assuring Abram of His promise plan, Abram contributes nothing. He is asleep off to the side.

A sense of terror and great darkness fell upon Abram, foreshadowing what is about to happen. In verses 13-16, God unveils His plans for the future. He does not promise a rose garden to His man. He never does. Life in this fallen world is hard, and God never deceives us about that hard reality. He tells Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs where they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years.” Remember, Abram’s question dealt with how he may know that God would give this land to him and his descendants, and God’s answer begins with how they will suffer in another land that is not theirs. This is obviously a reference to Egypt, where the Israelites were enslaved prior to the Exodus in the days of Moses. But this is followed by good news! God says, “But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions.” God’s justice will not fail, nor will His promise. As for Abram, he will go to his fathers (which means, he will die) in peace at a good old age. That’s a pretty comforting promise. We know we will all die, but Abram is promised that he will die in peace. And his old age will not be a burden for him – it will be a good old age. It is interesting that the Hebrew phrase translated “old age” means literally “grey hair.” We often think of our grey-haired years as bad times. Some of us go to great lengths to disguise those grey hairs. But God calls them good for Abram because Abram will live by faith until he dies in peace.

And then, in the fourth generation (that is, after 400 years), they will return here, “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” Just as God will judge the oppressive nation, Egypt, so He will also judge the present occupants of the land He is giving to Abraham’s descendants. Their sin “is not yet complete.” God will give them plenty of time to repent, but they will not, and so the Israelites coming back into the land will be His tools of judgment against them. When critics of the Bible rail against God for the elimination of the native peoples of the promised land, we must point them back to this passage. God was not just wantonly slaying innocent people in order to take from them and give to Israel. He was executing judgment for the rampant sin of these people, who dishonored God with pagan idolatry, human sacrifice, and sexual perversion.

Verse 17 presents us with a great picture of God’s faithfulness as Abram’s assurance of the future. In the dark of night, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces – these animal carcasses that were laid out on the ground. Just as Israel was led out of Egypt by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, this smoking oven and flaming torch were symbols of God’s presence. And as these symbols of God’s presence passed between the pieces of the animals on the ground, God was demonstrating His faithfulness as the assurance of Abram’s future. In the ancient world, when a covenant was made between two parties, it was often sealed by the blood of a sacrifice. And the animal which was slain would be laid out like these were, with the parties of the covenant walking back and forth between them. It was a symbolic way of saying, “If either of us break this covenant, may we be dealt with even as these animals have been.” God is doing this very thing for Abram. Remember Abram is asleep, and God alone is marching between the sacrificial offerings by Himself. Abram wants assurance. How can I know that these things will happen? God is saying, “If My promise to you does not come to pass, if My covenant fails, then may I be slain like these animals have been!” God is staking His own self as the guarantor of His promises and the assurance of Abram’s future.

It is God who sovereignly authors and establishes His covenant with His people. It is God who faithfully and providentially upholds and delivers upon His covenant promises. It was true for Abram, and it is true for all of us. Our promises are sure and certain because God is faithful.

Consider what God has promised you. He has not promised you an easy journey through life. In fact, He has promised you the opposite. In this sin-wrecked world, there will be suffering. Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation” (Jn 16:33). That’s a promise. But the good news is that He has overcome the world, and He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. He has promised to reckon us as righteous before Him. He has promised to indwell us in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with us through all of our days in this life as we walk by faith in Him. And He has promised us life everlasting beyond this one in the eternal glory of His heavenly presence. In this life, He promises to be our Shield, and in the life to come, our very great Reward. This is His covenant with us, sealed with the blood of Christ, and He has stated in no uncertain terms that His very own faithfulness will bring it to pass. If God’s promises fail, then God has failed to be God. And on the basis of His character and His faithfulness, we have the sure and certain assurance that His word for us, His purpose and plan for our future will in fact come to pass. Augustine said, “You ask Him for a reward, and the giver Himself is the gift. What more can you want?”

I heard an evangelist say one time, “The devil wants every saved man to think he’s lost and every lost man to think he’s saved.” I believe that is true. Around the world today there are many who are falsely assured that they are right with God because they base their assurance on things that cannot save! They believe that God will be pleased with them because of their good deeds, or their kindness and generosity. They are trusting in their Christian heritage, their church involvement, their own so-called goodness. Remember Jesus’ words to those who would boast of all that they had done for Him? He said, “Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity, for I never knew you” (Mt 7:23). 

What can save us? What can make us right with God? Only the righteousness that God reckons to us by faith in Jesus Christ. And while many who do not have such faith are falsely assured, there are also a great many who do have this faith, but who falsely doubt the reality of it. They are perplexed and anxious, wondering, am I really saved? If I were really saved, I would feel differently, I would not have these doubts. They need assurance. And that assurance comes from God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises. He has given Himself as the assurance. He has promised that he who has the Son has life and he who has not the Son has not life. Have you looked to Christ in faith as your Lord and Savior and trusted Him to rescue you from sin and death? If you have, then God has declared you righteous by your faith, and has assured you that you belong to Him. You can take His word for it!