Sunday, March 05, 2017

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

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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!


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