In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Over the past couple of months, we’ve been looking at the story of Abraham. I thought it would be a good opportunity to pause here and reflect a little bit before we continue on with the rest of Genesis.
Remember, firstly, that the story of Abraham must be placed within the larger Biblical story in order to really get its significance. We’ve talked about it a lot so you probably already know what I’m going to say (which is great), but I want to point it out anyways. Like everything, this isn’t universally agreed upon, but Biblical scholars point out that the narrative of the Bible can be considered as consisting of five acts. These are:
- Church/The New Israel
- Last Things
Where we are in our story is at the very beginning of Part II (Israel). The world is rife with sin (as it still is today) with everyone doing what is best in their own eyes. And God chooses Abraham through whom to redeem creation. God tells Abraham that he will be blessed and that through him the whole world, all of creation will be blessed. This may set up certain expectations for what kind of person Abraham must be to be chosen by God, but what we find out is that Abraham is kind of messed up. Or at the very least, we can remark on the fact that Abraham is far from perfect – hardly the paragon of holiness that we would expect the father of our faith to be.
This highlights the point for us that, at the beginning of things and at the end of things, it’s about God’s grace. God chooses Abraham, and chooses to save us, not because he or any of us are particularly worthy – as if we are somehow the better representatives of godliness in a fallen world – but because it is His good pleasure to do so.
We see Abraham struggle with this. He repeatedly tries to do things according to his own strength and wisdom. But in spite of Abraham’s willfulness, God continues to work his plan of redemption through him. Which brings us to what I’d like to consider today. In Hebrews chapter 11, Abraham is held up (among many others) as an example of faith.
The Hebrews passage is instructive for us in understanding the story of Abraham. In a way, it reinforces the notion that the Abraham story happens in a context – specifically, it takes place within the greater story of redemption that the Bible speaks. Or, to put it another way, we don’t really, fully understand Abraham’s story unless we pay attention to the whole story (of God). What we see in Abraham’s story, as the Hebrews passage tells us, is that he doesn’t see the fulfillment of the promise that he receives. Because the promise that Abraham receives is only, finally fulfilled in the person, the death and resurrection, of Jesus Christ.
In Genesis 12, Abraham is told:
2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
In Genesis 15, God speaks to Abraham again and says:
5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
And in Genesis 17, when God institutes the covenant of circumcision, He tells Abraham:
4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
Sitting on the other side of revelation, we understand that this promise, the covenant that God made with Abraham, has to do with us. We are the offspring. We are the families of the earth who are blessed; we are the multitude of nations. Because God’s work is accomplished in Jesus, we become part of the family of Abraham – we become the people of God.
Yet, Abraham never sees this. He lives, purely under the promise that God makes.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.
As we know, Abraham doesn’t walk perfectly, but he walks – he went. Now in the midst of this going, let’s not forget that God essentially tells him that he won’t see the promise. Later in Genesis 15, he tells Abraham:
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
So, it seems to me that Abraham (Abram in this passage) knows that the future for his descendants will not be easy. There are phrases within that speech: “they will be sojourners…”, “they will be afflicted…”, along with the statement that Abram would “go to [his] fathers in peace,” that let Abram know that the promise is future.
Our promise is the same. We live indeed with the reality that Christ has died for us and rose again. So our situation is different than Abraham’s. But we also live in between the already and the not yet. Which means that, though we live forgiven, though we live as redeemed, the full realization of that, complete freedom from sin and full realization of the kingdom will not be ours until Jesus comes again. But nevertheless, we live according to the promise.
And this is really hard for us. We also live according to the promise. We live because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, but the full realization of that is future. And we really struggle with things that we can’t have here and now.
So What Now…?
In the 1960’s and 1970’s there was an experiment conducted which is commonly known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. A child was offered a marshmallow and told they could eat it immediately. However, if they waited 15 minutes, they would get a second marshmallow and have both. 2/3 ate it immediately.
The research showed that the ability to delay gratification was related to age/maturity. Older children tended to be better able to wait. And we like to think (probably) that we’re pretty mature – at least more so than we used to be. And the truth is that we’re probably (hopefully) fairly good at this (looking to the future and not living only for the present). But it’s not always as easy as it sounds.
It’s hard to keep faith for tomorrow when the temptations of today are all around us. It’s hard to wait on treasures of the kingdom when the pleasures of the world are all around us. It’s hard to have faith for the joy and peace of the Kingdom when the pain and suffering of life weigh us down.
But this is precisely what Abraham was commended for. Not that he did everything right, but that he believed in and lived for the promises of God. He understood, as we can, that the earth is not our home, and this life is not the end (or the all).
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
We are foreigners and strangers on this earth. So, like Abraham, we keep walking and we keep living, not for this world but for our real and final home.