Abraham: the Promise of Faith

Is there anyone famous in your family?
Someone your parents or grandparents tell stories about?
A past ancestor who inspires you?
At my language school last year, there was a student called Erik Lincoln.
He’s descended from Abraham Lincoln.

Today I want to tell you about a famous ancestor of mine who inspires me.
He was also a leader of a nation – in fact, the founding father.
Abraham the first.
You can read his story in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.


Abraham and God’s Promised Son

We meet Abraham and his wife Sarah in Genesis 12.
They were living around modern Turkey.
One day God gave Abraham a command:

“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.”           Genesis 12:1

And God gave Abraham a promise:

“I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others.”       Genesis 12:2

Throughout Abraham’s life, God repeats this promise in slightly different words.
It has three big parts:
1: the land of Israel – a place to call home
2: many descendants – a big family
And the purpose of it all:
3: God’s blessing to the world:

“All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”  (12:3)

Wonderful words for a promising future!
Abraham obeyed God and went to Israel.
He soon became rich and respected (chapter 13-14).
A promising start, but there was a small problem with God’s promise.

Abraham was a man who talked to God.
Let’s listen to their conversation in chapter 15 and hear what the issue was.
(Back then Abraham was called Abram.)

Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son?  Since you’ve given me no children, a servant in my household will inherit all my wealth.”          Genesis 15:2-3

There’s the problem with God’s promise: it’s impossible.
Abraham is getting old – 75 years when they left for Israel,
Genesis has already told us his wife Sarah can’t get pregnant (11:30).
She’d never had kids and now she’s 65.
No children means no descendants, no future.[1]

Then the Lord said to him, “No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own.”   Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!”
Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.   Genesis 15:4-6

In a dark desert, you can see about 4000 stars in the sky.  They’d take a while to count.[2]
A lot of descendants for a childless man!
But Abraham trusted God could keep his promise, though it seemed impossible.

I’m inspired by my ancestor Abraham.
I wish God talked to me like that.
I wish I had that much faith.

But Abraham was also human. [3]
That encourages me, because I can relate to him.
His faith was up and down like mine.

Looking up at the stars, shining like diamonds,
Abraham was full of confidence – yes, God can! [4]

But it didn’t last.
The dusty years rolled on, and nothing happened.
Still no children.
They lost hope in God’s promise,
And tried a do-it-yourself solution.

Sarah had an Egyptian servant named Hagar.  So Sarah said to Abram, “Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” And Abram agreed with Sarah’s proposal.            Genesis 16:1-2

In that culture, this was normal for a woman without kids. [5]
It wasn’t wrong in itself.

What was wrong, was trying to force God’s hand.
Trying to get God’s promise in their time, in their way.
Instead of waiting for God’s time, trusting God’s way.
Have you been tempted like that?

Their plan worked.
Hagar got pregnant.
11 years after coming to Israel, when Abraham was 86,
At last he had a son, Ishmael.

But there was a cost in doing things their way, not God’s.
Abraham’s family suffered.
It was a mess.
Sarah and Hagar hated each other, and Abraham was caught in the middle.  (Chapter 16)

13 years later, when Abraham was 99,
God spoke to him again.[6]

“I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations.”          Genesis 17:5

In Hebrew, Abram means “exalted father”.
Abraham sounds like “father of many”.
God gave Abraham a new name, a new identity, a new destiny of promise .[7]

God continued,

“I will bless Sarah and give you a son from her!  She will become the mother of many nations. Kings of nations will be among her descendants.”    Genesis 17:16

Not just a big family, but a royal family.  Wow!
How did Abraham respond?

Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. “How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?”    Genesis 17:17

What a total change.
In chapter 15 he believed God, now he just laughs at the promise!
What happened to his trust in God?

15 or 20 years have passed.
That much older, giving birth seems even more impossible.

And maybe Abraham has grown bitter and cynical with old age.
Is it easier to believe in impossible promises when you’re younger?
I don’t know.
What do you think?

In fact, Abraham said to God.
Sarah is too old, and I’ve already got a son.
Why don’t you give your promised blessing to Ishmael? (17:18)

God replied, “No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac… my covenant [an especially strong promise from God] will be confirmed with Isaac.”      Genesis 17:19-21

Soon after, Abraham was sitting outside his tent in the hot desert sun.
God came to visit, in disguise.
He said, “I will return this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (18:10)
Sarah hears God’s words:

Sarah laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my husband is also so old?”            Genesis 18:12

Can you hear Sarah laughing as she hides in the tent? [8]
A bitter, hopeless laugh.
From a sad, old, “worn-out woman”.
She feels as good as dead.
Life has left her heart as empty as her womb.

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? …  Is anything too hard for the Lord?  I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”  Genesis 18:13-14

Is anything too hard for the Lord?
Can he keep his word?

The question gave them a choice.

They could look at their impossible position:
A 90-year-old woman, who had never had children.
Or they could listen to God’s incredible promise:
The worn-out old lady will soon have a son. [9]

Have you experienced that?
When God’s promise in your heart, in his word,
Contradicted what you saw with your physical eyes?
Which did you believe?

Well, Abraham’s faith was up and down.
Sometimes strong, sometimes weak.
But in the end what counts is not changeable human faith,
But the unchanging faithfulness of God.

Is anything too hard for the Lord?
Turn the page to one year on, in chapter 21.[10]

The Lord kept his word and did for Sarah exactly what he had promised. She became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son… at just the time God had said.  And Abraham named their son Isaac.            Genesis 21:1-5

Exactly as God promised, at just the time God said,
At the age of 90, Sarah had a son.

And Sarah declared, “God has brought me laughter.  All who hear about this will laugh with me.  Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse a baby? Yet I have given Abraham a son in his old age!”     Genesis 21:6-7

Can you hear Sarah laughing as she holds her new-born son?
A laugh of wonder and gladness and thanks.
From a woman surprised by joy. [11]

It was a big year for that old couple.
From the laughter of bitter unbelief that found God’s promise a joke.
To the laughter of amazed joy at God’s new gift of life.
The name of their son would always remind them:
Isaac means, “He laughs”.
Have you ever laughed at an impossible promise, or seen one come true in your life?

So now Abraham had two sons:
New-born Isaac and 14-year-old Ishmael.

Abraham loved both his sons, but Sarah did not.
When Sarah saw Ishmael playing with Isaac, she got mad.
She yelled at Abraham,

“Get rid of that slave woman and her son!  He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac.”        Genesis 21:10

Abraham was upset, but God told him to do what Sarah said.
God said he would look after Ishmael and bless him too.
But he’d chosen Isaac for the line of promise. [12]


Abraham Today

Well, that’s the story of my ancestor Abraham.
It’s all about God’s promise and Abraham’s faith.
And the long winding journey to fulfilment.

You can read more details in Genesis chapters 12-21.
In two weeks we’ll see Abraham’s all-time greatest challenge in chapter 22.

After we leave him in Genesis, Abraham is big in the Bible.
He’s named 43 times in the rest of the Old Testament – more than anyone else.
He’s named 85 times in the New Testament – more than any other Old Testament character. [13]

And Abraham is big today.
Google says there are nearly 15 million Jews in the world,
Descended from Abraham through Isaac.
Millions more Arabs call Abraham their father through Ishmael.

As God promised,
Abraham became the father of nations.
Now you need a telescope to count his descendants by stars in the sky.[14]
And he’s the father of three world religions:
Jews and Christians and Muslims.
He’s named 250 times in the Koran.

For 25 years Abraham wrestled with the question,
Can God keep his promise to give me descendants?
Now the world is wrestling with another question.
Who are Abraham’s true descendants?
That question makes the news nearly every day.

You see, Abraham’s descendants inherit God’s promises to Abraham.
In particular, the promised land of Israel.[15]

In the 21st-century, this question is tearing the Middle East apart.
4000 years ago it tore Abraham’s heart.
Which one of his beloved sons, Ishmael or Isaac, would inherit God’s promises?
Which one would be driven out?

Who are Abraham’s true children? [16]
Jesus had arguments over the question,
But the issue is biggest for Paul.


Who Are Abraham’s Children?

In his letters in the Bible,
Paul says there are two different ways people relate to God.  (Romans 4, Galatians 3-4)

We can work hard to do good things and keep religious rules
In order to please God and earn God’s blessing.
Just as we go to work and earn our pay.

Paul asks,
Did Abraham earn God’s blessing like this?  (Romans 4:1-2, 10)
No he didn’t!
Abraham lived 400 years before God even gave the religious laws through Moses.  (Galatians 3:17)
So why was God pleased with Abraham? [17]

“Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”  Genesis 15:6

Righteous means in a right relationship with God.
It’s the same for everyone, says Paul:

People are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God… The promise is received by faith.  It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, if we have faith like Abraham’s.  For Abraham is the father of all who believe.         Romans 4:5, 16

God’s promise, his blessing, his goodness to us:
It’s all a free gift.
It does not depend on us.  There’s nothing we have to work hard to do.

So if you and I trust God as Abraham did,
We are spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham.
That’s the meaning of the Sunday school song, “Father Abraham Had Many Sons.”

The real children of Abraham are those who put their faith in God.            Galatians 3:7

And Abraham’s children inherit God’s promises to Abraham.
Remember the three parts?
Land, descendants, blessing to the world.

We get the promise of an eternal home in God’s new creation.
We get the promise of fruitfulness,
God bringing good new things to birth in our lives.
We get the promise of a worldwide family of blessing.

And as spiritual children of Abraham,
We are promised a relationship with God like Abraham had.

The Bible calls Abraham God’s servant.  (Genesis 26:24, Exodus 32:13)
He was quick to obey what God said.
More beautifully, it calls Abraham God’s friend. [18]
Sometimes he trusted, sometimes he laughed,
But he kept on walking with God, talking with God, even arguing with God.
That’s the kind of friendship God wants with us.

Here’s how Paul sums up the story of God’s promise and Abraham’s faith.

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.
Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous.                  Romans 4:18-22

Not a bad summary of Abraham’s life,
But here’s my final question.
“Abraham’s faith did not weaken… Abraham never wavered in believing… He was fully convinced.”
What is Paul talking about?  Hasn’t he read Genesis?
Abraham tried to shortcut God’s promise with Hagar.
He laughed when God said Sarah would have a son at 90.

Does Paul conveniently “forget” because it doesn’t fit his argument?
Maybe.
But here’s an idea, what I hope.

In this letter Paul says God freely forgives us when we trust Jesus.

Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sins are put out of sight.      Romans 4:7

I think Paul knew Abraham wasn’t perfect.
But if we trust in God, he wipes away the wrong things we’ve done.
He puts our sins out of his sight.
And sees us as if we were perfect.

Maybe Paul is describing Abraham the way God sees Abraham after forgiveness.
I love the idea.
It gives me hope.
My faith is up and down like Abraham’s.
But could it be,
Because my sins are forgiven in Jesus,
One day God will look at me and say,
“David’s faith did not weaken… David never wavered in believing God.”
So in the end that will be the truth about my life.

Long ago, God “found Abraham’s heart faithful” (Nehemiah 9:8) – lovely words.
And God called Abraham his friend.  (Isaiah 41:8)
If you and I trust God as Abraham did,
We are his spiritual children.
We inherit God’s good promises.
And in spite of our failures,
God will find us faithful,
And say that we too are his friends.


Questions

What was God’s three-part promise to Abraham?

Read Genesis 15:5-6 and 17:16-17.  Why do you think Abraham’s response to the promise changed?

Can you relate to Abraham and Sarah?

Have you ever trusted God when something seemed impossible?  Or gone your own way because you didn’t trust God?

How can we be “children of Abraham” and what does that mean?


[1] God’s very first command to humanity was, “Be fruitful and multiply.  Fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28).  The next chapters of Genesis show this happening.  In fact, the book is organised around family trees, lists of descendants, such as in chapter 11:10.  “This is the account of Shem’s family.  Shem was the father of… X was the father of Y…” down the generations of firstborn sons.  “Be fruitful and multiply” – it’s happening like God said.  Then in 11:26, “when Terah was 70 years old, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.”  The name of Abraham’s wife was Sarai.  But Sarai was barren, unable to become pregnant (11:29-30).  It’s the end of the line of firstborn sons.  In Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve turned away from God, God’s blessing of fruitfulness was damaged by a curse: having children for women will be painful and difficult (Genesis 3:16).  Now that curse becomes complete: here’s a woman who can’t have children at all.  Game over.  The firstborn family line is dead.  Or is it?  This is part of the drama of Genesis.
[2] “50-mm binoculars increase the number of stars to about 100,000 while observers using a 3-inch telescope can spy about 5 million.”  See http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-resources/how-many-stars-night-sky-09172014/
[3] Twice Abraham lies and endangers Sarah to keep himself safe (Genesis 12:13, 20:2).
[4] “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”  (Psalm 8:3-4).  “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1)
[5] John Goldingay says an Egyptian student told him that still happens in Egypt today: a woman without children may ask her husband to take a second wife.  When the second wife gives birth, she lies between the legs of the first wife, so the baby symbolically belongs to the first wife.
[6] One commentator pointed out that in their recorded meetings, God seems to speak to Abraham about every 25 years.
[7] Abram to Abraham isn’t much difference, but in Hebrew it maybe emphasizes he will be the father of many people, though it seems there’s not much change in the meaning.  Sarah also gets a new name, but with the same meaning, princess.  Furthermore, in this passage, God himself gets a new name: El Shaddai, which is a little unclear, but may mean “God of the mountain”.  (Genesis 17:1)
[8] Jewish commentators all note that God tactfully omits reporting part of Sarah’s speech to avoid offending Abraham and causing domestic disharmony: her complaint that her husband is too old.
[9] “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Bruce Waltke says, “Fundamentally, faith is imagination informed by the word of God”, a dream inspired by God in which one lives, living in imagination by God’s word when the situation by sight seems impossible.
[10] Cf: When the Lord brought back his exiles to Jerusalem, it was like a dream!  We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy.  And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.”  (Psalm 126:1-2).  When old Elizabeth had a son, her neighbours and relatives rejoiced with her (Luke 1:58)
[11] “Blessed are you who weep, for in due time you will laugh.”          Luke 6:21.  As John Goldingay says, Sarah is the first of a line of biblical woman “to have children against all the odds in a way that brings together the longing of their own hearts and the purposes of God.”
[12] A little like Jesus, Isaac was born “not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan (like Ishmael), but a birth that comes from God” (John 1:13).  “The son of the slave wife Hagar was born in a human attempt to bring about the fulfilment of God’s promise. But the son of the freeborn wife Sarah was born as God’s own fulfilment of his promise.” (Galatians 4:23)  When we lose faith try to do things in our human way, it won’t stop God keeping his promises. It won’t stop him loving us. But we may have to live with the consequences.
[13] Only one other birth in the Bible has as big a story or is as long-awaited as Isaac’s.
[14] As many descendants as the dust of the earth, the sand on the beach, the stars in the sky. (13:16, 15:5, 17:4, 22:17)
[15] God’s promise to Abraham had three parts: the land of Israel, many descendants, blessing to all the nations.  It seems to me, the races and religions that claim Abraham as their ancestor are mostly fighting over part one of the promise.  The world would be a much better place if they remembered part three.  Not getting the land for ourselves.  But giving a blessing to others.  That was the purpose of God’s promise.
[16] In the New Testament, the question first comes up with John the Baptist.  (Matthew 3:9, 8:11, John 8:31-59)
[17] “God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith” (Romans 4:3, 13)
[18] 2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23.  Jesus said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.”  (John 15:15)

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