Ray Stedman - Man of Faith
Man of Faith
Learning from the Life of Abraham
Ray C. Stedman
Unless otherwise identified, all Scripture references are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1946, 1952, (c) 1971, 1973, Division of Christian Education, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Cover design by Phil Malyon and Judy Quinn
Photograph by Wayne Aldridge
MAN OF FAITH
(c) 1986 by Ray C. Stedman
Published by Multnomah Press
Portland, Oregon 97266
Published in cooperation with Discovery Foundation, Palo Alto, California
Printed in the United States of America
All rights reserved, No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Stedman, Ray C. Man of Faith.
1. Abraham (Biblical patriarch)-Meditations.
2. Bible. O.T. Genesis IX, 27-XXV, 8-Meditations.
BS580.A3S75 1986 222'.110924 85-21772
85 868788899091- 10987 65432 1
1. The Beginning of Faith
2. The High Cost of Letting Down
3. Letting God Choose
4. When You Need a Friend
5. The Peril of Victory
6. Faith Conquering Fear
7. The Furnace and the Lamp
8. It All Depends on Me
9. The Circumcised Life
10. When God Comes to Dinner
11. How Prayer Works
12. The Wasted Years
13. Old Natures Never Die
14. Ishmael Must Go!
15. This Thirsty World
16. Life's Hardest Trial
17. 'Till Death Do Us Part
18. Here Comes the Bride
19. The Abundant Entrance
1. THE BEGINNING OF FAITH
There is a simple secret that ties together the Old and the New Testaments and makes the study of the Old Testament a never-ending delight. The Old Testament is designed as a picture book, illustrating with fascinating stories the spiritual truths presented in the New Testament. This is especially true of the books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) and the book of Joshua; for in the life histories of men like Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, we have symbolized for us the progress of spiritual growth.
One of the most convincing proofs of the inspiration of the Bible is how the Spirit of God has taken simple history--facts as they were lived out day by day-and recorded them in such a way as to weave an accurate pattern of the development of spiritual life. What took place physically in the Old Testament is a spiritual picture for contemporary believers of what takes place in their own growth in grace.
It is not mere fancy to view the Old Testament in this manner; the New Testament itself gives ample proof that God planned the structure of his book in just this way. In the tenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to many incidents in the history of Israel. He concludes the account with these words:
Now these things happened to them as a warning (literally "type"), but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come (1 Corinthians 10:11).
And in Romans 15:4, he says,
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
The letter to the Galatians, as well as our Lord's own use of these stories, further shows they were regarded as an analogy to the course of intended spiritual development.
We need, of course, to guard against wild and fanciful interpretations. We must move with care so that we do not overstep the laws of interpretation. But it would be a pity to miss (for example) Old Testament illustrations of the great Christian truths reflected in the book of Romans and elsewhere. Abraham's life beautifully portrays justification by faith; Isaac teaches us what it means to be a son, a child of God; Jacob's life is designed to show us how God works in sanctification to deliver us from the reigning power of sin; and Joseph is a stunning picture of what it means to be glorified by resurrection and thus enter into the challenging and exciting task that awaits the final unveiling of the sons of God.
Perhaps the clearest and most helpful of all these Old Testament portraits is the record of Abraham's life, beginning in distant Ur of the Chaldees and ending at last in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron, in Canaan. Abraham is clearly the model man of faith. Again and again in the New Testament he is held up as the example of how God works in the life of a man to fulfill his promises of grace. He is obviously chief of all the heroes of faith recorded in Hebrews 11. And in addition to the Christian faith, two of the great religions of the earth hold him in high esteem.
Therefore we may well begin the study of this man's life with a sense of excitement. In Abraham we will find ourselves reflected. In tracing his life's story we shall discover the very secrets by which the Spirit of God intends to transform us from faltering pilgrims into men and women of stalwart faith, worthy to stand beside the heroes of Hebrews 11.
Abraham is first introduced to us in the closing verse of Genesis 11 and in the opening verses of Genesis 12. His name was originally Abram; it was not until years later that it was changed to Abraham. The reason for this change was highly significant, and we shall examine it in due course. But for now let us get acquainted with young Abram. The Spirit of God passes over his early life in Ur of the Chaldees with but the briefest notice, and begins the sacred record with his encounter with God. This is where life truly begins!
We know from Stephen's great speech (recorded in the seventh chapter of Acts) that this call came to Abraham when he lived in Ur of the Chaldees. It was once thought that Ur was a very primitive city. I have read several books which attempt to depict Abram as an ignorant, unlettered nomad of the desert who lived in a primitive mud-walled village. We could hardly expect to find in such a man much more than the primitive search of a barbarian struggling to discover God. But the spade of the archaeologist has since turned up the ruins of Ur, and we have learned that this was a city of great wealth and considerable culture, containing a library and a university. The city was devoted to the worship of the Moon Goddess, and it is almost certain that Abram was an idolater, a worshiper of the moon. The book of Isaiah more than hints at this.
Stephen declared that the God of glory appeared to Abram there in Ur. We have no knowledge of the form this appearance took. But whatever it was, it is important to note that God took the initiative. This is true throughout history. Men may think they are feeling after God, but that feeling itself is the drawing of a seeking God. Here then is God, suddenly breaking into the life of Abram as he lived in Ur, worshiping the moon and kneeling before his dumb idols.
In this meeting Abram came face to face with a command and a promise; he was commanded to go, and he was promised a land. There is no question that the land to which he was to go was a literal place. Likewise the promise to make his name great and to make him the father of many nations has been literally fulfilled. I stress this now because I am not going to mention it again in this study. I believe in the literal fulfillment of these promises as history has already amply confirmed them. The study of how God literally fulfilled these to Abram is helpful and illuminating; but our concern here is to discover another dimension in this historical account. We will follow the warrant given to us by the New Testament, and make spiritual application to our own lives of what we see here.
Above all, we must not make the mistake (which is so common today) of taking these promises of the Old Testament and applying them literally to the believer today. When Israel, for instance, was told that they were not to intermarry with other races, God meant what he said. But when we try to apply that literally to nations today, we get into all sorts of absurdities. Some of the false concepts on which the doctrine of racial segregation is based come from an attempt to apply the instructions of God to Israel in a literal way today. We must not follow that road.
Still, all these things were written for our spiritual instruction. As we read this great command and promise to Abram, we may see ourselves here. For this is nothing more nor less than what God says to every person today, in a spiritual sense.
Abram was commanded to do three things: leave his country, his kindred, and his father's house. This is exactly the command that comes to every person who hears the call of the gospel today. We are to leave our country--the place where we have been living, our residence since birth. That is not our physical residence, but rather the old life with all its ambitions, loyalties, worship of money and fame and power, its imagined independence which is really slavery--all that we have been by nature since birth. There comes a command in the gospel to leave our country. This is a picture of the world--organized society with its satanic philosophies and value systems.
Abram was also told to leave his relatives. In the spiritual sense these are the moral forces that shape our lives. Just as blood relatives affect us greatly on the physical level, so these moral forces at work today change our lives constantly and color all that we think and do. The opinions of others, the traditions of men, the pressures from family and friends, the attitudes of our employers and others around us--these are the kindred we must be willing to forsake when we hear the call of God. When God confronts us with his call, these cannot count any longer. We are to renounce all concern about what others think and be preeminently concerned about what God thinks.
Third, Abram was to leave his father's house--that is, the ties with the "old man." Our father, in this sense, is Adam, the father of us all. What theologians call our "Adamic nature" is the father's house in which we all live. We are called to leave this, no longer putting any dependence upon our looks, talents, or any of our normal resources. Instead we must begin to walk in dependence upon another to do through us what we cannot do ourselves.
This is where a man stands when he first hears the gospel. He may have grown tired of the land of Ur, for it is a land of darkness, of weariness of soul, of spiritual hunger and death. Yet when the call of the word of God comes to him, there is much that seems desirable in the old life. He hesitates to leave, feeling the pull of these things upon him. Undoubtedly, Abram felt this hesitancy. The land to which he was called was unknown. It could not be known until it was experienced. But he could not deny the reality of God, and he could not evade the clear command: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you."
Have you heard this command of God in your own life? Have you heard the living God, the God of glory, say to you, "You must no longer depend upon what you have been depending on--the opinions, the attitudes, the philosophy in which you have been reared. These are wrong. They are based upon the lies of Satan and you must not live on this basis any longer. You must learn to accept the truth reflected in the Word of God, though it cuts right across the philosophy of this world. You must, above all, leave your father's house; that is, dependence upon your "natural self." It is a simple but vital decision--you cannot stay in Ur and go to the land at the same time.
Now with this command comes a mighty promise. It, too, is threefold:
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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves (Genesis 12:2,3).
The first promise, that God would make of Abram a great nation, was literally fulfilled in Israel. But what does it symbolize spiritually, to us? What is a nation?
It is simply the life of a man, expanded and enlarged to great proportions. In our day, a nation may be made up of a thousand strains from many different family groups, all living together in a heterogeneous society. Such is not the biblical nation. In the Bible, every nation begins with a man; then there is the family, and as the family grows and expands, there is finally the nation. Every nation is but the continued, expanded life of a man.
This promise, then, becomes for us a picture of eternal life, which is the first promise of the gospel. "The wages of sin is death" (that is the old country of Ur), "but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Leave your country, your kindred, and your father's house, and what happens? "I will give you eternal life," God says. "I will make of you a great nation. I will constantly expand and enlarge your life--life will take on infinite proportions for you."
The second promise, "I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing," meant several specific things to Abram. As we trace the story of his life, we find it meant he would have riches, he would find honor, and he would be a blessing to others. He would become influential and effective.
This is spiritually what God offers today. Of course, if you are thinking of dollars and cents, you are on the wrong track; this is never promised to a believer. God never commits himself to make us wealthy when we become Christians, but he does promise us the riches of Christ. Paul says, "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Romans 11:33). These are, indeed, wonderful riches. This is the adventure the world is looking for more than anything else. Men are earnestly looking for something that will satisfy them within and change them without, and they will spend everything for it. But money cannot buy it. Only in Jesus Christ can you become what God intended you to be. Only in Christ can you fulfill the beauty of your womanhood or the glory and strength of your manhood. These are the riches of Christ.
But God offers still more--he offers honor (but not the honor of men). If you are looking for big crowds and excitement and the praises of men, you might consider running for political office; but if you are looking for honor, genuine honor, then listen to the words of Christ: "If any one serves me, the Father will honor him" (John 12:26b). The honor he will give makes you the very nobility of earth; your name will be listed with those in Hebrews 11:38, "of whom the world was not worthyÉ"
Last, God offers this, the choicest of all: "I will make you a blessing." This is the glory of being used to bless others, the joy of a fruitful life. There is nothing more wonderful than that. It has been my privilege on a few occasions to have God use my life in a way that has opened up and blessed the hearts of others, and I tell you there is no other joy like it on earth. It is the most thrilling experience to feel that God has used you--the words you have spoken, the things you have said-to solve someone's desperate problem, to make life begin to unfold for them, to see homes reunited, estranged hearts brought together, and problems solved. This is what God offers every believer in Jesus Christ. All these--riches, honor, and blessing--are part of the second promise of the gospel.
But there is yet a third part: "I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you I will curse, for by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." What is this but the truth of identification, of sonship? It is what every parent thinks of his child: "I will bless those who bless him, and those who curse him I will curse." We are wrapped up in our children. They are the apple of our eye, and whatever touches them touches us. So John writes, "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God" (1 John 3:1). God says, "I will identify myself with you. What concerns you, concerns me." But listen to this again: "I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse." That is, we will be identified with God in the eyes of the world. We will be, like him, a creator of crises. Everywhere you go, you will be either a blessing or a curse... but no one will ignore you. God will make your life so vitally in touch with himself that you will have the effect he has when he touches lives.
It was so with Jesus of Nazareth. No one ever came into contact with him and remained neutral. This is what God says to each pilgrim in the life of faith: "If you will leave your country, your kindred, and your father's house, I will make you into this kind of person, so that you will affect every life you touch for better or for worse. They will bless you or they will curse you." Surely this is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16:
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
This is God's design for the Christian. Your life will be vibrant with that vitality that God himself possesses. Then all the families of earth will be blessed through you. That is universal usefulness. God will take anyone and touch the world in some sense through him. This is a vast and marvelous promise, is it not? Perhaps now you can see that in these brief, ancient words to Abram, God has hinted about the life detailed in the pages of Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, and Corinthians--in all of the New Testament. It includes all God offers to do in us through Christ.
Note that it is all of God. Abram was to do nothing except obey; God would do everything else. If Abram would but set his face toward the land, leaving the old things behind, God would do the rest.
What is the land? This we must recognize, for we are going to meet this land of Canaan throughout the Word of God. Perhaps you have heard it described as heaven. It is not heaven, except in the sense that heaven begins here on earth. It is not some state that we must wait to enter until we die. It is intended that we should, like Abram, enter it at the beginning of our Christian life, and live in it all our days. What is the land then?
It is simply life in Christ. It is what the New Testament calls the fullness of the Spirit. It is life controlled by the Spirit of God, reflecting the glory of Christ. We enter it by conversion, but we do not experience the fullness of its blessing until we learn, like Abram, to adjust ourselves to its peculiar demands. But it is the land of promise, the land of fulfillment, the land of God's blessing and power. The whole of the Bible is written for no other purpose than to bring the people of God into the land of God. This is where he called Abram to go.
At this point in the record there comes a little interlude which we must consider. We are told that Abram obeyed God and started out for the land, but he stopped along the way. The record of those wasted years at Haran is found in Genesis 11:31-32.
Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldees to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.
As far as we know from the record, Terah never heard the call that Abram heard. He left Ur, not in order to enter the land of Canaan, but simply to get away from Ur! The call of Abram made him recognize that Ur did not offer a life satisfying to the heart, and when he saw that his son was determined to leave, Terah said, "I'll go along." As the father and head of the family, he went out; but only as far as the land of Haran, half-way to Canaan. How powerfully this pictures those who attempt to gain the promise of the gospel by leaving Ur (the world and its ways), but who never enter Canaan!
There are thousands today who have left Ur and come to Haran. But they have settled there, and there they will die. The word Haran means "parched" and it is indeed a parched and barren place to live. Many, like Terah, have left the world and its ways. They may have joined a church. They have got religion. They live moral lives, they sing the songs of Zion and they go through the outward motions of faith. But they will never go farther than Haran. They are dying there; they are religious, but not born again. What a parched experience that is!
But Abram was there, too! He left Ur by faith and was on his way to Canaan . . . but he wasted many years in Haran. While he was there, there was no discernible difference between him and his father. He was not yet ready to fully obey God, for he had not left his father's house--dependence on his own resources--as God had commanded. As a result, he wasted seventy-five of his one hundred and seventy-five years. Finally Terah died, and when the old man was gone, Abram was free to go on into the land of Canaan.
I hope you follow the typical significance of this. If we depend upon our own resources to be acceptable to God, he must take them all away. He will let us go on for a long time so that we may learn the weakness and folly of such a life. But finally he will take them away. When he does, we think it is a dreary day for us--but it is really the greatest day of our lives. Only then are we free to enter the land, where we may learn to depend upon God alone.
Now as Abram comes into the land, we have a revealing description of life there:
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions which they bad gathered, and the persons that they had gotten in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, "To your descendants I will give this land." So be built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. Thence he removed to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb (Genesis 12:4-9).
This is more than just a record of what happened to Abram when he first entered the land. It is an accurate picture of the conditions of a Spirit-filled life. The first thing we are told is that Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. These names are most revealing. Shechem means "shoulder," and the shoulder is to the Hebrew a symbol of strength. We think of the shoulder of a mountain in the same way. The name Moreh means "instruction." When we combine these two words, we get our first glimpse of what it is like in the land. Only as we are taught the Word of God by the Spirit of God do we find strength to live.
Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation (1 Peter 2:2).
The second picture we have here is that life in the land is to be a life of constant conflict. We read, "At that time the Canaanites were in the land." These Canaanites were the pagan tribes which afflicted Israel all through its history. When Israel came back into the land after its stay in Egypt, God ordered the extermination of these tribes; but Israel failed to carry it through. Therefore, these people hounded, bothered and afflicted Israel the whole of its history. They are thus a good picture of those evils we live with and continually wrestle against. They are named for us in the New Testament in many places: lust, envy, jealousy, impatience, intemperance, irritability, touchiness, etc. They are our daily enemies--these outbursts of self which make for continual conflict.
Third, it is also a life of continual cleansing, for we next read, "So he built there an altar to the LORD." We think of an altar as a symbol of worship, which it is, but that is not the essence of its meaning. An altar is first a place of cleansing which provides the basis for worship. The reason for a daily altar is the urgent need for cleansing in the pilgrim life. Every pilgrim needs the cleansing of blood, the cross of Christ, to which he can come and judge self as it exhibits itself in his life. So many Christians seem to feel they need the cross only at the beginning of their Christian life; but that is not true. We need it every day, for it is the word of the cross which is the power of God in daily life. This is why Paul cries, "I die every day" (1 Corinthians 15:3 1). This life of the Spirit must be one of continual cleansing by the cross of Christ.
Fourth, this is a life of unending choice. Abram pitched his tent between Bethel and Ai. Bethel means "the house of God," Ai means "ruin." This is just where we must live the Christian life, ever looking either to the things of God or to the ruin of the flesh. We can choose to go to Bethel or to Ai, to Christ or self--it can never be both. I am either pleasing myself, or pleasing him. I am either at Bethel, the house of God, or at Ai, the place of ruin. I must continually choose.
The last characteristic is represented by the tent. What did Abram do when he got to the land? He journeyed on! He never stopped for long. He lived in a tent because he was a pilgrim. He could never settle down; he could only sojourn for awhile. All through the New Testament the Christian pilgrim is exhorted to walk in the Spirit. Walk, walk, walk! When you have learned a lesson from God, that is not the end. That is just another step. Tomorrow there is another step to be taken, and another the day after that, and another the day following. How the flesh resents this! We are always delighted when the Spirit of God drives us to the place where we achieve some victory, overcome some habit, take some needed step. And then we want to settle down there. We say to the Lord, "You go on for awhile and leave me here. I want to enjoy this for a bit." But he will not let us stop. Life in the land is a life of continual progress, a never-ending journey.
Everyone is living in one of three places--Ur, Haran, or Canaan. Where do you live? What a question to search the heart! Ur is the land of death and darkness, the land into which we were born. Haran is the half-way house where we gain the outward appearance of being religious but where there is no inward reality. Canaan is the land of power and blessing, the place of the Spirit's fullness. Have you entered the land?
As we continue our study of the life of Abraham, let us determine to wholeheartedly follow the command of God, for only then may we rise up to go into the land of fullness of blessing in Christ. Let us remember that every word God says is true and that every promise will be fulfilled. And let us hear the voice of God saying to us, "Arise, get up, go out from your country, your kindred, and your father's house, into that land which I will show you!" That is the road to success. There is no other.
2.THE HIGH COST OF LETTING DOWN
It is refreshing to meet a real pilgrim in the midst of our secular, security-loving age with its continual emphasis upon comfort, convenience, and compromise. We can identify pilgrims by two invariable symbols: a tent and an altar. Not that such people actually live in tents; but their whole outlook is transitory, like those who live from campsite to campsite. They hold material things loosely and are conscious of the fleeting, ephemeral values of what the world thinks important. There is a discontent with what the earth offers and a hunger for something more. This is the tent. The second characteristic is the altar, the place of self-judgment where true worship is found. It means having a low opinion of one's own abilities and a high opinion of God's. It is an awareness of the constant need of cleansing and a dependence upon a power greater than self.
The story of Abraham is the story of such a pilgrim. It takes us back several thousand years to the other side of the cross; but the spiritual history of this man is as up-to-date as if he were born in the twentieth century. With his tent and his altar, Abram sojourned in the land of Canaan. He had no permanent home, but moved about from place to place. The land of Canaan, as we have already seen, is a picture of the Spirit- filled life. It is not a place of special privilege, as many think. It is not a place which invites only the great and the favored few. The land of Canaan is where God expects every Christian to dwell every day of his life, twenty-four hours a day!
Though Abram is now in the land, he has not yet learned the conditions of life in the land. He stands in the same place as any new Christian who is now "in the Spirit" but has not yet learned to "walk in the Spirit." And as so often happens at this stage of the Christian life (as we pick up the story of Abram in Genesis 12), we find it is the story of the failure of faith. What new Christian has not discovered what it is to lose his sense of joy and his awareness of the presence of Christ? We shall find the reasons for this perplexing experience traced here in three movements: the famine in Canaan, the folly of Egypt, and the fullness of God in the land.
The account begins in chapter 12, verse 10:
Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.
The land of Canaan was much like parts of California--a wonderful land with a magnificent climate, but dependent upon the limited rainfall for water. There are times when there is no rain and the land suffers a drought, becoming parched and dry, and the grass withers. For those whose livelihood depends on pasturing flocks this is a dangerous time. Abram was a man with flocks and herds, and when the rains failed these were severely threatened. He saw his immediate source of sustenance endangered, and it must have seemed increasingly impossible to remain where he was. As the scarcity of food grew, he felt driven to leave, even though God had called him to be there.
There is not a word here about asking God's permission to go down to Egypt. Abram took counsel, not from God, but from his fears alone. To use a contemporary expression, he "pushed the panic button," and down to Egypt he went. It was fear that drove him. Now if the land is a symbol for us of the life of fellowship with a living Christ, then a famine in the land is any circumstance that threatens our dependence upon him. It is any circumstance that makes faith difficult. Have you ever experienced such a famine? Have you been living in the full joy of fellowship with Christ when the strength of God is yours, and suddenly some circumstance beyond your control makes it hard to maintain that fellowship?
It may be a new boss who turns out to be an ogre; it may be neighbors who throw their garbage over the back fence; or a tiger of a mother-in-law who comes to live with you. It is always some difficult circumstance of life that makes it hard to maintain fellowship with Christ. Perhaps it is hard and demanding labor that leaves you little time for cultivating the spirit. It may be a bitter disappointment that crushes you, making your heart ache and leaving you with little strength for prayer and fellowship. It may be the continual oppression of depressing surroundings which are hard to rise above. It may be misunderstood motives--you meant to do good but someone took it wrong and you have been cut to the quick. In short, it is any temptation that seems more than you can bear and which threatens to cut off your very strength, your fellowship with Christ.
When this occurs, we are tempted to flee rather than to stick it out. We do not enjoy trials like this, and we try to get away--physically, if we can. We move to another neighborhood, change jobs, take a trip, or go home to mother. If we cannot flee physically, we try to run away mentally. We escape the unpleasant reality by a flight into unreality. There is so much of this today--some retreat into a mental Egypt where life seems more pleasant.
Once, perhaps, it was a simple problem of daydreaming. But now we can have it done for us electronically through the television set. "Dr. Parker's Fourth Wife" is brought to us in picture as well as sound. Many live in that realm of fantasy all day long. Or maybe you begin to haunt movie theaters for distraction from your worries. Or you find a perpetual din from the radio keeps you from disturbing thoughts or from quietly, thoughtfully facing life as it really is. Perhaps the retreat you choose is a constant round of social life or the overloaded weekend. Far too many Christians demonstrate that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is ready for the weekend! Some retreat to alcohol or to overeating, forgetting that an overhang is perhaps as bad as a hangover. Whenever we attempt to satisfy the spirit with the resources of the world, we have gone down to Egypt.
There is a vast difference between this escape and the occasional need for recreation and rest which God himself recognizes: "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while" (Mark 6:31). Nor is Abram's flight into Egypt a warning to us that we should have nothing to do with worldly people. We are expected to live our lives in the midst of the world and its ways. But going down to Egypt means adopting the attitudes, the expectations, and resources of the world. It is trying to slake the thirst of the spirit at a dry cistern.
Abram's experience here is given to teach us the unutterable folly of Egypt:
When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, "I know that you area woman beautiful to behold; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife',' then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account. " When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels. But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, "What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone." And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had (Genesis 12-11-20).
Now let us see what happens in Egypt. First of all, the pressure is off! Abram found in Egypt the release he was seeking. There was a famine in Canaan; he felt its pressure; he ran away from it and immediately found the pressure relieved. There was plenty to eat in Egypt. And it is far more comfortable and relaxing to live in a house in Egypt than in a tent in Canaan. But this is not the whole story.
What else happened in Egypt? It is plain that when Abram lost his faith he also lost his courage! Even before he got into Egypt he grew afraid and descended to cowardice and falsehood. He told "a little white lie" (that is what we would call it today). He said to his wife, "Look, dear, I know these Egyptians. I read about them in the library in Ur. They are all wolves, and you are a beautiful woman. I know what will happen when we get down there. They will want to take you, and if they know you are my wife, they will kill me. Let's play it smart with a little strategy. You tell them you are my sister."
This was not wholly a lie. Sarai was Abram's half-sister. She was the daughter of a woman who married Abram's father after Abram was born. So this was a half-truth. But a half-truth is also a half-lie, and a lie in any proportion is intended to deceive. The nearer it is to the truth, the more perfectly deceitful it is. Abram's intent was clearly to deceive. Doubtless he justified it on the grounds that it was needed to protect his beautiful wife. Perhaps this is the most startling thing about this story. Sarai was sixty-five years old at the time, yet so remarkable is her beauty that Abram is afraid he may lose her, and when the Egyptians see her they immediately take tales of her beauty to Pharaoh. Abram feels cast upon his own resources to defend her, and his only recourse is to lie.
This is the first result of moving out of Canaan and out of fellowship with Christ. Out of the land, away from the tent and the altar, old self comes to the fore and assumes control. The immediate result is hypocrisy and deceit. Have you found that to be true? The minute you begin to move away from the control of God, your old self, with its defensive mechanism against being hurt, comes to the surface and you stoop to falsehood, hypocrisy, and deceit.
The outcome of this lie was that Sarai was put into a place of real danger. The king claimed her for his harem, and it was the lie Abram told that opened the door. The danger he thought existed had no power to harm her until he made it possible by his lie! This is the second folly of Egypt--our loved ones suffer because of our cowardice and deceit. Abram was trying to protect himself, but in protecting himself he exposed Sarai to ignominy and danger.
This is the trouble with Egypt. It is true the pressure we fear is relieved there, but when we try to live on the resources of the world we lose our own strength and endanger those who look to us for help. Not only was Sarai endangered, but Lot also. Abram's nephew, Lot, went down to Egypt with him. Later on, when the allurements and enticements of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah cast their spell over Lot, we are told that he saw the land as though it were the plain of Egypt. The lust for comfort and worldly glory that was born during this stay in Egypt almost destroyed him then. Remember that when you flee to Egypt, your loved ones are being hurt as well as you.
The third factor about Egypt is that Abram was made very rich. You say, "What's wrong with that? This is not an evil but a blessing." Perhaps, but it was Jesus himself who used the phrase, "the deceitfulness of riches," referring to one of the things which could choke the Word in a person (Mark 4:19). In Egypt, Abram was given sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels. This is the wealth of the oriental world. But when he comes back into the land, the first thing we hear of is strife between his herdsmen and Lot's herdsmen over the riches they got in Egypt. Furthermore, we are told he was given maidservants. One of them was named Hagar, with whom Abram later conceived the child, Ishmael, the father of the Arab nations (who ever since have been a thorn in the side of Israel). The price of living in Egypt is a fearsome one indeed.
But this is not all. Abram became a curse to the worldlings with whom he lived. 'The LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife." He was called to be a blessing, but when he got into Egypt, he became a curse instead! A Christian out of fellowship with Christ is of no help to the lost people around him. Instead, he is a hindrance. His life of hypocrisy and weakness is a stumbling block and a plague upon the hearts of those who watch him. In God's name, if you are not walking in the fullness of the Spirit, do not attempt to witness to anyone about Christ. You will become a curse to them if you do.
Finally, Egypt is a place of rebuke and humiliation. What a scene this is! Here is Abram, the man of God, standing before this pagan king who has better morals than he has, being publicly rebuked for his folly.
Years ago, when I was a young Christian living in Denver, Colorado, I took on the job of soliciting advertisements for a small church paper. The pastor felt that some businesses which dealt with the church would be willing to put an ad in our little paper. I was to call them on the telephone and solicit the business. One of those I called was the manager of a prominent restaurant nearby. I opened the conversation by telling her I was calling for Mr. Hewitt, the pastor of the church, as he had given me permission to do. Evidently she misunderstood and thought that I was Mr. Hewitt. Throughout the conversation she addressed me as Mr. Hewitt. It took me by surprise at first, and I did not correct her at the time. She placed an ad, and the next month I called her again to renew it. It had worked so well to be mistaken for Mr. Hewitt that I thought I would tell her it was he calling again. I got another ad.
The third month I tried it again. But this time her voice grew cold and distant as she said, "I don't know who you are, but you are not Mr. Hewitt, for as I sit here in my office I can see Mr. Hewitt and his wife eating lunch. I don't know what kind of church you run, but if this is the means you have of getting business then don't bother with me anymore." And she hung up the phone. I can still feel the shame and humiliation of that moment as though it were yesterday. What a terrible place of rebuke and folly is Egypt!
But now God terminates the painful lesson of Egypt in Abram's life. At the deepest moment of his agony, crushed with humiliation and sick at heart, Abram comes out of Egypt, tarred and feathered and riding on a nil, back into the land of Canaan. We read, "pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had." "Good riddance, Abram, we're through with you!" What a sad price to pay for the release from pressure that Egypt affords.
Once back in the land, he finds again the fullness of supply that he could have had all along!
So Abram went tip from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that be had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first; and there Abram called on the name of the LORD (Genesis 13.7-4).
As soon as Abram is back in the land, there is the tent and the altar again. There is no tent or altar in Egypt. That is, there is no pilgrim character, no place of worship or cleansing, no fellowship in Egypt. But even back in the land, Abram must come back to the place where he had made an altar at the first; and there Abram calls upon the name of the LORD. In other words, time spent in Egypt is wasted! There was no growth in grace in that land. He had to come right back to where he was when he went down to Egypt. He had material gain to show for the time in Egypt, but nothing but barrenness and weakness spiritually.
Have you discovered how true this is? When you forsake the pathway of faith, when you refuse to walk in fellowship with God, when you depend upon the resources of the world to satisfy the empty hunger of the heart--these are wasted years! They may literally be years. I know Christians who have lived almost all their Christian lives in Egypt, and all they have to show for it is a barren, wasted, empty, dreary, boring existence.
When Abram at last returned, what did he find? There is no mention of famine when he returns, but I think the famine is still going on. Remember, Abram was driven out of Egypt. He was not yet ready to leave it of his own choice, and this would indicate the famine was still raging in Canaan. Also, the quarrel which developed with Lot's herdsmen over the pasture land suggests there was still a severe shortage of feed. But though the famine still continues, Abram is no longer troubled about it. Why not? Because when he reached the land, the first thing he did was to call on the name of the LORD! This is what he should have done and could have done when the famine first struck.
The name of the LORD stands for all the resources of God. When we cash a check we are calling on the name of the man who signed the check. When Abram calls on the name of the LORD he is discovering the resources of God. He discovers that God is able to meet his needs despite the famine, the trial, or the circumstances. Just as Paul proclaims, "And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19).
In the closing days of Hudson Taylor's life the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China. Every day reports were coming to missionary headquarters of the death of national pastors, or the persecution and imprisonment of missionaries. It seemed that all that Hudson Taylor had given his life to was crumbling before his eyes. One black day, after some particularly distressing news had come, Hudson Taylor's associates wondered if it would be too much for the old man. He spent the morning in his house alone, and when they came to see him in the afternoon, they trembled at what they might find. But as they approached the house, they heard him singing to himself:
Jesus, I am resting, resting,
In the joy of what Thou art;
I am finding out the greatness,
Of thy loving heart.
Thou hast bade me gaze upon Thee,
And thy beauty fills my soul,
For by thy transforming power,
Thou hast made me whole.
Are you in a time of testing and trial that makes it difficult to hang onto God? Do not think for a moment you will find what you need by running down to Egypt. You will find a kind of relief, but the price of Egypt is terrible.
For the soul that says, "Its all right, Lord, I'm looking only to you to see me through," there awaits a sure and full supply of God--that inner strengthening of the heart that makes it possible to meet whatever trial may come in the joyfulness and glory of faith.
3. LETTING GOD CHOOSE
Someone has pointed out that life seems to be arranged backwards. We are called upon to make our most important choices at a time when we have the least amount of experience to guide us. It is because of this that we so frequently hear expressions of regret like, "If only I had known," "If I had it to do it over again", etc. It is this very quality of life which reveals our inability to handle life by ourselves. It is a wise person, indeed, who learns this lesson early and gives heed to the biblical admonition, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths" (Proverbs 3:5-6).
After the temporary failure of faith which took Abram from Canaan into Egypt, we find him once again in the land, with his tent and his altar, enjoying the fullness of divine supply. As we saw earlier, however, life in the land is one of continual conflict; we must go from victory to victory. Furthermore, it is a life of unending choice. We are now given an illuminating account of what happens when strife and trouble break out in the Christian life. Who has not stood at this place?
And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram's cattle and the herdsmen of Lot's cattle. At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites dwelt in the land. Then Abram said to Lot, Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen; for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left" (Genesis 13:5-9).
We have been reading of Lot all through the story of Abram. He was Abram's nephew, and he came with him out of the land of Ur. The whole story of this man is told in one brief phrase in verse 5: "ÉLot, who went with Abram." That sums up Lot's whole life. He went with Abram! Wherever Abram was, Lot was. When Abram stopped, Lot stopped. "With Abram"--that is all that can be said of him.
Many commentators seem to think Abram was wrong to take Lot with him out of the land of Ur. There is no doubt Lot was a continual weight around his neck. But Scripture never implies that it was wrong to bring Lot along. Lot evidently responded when God spoke to Abram and called him to go out into a land which would be shown him. Lot wanted to go along, and Abram, wishing to help him, agreed. The trouble is not with Abram but with Lot.
Lot pictures those Christians who depend upon others for faith and inspiration to act. There are many Lots around. They never seem to learn to walk alone with God, but lean on another's faith for strength. As long as they have a strong church to lean on, or a close friend who is a faithful Christian, or they can listen to a gospel radio station all day long, or they have a Christian magazine coming regularly, then all goes well. But where the prop is weak, they are weak also. When Abram's faith failed, Lot's faith failed. Lot leans on Abram all the way. He is a second-hand Christian. Although his own faith is genuine (and the New Testament makes it clear that Lot was a righteous man), nevertheless he depends wholly upon Abram to make his service effective.
This works well as long as the pressure is on. As long as things are a bit rough, Lot will stay with Abram; for he senses his need for the strength of the man of faith. Lot feels his weakness to act upon his own faith. There are many like this. As long as things are a bit difficult, they lean hard upon their Abram, whoever or whatever it may be. But there is one kind of test this type of Christian cannot stand--the test of prosperity, when all goes well. Material prosperity, especially, will always show up the Lots in our midst.
So we read here that when their possessions became so great they could no longer dwell together, strife came between them. Today we would call this a conflict of interests. There are many parallels in modern life. Here are two partners in business, both of them Christians. For the stronger of the two, the man of faith, this business exists for only one purpose: to benefit the work of God. He knows that God expects him to take his normal living from it, but that is not why he is working. His real reason for working is that he may use the strength and wisdom God gives him to invest and make money to advance the work of God.
At first, the other partner goes along with him and agrees that his goal is a worthy basis for the business. But prosperity comes! They make a little money, the second man raises his standard of living and gets his eyes on the material things of life. He becomes more concerned about increasing the business and making a big thing of it than about anything else. When that happens, there is only one thing to do. As with Lot and Abram, there comes a time for a dividing of the ways; and it is the man of faith who takes the initiative. Lot would have let this thing fester until it broke out into some serious conflict, but Abram says, "There is only one thing to do. We must separate now before there is any further difficulty."
Then Abram said to Lot, "Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen; for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left" (Genesis 13:8,9).
Note the reasons Abram gives for this separation. Every word here is important. In the last part of verse 7 we are told, "At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites dwelt in the land." Why is this mentioned here? Is it not a warning to us that whenever strife looms between Christians, the enemies of the Lord are ready to take full advantage of it? These Canaanites and Perizzites, dwelling in the land, represent the evils of the flesh that lurk in every Christian heart: jealousy, envy, resentment, bitterness, malice, etc. They are always ready to spring into action if there is any dissension or grievance between Christians. Abram acted before they awakened, for he knew they were in the land. Everyone's heart harbors something that, if allowed to fester, will come to the fore, and he will be possessed by the spirit of jealousy, resentment, or bitterness. Abram acted before this could happen.
The second reason is found in his words, "Let there be no strife, for we are kinsmen," that is, "brethren." We are brethren! That means we are tied together in the same bundle of life, and if! hurt you I am hurting myself. If you hurt me, you are hurting yourself. Brethren cannot have strife without injuring one another. Whenever strife develops between members of the Body of Christ, it always has this result. It is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. If you hurt your brother, you are surely hurting yourself.
Abram, in his God-given wisdom, said, "Let us not have any of this. We are brethren, so do not let this become an issue between us. Let us calmly settle the matter now before it breaks out in open conflict." Then Abram did a magnificent, God-honoring thing; he gave up his own rights without a murmur. He was the older man of the two and the acknowledged leader, Lot's superior in every way. Yet he said to him, "Lot, you take the first choice, I give up my right to it. If you want to go this way, I'll go that way." How evident it is that the tent and the altar have already done a work of grace in this man's heart!
I once heard Dr. H. A. Ironside tell of an experience in his early life when his mother took him to a meeting where two Christian men almost came to blows over a disagreement. One man finally stood and pounded the desk and shouted, "I don't care what you do, but I will have my rights!" At that, an old, partially deaf brother, who had been sitting nearby, leaned forward, cupped his ear in his hand and said, "Eh? What's that? What did you say, brother? Your rights is it? Is that what you want? Ah, brother, if you had your rights you'd be in hell! The Lord Jesus didn't come to get his rights--he came to get his wrongs, and he got them." And with that the belligerent fellow flushed and sat down saying, "You're right, you're right, settle it any way you like." Soon there was perfect agreement. It was this same spirit that moved Abram to give Lot the first choice.
Now we learn what happens when Lot chooses:
And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan valley, and Lot journeyed east; thus they separated from each other. Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, while Lot dwelt among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD (Genesis 13.10-13).
Evidently Lot and Abram went out on a promontory overlooking the valley and Lot lifted up his eyes. What did he see? It is obvious he only looked in one direction. He had been out looking around before! Without hesitation now, he looked to the east and saw the well-watered plain below like the garden of the Lord in the midst of the desert. He saw the Jordan River cutting through its great gorge, the deepest point on the face of the earth. On either side of the Jordan the lush green grass was growing, and the variety of palm trees made the whole place a veritable garden. He was greatly attracted to it; it was a modern real estate developer's dream!
Then he saw the cities of the plain. They were like Egypt! Lot remembered Egypt as a place where one could get rich quick, with its vast commercial enterprises and its blind materialism. This is what Lot saw as he looked across the valley.
But the passage suggests there were some things Lot did not see. Although the Jordan Valley was there before his eyes, he did not see the significance of its name. The word "Jordan" means death. The river descended out of the living waters of Galilee and dropped far below sea level into the Dead Sea, from which there is no outlet. It was grand to look upon; but spiritually it meant the place of death. This Lot failed to see.
Then it is specifically pointed out that the men of Sodom were wicked--great sinners before the Lord. Lot saw the profitability of these cities, but he did not see their moral corruption. The name of Sodom today is linked to a particularly revolting form of sin. Though the life of the city was morally rotten, it was hidden beneath an attractive prosperity. We have our Sodoms today. Moral corruption has permeated our social life and is something we must consider as we face the choices of life. This Lot failed to do.
We are told yet another thing that Lot missed: "Éthis was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah." Here is a mention of the judgment that was to come. Lot saw the prosperity and the beauty, but he did not see this was a place marked out for judgment; it was all to be swept away forever.
Now, it is true that neither Lot nor Abram could foresee the death, the rottenness, the judgment that life in Sodom would bring. But the whole point of the story lies right here. Lot, presuming to run his own life, "chose for himself." Deceived by what he saw, he stumbled blindly into heartache and judgment. Abram, on the other hand, was content to let God choose for him, though it looked second-best. And long before the true nature of Sodom became apparent to Lot, Abram saw it in its true light.
When will we learn that the inner nature of things--things as they really are--is only revealed to the man with the tent and the altar? It is only as we become pilgrims, remembering that we do not have our final dwelling place here on this earth, that the Word of God unfolds before us and we see something of the judgment, the moral corruption, the deadly character of what otherwise looks so attractive.
So we read, "Lot chose for himself." What a telling phrase that is! As he looked out, Self said, "Ah, this will advance you, this will make you prosperous, this will give you status and position." So he chose for himself and pitched his tent toward Sodom. Every time he moved his tent, he moved it ever nearer Sodom. We shall see more of what this meant in a later chapter.
But now, what happened to old Abram? How did it go with the man who was willing to let God make the choices for him?
The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, "Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see! will give to you and to your descendants for ever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you." So Abram moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the LORD (Genesis 13.14-18).
Lot had lifted up his eyes and chosen for himself; now God says to the man of faith, living in his tent on the hillside, "Abram, lift up your eyes." Where? Everywhere--to the north, the south, the east (the portion Lot chose), and the west. All the land is his! This land is consistently a symbol of the fullness of life in the Spirit of God; the life of joy, power, love, and glory; the life of refreshing ministry to others. Surely this is what Paul longs for us when he prays, "That you may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:18,19). This is all yours, if you are willing to let God make the choices of life for you.
Lot will never know this! Nor will we, if we make our choices on the basis of what we see, relating to the materialistic, commercial standards of those about us. But if, like Abram, we are content to have what God gives us in life, all the fullness of Christ will be ours. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23: "For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's."
Then God said to Abram, "Not only do I give this land to you, but I will fill the land with your descendants." That is, "I will make you fruitful beyond belief. I will make your life one of such blessing that after you are gone there will be those who will stand up and say, 'I received my spiritual life through that man; there came to me strength for my journey through him; he has been a great blessing to me."
Then he said to Abram, "Arise, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you." The land is all that Christ will be to us through the eternal ages to come. But God is saying to us, "Don't wait for it. You don't have to wait until you die to enjoy this. You can have it now, if you will possess it. Walk through the land. Set your feet upon it. Possess it--now!'
If we, seeing Abram walking up and down the land, had said to the Canaanites and Perizzites, "Do you know who this man is? This is the owner of all this land!" they would have looked at us with pity, laughed, and continued on their way. But it was true! Wherever Abram wanted to move in that land, God opened the door. The whole land was his. He could go where he wanted. He could live where he chose. The Canaanites and the Perizzites had to move out when Abram came in. Thus also the Spirit of God declares to us in Romans 6:14: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." Whenever you want to be free from the weakness, and ruin, and power of sin, you can! The land lies open before you. Possess it!
So we read, "Abram moved his tent and came down to the oaks of Mamre." Mamre means "fatness," the place where the soul is made fat with the fullness of supply. And there at Hebron, which means "fellowship," he built an altar to the Lord. In the place of fatness and fellowship, Abram confessed again by the building of an altar that he was nothing but a fallible human being, without strength in himself, needing the constant cleansing of God. It is a wonderful picture, isn't it?
Everyone dwells in a world exactly like that of Abram and Lot, a world in which material values constantly clamor for us to make a choice. We have only so much time to invest, so much life to spend, and we are pressured to grab the best for ourselves while we can. We can say with Lot, "I want what the world can offer me now, I want the cities of the plain.' Or we may wait with Abram, content with our tent and altar, enjoying the blessings of the land by faith now, and waiting for God's fulfillment of all his promises in the wonderful age yet to come. The Christian who is content to let God make his choices finds it easy to fulfill the New Testament word: "Égive thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
4. WHEN YOU NEED A FRIEND
Many think the Christian life is prosaic, dull, uneventful. It is anything but that! If it appears that way, it is almost certainly a life out of focus with true spirituality; in other words, a carnal Christian life.
We have seen already that whenever Abram is found with a tent and an altar in the land of Canaan, he is a wonderful picture of a Christian living in the power and joy of his pilgrim life--in this world but not of it, daily judging self by the cleansing of the cross. Lot, on the other hand, pictures the carnal Christian, flesh-governed, living for sell He has forsaken the place of fellowship with Christ. Lot left Abram on the hillside and moved down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain. He was drawn by the allurements of the world and began to live for himself and for the pleasures of life. He pictures a Christian who is born again, but enmeshed in the enticements of the materialistic, commercialized world around.
But now, suddenly, Abram's quiet and pleasant life is shattered. Life in the Spirit is like that. We are never permitted to rest beside the still waters very long, nor would we want to, for life there soon grows dull and uninteresting. In Genesis 14 we are introduced to the first war ever recorded in Scripture. It is a stirring account, vividly contrasting the blustering armies of earth with the quiet, overcoming power of faith. We get our first glimpse of these earthly armies in the first three verses.
In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea) (Genesis 14:1-3).
The spade of the archaeologist has amply verified the existence of the kings named here. Long before the rise of the Babylonian Empire, these kings made a military foray into the land of Canaan, perhaps to defend their trade routes with Egypt or to subdue the warlike tribes of the area. The account here could have been taken from the daily newspaper of Sodom; the city recognized the threat to its welfare and liberties, and was much alarmed.
As the account progresses, we learn that Chedorlaomer is the chief of the invading kings. Historically, he is identified as the Elamite dictator from the land east of Persia, now known as West Pakistan. He came with his satellite kings against a confederacy of five monarchs from the cities of the plain. His coming in this way represents the world's power to harass and enslave Christians. But more than one type is required to portray the whole aspect of the world's enmity. Sodom, for instance, pictures the world in its lust for sensual pleasures. In contrast to this, the invasion from the east portrays the world in its naked power to enslave and tyrannize and take away the physical liberties of man.
These forces are often found opposed in history. Our own beloved nation of America is already enslaved to the forces of materialism, greed, and sex. These forces dominate our national life. But it is also threatened by an outside force, communism, which ruthlessly seeks to destroy our physical liberties and enslave the nation. Here are two differing forces, both arising out of the fallen nature of man. One desires material gain, economic advancement, luxury, ease, and sensual pleasure. The other is sheer, naked tyranny, threatening our very physical existence.
This is exactly what confronted the cities of the plain, and Lot especially, as he now dwelt in Sodom. Lot is already enmeshed in the blind commercialism of Sodom, but has kept himself free from the sexual degradation of the place. Now he is threatened by circumstances that would deprive him of basic liberties.
How does this relate to us today? It might be some form of legalism, or perhaps some vicious habit such as alcoholism or sexual abuse. It might even be a sickness that renders one a bedridden invalid--although all sickness is certainly not of this sort. Whatever may be the problem, it is something outward that threatens physical or spiritual liberty. Here is Lot, a carnal Christian, caught between the jaws of a vise--the materialism of Sodom and the tyranny of Chedorlaomer.
Verses 5-7 reveal the apparent invincibility of this enemy:
In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and subdued the Rephaim in Astheroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, and the Horites in Mount Seir as far as El-paran on the border of the wilderness; then they turned back and came to Enmishpat (that is, Kadesh), and subdued all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who dwelt in Hazazon-tamar.
Rephaim and Zuzim were families of giants. It is from this group, later in Israel's history, that Goliath came, whom David decapitated with his own sword. These were men eight to ten feet tall, a mighty race who were greatly feared by those around them. Yet the invading kings swept away even these giants.
The territory mentioned here is quite extensive, covering from the north and west of the Sea of Galilee, down the Jordan Valley, all the way south to the Red Sea. Here, then, was an enemy, seemingly invincible, relentless, unstoppable, striking fear into every heart as he relentlessly crushed all opposition.
At this point we have the first mention of Lot. If it were not for him, we would know nothing at all of these events; the Bible never reports any human history except as it relates to the peoples of God.
Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. Now the valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits; and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the mountain. So the enemy took all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way, they also took Lot, the son of Abram's brother, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed (Genesis 74:8-12).
It is specifically called to our attention that in the valley of the Dead Sea there were many tar or bitumen pits, filled with natural asphalt. If you have visited the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, you will know just what is described here. These open pits of asphalt would be covered over by the desert sand as the wind blew across them and they would appear like the surrounding ground. But anyone venturing into such a pit would be held by the tar and his body would be imprisoned for centuries. The bones of dinosaurs and other beasts have been found in the La Brea pits, having been encased in tar for many centuries. Evidently the five kings of the confederacy felt that this area would be the best place for battle, as the pits would be a natural defense. But instead they became a trap. As the tide of battle turned against them, they fled to the mountains in headlong haste. Many of them, falling into the pits of tar, were destroyed. In the ensuing capture of Sodom, Lot, his family, and all his goods were carried away by the invading army.
Perhaps you have fallen into just such a circumstance. You have tried to fight back, but nothing seems to avail. The very defenses upon which you rely become threats against you. You can choose capture or falling into the slime pits, one or the other. And perhaps, as Lot, you have found yourself captured against your will by some evil habit or power that enslaves you.
Then notice what happens! The Holy Spirit shifts the scene to Abram up on the mountainside, so that we might see the overcoming power of faith. All hope for Lot now lies in Abram's hand:
Then one who had escaped came, and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner; these were allies of Abram (verse 13).
A messenger comes to Abram, perhaps sent by Lot. At the last moment before his capture, he may have hurriedly sent this man out to slip through the lines and find his way to Abram. It is likely that he barely escaped from the clutches of the enemy with his life. He finds Abram in Hebron, the place of fellowship. With him are three men who are his allies.
Mamre, as we have noted before, means fatness or richness. Eshcol means a group or bunch, and Aner means an exile, one who withdraws himself. Taking these three names together, spiritually speaking, I see a prayer meeting here! Here is a group of people, living in the richness of fellowship with Christ, who have withdrawn themselves from the ordinary demands of life for a specific purpose. This is exactly what our Lord bids us do in Matthew 6:6a: "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father." Abram the Hebrew is leading the meeting. Since this is the only place in Scripture where Abram is called a Hebrew, it must have some special significance. The word Hebrew means passenger, or pilgrim. The Spirit of God would highlight for us the character of the ones to whom Lot looks for rescue. They are led by the man who holds lightly the things of earth, the man of the pilgrim life.
To this band on the hillside comes the message that Lot is in trouble. When Peter, in the New Testament account, was put in prison, we are told that the church prayed for him without ceasing. As a result the doors of that prison were flung back, the iron gates were opened, the shackles fell off and Peter was led out by an angel. When a child of God through ignorance or selfish folly has fallen into something that enslaves and grips and holds him, the only answer is the believing prayer of the people of God. That is what we have here.
Now let's see how victory is achieved:
When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus (Genesis 14:14,15).
Here is the key to victory--three hundred and eighteen men, trained for warfare! Now, this was not his entire battle force. There were other men belonging to Abram's allies, but this is the hard core of trained, disciplined men he relied upon to lead his little army into battle. He had only three hundred and eighteen, but that was all he needed! It might have seemed a pitiful handful beside the vast armies of those four kings who had come out of the ancient east, plundering everything before them as they came. But if we will learn the lesson taught here and all through Scripture, we need never be discouraged by overwhelming numbers again. The lesson is simply this: God's victories are never won by force of numbers! Never! "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of Hosts" (Zechariah 4:6b).
If three hundred and eighteen people were to gather to pray today, that would be a red letter day indeed. And if those three hundred and eighteen people knew how to pray, were trained in the warfare of prayer, they would shake the powers of evil around the world! Three hundred and eighteen would put to rout all the vast armies of the enemy.
Our world is threatened by the tremendous power of communism, and many of our brothers and sisters around the world are grievously threatened by fear if they stand firm in their faith. I fully believe God is showing us that the whole secret to the defeat of this terrible enemy will lie in a relative handful of people, who here and there will faithfully get together and recognize that victory does not lie in the might of weapons, of nuclear missiles, or diplomacy, but in men and women of faith who are pilgrims and strangers here in this world, and who will regularly separate themselves from the demands of life and seek the mind and face of God. Then the forces of tyranny will be routed in many places, and men and women who are now enslaved by the pitiless, ruthless chains of atheistic communism will be set free.
Note the careful strategy Abram employed. We are told he divided his forces by night. The march of Abram and his tiny band is one of the most remarkable forced marches in history. They traveled the whole length of the Jordan River, coming upon the enemy considerably north of the Sea of Galilee. As was the custom with armies of that day, when the pagan invaders had withdrawn to a place they considered safe, they made camp for several days and indulged in a time of carousing and reveling in celebration of their victory. It was at such a time and place that Abram and his allies found them, and during the night, they divided their forces and surrounded the drunken camp. Abram sent one part of his army one way and one the other, one group perhaps with spears and the other with swords for close combat. At a signal, they sprang upon the surprised host and there was a general rout and a great victory.
This division of Abram's forces into a two-pronged attack suggests the Christian's weapons in spiritual warfare. In Ephesians 6, we are reminded that we possess two effective weapons-the Word and prayer.
And take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. . .for all the saints (Ephesians 6:17,18).
Many a "Lot" has been delivered from the slavery which bound him by the helpful counsel of the Word of God given through some fellow-believer, and the prayers of the men and women of God who have supported him. Thus Abram divided his forces, and using a twofold approach, he set the enemy to flight.
Notice yet a third incident. Abram pursued them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. Hobah means "hidden," and therefore signifies a complete victory, even to the point of the enemy hiding himself to escape. Abram never let up. He kept on till the forces against him were demoralized. He pressed his advantage to the utmost. He did not quit fighting, he did not stop praying at the first little break, but pressed on through until he won a great and tremendous victory. In verse 16, we see the extent of the victory Abram won:
Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his goods, and the women and the people.
Now in all this, the Holy Spirit would drive one thing home to our hearts. We do not lead our Christian lives in seclusion--we are members one of another, and in circumstances of this nature, one Christian can often be the means of deliverance to a weaker brother or sister. There was nothing Abram could do to deliver Lot from Sodom. Sodom represented an inward choice in the heart of this man. Lot chose to live in the materialistic, sensualized atmosphere of Sodom. If a child of God chooses to be materialistic, sensual, commercial, greedy for things of the world. . . not much can be done for him. Only Lot could take himself out of Sodom. But from this circumstance that threatened Lot's very life and liberty, Abram's resources were ample.
James 5:16b tells us, "The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects." There is an excellent Chinese translation of that verse: "The earnest, hot-hearted prayer of a righteous man releases great power." That is certainly the case in this incident. 'The prayer of faith," we are told in the same chapter of James, verse 15, "will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up." Many have been puzzled by this verse, but if we read the context, we see that the affliction is one that has come because a child of God has become involved in deliberate sin. Such a one is to call the elders of the church together and confess his faults. Then the prayer of faith will save the sick, the Lord shall raise him up again, and he will be delivered from the thing that has held him captive.
It is wonderful, this power of prayer for someone else. The history of the church is replete with such deliverances through faithful prayer. Some time ago, a wise and experienced missionary leader, speaking to a group of us about prayer, talked about overwhelming sin that so grips the heart as to enslave the life and frustrate all activity for God. He gave some very wise words of advice.
"Perhaps some younger Christian," he said, "may find himself in such a circumstance, and the thing he is doing is so shameful that he cannot bring himself to confess it publicly; then let him seek out some older man of God, someone he can trust, and lay the whole matter out before him and ask him to pray concerning this."
It is wise counsel, indeed. When Lot could not possibly help himself, Abram, separated in heart from the Sodom-like attitudes that rendered Lot so powerless, was able to lay hold of God and effect a great and mighty deliverance.
5. THE PERIL OF VICTORY
Following Abram's great victory over the invading kings from the east, the fourteenth chapter of Genesis relates a curious incident with a strange and mysterious king named Melchizedek. The book of Hebrews makes so much of Abram's encounter with Melchizedek that our curiosity is awakened and we are stimulated to find out more about this man of mystery. We may be sure that the deliberate interjection of this account at this point in Abram's life is designed by the Spirit of God to help us in our own lives of faith.
Abram is now on his way back to Sodom with all the goods of the city and much of the population, including Lot and his family. It is a time of victory for Abram, and therefore a time of peculiar peril. In our spiritual life, the enemy loves best to strike when we are relaxed and off-guard after some spiritual victory or period of great usefulness. His approach then is never open or frontal, but subtle and insidious, taking full advantage of our relaxed defenses. Let us note how Abram is suddenly confronted with a subtle temptation on his way back to Sodom, how by a strange interlude deliverance comes to him, and observe his sensible attitude toward others in this incident.
After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley) (Genesis 14:17).
Our special attention is directed to the place where the king of Sodom met Abram on his way back from the battlefield. It was a valley right outside the little village of Salem. In later Israelite history, Salem was transformed into Jerusalem, the capital of all Israel. The valley outside the city, even then known as the "King's Valley," was none other than the Valley of the Kidron, the little brook that ran down along the eastern side of Jerusalem, separating the mount of Olives from the city. It was into this valley that our Lord went with his disciples on the night he was betrayed, crossing over to go up the slopes of the Mount of Olives to Gethsemane's garden. In this strategic and historic spot, the king of Sodom met Abram. Skipping down to verses 21-23, we read:
And the king of Sodom said to Abram, "Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself" But Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I have sworn to earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, 'I have made Abram rich.'"
Here is the subtle temptation which suddenly came upon Abram. He was met by the king of Sodom, who had somehow escaped capture and was in the city when news came of the triumphant return of Abram with the spoils of war.
On the surface, the king's offer seems a perfectly justifiable reward. Abram had fought his great battle not on behalf of the king of Sodom, but for the sake of Lot and his family. Nevertheless, his victory greatly benefited that whole wicked city. That is why the king was there to meet him. A special welcoming committee had been appointed, headed by the king himself, to confer upon Abram the usual reward for a conquering hero. The king simply asked for the return of the residents of the city; the goods and riches he gratefully offered to Abram. The wealth of Sodom was all to be Abram's!
Now notice the subtlety of this temptation. It appeared so right and proper! Abram could well have said, "This is certainly only what I deserve, and after all, it is the custom to do this. Everyone does it! There are no strings attached. I can take the wealth and go my way back to my tent and altar and never go near Sodom again." Who of us, standing in Abram's shoes, would not have thought like this?
But it was exactly in the apparent freedom of the gift that the peril lay. To a man of Abram's character, it is impossible to accept this kind of a gift without feeling an obligation to the giver. If he had been required to sign some kind of contract, he would have found it easy to say no; but to accept this gift without strings would be to make it exceedingly difficult to say no to anything later on. From that day on the king of Sodom could say, "Abram is indebted to me. If I ever need any military help, I know where I can get it. My man is up there on the hillside." The gift was an insidious threat to the independence of the man who took orders from no one but God. If Abram yielded, he would never be wholly God's man again.
Note the timing of the temptation: it came when he might well be off-guard, enjoying the popularity of the hour. He had earned a few moments of relaxation after the strain of battle, and at this quiet moment in his life the subtle offer came. Have you experienced something like this? I have seen young Christian college students surrounded throughout the school year by subtle and perilous dangers to their faith and fellowship with Jesus Christ, and who maintain proper safeguards, keeping alert, aware of the peril that confronts them. But when they come home on vacation, they let down their guard and there comes some sudden and appalling failure. Satan has chosen that moment to attack.
There is no doubt that the pressure on Abram to accept this gift was very great. It was an expression of gratitude on the part of the king, and I am sure that Abram felt the king would be hurt if he rejected this sincere offer. I have found that many Christians, myself included, have been trapped by the fear of offending someone if we say no. We are troubled about what they will think, and so often very little troubled about what God will think. We fail to realize if we cannot say no now, how can we ever say no after the offer has been accepted and we are indebted to some degree? The easiest time to say no is now!
This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12b). That is, the only one I wish to serve is Christ. The only power to which I will yield my life is his. Anything else that threatens to control me or limit me I reject! It may be lawful, it may even be in good standing all around; but if it makes any demand upon me that is not his demand, I do not want it! This is what Abram so beautifully demonstrates here.
He replies to the king of Sodom, "I have sworn to the LORD God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, 'I have made Abram rich.'" Note the positiveness of that decision. He says, I will take nothing; not a thread, not even a shoestring! I do not care what you offer me, I want nothing. No thing. Period. That settles it! More emphatic language is simply not possible.
And note the solemnity of what he says. This is tremendously important to Abram. It is not some mere passing whim. He says, "I have sworn to the LORD my God." This touches the deepest thing in his life. He takes a solemn vow that he will not touch anything of Sodom's. And how perfectly frank he is: "lest you should say, 'I have made Abram rich.'" In other words he is saying, "I want you to know why I have done this. I can serve only one king at a time, and I want you to understand that I am not concerned for my own enrichment, least of all through you. If it doesn't come to me through my God, to whom I have committed my life, and from whom I have determined to accept whatever he offers, then I don't want it."
It is a bold and positive declaration, is it not? What a clear-cut victory! The subtle trap of the enemy has been uncovered and the danger is safely past. The Lone Ranger escapes unscathed again! Ah, but why? This is what we are interested in. How is it Abram saw through this subtle thing so clearly, and so stoutly resisted those almost overpowering pressures? Now let me put it to you bluntly: If you were in Abrams shoes that day, knowing your own heart, would you have offended the king by rejecting his grateful offer? I am sure my own devious heart would have viewed it as an added bonus from God, as a result of my great faithfulness to him in battle, and I would have accepted Sodom's gift. Abram did not! Yet he was a man like me, of like passions and heart. How, then, could he pass this test so easily? The answer lies in this strange interlude with Melchizedek which we have passed over till now, verses 18-20:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Before the king of Sodom met Abram with his wily offer, Abram had already met with another king, the mysterious Melchizedek. This king steps suddenly out of the shadows, ministers to Abram, and just as suddenly disappears from the pages of Scripture. We never hear another word about him until we come to Psalm 110, where David declares that the Messiah to come is made a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Then another thousand years roll by, and in the book of Hebrews we have another extended reference to this strange individual. Who was Melchizedek? The guesses range from Shem, the son of Noah (who according to some chronologists could of the preincarnate Christ in human form.
All we are definitely told is that he is the king of Salem (which afterwards became Jerusalem) and that he is the priest of the Most High God (Hebrew: El Elyon). His own name means "king of righteousness. " He appears suddenly in the Scriptural record without any mention of father or mother--in a book, remember, replete with genealogies--no birth date, and no subsequent account of his death. These omissions from the record are seized upon by the writer of Hebrews to indicate that since we have no record of his genealogy, this man is a type of the eternal priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ who literally has no beginning or end of days, but who ever lives to make intercession for all those who come unto God by him. Thus, the Melchizedek priesthood is a ministry of help to those who face a time of trouble.
Here, then, is a man who is evidently a Gentile king. The original knowledge of God as the maker and possessor of the heavens and the earth, passed along by Adam to his descendants, has evidently come down to Melchizedek unchanged. He is a worshiper of the true God, and a priest to that true God. In this sublime presentation of Scripture the record shows him in such a way that he becomes a type of our Lord Jesus who is our heavenly Melchizedek, ready to minister to us in our needs. His specific ministry is to reveal El Elyon, the Most High God, the One who owns everything in heaven and on earth. He is the one perfectly adequate to meet any human need. This is what Paul declares in Philippians 4:19: 'And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus."
Now we can see why God led Abram back to his home by way of the King's Valley. The king of Sodom is coming to meet him, but Abram knows nothing of his approach nor of the subtle offer with which he plans to put Abram in his debt. Had he known of it, he may have seen nothing wrong with it, for Abram is not different from you and me. The peril is too subtle to detect; it looks too innocent and attractive. So God sent Melchizedek to meet him!
His first ministry to Abram was to remind him of the character of the God he served. Perhaps he warned Abram of the subtle trap awaiting him in the offer of Sodom's wealth, and then he may have said, "Abram, your God is the possessor of heaven and earth. He made it all. He owns it. He holds all its wealth in his hands. There is nothing that he cannot give you. This is the God to whom you belong."
And then we are told he served him bread and wine. We need no interpreter for this. These are the symbols of love. They speak eloquently of strength and joy flowing out from the passion of self-giving love. All this is recorded in the Old Testament, yet as we read it we can see a beautiful picture of the need of our own lives. There is nothing with such power to motivate the Christian heart as when a group of believers partake of these symbols of the suffering of our blessed Lord. He gave himself in the fullness of his life, poured out all that he was. And as we feast by the Spirit upon the symbols of his life, that life strengthens the inner man, lends sinew to the resolve of the soul, and makes us able to meet all that comes our way. This is the only power sufficient to make us reject the world's offer and maintain our independence as servants of Christ. The love of Christ constrains us!
In the intimacy of this fellowship, under the ministry of Melchizedek, Abram worships his God. The record says he gave him a tenth of everything--that is, he gave him tithes of all he had. The tithe is not a debt paid to God; it rather symbolizes that everything belongs to him. The antitype in the New Testament is not that we continue to give a tenth, as under the law (nor as in this case in patriarchal days), but to recognize that all we are and have is to be given to God in worship. In 2 Corinthians 8:5, Paul writes of the Macedonian Christians: "But first, they gave themselves to the Lord and to us." The whole of our life is to be focused on the one aim of serving God.
Here in the King's Valley, where centuries later a greater Melchizedek would sweat in bloody agony in a garden, Abram enjoyed by faith the high priestly ministry of Christ. His heart overflowed with the love of Christ. Refreshed and strengthened in spirit, he saw that God alone could satisfy his heart. There was no other place where he could find the deep-seated satisfaction that makes the rivers of living water begin to flow. Here he swore to the Lord his God he would not touch a single thing that Sodom could offer him, and in the strength of this encounter, he rose up and went out to meet the fair and innocent-appearing trap. Now he was ready for it!
Have you ever found yourself trapped by some subtle appeal that looked innocent enough and seemed to be the popular thing to do? Too late you realized its true nature, when the damage had already been done; and all you could say was, "I didn't realizeÉI never dreamedÉI meant right."
You may remember an account of an unfortunate young man who perjured himself some years ago in connection with a TV quiz program. Everyone wondered at his apparently endless knowledge of difficult subjects. When he was finally exposed as having been given the right answers beforehand, he told the court that it had all looked so innocent. He justified his deceit to himself on the basis that he was advancing the cause of intellectualism and education. He believed that as people saw him give these almost impossible answers, they themselves would be stimulated to learn more. He knew some would regard it as cheating; but it was justifiable as advancing a good cause. Then, at last, he realized what he had done, and he confessed it. "I was deceived, deluded," he said. "I couldn't see the way it really looked until it was too late."
This happens to many of us, doesn't it? Life is full of subtleties like this--little decisions, little problems, small incidents that seem so innocent on the surface. We find it easy to rationalize and justify our choices. Why is it we fail? It is because we do not go to our Melchizedek! We give him no opportunity to minister to us and open our eyes. We do not come to the throne of grace, as we are bidden, to find grace to help in time of need.
We are like poor, troubled Martha, stewing over her pots and pans in the kitchen until, out of patience, she comes storming into the parlor to blame the Lord Jesus for all her problems! Luke gives us the story in his Gospel (Luke 10:38-42). Martha meant to make the Lord welcome in her home, she intended to fix him a delicious meal. Yet she ends up so frustrated and bewildered that she insults him and accuses him of causing the whole mess. In contrast, the Lord suggests that Martha needs what Mary had found. What was Mary doing? She was sitting at Jesus' feet, letting him open her eyes to truth. She was letting him possess her heart; and as she did, she found life falling into place. The right things were being emphasized. She saw things in their proper perspective and focus.
Abram would never have passed by this subtle trap unscathed had Melchizedek not met him. In the intimacy of that fellowship, he saw what he would not otherwise have seen: that the values on which the world sets great store are but baubles compared to the glory of fellowship with a living God, maker of heaven and earth. When the king of Sodom came, Abram could say, "Take your little toys and run back to Sodom. I want none of it. I want no man to say that he has made Abram rich. If anyone makes Abram rich, it will be God." What a victory!
One more incident is brought before us in this story. It is the very sensible attitude Abram displayed toward the others who were involved with him in this affair. He says to the king of Sodom, "I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me; let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share" (Genesis 14:24).
Abram, do you mean to say it is right for these young men to have what is wrong for you to take? Is it possible to have a double standard of right--one for you and another for them? What a lesson there is here for us! These young men had not yet come to the stage of Christian living and maturity that Abram had achieved. There is no Melchizedek for them--or if there was, they did not enter into the same depth of comprehension that Abram did. Abram is content to let God deal with them directly in these borderline areas. He is not going to force others to walk in the light of his conscience.
Somehow, Abram has learned the truth of Romans 14, that we are not to judge our brother in these matters: "Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind" (verse 5b). I have had Christians tell me that God had spoken to their hearts and told them it was wrong for them to drink coffee, and they have tried to persuade me to stop, too. But I am still waiting for word from the Lord on this! I recall hearing of a dear old Nazarene evangelist called Uncle Bud Robinson. He spoke with a slight lisp and was well-known and well-loved by Christians throughout the west. Among certain groups borderline issues are frequently raised, and whenever anyone would say to Uncle Bud, How can a man drink coffee and still be a Christian?" he would say, "Juth bring me a cup and I'll thow you."
It is a great lesson to learn that there are areas of our Christian life where we must walk alone before our God, and cannot force our views on others. So Abram says, in effect, "Let the young men have their share. It is not right for me to take anything, but they are not standing in my place. Let them have their share."
Life lies ahead of us with all its possibilities of peril and danger, both spiritual and physical. How we need to go on in the strength of the Lord our God, maker of heaven and earth! Nothing that the world offers can fully meet our hearts' need. All that will really satisfy comes from him alone. We are in this world. We are expected to live in it. We are expected to use the world, but not to abuse it. We must not love it, nor demand anything from it. Like Abram, we must lift our hand and say, "I have sworn to the LORD my God, I will not touch anything that you have to offer."
How gracious is our God to send us that blessed, heavenly Melchizedek to strengthen us in times of peril, and to enlighten our hearts! How clearly we see the need for fellowship with him! How dare we face the perplexities and complexities of this subtle world apart from daily fellowship in the King's Valley with him? What easy prey we are to the snares of Satan without this. Let us, then, be forever grateful that we can be delivered daily through the great and loving power of the Lord Jesus.
6.FAITH CONQUERING FEAR
The opening paragraph of Genesis 15 strikingly illustrates what is commonly called in Bible study, "the law of first occurrence." This principle says that the first time a word or phrase is used in the Bible, it is used in such a way as to fix its basic meaning throughout Scripture. Four such phrases appear in this passage for the first time in the Bible, though they are repeated many, many times afterward. See if you can recognize them:
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O LORD God, what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "Behold, thou hast given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir. "And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir. " 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 descendants be. "And he believed the LORD, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:1-6).
Did you catch the first one, in the very first line, "the word of the LORD came"? The recurrence of this phrase many times afterward in Scripture emphasizes the God-breathed character of the Bible. The word of the Lord came to many men, just as it came to Abram; they wrote as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit and then sat down and studied these writings to learn what God had said (1 Peter 1:10-12).
The second phrase is the word that came to Abram, "Fear not!" How often this is God's word to man throughout this book! The third phrase is, "I am your shield." In a thousand wonderful variations, we find this thought repeated frequently: God is our refuge and our strength . . . God is a tower of refuge God is an overshadowing rock . . . Blessed is he that hides under the shadow of the Almighty. This is the first mention of this character of God in Scripture. And then there is that familiar word in the last verse: "And he believed the LORD; and it was reckoned to him for righteousness." The fires of the Reformation were lit from that ringing phrase!
The heart of this passage does not lie in its great phrases, but in its connection with the preceding events of Abram's life. God appears to Abram in a vision, but when he comes his first words are, "Fear not!" This reveals what is going on in Abram's heart. He was having a sleepless night and the trouble was that he was afraid! Coming, as this incident does, after Abram's return from his battle with the four eastern kings and his encounter with the king of Sodom, we can see why he is so fearful. He is afraid of this man, Chedorlaomer, the great king whom he had conquered. Abram had publicly humiliated him by overthrowing his vast army with but a handful of men. Dictators do not take this kind of treatment lightly!
We can easily understand Abram's fear as he faced a possible return of Chedorlaomer. No doubt he said to himself, "What have I gotten myself into? I am almost sorry that I won this battle; for when he comes back, what am I going to do? I won't be able to catch him off guard another time." So fear fills his heart.
Perhaps also there was fear because he had turned down the king of Sodom's offer of a fortune. He did it, of course, in the strength of the fellowship he had enjoyed with Melchizedek. With his heart aflame with the love and grace of God, Abram had said to this king, "I want nothing of all that you have. I don't want you saying that you made Abram rich." So the king went back to Sodom with all his riches, and now Abram is back in his tent, acting very human. Compared to the wealth and luxury of Sodom, that tent must have looked inexpressibly shabby. The wind howled around it; the sand sifted through its cracks. So doubt begins to rise in Abram's heart--did he do the right thing? And doubt is a form of fear!
If all this sounds familiar, take comfort from the fact that it's a natural reaction. All the great saints of God suffer from it. There may have been a time in your life when you took a stand for God in the strength of his grace, supplied to you at that moment and yet later you wondered if you did the right thing. That is only what you might expect. Abram's heart quaked with this clutching fear: what would happen when Chedorlaomer came back? And by throwing away the wealth of Sodom, had he made a wise decision? Or had he played the fool?
Still further, deep down in his heart, was a lurking loneliness, a gnawing fear that he had somehow misunderstood the promises of God. It had been ten years since God had said to him, "Abram, I am going to give you a son. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth, and you shall become the father of many nations." Ten years of waiting had passed. "Hope deferred makes the heart sick," says the proverb. The sickness was beginning to creep into his soul.
We may gather from his words that he was beginning to wonder if perhaps the Lord had meant he would give him an heir, but it would not necessarily be his own son. Perhaps it would be a foster son, even a servant such as Eliezer whom he bought in Damascus. On this sleepless night, I think the old man was trying to adjust to this possible solution; but he could not quiet that inner sense of loneliness and disappointment. So he tossed and turned in a mounting spiral of fear, doubt, and loneliness.
I am sure if this had happened to us, we would have taken a couple of aspirin or tranquilizers and gone back to sleep. If Abraham had, of course, he would have missed the whole marvelous revelation of God's love! There are times when Christians are perfectly justified in using tranquilizers, but there are also many times when to do so is to miss God's purpose in trial. To run to the drug cabinet whenever anything goes wrong, to be unwilling to allow any unrest or bit of tension, to insist that life must maintain a steady, even keel at all costs and under every circumstance, is to thwart and miss the very purpose for which God sends difficulties into our lives. He only desires to create an atmosphere where he can be glorified.
But as Abram tossed on his bed at night in his tent, he became aware of a Presence with him. In his heart he hears that mysterious word of the Lord. Sometimes God spoke audibly to these Old Testament men; sometimes it was in the heart, with a quiet, deep conviction that God was speaking. Every Christian who has ever walked in fellowship with Jesus for very long knows what I mean. We are not told how God spoke to Abram, but in the midst of his fear and doubt and loneliness there comes a sense of relief. The word of the Lord comes and says, "Fear not, Abram. I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward. I am the sufficient answer to all your fear!"
Of course God is the answer! If God be for us, who can be against us? If God is our shield, whom should we fear? I love that verse in Hebrews, "He has said, 'I will never fail you nor forsake you.' Hence we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; what can man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:5,6). "I am thy shield." That is what comforted Abram's heart there in the darkness. It was all he needed to settle his worries about the return of Chedorlaomer and the loss of his fortune in Sodom.
Have you learned yet to count on the invisible protection of God? Can you stand before danger as our Lord did before Pilate, and say, as he did in John 19: 11: "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above"? Oh, the sense of the invisible shield of God! As someone has well put it, the Christian is immortal until his work is done. Nothing can touch him nor hurt him except it come by permission of God, who is a living shield around him. We would lose most of our fears if we realized this. Each believer is as safe as one of those TV western stars in the midst of a gun fight! You know that the star of the program is not going to die. It may look as though he is in mortal danger, but he never really is. Not, at least, until the sponsor is ready to drop the show!
How many times it seems we live charmed lives. A number of years ago, my wife and I were driving across New Mexico. We were in wild and lonely country, driving along about sixty miles an hour. For some time I had heard a continuous grinding noise. On my car that was not unusual, but I finally decided this was a little out of the ordinary so I stopped to investigate. I noticed the hub of the right front wheel was hot and smoking. I jacked up the car, and when the weight was lifted the front wheel fell off and rolled into the ditch. We had heard that grinding noise for some ten miles, and to this day I am certain that the wheel stayed on throughout that distance simply because of the protection of God.
This is what God is saying to Abram: "I am your shield, Abram, a practical defense against any force that would destroy you. Fear not. Nothing shall touch you unless I permit it. Do not fear--I AM!" Have you noticed how many times in the New Testament our Lord Jesus calms his disciples with these words, "Fear not"? The ground of his reassurance is always that he is with them. When the storm threatens to overwhelm the little boat; when the cold fist of fear clutches their hearts as they sense the shadow of the cross on their path; when Peter goes weeping bitterly out into the night; it is then his words ring in their ears-"Fear not, let not your heart be troubled" (see John 14: 1). Why? "Believe in God, believe also in me!"
But God is more than a shield. He says also to Abram, "I am your exceeding great reward." (The Authorized Version is to be preferred here.) God is our dearest treasure, the only genuinely satisfying joy we will ever know.
One evening my wife and I were invited to a neighborhood party. We welcomed the opportunity to become better acquainted with our neighbors. When we arrived we discovered that it was a cocktail party, and it had been in progress for an hour or so. We were greeted warmly (not to say hilariously) at the door and soon were being introduced to many of our new neighbors. Most were in a cheerful mood, to all appearances having the time of their lives. But I could soon see it was highly artificial. Though there was an outward attempt at happiness and enjoyment, there was also written on every face a haunting emptiness, an expression of meaninglessness and futility. We were both struck by this. They were doggedly determined to have a good time; they insisted they were doing so, despite the hunger and desperation evident in every word and glance. We felt so sorry for those dear people. We said afterwards we would not trade one moment of the riches of grace in Christ for a whole lifetime of that kind of enjoyment. Sensing the presence of God is a far richer joy than anything else the human heart can find.
This is what Abram experienced when God said to him, "I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward." We never again read of Abram worrying about Chedorlaomer or the loss of Sodom's wealth. All these pressures from without were fully met by the sense of God's presence with him, there in the dark.
Ah, but that other request that is in his heart! That vacuum of loneliness within. Could God fill that? And there comes blurting out of the heart of Abram these words, "O LORD God, what will thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus." In the intimacy of that moment, he simply poured out what was in his heart into the ear of his Almighty Friend. And God said, "Get up and come outside with me." And he led him out into the soft oriental night and together they looked up into the stars, wheeling in their silent courses above. Abram must have felt something of the awe of spirit which comes to those who see the blazing heavens at night and sense the insignificance of man. There God said to him, "Abram, I am going to give you a son. Your servant will not be your heir. I will give you a son and that son shall have sons, and they in turn will beget sons, and you will have a great host of descendants. Now look up at the stars and tell me how many there are, for if you can number the stars, you will be able to number your descendants, for just so many will there be."
This is a great promise, out of the greatness of God's heart. It must surely have reassured and encouraged Abram. Each night to come, until the promise was fulfilled, he could look up into the starlit heavens and remind himself of the promise God had made.
There is something of great interest here. The last time God had spoken to Abram about the birth of a son, he had promised he would make Abram's descendants like the dust of the earth. But now the promise is that they shall be like the stars of the heaven in multitude. Many Bible scholars have supposed this implies that Abram would have two lines of descendants: an earthly seed and a heavenly one. The earthly seed would be the nation Israel, along with the Ishmaelite (Arabian) nations. But there would also be a heavenly or spiritual seed, That "Seed," we are told in the book of Galatians, was Christ and all those who through faith in him would be called the sons of God.
As we look back now from our twentieth-century vantage point, we can see how God has fulfilled these promises to the letter. There is an earthly seed, but there is also a heavenly one, a great uncounted host of spiritual descendants of Abraham, like the stars of the heaven in multitude. Paul says in Galatians 3:7, "So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham."
Now the last statement in this interesting paragraph in Genesis 15 comes before us. It concerns Abram's faith. "And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness." Paul refers to this mighty act of faith in Romans 4. He reminds us that Abraham believed God before he was circumcised--that is, before he had any continual guarantee that God would do this thing. The account of Abram's circumcision comes a couple of chapters later. Paul infers from this that acceptance before God has nothing to do with circumcision (as the Jews were insisting). Paul says that when Abram heard God say, "So shall your descendants be" that he looked up into the stars, saw their vastness, their multitude, and relaxed--resting in faith upon the power of God.
If we focus our view on Abram's faith, we are going to miss the point of this whole matter. Sometimes we make far too much of these men and their faith. "What mighty men of faith," we say; "how tremendous to believe God against all the evidence of the circumstances around. If we only had faith like that we could do the things they did!" Then we compare our feeble faith with theirs and try to work up a feeling of faith within us until we are turned into spiritual hypochondriacs, always going about taking our spiritual temperature and feeling our spiritual pulse. It is indeed true that when God saw Abram's faith, it was reckoned to him for righteousness; but it is also true that when Abram saw God, he reckoned him able to perform what he had promised, and so was able to rest his faith on God's adequacy.
What was it that made his faith so strong? The answer is that he did not look at the difficulty so much as he looked at the One who had promised. His eye was not resting on the problems, but upon the Promiser. When he saw the greatness of God, the might and majesty displayed before him on that oriental summer's night, he said to himself, "It makes no difference how I feel, nor what may be the difficulties involved. The Creator of that multitude of stars is quite capable of giving me an equal number of descendants."
Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees
And looks to God alone,
Laughs at impossibilities,
And cries, "It shall be done!"
So we read the great sentence, "He believed God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness." This does not mean this was the first moment that Abram was reckoned righteous before God--that is, this is not the moment of his spiritual regeneration. The book of Hebrews makes clear that when he left Ur of the Chaldees, in response to God's command, his obedient faith was also reckoned to him for righteousness. This incident under the stars is simply one instance out of many which illustrates the way in which God reckons righteousness to the man who believes. Abram did not attain righteous standing by his own works, but when he tested in helpless dependence upon the might of God to do what he had promised. Then he won immediate favor in God's sight and the righteousness of Christ was imputed to him. Abram believed God about the promise of a coming son, and was reckoned righteous by faith.
Today we are exhorted to believe God about the Son who has already come; and when we cease out own works and rest in helpless dependence upon that living Son, we too are counted righteous by faith. That act of faith which first introduces us to the power of God, exercised on our behalf, must become an attitude of faith governing each moment of our life. Do not think you have come to the end of the road when you believe in Jesus Christ. You are then standing at the beginning, and every experience of the power of God in your life must be freshly appropriated by faith in the promise of God.
What wonderful lessons come to us from this book and these lives of men of old! How wonderful that in this twentieth century we may discover this same truth and be children of Abraham today. O, that we would learn the folly of self-dependence and the glory of God-dependence! In every moment of fear, we must cast ourselves upon Almighty God, reckoning upon his promise to be our shield and our exceeding great reward.
7. THE FURNACE AND THE LAMP
Students learning how to write in the country schoolhouses of old commonly used a copybook. Under a sample line of handwriting, every student laboriously tried to reproduce the original. It is not hard to tell who learned to write by this method, for they all have the same general style. The relationship between the Old and New Testaments is something like this. The Old Testament's record of how God dealt with Israel forms a sort of copybook which the New Testament uses as a pattern.
In our study of Abraham, we see the initial scriptural account of God's dealings with Israel. We recognize these stories are patterns of faith for the believer today. What literally and physically occurred to Abraham occurs spiritually in the Christian's life. That is what makes these stories so eternally fascinating and beneficial. This is why early Christians, with nothing more than the Old Testament in their hands, could test and prove the doctrine of the apostles and other leaders. True teachings from God only repeat on a higher level the pattern set down in the Old Testament.
Genesis 15 condenses for us the whole doctrinal movement of Romans 4-8. Since this is one of the most important sections in the entire New Testament, this is also a highly important period in Abraham's life. It begins with that great principle which governed Abram's life--daily trusting that God was able to do through him what he had promised. By this Abram was counted righteous when he had no righteousness of his own. Paul clearly presents this in Romans 4-5.
The following chapters, 6-8, explain how to be delivered from the reigning power of sin. If our Christian experience ends in Romans 4-5, we are of all men most miserable, for we have not really entered into the fullness that Christ purchased for us. We need to learn by experience the process of sanctification, taught in Romans 6-8 and beautifully pictured for us in verses 7-21 of this fifteenth chapter of Genesis. It begins with nothing else but heart hunger.
And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess. " But he said, "O LORD God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" (Genesis 15:7-8).
God reminded Abram that he was the one who had called him to leave Ur and go into the land of Canaan. Abram's response was, "LORD, how shall I know that this land will be mine? I have been here now for ten years. I have walked up and down the length and breadth of it, as you told me to do. I have enjoyed portions of it, but I don't get any of it. LORD, how can I own the land that you said you would give to me?" This shows the great desire in Abram's heart to possess what God has offered him. It is his by promise, but he longs to make it his by ownership.
The land is both literal and spiritual. Abram is to possess the literal land through his descendents, his natural seed. But through his spiritual descendants he is to fully possess the land symbolically. This is the fullness of life in the Spirit; all that God intends us to have in Jesus Christ, all the victory, the power, the abundance, and the fruitfulness that comes by the Holy Spirit. It is already ours by promise because we belong to Jesus Christ. But the question is, have we possessed it? Do we own it? Have we experienced it? If not, our question must be that of Abram: how can we make it fully ours?
Do you hunger for this land? Do you long to have what God offers you? Abram says, "LORD God, how can I know that I shall possess it?" He wants to learn how God's promise to him will be fulfilled. His question comes not from unbelief or doubt, but from wanting to know more. It is like Mary's question when the angel Gabriel told her she was to have a child: "How can I have a child when I am a virgin?" This is not unbelief, but wonder concerning the process. So is Abram's question, and God answers him by saying, in effect, "Come along, Abram, and I will show the whole procedure to you. I will reveal the means by which you, through your descendants, will possess the land."
He begins by showing Abram that the first step must consider death!
He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away (Genesis 15:9-11).
Each of these creatures pictures Christ, our sacrifice. Our deliverance from the reigning power of sin must be based upon that sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross. This is what we learn in Romans 6. We are told that Christ died for our sins in Romans 1-3. We learn that he died for sin in Romans 6. The perfect character of Christ--especially as it was poured out in death for us so that we might have real life--is illustrated for us by these animals and birds Abram brought. There on the cross something took place that can break the control and dominion of sin over us and allow the Holy Spirit to produce the character of Christ in us.
The heifer or ox symbolizes patience and strength. Who does not need these qualities! The she-goat is a symbol of nourishment and refreshment. The ram pictures power, might in warfare. The birds speak of gentleness and grace, the Spirit of God at work. It is significant that all the animals were to be three years old. This reminds us of the public ministry of our Lord, which lasted for three years. All these qualities of his character were publicly proclaimed during that time. Here, then, is a symbolic portrait of Jesus Christ in the beauty and full vigor of his manhood.
All that he was, was clearly told out and made evident by his life.
All that Christ is was made available to us in his death. He laid down his life that we might have it! He poured out his soul unto death that all his fullness might indwell my life and yours, that we might have all that he is. The slaying of these animals and birds and Abram's long contemplation of them pictures all this for us.
Whether we view the land as literal or symbolic, we begin to possess it by thoroughly understanding what Christ has done to make possession possible. On the cross, our Lord won the right to own all the kingdoms of the earth. Some day the old hymn will be fulfilled, "Jesus shall reign where 'ere the sun doth his successive journeys run." Israel, occupying the land of Palestine, will then be the chief of nations. It shall fully possess the land in accordance with the promise to Abram. This is equally true on the spiritual level. On the cross, the Lord won the right to fully possess the kingdom of the heart. It is no longer a matter of my struggling to do the best I can (which is never good enough). A life is available to me that can make me all I need and ought to be.
All day long Abram sat and watched the sacrificed animals, waiting . . . waiting . . . all through the long hot hours, considering what all this meant. When satanic doubts, as vultures, descended to rob him of blessing, he drove them away. That is what we must do when doubts beset us concerning the work of Christ. All day long Abram watched and waited, and out of his long contemplation there came the next step:
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall be buried in a good old age And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (Genesis 15:12-26).
As the sun touches the western horizon Abram sinks into sleep, and there comes upon him a great sense of horror and darkness. In the midst of it he is given a revelation of the oppression and enslavement of his descendants. This, as we know, was fulfilled to the very letter. His descendants did go down into Egypt (a land that was not theirs), and there they were oppressed, afflicted, and enslaved for the length of time recorded here. Then, at last, God sent Moses to lead them out; Pharaoh and Egypt were judged; and Israel was brought back into the land of Canaan--all exactly as God had told Abram. With this revelation there is a personal word of encouragement to Abram: he would not enter into this directly himself, but only his descendants would suffer these things.
Note here the revelation of God's great patience. He tells Abram that Israel must remain in Egypt for four hundred years because the iniquity of the Amorite tribes living in Canaan was "not yet full." That is, these vicious tribes were to be allowed to run the full course of their iniquity. All the depravity of their hearts was to be allowed to express itself to the full, so there could be no question of the righteousness of God in judgment. When Israel at last came into the land again, they were commanded to exterminate all of these people--male and female, adult and child alike. Skeptics have used this to caricature God as exceedingly cruel. But the whole picture is of a God who waits patiently until these tribes degenerate into a moral cancer threatening to infect the nations around, requiring their removal. Archaeologists have given us glimpses into the moral life of these people, and it is incredibly foul. They indulged in fiendish rites in their worship, and their moral lives were polluted beyond description.
Spiritually, this is a picture of the implacable tyranny of self in the human heart. When we seriously contemplate the cross of Christ, we see our own enslavement to sin and self within. So many Christians fancy themselves free simply because they have received Christ. They may acknowledge a few minor weaknesses--a fit of temper now and then, an occasional display of jealousy, a little lust, a tendency toward stubbornness or willfulness--but these are minor peccadilloes we must all learn to live with. They look down their noses at the unregenerate and unwashed who have not yet come to Christ. Nevertheless, they are bothered with a sense of guilt and weakness which they do not understand. Then, gradually, they begin to see that they are mastered by self, that their choices are all made with self in view. Ego, as an ugly monster, sits on the throne of their lives; and though they pay lip service to the cause of Christ, self rules, cracking a remorseless whip and driving them to ever more selfishness.
This is the self-revelation which Paul describes in Romans 7:24: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" When this is our cry, we have begun to realize that we are, indeed, under the dominion of sin. We become aware of barrenness, fruitless activity, purpose without power, effort without effect. Our service becomes a job without joy. Worship is routine and mechanical. Life is a horror and great darkness. We wonder what is wrong, and cry out, "Who shall deliver me from this reigning power of self in my life?" It is right at this point that a new thing occurs--a vision and victory:
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites" (Genesis 75:17-21).
At the place of self-despair there comes deliverance! When we realize how much we are enslaved by selfishness, how little we really experience what God is offering, how much we are victims of our own self-indulgence, self-pity, and self-righteousness--then we are ready for victory. At the moment when the heart is cold and empty and the light of faith has gone out, something will precipitate a crisis, and suddenly you find yourself, without warning, in the midst of a smoking furnace.
When Jacob met his brother Esau he turned aside by the brook Peniel, and there the angel of God met and wrestled with him until he was broken. When David sat on his throne, Nathan the prophet came to tell him the story of an injustice in his kingdom. Suddenly, out of that story, there comes an arrow to the heart of David: "Thou art the man!" Instantly he recognized his plight in the smoking furnace.
Paul, newly converted, is filled with desire to be the apostle to Israel. He looks upon himself as the chosen vessel by which God intends to reach that people and bring them to Christ. With confidence he preaches in the city of Damascus. But suddenly events take a turn for the worse. No one will listen to him. At last he must be let down over the wall in a basket at night like a common criminal. That began the smoking furnace in his life.
Perhaps with you it may be a family crisis, a Bible conference, a trip away from home. Something precipitates a crisis, and you become aware that God is speaking to you and there is no way to escape his voice. He is putting his finger on the wrong thing in your life. He is going through your life like a furnace--searing, scorching, cleansing--and you cannot escape. You must face yourself. You have to acknowledge, judge, and reject yourself.
The instant you do, God is no longer a furnace but a lamp! You see everything clearly in a wonderful, illuminating light. What was confusing before is as clear as daylight now. You know what you have to do and you know how to go about doing it. Your true enemy is clearly defined. There before your eyes you see the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, and the Canaanites--all those filthy tribes that inhabit the human heart. You see that you have been defending and protecting them, though they have been defiling and polluting you. Bitterness, insensitivity, impatience, envy, self-righteousness, laziness, lust--these are the enemies you see.
But you also begin to see that Jesus Christ is more than all of them, that he is adequate for them, and that you can stand up in the strength of the Lord and smite these enemies and they will flee. You see plainly in his death that you died with him to these sins and can now refuse them place in your thoughts. You will find Christ has taken their place, and that in the fullness of grace and truth he becomes to you everything that you need--your wisdom, your righteousness, your strength, and redemption. Suddenly you discover you are possessing the land! There is joy and peace in your heart. Something new has come in. You own what God has offered you. You have found the way of deliverance. Joy, peace, grace, glory--all now flood your heart.
This is the whole story of the Christian life after conversion--a furnace and a lamp. That is the story of the nation Israel throughout its history. It is a story of affliction followed by blessing. First Israel is in the furnace, and then the lamp is shining on them again. At present they are in the furnace and have been for nineteen hundred years, for they will not judge themselves. But the Scriptures say they will soon come to the place where, in the heat of the furnace, they will cry out for deliverance and God will become a lamp to them once again.
Christians will find this true for them personally. Once you begin to set foot on the land of Spirit-given power, you discover Jesus Christ is always a furnace or a lamp. When self begins to threaten, he is a furnace--burning, scorching, searing. When self is judged he immediately becomes a lamp, flooding the whole life with radiance and glory. Have you made this discovery? Have you found your way to this land of promise? The one thing Abram had to do was hunger for it. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6). When we long for this blessing and freedom, then it is translated from mere theology into experience.
As you may have discovered, it is quite possible to be an expert in teaching about spiritual adjustment but know nothing of its reality. It is not enough to believe in the doctrine of human depravity. There must come a time when you acknowledge the slavery of sin in your life, a time when you have groaned and turned in disgust from the revelation God has given you of your own heart. Only then can there come the wonderful release, the glorious deliverance, the satisfying sight of watching Canaanites flee before you. Habits you could not conquer before are now mastered in the strength of the Lord, and a whole new land of victory lies open before you.
Begin where Abram began. Say, "LORD God, how shall I know that I shall possess it? Reveal to me my own heart, and thy deliverance."
The transformed life of a Christian living in the strength of God is the most amazing, most revolutionary thing this world has ever seen. How much we need this today! May the Lord make us into people like this, that we may sing anew the songs of the early church, that we may know once again the transforming grace of the power of the Spirit in our lives, the impact that life can make upon life as we rub shoulders with those who do not yet know Christ. Let us not be content to live on the edge of the land, or merely to sojourn in it; but may we be restless until we own it, until we possess it in Jesus' name.
8. IT ALL DEPENDS ON ME
This record of the life of Abram was not written merely to recite historical facts from the distant past. Much of Christian Education is superficial in that it is concerned more with the mileage from Jericho to Jerusalem than with the distance between the lostness of man and the heart of God. Though we find the physical details of Abram's life interesting, we are much more concerned with their spiritual significance. To read the Old Testament in this way makes every page glow with color and light from God.
In chapter 16 of Genesis, God begins to translate what he has shown Abram in visions into the practical experience of his life. He does this also with us.
We catch sight of great things out of the Word and grasp them intellectually, but then they must become a part of us through experience and get down into our hearts where they affect and change us. It is one thing to pass an examination on the process and methods of the spiritual life; it is quite another to pass God's examination of the degree to which we have translated this knowledge into daily living. We shall see here that although Abram had been thoroughly instructed through the visions he received, yet he needed sad experience to teach him the power of the self-life within and his need for the daily power of the cross of Christ.
In chapter 16, verse 1, we read:
Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children.
After all the lofty experiences of his visions, this was the heart-breaking fact to which Abram returned. For ten years he had been awaiting the fulfillment of God's promise. Sarai was by this time almost seventy-five years old. Still there was no son. Despite renewed promises, Abram was puzzled and discouraged by Sarai's barrenness.
This is also our problem in the life of faith. Like Abram, we too are justified by faith. We accepted this gift of God's righteousness by a simple act of our will. We know we possess it, not by our efforts, but by our faith in Jesus Christ. Then we set about trying to please God because we are his. We do it by the only means we know--trying to do the best we can. But we discover quickly that somehow our Christianity loses its glow and fire, and instead of the fruit of love, joy, and peace which we were led to expect, we find instead nothing but barrenness.
We have the same problem Abram had. This life which is expected to produce immediate fruit results only in barrenness. It is hard to understand. We find no effectiveness in our lives. We are not enjoying Christ as we once did. This is reflected in some of our hymns. We sing:
Where is the blessedness we had,
When first we knew the Lord?
We look back to that first experience because our present one has grown cold and does not produce the joy, the glory, the glow and vigor that we expected. We are trying our best, but something is wrong. Sarai is barren, and there is no fruit as God had promised.
When the problem of barrenness begins to haunt us, the next thing is inevitable: the proposal of the flesh to do something about it!
She had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar; and Sarai said to Abram, "Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife (Genesis 16:1-3).
There is much in this action of Sarai which seems praiseworthy. It was, first of all, an act of genuine and costly sacrifice. She evidently said something like this to herself: "God has promised my husband a son, through whom he means to fulfill all his promises. Yet he has never said that the son must come through me, and perhaps he means to fulfill this promise another way." So she resolves (through what struggles we can only imagine) to give up her own rights in an act of courageous renunciation. She gives up a wife's most precious possession--the right to have her husband's sole affection--and she offers her maid to her husband that he might have a child by her and thus fulfill the will of God.
Abram was, as we know, a monogamist. That is not the same as monotonous! He had only one wife, and he was quite content with that arrangement. But to give him the son of his heart's desire, Sarai was willing to sacrifice that relationship. It was not only an act of real sacrifice, but also one of deep sincerity. She did not hope that he would talk her out of it. She was quite prepared to go through with it, cost what it may. She took the initiative in proposing it.
Furthermore, it was a socially acceptable act, strange as that may seem to us. There was nothing immoral about it in the eyes of the community. This was common in the life of these nomadic people. Many of the Canaanite leaders would have had more than one wife, and neither Abram nor Sarai would be less highly regarded because of it. No one would laugh at her, nor point the finger of scorn. It was a perfectly proper act in the eyes of the community.
Yet, as we see the end of this action, it was an act of appalling folly and stupidity which resulted in endless sorrow and heartache. The results are evident yet, four thousand years later! The Arab nations originated in this act, and the enmity which sprang up between Israel and the Arabs (descendants of Ishmael) troubles the world to this day. If ever we have a picture of the longevity of sin, it is here. Despite the seeming rightness of this to Sarai, it was the worst thing she could have done.
But what was wrong with it? How could Sarai have known what the results would be? How can we blame her for her decision? Here we need to go very slowly and listen very carefully. We are so like Sarai ourselves that we resent the idea that she should be blamed for this. Yet if we do not learn the lesson here, we shall find our own Christian lives continually plagued with this problem of barrenness, and we shall miss the secret of victory and fruitfulness. Here in a picture is the great secret Paul labors to develop in Galatians: how to walk in the Spirit and not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. He uses this very incident to illustrate it.
Sarai's trouble was simply that all her actions grew out of a philosophy which, very simply, says: "God has told me what he wants, now the rest of it is up to me. God has shown me what the goal is, but it is up to me to figure out how to reach it. I know what he wants, and I can count on him for help; but the rest is up to me." This is the philosophy which led to all the folly and heartache and sorrow that plagued Abram and Sarai. Many others have followed them in the centuries since then.
You will recognize at once that this is a common and widespread idea. We continually think and act this way in the church. We say the reason God's work is not going forward as it should is that we are not trying hard enough. We are barren because we have not really put ourselves into this. Let us hold some more committee meetings. Let's get going. It all depends on us!
We find in our Bibles what we call "the Great Commission:" "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15). This is the goal he wants us to fulfill, we say; now the rest is up to us. We must plan all the strategy, we must raise the money and determine where it will be spent, we must convince candidates that they should go. It is all up to us.
And many times we do get some fruit from this. We get results. We hold our meetings, plan our programs, put on our pressures . . . and we get results. But, oh, are they unsatisfactory! Do you know why? We've gotten Ishmael instead of Isaac!
We hear our Lord say in the first chapter of Acts, "You shall be witnesses," and every truly Christian heart says, "All right, Lord, this is what you want me to do--I will do it." We never bother to find out how he wants it done, or whether he has a program to carry it out. We start out in fleshly zeal and pass out tracts to everyone we meet. We buttonhole people at meetings. When it all fails, we recognize that something is wrong, and we wring our hands and quit. We say, "I've tried to obey the Lord, but it doesn't work, so I quit!"
We read in Scripture that we should have elders in every church, and that God's plan is to direct his church through these men. So we hold an election and put up the wealthiest members or the most popular ones. These men then run the church as they would a business, stumbling on in total disregard of the living Head who is completely capable of running his own church. We never bother to find out how he makes known to us the men of his choice, and how he proposes to declare his will through them. So we have a church filled with divisions and strife, and realize we have Ishmael on our hands instead of Isaac.
Perhaps the worst thing of all--and certainly the matter before us in the story of Abram and Sarai--is that in reading Scripture we learn we are supposed to be conformed to the image of Christ. So we set out to be like Jesus. We make up a list of rigid rules for acceptable behavior. We become frightfully busy doing things for God. We work our fingers to the bone, and spend hour after hour in the church, neglecting our family, our own life, and everything else in order to do things for the Lord. We sincerely try to meet his demands. We do our best. We note how the community around approves our strenuous efforts and pats us on the back for our faithful spirit. But despite all the effort and sincerity, deep in our hearts we know there is nothing but barrenness. Or if there is fruit, it is not the kind we wanted. It is forced, unnatural, sustained only by continual effort. We fall far short of the image of Christ.
This was what happened to Sarai. Note the sacrifice, the seemliness, the appearance of selflessness. The result is fruit, all right. But it is Ishmael, not Isaac; the fruit of the flesh rather than of the Spirit. In some moment of illumination we ask, "Why are we so barren? Why so unfruitful? Where is the impact, the power? What has become of the glow, that living vitality we see in the early Christians? What is wrong?" It is all a result of failing to learn God's way as well as his will.
In verse two we read, "Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai and went in to Hagar the Egyptian." Abram was more culpable than Sarai. She acted in relative ignorance, but he knew better. We are specifically told that he had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, learning every day that God is sufficient for every need. He should have learned that God knows what he is doing and is quite capable of administering and carrying out his plans. He had observed God's methods for ten years; he should have been a steadying influence upon Sarai here. But instead he hearkened to her and went in to Hagar. It is the story of Adam and Eve all over again.
There are three obvious mistakes that lay behind Abram's act. First, he listened to the voice of one who was not as far along in the spiritual life as he was. This is a frequent source of failure today. What may seem right to young Christians may be terribly wrong for you, simply because you are at a different level or stage of spiritual growth. We must ever be careful of taking advice from someone who is younger in spiritual things than ourselves. This is why the Spirit of God warns against placing men in church leadership who are novices. It is not enough to have the gifts of the Spirit which equip one for leadership; there must also be a cumulative experience of time and spiritual growth, making possible wise direction.
Abram's second mistake was that he consented to something that especially harmonized with the desires of his self-life. Take care here! He longed for a son, and the longing, though proper, made him too ready to find a way to satisfy it. When some advice is particularly amenable to something you want very much, be careful. It may be nothing more than pleasing the self-life, as it was here.
The third mistake, the one he shared with Sarai, was his readiness to do the will of God without seeking to discover the way of God. Here is the heart of the problem. This is the most serious error of Christians today. Hudson Taylor said, "God's work, done in God's way, will never lack God's supply." And the entire record of the China Inland Mission proves it.
All through Scripture there is incident after incident to illustrate the folly of being committed to the will of God without being committed to his way. Young Moses graduated from the University of Egypt with his diploma in hand, a doctor of philosophy in the humanities. Burning in his heart was a great crusade. He knew he was the chosen instrument by which God planned to deliver the people of Israel from the bondage and slavery in which they lived. The first thing he saw was an Egyptian beating an Israelite. He said to himself, "Ah, this is my opportunity. Here is a slave being mistreated. I have a commission and mandate from God to deliver these slaves, and this is my chance to start." So he looked about to see if any man was watching (though it never occurred to him that God was looking), slew the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand.
The next day he arose early and said to himself, "Yesterday I got a good start on the job God gave me, so today I'll go out and see who else I can deliver." He found two Israelites arguing, and he stepped up and said, "God has appointed me your judge, so let me hear this case." They said to him, "Wait a minute. Who appointed you to judge us? Are you going to kill us like you did that Egyptian yesterday?" Those words sent a great fear sweeping over Moses and he turned and ran into the wilderness. He had to flee Egypt. Why? Because he was trying in the strength of the flesh to do the will of God. For forty years his life was a burned-out desert of barrenness, until he learned at last the secret of yielding himself to the control of God's Spirit. He had to learn to do God's work in God's way.
Now back to the record of Abram's folly. We have seen what the proposal of the flesh looked like; now we must see the petulance that follows:
And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. And Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my maid to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!" But Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her as you please." Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her (Genesis 16:4-6).
The immediate results of acting in the flesh are always the same. We become petty and petulant, displaying enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, and other ugly emotions which lie ever near the surface of the fallen human heart. Wherever these appear, they are the thermometer which tells us we are being ruled by the self and not by the Spirit. Here they are in this account, as contemporary as today's newspaper.
The first one mentioned is contempt. When Abram placed Hagar into rivalry with his wife, Sarai, Hagar become insolent and impertinent and held her mistress in utter contempt, taunting her about her barrenness. She forced Sarai to drink the gall of bitterness.
The next step is unreasonableness. Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done to me be on you." If you have had any doubts that Sarai was a real woman, this will convince you! She initiated the proposal to Abram; she urged it upon him. But when he gave in, she turned and threw it back in his face, crying, "It's all your fault! Why did you do this to me? May the LORD judge between you and me." This woman is mad clear through! That is what Laban said to Jacob when they parted from each other in anger (Genesis 31:53). What it means is, "The LORD keep you from sticking a dagger in my back, and keep me from sticking one in yours, while we are unable to keep our eyes on each other." That is what it means here. "May the LORD keep his eye on you, you scoundrel! Look what you've done." How completely unreasonable--but how completely characteristic of the flesh.
Then the next symptom is irresponsibility. Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, the maid is in your power; do to her as you please." If you had any doubts that Abram was a real man, this should convince you! He is dodging his responsibility, passing the buck. "Don't bother me with this," he says, "it is your problem--you settle it."
The result is harshness and rebellion. "Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her." Do you know this pattern? The whole household is in an uproar by now. Yet every one of them could have said piously, "We were only trying to do the will of the LORD." Each one is sure the others are wholly to blame; no one is willing to face the evil of his own heart. There is a strong implication at the beginning of the next chapter that this unhappy state of affairs went on for thirteen long years. All this is a result of trying to help God when it seemed that perhaps he had tackled a job too hard for him, or that time would run out before it could be accomplished. We know the will of God; let us also decide his way.
In the last section of the chapter, we see the provision of God's grace:
The angel of the LORD found (Hagar) by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur, And he said, "Hagar, maid of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?" She said, "I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai." The angel of the LORD said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit to her." The angel of the LORD also said to her, "I will so greatly multiply your descendants that they cannot be numbered for multitude." And the angel of the LORD said to her, "Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael; because the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen." So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, "Thou art a God of seeing," for she said, "Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?" Therefore the well was called Beer-la-hai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. And Hagar bore Abram a son; whom Hagar named Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram (Genesis 16:7-16)
It is "the angel of the LORD" who finds Hagar. This is the first appearance of this phrase in Scripture, and as we compare it with other uses, we find that this refers to none other than the preincarnate Christ. This is the Son of God himself, appearing to Hagar. He says four things to her.
First, "Where do you come from and where are you going?" These are always arresting questions. Hagar answers the first, but she has nothing to say to the last. She does not know where she is going. Where can she go? The question draws her helplessness sharply to her attention.
Then the angel says, "Return and submit." This is the only way to experience the grace and blessing of God. Had she gone on wandering into the wilderness, disaster awaited. Both she and the child in her womb would have died. When God finds us wandering, this is always what he says: "Return and submit." "Submit to the circumstances you dislike, and I will work it out. To do anything else is folly." So Hagar returns.
With the command to return comes the promise of blessing. Blessing always follows obedience. "I will multiply your descendants so that they cannot be numbered for multitude." And then follows the prophecy of Ishmael's nature. "He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him." He will be a non-conformist, a Missouri mule--a man whom no one can get along with.
The spiritual significance of this is explained in Galatians 4. There Paul says that Hagar is a picture of the law, and Ishmael, her son, pictures those who try to establish favor in God's sight through religious activity. These are the Ishmaelites, and God says there shall be a great multitude, more than any man can number. Spiritually it is written of them, "Those who are in the flesh cannot please God."
Hagar, glimpsing here something of God's omniscience and power, names him, "The God Who Sees," for she says, "Have I even here seen him who sees me?" This event gripped her. "Here is a God who sees me and knows me just as I am, and all that concerns me." So she named the well, "The well of One who lives and sees." (It is named after God, not after her, as the RSV suggests.) Have you found God to be the One who lives and sees, the One who knows all about your life and your circumstances? The One who knows the past and the future, and says to you as he said to Hagar, "Return and submit"? That is the place of promised blessing.
We are also told that this well is located between Kadesh and Bered. Kadesh means "holiness" and Bered means "hail" or "judgment." Here is a well of grace, lying between holiness and judgment. When we begin to stray from the place of God's blessing toward the certainty of judgment, God meets us on the way, at the well of grace, saying, "Now wait a minute. I don't want to have to make this known to others. I don't want to judge you openly. I don't want to bring trial or affliction or heartache into your life to make you listen. Listen now. Return and submit so I won't have to do this." That is the well of grace.
So Hagar returns and Ishmael is born. We read nothing about Abram for thirteen years. The next chapter opens when he is ninety-nine years old. This means that for thirteen years, strife, disagreement, bitterness, jealousy, and heartache characterized that tent in the land of Canaan. It is God's way of teaching Abram: ". . . for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). It does not depend on us, it all depends on him. We need constantly to reassert our utter dependence upon the God who knows us, knows our circumstances, knows our problems, and who is completely able to work through us to accomplish all that he desires.
How many mistakes we have made by doing this very thing that we have seen Abram do! Let us ask the Lord to forgive us our consummate folly and to teach us--as he taught Abram--to walk in the Spirit in dependence upon him alone. We must come to the place where we recognize the folly of our flesh and the impossibility of pleasing God in its strength. We must learn to do everything through constant and unrelenting reliance upon the Lord to work through us. In this way--and only in this way- -shall we enjoy the same blessing and success that Abram eventually found.
9. THE CIRCUMCISED LIFE
Up to this point we have been following Abram as a believer in the true God, sojourning in the land of promise. But the difference between a believer and a circumcised believer is vital indeed, and it is to this difference that the Spirit of God directs our attention in Genesis 17.
Our last view of Abram found him attempting to help God. He was trying to solve a problem he thought far too hard for God. He and Sarai believed they could solve the problem, and Abram took Hagar, Sarai's handmaid, for a wife. Of that union was born Ishmael, Israel's continual thorn in the flesh until this day.
Thirteen years elapsed between the events of chapter 16 and those of chapter 17, and we can well suspect they were years of unhappiness and unrest in Abram's household. The presence of Ishmael in the home created endless contempt, bitterness, envy, jealousy, weariness of spirit, and rebellion. These thirteen years were designed by God to teach Abram the folly of acting on his own.
Perhaps you have had some similar experience, when God has allowed you to have your own way and the results were appalling. You were permitted to go your own headstrong way in order that you might learn the folly of acting apart from God. One of the most frightening things about life with God is this fact, that if you insist upon having your own way, he will often let you have it . . . until you are sorry you asked for it. "He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their souls" (Psalm 106:15 KJV).
After thirteen years of heartache, a new aspect of God's grace opens before Abram. Three new developments arise in chapter 17. The first is the new revelation he has of God:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly" (Genesis 17:1,2).
After thirteen years of silence, God appears to Abram in a new revelation and with a new name--God Almighty. In the Hebrew it is El Shaddai, which essentially means "the God who is sufficient," "the all-competent God," "the adequate God, who knows what he is doing and how to do it." This indicates that Abram has learned something from his recent bitter experience. God says in effect, "You have been learning for thirteen years the total inadequacy of your own efforts, through Ishmael. Now learn a new thing about me. I am El Shaddai. You have discovered by sad experience how futile your plans and efforts can be without me. Now learn how capable I am to do everything that I desire to do, whenever I desire to do it." Would that we all would discover this! We need desperately to recover the reality of El Shaddai, the God who is sufficient for whatever we are going through right now. This is what Abram learned.
In this new light from God came a new demand from God: "Walk before me and be blameless." In the King James Version this word "blameless" is translated "perfect." The root meaning of the word is "wholehearted." "Walk before me and be perfect, wholehearted," God says, "because I am El Shaddai." That is, I am all-sufficient to make you blameless. Walk before me, therefore, and be blameless.
I remember one time when I was a boy, I was looking through the iron bars of a large gate at a beautiful estate full of flower-bordered walks, and eyeing it with a great deal of envy. Suddenly, before I saw him, another boy about my own age rushed up from the other side and gave my arms a jerk. The bump I received taught me the foolishness of trying to be on two sides of a fence at once.
This is so often brought before us in the New Testament. We are so constantly trying to serve two masters, to please self and Christ. We are content to serve Christ, if at the same time we can also serve self. But God says to Abram, "This can no longer be permitted. You have come to the place where your dual allegiance can no longer be tolerated. Walk now before me, appropriating what I am, and be wholehearted, be wholly on my side, be mine!"
This is what a circumcised life means. It is Christ asserting his practical lordship in our lives. When you became a Christian, you did so by recognizing the right of Jesus Christ to be Lord in your life. You did not, of course, understand what that would involve. But you saw, in one way or another, that his willingness to save you involved his right to control you. For a time, though you knew you were essentially different, you lived much as you did before. You made decisions on the basis of how you felt and what you wanted to do. Then the Holy Spirit begins to put on the pressure. He says to you, 'Stop this," or "Start doing that." All he is really doing is asserting the lordship of Christ in your life. He is beginning to cut the ties that bind you to the world and the self within you. This is essentially what he is saying to Abram here.
So important is this step, along with the new revelation of God, that new names are given to Abram and Sarai:
Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:3-5).
And then in verse 15:
And God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall come from her" (Genesis 17:15,16).
Whenever you see God in a new way, it always makes a corresponding change in you. Here God says to Abraham, "Look, Abram, your name now means 'exalted father.' Your trouble all along has been that you were looking for your own exaltation. This must now be changed. You must lose your desire to exalt yourself; you will stop trying to advance and please yourself. Your name will now be 'the father of a multitude,' for great fruitfulness shall be evident in your life. Because you have now learned that I am El Shaddai, your name can no longer be 'exalted' but it must now be 'fruitful,' for you will be the father of a multitude."
The same is true of Sarai. Sarai means "contentious." This speaks volumes about the home life of Abram and Sarai. In Proverbs 21:9, Solomon writes, "It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious woman." Having had a thousand wives, here is a man who knows of what he speaks! Sarai is, therefore, a problem wife. Yet in the New Testament, Peter says that this woman is a model for all women to follow--not by her name, Sarai, "contentiousness," but by her new name, Sarah, "Princess."
She is never referred to as Sarai in the New Testament. God does not set her up as a pattern for women until she becomes Sarah and loses her contentious spirit. As Sarah she learned to develop "...a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3:4), Sarai was not naturally thus. She was an argumentative woman, a nagging wife. But she, too, had been taught by grace, and through the years she lost the need to defend herself on every occasion. So she became Sarah, a princess, a queen, an honored woman, having a meek and quiet spirit, very precious in the sight of God.
Now we come to the great sign of circumcision:
And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:9-13).
And the actual event is recorded in verses 22-26:
When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all of the slaves born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised; and all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
What a strange thing this is--the removal of the foreskin of the male procreative organ--literally carving in the flesh the sign of God's lordship! This is the great sign of Jewry, intended by God to be the mark of his possession, that they were God's instrument to use for blessing among the nations. It was placed upon this particular part of the body to indicate that they were to be physically separate from the other nations. The very organ by which that separation could be violated bore upon it the mark of God's ownership.
As we read the course of Jewish history, we see how this mark, intended to be the sign of humility and instrumentality, became perverted into a mark of superiority and favoritism. Those who bore it began to look on others as "Gentile dogs" and to be self-righteous and proud over their supposed favored position before God. Thus the spirit of anti-Semitism which so troubles the world today was born of the spirit of anti-Gentilism which preceded it. This does not justify either, of course.
Now let us remember that what was physical and literal to Abraham has spiritual significance to us. In the New Testament we no longer read of circumcision of the flesh, but of the heart. The heart is the symbol of the soul--the mind, emotions, and will, the whole personality. Every believer in Christ is to bear on his heart the sign of Christ's lordship. The total personality is to be at his disposal. That is the Christian's circumcised life.
Many scholars believe circumcision was the origin of the wedding ring. The act of circumcision was performed by a metal or stone knife which cut around the foreskin, leaving a circular scar. So a man and a woman, standing before someone who represents God, place a metal or stone ring upon each other's fingers, indicating that two hearts are giving themselves to each other.
This is the meaning of heart circumcision--the believer's heart is totally Christ's, to use as he wills. All his emotions, mind, intellect, and will are dedicated and available, ready at the command of Jesus Christ to be used for his purposes. Paul says to the Philippians, "We are the circumcision, who worship God in the spirit and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." We are not to rely upon ourselves, but depend totally upon him. Every thought, every imagination, is brought into captivity to Christ. That is the circumcised life.
"Walk therefore before me, and be wholehearted, blameless." That will be a life of fruitfulness and blessing, a life that is well-pleasing to God, for it all springs from realizing that the God who lives within is El Shaddai, the God who is sufficient.
10. WHEN GOD COMES TO DINNER
In the last chapter we saw Abraham entering into the circumcised life. This pictures the heart that is wholly Christ's. Paul describes it this way in Philippians 3:3: "We are the true circumcision, who worship God inspirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh." That is the circumcised life. Abraham, led by the Spirit of God through many difficulties and trials--and after years of wandering from victory to defeat and back again--has come into the fullness of the circumcised life.
In chapter 18 we shall see the practical results of this. Here is a homey scene, what we might call kitchen-sink religion. It is faith-in-overalls, a combination of grace and groceries. These few verses center around three persons. We first see God in disguise, then Abraham in haste, and finally, Sarah in doubt.
In the first five verses God appears in disguise:
And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as be sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, "My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on--since you have come to your servant. " So they said, "Do as you have said" (Genesis 18:1-5).
We are told clearly in verse one who this is that appears to Abraham. "The LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre." It is Yahweh himself coming to see Abraham, and with him come two angels who appear later on in connection with the destruction of Sodom. These are the same two who visit Lot to warn him of the impending judgment upon the cities of the plain. Because there are three men here, some have taken this to be a representation of the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But a careful look at the context indicates that this is what we might regard as a preincarnate appearance of the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is one of those mysterious appearances of Christ before he came to take upon himself human flesh. He appears as a man, accompanied by two angels, in human disguise.
Abraham does not recognize him. All he sees is three travelers, weary and thirsty as they come in off the desert where the temperature often reaches 120-125 degrees in the shade--and there is no shade. Abraham is seated under the oaks of Mamre in the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day looking out on the blazing countryside. Suddenly he sees three men coming toward him. The salutation, "my Lord," with which Abraham addresses the central figure, is simply the common language of courtesy and does not mean he had any hint that this was indeed the LORD. You will notice in the Revised Standard Version that "lord" is not capitalized. This is correct. Further, Abraham's offer of food, rest, and water shows he had no idea whom he was entertaining.
This is obviously a test of Abraham's heart--whether he is really a circumcised believer--in which God appears in such a commonplace way that Abraham is not aware of his identity. I've long wished for some kind of a test which could be used in Bible schools and seminaries to determine how spiritually mature students have grown. Tests commonly used reveal only how much information has been mastered. There is little which reveals the real spiritual achievement of a life. It is quite possible, and in fact demonstrable, to graduate from seminary with a Doctor of Divinity degree or a doctorate in theology and not possess true spirituality or true maturity in Christ.
Nevertheless, although man has not been able to devise any such test, God is always testing us, and his testing does not come when we are warned and ready. Anyone can pass a test then. If I tell you that I am going to test you to see if you exhibit love under pressure, or whether you can keep your temper when things are going wrong, you are likely to pass with flying colors.
But God never tests that way. His tests catch us unprepared, off-guard. It is when we are confronted with some simple situation no one will know about that the tests of life really come. When you are relaxing at home and the phone rings and suddenly you are confronted with a call for help, or a demand for a response--and you had planned to relax and enjoy yourself all afternoon--what happens then? That's the test.
When you are busy around the house with your hands immersed in dishwater and something is burning on the stove and the refrigerator has just quit and the sink is stopped up and you've got sixteen different problems on your mind and your child comes up and asks why it is that puppies bark but don't meow while kitties meow but don't bark--what do you do then? That's the test. When your neighbor or friend gets sick and somebody has to take care of the children--what do you do? What is your reaction? These are the tests of God. This is the way God tested Abraham.
Is this not the meaning of Paul's words in Romans 12? "I appeal to you therefore, brethrenÉto present your bodies as a living sacrificeÉ" It is one thing to be present in a great meeting where the Spirit is moving in evident power and an appeal goes out to rededicate the heart, and we hear the words, "Present your bodies as living sacrifices unto the Lord." Under the stress or pull of that meeting we may well come up to the front and say, "Here am I Lord, I give my life to you." But this is never the real test. The test comes when some situation occurs in daily life that forces you to face the question: Is my body really available for him to do what he wants?
Am I ready to respond to the need of the human heart right there in front of me, right there at that moment? Am I ready to give of myself without stint and without limitation to meet a demand that comes suddenly in the course of my busy life? These are the true tests. This is what God is doing to Abraham when he appears without warning in the heat of the day.
Now let us see how Abraham fared:
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes." And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate (Genesis 18:6-8).
How beautifully Abraham met his test! Look at the words of action here. He hastened into the tent and he said to her, "Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal." Then Abraham ran to the herd, picked out a calf, and gave it to the servant who hastened to prepare it. These words all indicate his prompt and ready response to the need before him.
He did it all personally, too. We know Abraham had more than 318 men in his household who were his servants, but here he himself becomes personally involved. He does not pass the buck; he hastens to do this himself. Sarah, too, is involved personally in making bread, although she also had servants. Hagar was there and others, but she herself makes this bread and kneads it and makes it into loaves.
When I read of Abraham's personal selection of the calf--tender and good--I remember something that occurred when I was with Dr. H. A. Ironside. Once at the close of a message, a dear old man came up to him and said, "Oh, Doctor, that was a wonderful message. It was just like Abraham's calf, tender and good." Dr. Ironside always thought that was one of the finest compliments he had ever received.
Abraham soon had a wonderful meal ready. He had cottage cheese salad (curds, it says) with figs cut up nicely in it; a tall glass of cool milk; hot veal cutlets, breaded and chicken--fried just the way they are the most tender; and fresh hot bread right out of the oven, running over with melted country butter; a nice dish of Sarah's preserves; and to top off the meal there was the gracious hospitality with which the guests were served. As they ate, Abraham visited with them.
All this beautifully pictures for us the fellowship of a circumcised heart with Christ in becoming his instrument to meet the cry of human need all around. The Lord said in Revelation 3:20, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." That is, we will fellowship together, we will have dinner together. This is not simply private enjoyment, not just a social hour for our own pleasure. When the Lord uses us as an instrument to meet the need of those around us, we enter into fellowship with the heart of Christ, When Christ comes in to us, he doesn't come in merely to give us a good time, to bless us, to make it an enjoyable experience. He comes in to fulfill his long-standing desire to be what he came into the world to be--a Savior to seek and to save that which was lost, to give and show compassion to others, to minister to human needs whatever they may be, through us.
Isn't this the test which he himself said he would apply to our lives? In Matthew 25 the Lord presents a scene of judgment (verses 31-43). He will divide the nations into two groups. They all claim to be his, but as he sees the human heart there are two divisions. He says to the one group (verse 41): "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire ..." And they are amazed and say, "Why do you say that to us, Lord?" And he says, "for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me" (Matthew 25:42,43).
Then to the others, he will say (verse 34): "ÉInherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" And they are surprised, too, and say, "Lord, what do you mean?" And he says, "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me" (Matthew 25:35,36).
And they reply in verse 39: "And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?" You remember his words: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
This is the true test of our faith. James says:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).
As he so practically reminds us, faith that does not issue in this kind of a ministry is not real, saving faith; it does not work. The true test of our life is how much our hearts are yielded and wholly dedicated to Christ to respond in fellowship with him in the meeting of human need about us.
This test reveals that Abraham really has a circumcised heart. He is not doing this because he wants to gain something for himself. He is not trying to impress anybody. He is not seeking credit or recognition. He is not trying to display his piety. For all he knows these three men are nothing but poverty-stricken, penniless nomads of the desert. He will perhaps never see them again. But he treats them as royally as though they were kings. Even if he had known who they were, he could not have treated them better. This prompt and full response simply reflects a heart filled with grace and love, responding immediately to human need without thought of self or praise from others.
What made him do this? It was that he had a circumcised heart; he really was Christ's. The man who really is Jesus Christ's does not need to be talked into doing good deeds; rather he looks for opportunities. He is always ready to respond. Someone has well said, "Your reputation is what you do when everyone is looking, while your character is what you do when no one sees."
These tests come to us every day. When the need for help arises, what do you do about it? Do you run and hide or run to meet it as Abraham did here? I heard of a Christian who was speaking at a men's meeting some time ago about the growing spirit of callous indifference in the world today. He illustrated it by telling how he and a friend just a few days before had been walking through the busy streets of one of our cities when they saw a drunk lying in the street, half on the sidewalk. They noted how everybody was stepping over him and going on their way, paying no attention to the man. He said he was appalled at the indifference of people as they walked by.
"And you know," he said, "when we came back from lunch he was still there!"
How have you been doing this week with the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the dying, the strangers, and those who need help physically or spiritually? What is your response? This is the question the Spirit thrusts upon us from this story.
The last picture applies to the feminine side of the household. Here we see Sarah in doubt:
They said to him, "Where is Sarah your wife?" And he said, "She is in the tent." The LORD said, "I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" The LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said, "No, but you did laugh" (Genesis 18:9-15).
Here the first hint is given to Abraham as to who these guests are. They ask him, "Where is