The Next Step

The next step is always the scariest.  The next step could be the one where the earth falls from beneath you.

Genesis 15 records a conversation between Abram and God.  Abram is getting up there in years.  He is somewhere between 75 and 86 years old (Gen. 12.4; 16.16) and he has been on a journey.  He has been given the promise that his descendants would be “a great nation”, but that was many years back.  Is there an expiration date on the promises of God?  That would have been in the back of my mind.  But Abram now gets told that he will have a son, from his own lineage. (Gen. 15.4-5)

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15.6)

Abram “believed” is in the Hebrew Hiphil tense meaning “caused to believe”.  Abram was convinced.  He seems like a man who can think differently about situations.  Later his name would be changed to Abraham (this is how he will be referred to from now on). This is how I reconcile the strange verse in Hebrews 11.17-19:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.  He who embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  Abraham reasoned [gk. logizomai] that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from the dead.

The idea of bodily resurrection, let alone individual resurrection, would have been a revolutionary concept.  Abraham is an outside the box thinker.  He has convinced himself of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  Abraham takes the first step out of Ur on faith.  The next step is into the nursery with his son Isaac.  The next one is the first step to ascend the Mountain to kill the one walking behind him.

So what’s the next step on the journey?

Is it salvation?  It’s graduation Sunday.  All across Kansas, students will be turning their focus to college by 3 p.m. Sunday.  Thirty-two thousand students will walk across a stage towards a diploma this weekend.  A year from now, 60%, or 19,000 of them will walk away from their faith.

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4.2)

Paul writes in Romans that it was salvation that Abraham stepped into in faith.  It was right-standing with God that Abraham walked into by trusting God.  The question had been posed: “was Abraham justified by works?” (2)  Could he have saved himself?  To that Paul points to the faith of Abraham as he argues in the previous paragraph:

For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom. 3.28)

Abraham is Paul’s case study for justification by faith.  In a world where love and trust are performance based, the idea of salvation in exchange for faith is a tough sell.  Maybe that is where it should start?

Is it Spirit-led?  Maybe salvation has happened, but “life” isn’t happening.  The Galatian Church was struggling with the same issue that plagued the Roman Church: “What saves a man?”  Was it “faith” or “works”?  Must the faith be followed by action?

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Gal. 3.6)

There is a difference between surviving and living.  That is what living with the Spirit brings.  Paul used Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone in Romans; in Galatians, Abraham is an example of a Spirit-led/fed life.  He precedes the quote of Genesis with this question: 

So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3.5)

His answer: Abraham believed.  Great things happened because Abraham had faith.  He pairs this with another Genesis quote a sentence later:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you!” (Gal. 3.8 quoting Genesis 12.3)

Being in-step/taking the first step with the Spirit changes lives.  It empowers middle schoolers to raise money to buy freedom for modern day slaves.  It challenges women to serve by making blankets for sex trafficked victims.  It encourages men to step up, step out and lead other men in study.  Is the next step, the same step Abraham took in Galatians; one of believing in a leading Spirit.

Is it disciple-making?  When writing to people scattered all over the Roman world about living as a Christian, one man wrote this in response:

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. (James 2.23)

It was in the same context as other uses. It was a debate about faith vs. works.  James chimes in from left field.  He brings up Abraham but honors him for his action.  Check out the question he poses in verse 21:

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did…?(James 2.21)

And you gasp!  Isn’t this the exact opposite of Pauline theology.  In Romans and Galatians, Abraham was righteous because he believed; however, James understood him as righteous because of what he did.

James is a book of activity.  Your faith must be animated, according to James.

  • “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.” (1.22)
  • “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (1.27)
  • “What good is it, my brothers and sisters if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? (2.14)
  • “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (2.17-18)
  • “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (3.13)
  • “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (4.17)

James has an agenda.  While Jesus was on this Earth, he doubted.  Now that Jesus has ascended, he is leading a church and a following of people trying to live like Jesus.  His advice:  live like Abraham.

First things, first:  salvation.  Second things, second:  letting the Spirit sanctify and animate.  Finally, we must discipline (notice the “disciple” in that word) our lives to that of Jesus.  Verse 22 brings the argument together:

You see that his [Abraham] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete [gk. teleioo] by what he did. (James 2.22)

The greek word translated “made complete” and its cognates aren’t rare in the New Testament.  James, however, only uses the idea 8 times in his book (teleios-1.4 [2x]; 1.17; 1.25; 3.2; teleioo-2.22; teleoo-2.8; telos-5.11).  The idea is that “the goal has been reached.”  It is the ending, not the beginning.  James understands that “what he did” (21) was the goal in mind (22) when the “belief” began (23).  Faith comes first, but isn’t finished until follow through.  Belief is where it all starts but it isn’t done until action takes place.  Do I have to be in church every Sunday?  Do I need to pray every day?  Do I need to study my Bible?  Can I drink alcohol?  Do I have to tithe?  All these questions are questions of works.  They are actions that are to done.  We are saved by faith and faith alone; but, a part of faith is “the doing” of something.

In Hebrews 11, what some have called the Hall of Fame of faith, Abraham is admonished for three things.  Each is preceded with these words: “By faith…” (Hebrews 11.8, 9, 17)  He left Ur and followed.  He stayed and made a home in the Promised land.  He was willing to sacrifice Isaac.  He was commended for all these things.  Rounding out the section on Abraham, the author of Hebrews writes:

Abraham reasoned [gk logizomai]  that God could even raise the dead…(19)

Logizomai is the same word translated “credited” in every one of the passages above.  It was “credited to him as righteousness”.  God counts righteousness to Abraham all because Abraham counted all on God.

Easier said than done right?

Advertisements

Taken: Abram

Another Face in the Crowd
Another Face in the Crowd

The quest for an identity begins early on in a man’s life. It begins with things like action figures, big wheels, and Tonka trucks (and for the younger readers they used to be made of metal and were way cooler). Overnight it changed to girls, sports equipment, legos, video games, and bikes. High school brought girls, cars, sports feats, buckles, and video games. With college came girls (have you noticed a pattern), cars, video games, buckles, saddles, and money. Then after college, when the real world starts, identity shifts to wives, career, house, money, kids (and their accomplishments), trucks, trailers, buckles and saddles.

We are pretty convincing about the good intentions of our pursuit of identity. Rationalization comes pretty easily. Like the old cowboy proverb says: “The biggest liar you will ever have to face, watches you shave your face in the mirror every morning.” If you’re like me, my pursuit of identity is still just action figures, big wheels, and tonka trucks. It’s just that they cost more now.

Identity is rooted in a fear of irrelevancy and a fear of being a nobody. We pursue things because if we don’t we think we will be relegated to an also ran, an extra, another face in the crowd. I will never forget the time I showed up to fight bulls for the first time with a guy I had never met. After he pointed out my store bought belt buckle, he informed me that I didn’t belong there. I was another face in the crowd.

Abram was another face in the crowd at one time. He grew up in Ur [Gen 11.31], one of the oldest cities on Earth as part of the oldest civilization on Earth. Ur had been around for centuries by the time Abram had arrived on the scene. Their civilization was advanced, their worship was organized (and extremely polytheistic [Joshua 24.2]), and their society was growing. In the center of town was a huge ziggurat that rose high above the surrounding city and surrounding lands. The title of the architect of this great structure, Ur-Nammu, stamped his title and his name on the bricks, as a testament of the great building feat. It rose 70’ high in its day with a base 200’ by 150’.** In front of the monumental artificial mountain where worship would take place was the market where people would gather and mill around exchanging goods and food. Worship, community, and society were foundational to city life in Ur. Abram was just a face in the crowded streets.

But God took him, a man in the crowd, and made him the “father of nations” (Abraham means ‘father of many’).

Abrams story beings in Genesis 11. He, alongside his father and family took off from Ur to the north and west, to Haran. Stephen, in Acts 7.2-3, indicates that the call of the first few verses of Genesis 12 took place while Abram was still in Ur. Moses apparently felt it best to wrap up Terah’s story with his death in Haran before moving on to Abram’s, but that is beside the point. God has chosen Abram to do His work. Just take a look at some of the verbs in the first few verses of chapter 12:

  • “the Lord had said [to Abram]…” [hb. ‘amar]
  • “I [the Lord] will show you [Abram]…” [hb. ra’a]
  • “I [the Lord] will make you [Abram]…” [hb. ‘asa]
  • “I [the Lord] will bless you [Abram]…” [hb. barak] – 2 times
  • “I [the Lord] will curse those who curse you [Abram]…” [hb. ‘arar]
  • “So Abram left…” [hb. halak]

The first five were the actions of God and the last one of Abram. Abram was taken on the ride of his life. Going to an unknown place, with a brand new [to him] God. He grew up in a polytheistic nation (meaning many gods were worshipped), when the Lord called him out to follow where He is leading. Abram has one job…to follow. A face in the crowd in Ur, Abram is asked to go where God is leading.

With this single act, Abram will be forever remembered.

“Abraham believed the Lrod, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15.6)

This verse summed up the way he lived his life. He garnered more mention in the New Testament than any other person aside from Moses. It was his faith that gave him his identity and made him what he was known for. He would be renamed Abraham, which means “the father of many”, in Genesis 17.5, but his identity would forever be cemented long before that.

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going…” (Heb. 11.8)

The author of Hebrews (Heb 11), Paul (Rom 4, Gal. 3), James (2.21-23). and Stephen (Acts 7) all understood Abram as a man of faith; a faith that leads to righteousness. When it comes down to it, Abram could have remained in Ur and lived his life as another face in the crowd. But God, who made the move and took the initiative, took Abram from the crowd of Ur, into the land that he chose. Abraham needed faith.

All too often we attempt to make and manufacture our own identity instead of letting God do what he does. It’s interesting that the people who amazed Jesus were not the intellectuals, the super-religious, or the most successful. Jesus’ amazement was directly correlated to a person’s faith. The centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant, not by attending to him, but by a word, he amazed Jesus with his faith (Mat 8.10; Luke 7.9). It’s also clear that he was taken by the faith of the Canaanite woman, who begged Jesus to heal her daughter. His answer to that request: “Woman, you have great faith!” (Matt 15.28) It is fitting that Jesus was also amazed at the absence of faith. When he spoke to the people of his hometown and they took offense to him, he was “amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6.6) A Roman Centurion and a Canaanite woman, forever remembered in God’s word because of their faith, just like an ancient face-in-the-crowd.  That’s what I want to be known for, not buckles or awards, things or titles, but faith.

We can get so bogged down in trying to make a name for ourselves here on this earth, but Abraham shows us that if we are faithful, God provides us with an identity. It reminds me of one of my favorite poems growing up by Walt Huntley that reads:

Your name may not appear down here 

In this world’s Hall of Fame.

In fact, you may be so unknown 

That no one knows your name;

The Oscars and the Praise of men

may never come your way

but rest assured God has rewards

the He’ll hand out someday.

 

This Hall of Fame is only good

As long as time shall be;

But keep in mind, God’s Hall of Fame

Is for eternity

This crowd on earth they soon forget

The heroes of the past.

They cheer like mad until you fail

and that’s how long you last.

But in God’s Hall of Fame

By just believing

on His Son

Inscribed you’ll find your name.

I tell you, friend, I wouldn’t trade

My name, however small,

That’s written there beyond the stars

In that Celestial Hall,

For any famous name on earth,

Or glory that they share;

I’d rather be an unknown here

And have my name up there.

 —

**Unger, Merrill F. Archaeology and the Old Tesatament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954) 107-112