Snapshots of women adorning the gospel (part 2)

For Part 1 of Snapshots of Women Adorning The Gospel, Click here.

Luke is my favourite book of the Bible, because the ink on every page drips proof that women are not invisible to God. Romans 16 is my favourite chapter for the same reason. That might sound odd since this chapter is a message of final greetings. If you are tempted to skip over the long list of names like credits after a movie, I hope I can persuade you to see the beauty in these greetings. Paul’s very personal, affectionate greetings capture the soul of women’s ministry in early Christianity. They give us a picture of redeemed men and women working as partners alongside each other in Rome’s first church, and this is the prototype for our local church. Women found the church a liberating place to be. It was a beacon of light in their Greco-Roman culture where husbands could abandon them on a whim, baby girls were considered worthless and left outside by their fathers to die in the cold, and child brides were married off at 11 or 12 years old. In contrast, the church was a place where husbands were taught to be faithful and to love their wives like Christ loved the church. This was a far cry from husbands in Rome who expected their wives to be chaste while they engaged in any kind of sexual behaviour themselves, including having mistresses, temple prostitutes and homosexual encounters. For centuries, Christianity was mocked for being pro-women as women made up two thirds of the church, while the ratio in Greco-Roman society was two thirds men. Christianity was a safe haven for women because the wisdom of the gospel gave them life and dignity. Their voices were heard and their contribution valued in the local church. It was a place where they were free to be all that God created them to be, instead of chattels or sex objects. Romans 16:1-16 gives us a glimpse into these things:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

Snapshots from Rome

The nine women’s names in Romans 16 may seem irrelevant, but consider for a moment that these were real women with families and dangers that we cannot even imagine. They were a mix of rich and poor, slaves and aristocrats, married and single, young and old, Jews and Gentiles, bound together as sisters by their common commitment to Christ. They offered whatever resources they had to make a difference for the Lord in all kinds of ways and passed the gospel baton on to their children. They developed ministries to help widows, orphans and believers in prison, and gave their finances and homes too. Paul expresses obvious affection for these women and mentions some of them by name: Phoebe a deacon and patron of the church; Priscilla who (together with her husband Aquila) hosted the church in her house and risked her life for the Christians, Mary, Junia, Tryphena and Tryphosa (sisters), Persis, Julia, and Rufus’s mother, who was like a mother to Paul. These women did not just warm the pews but were active “workers in the Lord.” There is great affection and intimacy in Paul’s tone, but not a hint of impropriety or paternalism.

Costly but liberating faith

Women continued to flock to Christianity in the second and third centuries. Justin Martyr (150AD) noted that Christianity was spreading to wealthy women in aristocratic classes, many of whom were married to non-Christian husbands. Life was not easy for these women, as bearing the name of Christ carried a high price. Many women were single or widowed, and thus were very dependent and vulnerable. The husband of one wealthy woman despised her conversion to Christianity so much that he reported her to the authorities to be imprisoned. Marcia was the mistress of the tyrannical Emperor Commodis (of Gladiatorfame). This brave Christian woman shared the gospel with the Emperor and influenced him to show mercy to Christians in prison, even freeing some of them. Today contemporary culture mocks Christianity for being oppressive and misogynist, but the record of history tells us a different story. The truth is that women have taken refuge in Christianity for centuries, because the gospel accords them value and dignity as image bearers of God. It also provides forgiveness and restoration from the shame many women experience as a result of what they have done and what has been done to them.

Trailblazers

Romans 16 introduces us to some of the sisters who blazed the trail for us and we will meet each one of them in heaven one day! Their names and lives matter profoundly to God. Even today, the Lord values the sacrifices women make and takes delight in their joyful efforts to show the world the most beautiful story that has ever been told. History bears witness to the many women who served at the forefront of Christ’s army, which grew from twenty disciples in the 30’s (AD), to thirty million by the end of the 4th century!

What a beautiful picture of a redeemed family of servants on mission!

Why should we care about women who are long dead and part of ancient history? I believe the rich tapestry of women in the Bible and historical sources weaves a picture of who we are as Christian women today, and shows us how we should follow Jesus, through the lens of who God is. The rich heritage behind us can give Christian women perspective to see our worth and to grasp the unique God-given opportunities to make the gospel beautiful to the world around us. That is our ‘Great Commission’ at home, in church and in the city (Matt 28:18-20).

Prayer for daughters of God

Lord, give us the faith of Sarah who left her family, culture and home in Ur to follow her husband Abraham into a strange and dangerous land. Help us to hold loosely to the things of this world so that we are willing to pitch our tent anywhere you lead, like she did.

Father, give us the conviction of Rahab, who took a stand on Jehovah’s side and was resourceful and brave when she hid the spies (Josh 2:11).

If we are entrusted with leadership, help us to lead without losing our God-given distinctness, like Deborah, “who arose as a mother of Israel” (Judges 5:7).

Jesus, give us the loyalty and love of Ruth, who left everything in Moab to care for her mother-in-law and identify herself with your people. Help us to see you alone as our Kinsman-Redeemer who brings abundance from emptiness and joy from mourning.

Give us the serenity of Hannah, who released her beloved son Samuel to fulfill your purposes. Let us always know that our children are on loan from you and help us to raise them to love and serve you all their lives. We declare with Hannah, “It is not by strength that one prevails” (1 Sam 2:9).

Give us the strength and boldness of Queen Esther who was ready and willing to step up to the plate “for such a time as this.” Help us to see the opportunities you have placed in our lives right now and to act upon them in faith (Esther 4:15).

Holy Spirit, give us a humble, willing spirit like Mary’s so that even if we are afraid, we may say, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to your will” (Luke 1:38).

Jesus, give us a teachable spirit like Mary of Bethany who sat at your feet and listened to you, knowing that you would give her something that could never be taken away from her. Let busyness never be our master (Luke 10:38).

And Lord, when life’s storms come and you seem far away, make us as bold and sure as Martha, who, even at her brother’s funeral, declared without wavering, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 11:27).

Saviour, show us your vast forgiveness so that we may be like the woman who let down her hair and anointed your feet with perfume. Make us worshippers first so that we may give extravagantly out of the overflow of your grace. Help us to see you as our advocate, our refuge and the one to whom we can bring everything, even our greatest shame and sin (Luke 7:44-46).

Lord of the harvest, give us a big vision to see the many practical ways in which we can sow into your kingdom wherever we are. Make us brave and industrious like those women in Rome.

And finally, Lord, if you give us grace to live until we are old and grey, help us to be like those two old women in Luke. Like Anna, may we always long for your presence, remain steadfast in prayer and be quick to bless others. And if we are left with just a widow’s mite, give us hearts that want to drop it all into your treasure store. Help us to live each day eager and ready for your return as King (Luke 2:36-38Luke 21:123).

Benediction

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! (Romans 16:16-17).
Amen.

Useful resources:

The Dynamic Ministry of Women in Early Christianity (Michael Kruger– a podcast).

Men and Women (Roydon Frost- a sermon)

Snapshots of Women Adorning the gospel (part 1)

Some women always have the perfect accessory to complement an outfit. They know exactly how to adorn themselves to enhance their natural beauty. Unfortunately I’m not one of these talented women! Five minutes before I go out, I’m scratching around for a lost earring, untangling a nest of jewellery and accusing my daughters of stealing my clothes! I like to think it’s because my mind is on more noble things, but the truth is that I just don’t pay attention to that part of life. But as Christian women, we don’t get to divide up our lives into the bits that matter to God and those that don’t. We are called to adorn the gospel in everything (Titus 2:10), to synchronise our lives with its truth in the everyday unseen details—at home, in church, at work and everywhere else. If the people of God are “the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden”, each of our lives matter for the gospel. There is no divide between the spiritual and the physical, between church and home, or between our identity as women and our work for God’s kingdom. Our whole life is an act of worship. It sounds good in theory, but what does it look like in practice for a Christian woman in our generation?

A woman’s gospel hub

Paul gives a down-to-earth memo to all women who claim to follow Jesus. It seems that ‘adorning the gospel’ is not just something we make up for ourselves as though we are choosing an accessory for an outfit.

“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Titus 2:3-5)

This text has real life implications for women who claim to be Christians:

No woman is exempt from ministry, regardless of age, gifting or experience. There is always a woman you can learn from and one coming up behind you, even if it is your grandchild. It doesn’t matter what season of life you are in, adorning the gospel is not an optional extra.

Home is a hub where the gospel is lived out in real relationships. Contrary to popular belief, home is not a prison to keep women subservient, but the center of gospel health and mission. Our children and the world will see Jesus through a warm and life-giving home, no matter how big or small. This surely impacts how we see our kitchen, laundry, dining room, our language and meals? Of course there are priorities attached to seasons of life, but a home is not limited to biological family. Nympha opened hers to the family of God (Col 4:15). Hospitality is a wonderful way of adorning the gospel (Rom 12:13).

Ministry loses credibility if our personal relationships are not aligned with ‘what is good’. This is where the rubber really hits the road! Of course a conflict-free home is impossible, but every time you resolve an argument with a balance of love and truth; forgive without holding a grudge; have the courage to make the first move to reconcile; resist the urge to be demanding, defensive or distant; ask God for wisdom instead of flying off the handle; say the magic words “I’m sorry, I was only thinking of myself”; allow God’s perfect love to cast out your fear; or submit joyfully to your husband, you are building a space where the gospel is a beautiful thriving reality. A woman cannot adorn the gospel in the public arena if she is turning away from her husband at home or avoiding the hard labour of building relationships. A marriage in harmony is a thing of beauty and a rare witness in our times. If yours is limping along, it’s time for change!

The good news is that Jesus never leaves us to get our house in order alone! Any woman with life experience is told to put up her hand and pass it along– to support her sisters and not envy or compete with them. If every woman is commissioned to be a disciple and disciple-maker, learning, teaching and training is a ministry we will never grow out of. In my experience, it is easier to teach than to make disciples, because discipleship means inviting people into our lives and risk exposing our blind spots and the idols we cling to, especially pride. Discipleship is personal, regular, hands-on and intimate. It requires an emotional investment and integrity, but it yields deep friendship and blessing that far outweighs the effort. In my experience, women’s Bible studies are the perfect setting for this kind of discipleship, as God’s Word re-aligns our thinking, exposes our hearts, while prayer builds an intimacy that is unique to a gospel community. I am officially the leader of three women’s Bible studies, but not a week has gone by when I have not learned from other women in the group.

But what about the wisdom to be gained from the rich heritage of those who have gone before us?

A rich heritage

Real women of history have woven for us a big and beautiful tapestry to show what it means to embrace our God-given womanhood, while partnering fully in the gospel alongside our Christian brothers. To borrow words from Hebrews 11, women are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” who spur us on and assure us that our lives matter for God’s kingdom purposes– even if we sometimes feel invisible.

Snapshots from Luke

Luke is my favourite gospel because the ink on every page drips proof that women are not invisible to God. I am stunned every time I am reminded that a humble unmarried teenage girl called Mary was central to the gospel story. Her response to the angel’s frightening call leaves me breathless:

“I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

This was not the life Mary had planned for herself and she knew it would bring shame and pain (Luke 2:35). Her surrender of her body and soul to motherhood was not weakness, but the epitome of strength and resolve. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—Holy is his name.” (Luke 1: 46-55). Imagine Mary standing in the shadow of her beloved son’s cross thirty-three years later, watching him die a criminal’s death. To think that the means by which God saved the world was a devout, responsive girl and the baby she raised in her humble home in Nazareth. Mary’s home was the original gospel hub where the Messiah “grew in stature and wisdom and in favour with God and man.”

Luke provides many snapshots of the assortment of women who travelled with Jesus and the twelve disciples (Luke 8:2-3). Jesus addressed them by name and welcomed them as valuable members of the team, not just cooks and cleaners for men doing important ministry. They were flesh-and-blood women like ourselves, assigned dignity that was unheard of at a time when Rabbis taught that men should not even talk to women who were not their relatives, much less touch them. Jesus defied cultural rules and stereotypes of ‘acceptable’ women. He was radically counter- cultural.

Another snapshot shows Joanna, wife of a prominent government official who “ministered from her belongings” and watched Jesus being crucified. She was among the first witnesses of the resurrection, all of whom were women (Luke 23:55– Luke 24:10).

Then there are the close-ups of Jesus in a Pharisee’s house restoring the dignity of a prostitute (Luke 7:38-50); touching an unclean outcast after twelve years of bleeding (Luke 8:43-48) and praising Mary of Bethany for her teachable heart and extravagant love for Jesus (Luke 10:3842John 12:3;7). One of my favourite cameos is tucked into chapter 21 where Jesus watches a widow giving two very small copper coins into the temple treasury:

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the others.4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4).

There are many more encounters with women which show how the Lord Jesus reads our hearts and is delighted to find a spark of faith that leads us to give in ministry. But what’s also clear is that we are nothing without His grace. May our response to Christ’s forgiveness be as heartfelt as the woman who let down her hair, poured out an alabaster jar of perfume, kissed his feet and wept (Luke 7:45-47). We must first know our great need and be worshippers of Jesus before we are his workers.

Honey for the heart

It’s amazing how much my family loves honey! I buy a big jar of pure raw honey every week and it gets flattened within a few days because we drizzle it over everything– from rooibos tea and sticky chicken, to French toast with bacon! Honey is a sweet treat that makes everything taste better. But there’s no reward in just buying a jar of pure honey and staring at it on the shelf. We need to break the seal and get sticky! That’s how David saw God’s word—sweeter than honey and more valuable than anything money can buy. For those who take it to heart there are great rewards. As we saw last week, we can know many things about God when we look at his spectacular skies, but we can only know God personally when we respond to the truth of the gospel told in the Bible. If God himself is the author of every page of Scripture, His clear and convicting voice is not a nasty medicine to swallow, but a sweet treat to savour and digest. His word is the source of pure, undiluted truth spoken in love. It is soothing honey that brings  healing and life to people who are broken and dead. David reminds us of this today as we continue in Psalm 19:

Psalm 19:7-11

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward!

Sweet drippings of the soul!

The reward of reading God’s word with a responsive heart is deep soul satisfaction, like sweet honey that never stops dripping. Paradoxically, we can only experience this satisfaction when we fear the Lord as David did– when we tremble at his word (Ps 19:9Isa 66:5).

The Apostle Peter reminds Christians that every person who lives will also die. Our achievements are no more permanent than wild flowers and our opinions and words will be buried with us too. In contrast, God’s imperishable ‘word’ is immortal. It remains relevant and true in every generation. It tells the story of God’s unlikely rescue mission to do away with sin and give us eternal life. That’s why Peter calls God’s word the ‘seed’ of our rebirth. The ‘living and enduring word of God’ is fundamental to our birth and growth as God’s children. We neglect it at our peril! (1 Peter 1:232425).

The Bible is not just a fad to froth over, or a book of sage suggestions. It is as vital to the Christian life as milk is to a newborn baby and bread to a hungry soul (Matt 4:1-41 Peter 2:2). We cannot expect to grow up in our salvation without it, just as malnourished babies don’t thrive…and sometimes don’t survive.  A taste of God’s goodness is not enough to sustain us for the long haul of life (1 Peter 2:3).

The Reward is in the keeping!

In Psalm 19:11, David says:

“By them your servant is warned;

In keeping them there is great reward.”

The reward is not linked to knowing or owning a Bible, but to keeping its commands and holding the word close to our chest. Nor is the reward only found in the encouraging promises, but also in the warnings we get when our hearts are cut by God’s double edged-sword. It is good to search the Scriptures and allow the Holy Spirit to undress our thoughts and attitudes before the eyes of God who searches our hearts (Heb 4:12-13).

Divine exposure is good news for those who want to change!

There is an implicit warning in Psalm 19 not to revise, edit, or cut-and-paste the Bible to suit ourselves. It is tempting to tailor the truth to dodge offense, but the Lord’s precepts are forever perfect, right, firm, wise and trustworthy (Ps 19:8-9). Instead of being ashamed, we are to ‘guard the good deposit,’ rightly handle the word of truth  (2 Tim 2:1415), beware of those who distort it (2 Peter 3:16) and examine the Scriptures every day to check man’s word against God’s (Acts 17:111 Thess 2:13). This is not only the job of the pastor, but all God’s workers!

Are you ‘keeping’ the clear teaching of God’s word, or do you find yourself bowing to man’s opinions? Jesus is our perfect example of how to keep and speak the truth in love.

The reward is in the eating!

The real reward of honeycomb is the energy it gives. This reward comes from ingestion and digestion, not just the sweet taste on our lips! Here are some of the lifelong rewards David links to reading the Bible with a responsive heart—

Life and refreshment for the soul (Ps 19:7), wisdom, clarity and guidance from God (Ps 19: 7-8) and deep joy and delight (Ps 19:810). Compare these rewards to the shortlived gains of media and entertainment.

If we constantly listen to human voices rather than God’s, our souls will ultimately be drained, confused and unsatisfied. But the voice of God has the power to renew, refresh and guide us uniquely each time we open our heart to the Bible. Each of its 66 books is relevant and true, with fresh application to our lives every day.

God’s laws are never burdensome but are the perfect framework to enable men, women and children to thrive and become everything we were designed to be (1 John 5:3). His commands are like a river bank that prevents its waters from flooding. Or like a fireplace in which a fire can safely burn without burning the house to ashes. Jesus himself reminded us to follow Him “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30). God’s commands are not a long list of taboos to make life miserable.

For those who trust the Bible as their final authority, it has the power to set us free and satisfy our deepest longings—for belonging, purpose, identity and fulfillment (John 10:10). That is why it is honey for the heart.

Let’s believe David and drip sweet satisfying honey into our hearts every day!

Pray

Father, I praise you for the privilege and joy of your life-giving word to renew, refresh and guide me every day of my life. It is honey for my heart and I want it to stick. Thank you that the Bible holds up a timeless mirror to my soul, answers life’s big questions and offers hope against despair. Lord, thank you that you have not left us to wander in the dark, confused and far from you. I am still stunned by the way you stooped down into this world to make yourself known to us through your creation, your written word and the Living Word, your Son Jesus. Holy Spirit, give me eager ears to hear your voice in the Bible and engrave your word in my heart as I read it. Give me the grace to live it out honestly until you take me home.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship

Listen to this classic song by Amy Grant.

Seeing God’s glory in the skies

In the Psalms, David often reminds himself to focus his vision on God instead of circumstances. Like us, his eyes saw danger and discouragement all around him, and he needed eyes of faith to see what lay beyond his physical horizons. He knew he needed insight, not just eyesight! For instance, In Psalm 123, king David looks beyond himself to the true King of the universe: “I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sits enthroned in heaven…our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.” In Psalm 121, David uses spiritual binoculars to zoom in on the Creator, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 121:1-2). The Bible uses the old- fashioned exclamation “Behold” 1298 times! It is a powerful heads-up: “Hey you little human, look up and get a hold on what you see! Get out of the smoke and grasp the amazing apparition right before your eyes!” In the first six verses of Psalm 19, David calls us to Behold the Skies!

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
    which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Speech of the Skies

(Ps 19:1-4)

The skies speak a universal language that requires no special skill or knowledge to understand. Even a small child can grasp it.

It is not the pantheistic speech of an impersonal force called ‘Mother Nature,’ who somehow appears out of nowhere to plant, nurture and inhabit the seeds of everything in the universe.

Nor is it the atheistic speech of the Big Bang, plus time, chance and random mutations, which somehow conspire together to produce complex life from nothing.

Rather, the skies speak of a super- intelligent Artist who is marvellous and mighty, as well as personal and caring. It is not the speech of a passive observer, but of a Creator who sustains his creation day after day, millenia after millenia by the “word of his power” (Heb 1:3). As Paul explained to the Athenians, the Creator of the universe is not an UNKNOWN GOD, served by human hands as if he needed anything. God the Creator wants to be known by those to whom he has given life and breath. “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’”(Acts 17:27-28). God shows us his glory through the skies.

David had insight when he wrote this inspired poetry in Psalm 19. He grasped that the heavens gush God’s glory every day and night! In Genesis 1:6-8(NIV), the sky is called a ‘vault,’ an apt name for such a treasure chest of wonders that entice us to know the One who spoke it into existence.

My grandmother loved gardens, art, music and all things bright and beautiful. As an old woman in her nineties, she still sounded like an excited toddler when describing a spectacular scene. “Too wonderful for words” was her favourite expression! It’s exactly what David says about the skies.

The skies make a profound and humbling statement that requires no verbal commentary (Ps 19:1-3). We live in a fast-paced city with plenty of lights, smoke and sirens, but we need to take off our racing blinkers for long enough to go outside and gaze at the infinite stars in our back yard. We need to pay attention to the daily rhythms of the sun and trace the monthly phases of the moon. If we occasionally escape from man-made ceilings to sleep under God’s star-studded ‘vault’, we will know intuitively that we are very small and this is the work of a great and transcendent* Creator (*beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience).

While it is true that God is transcendent and invisible, the Creator has left his fingerprints all over His finely tuned universe as evidence of what He is like. Through the skies, God makes his invisible nature known to all people on the planet every day. Wherever we are in the world, God pulls back the curtains of the heavens to give us a glimpse of his glory, power, majesty, creativity, order and infinite wisdom (Rom 1:19-20Jer 10:12). We observe his laws of nature in operation such as gravity, showcasing the logical, orderly way God normally upholds his universe.

The witness of creation is powerful, but not sufficient to unite us with our Creator. Only Jesus can do that. Christ came to earth as flesh and blood for the very purpose of making the invisible God known to us in person. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature(Heb 1:3). “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities: all things were created by him and for him” (Col 1:15-16). The constellations cannot tell us the story of Jesus and his atoning sacrifice, and that is why we need God’s word in the Bible. That’s what we will explore next week in “Seeing God’s face in Scripture—Psalm 19:7-12)”. Nevertheless, creation has a powerful ministry which we should not take for granted.

Ministry of the Skies

When we think of the way God ministers to us as Christians, we usually think of the Bible, prayer and God’s people. But it is easy to neglect one of the most accessible, everyday channels of God’s grace– His beautiful world. Of all people, Christians should understand the language of awe and joy when we open our eyes to behold God’s handiwork.

If we know that our Saviour is also our Creator and that we have been made to be stewards of all Creation (Gen 2:16), it makes sense that God would minister to us as we respect, care for and enjoy his earth, including everything in and above it. If God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden before the earth was marred by sin, does it not please him to watch His children take a walk in nature, admire his handiwork and gasp at the heavens?

I love John Piper’s comment on God’s ministry through the skies:

“There is not a day that goes by, nor is there a place in the world, where God does not extend his ministry for the healing and hope and happiness and humility of those who will receive it. I’m speaking of the ministry of the Lord through what he has created, through the world of nature, especially what we see when we look up into the skies during the day and during the night.” (John Piper)

I don’t think this is conjecture. When God reassured Abraham of his eternal promises, he took him outside his tent to show him the stars in the sky. It gave Abraham comfort and strength to continue his journey of faith. Similarly, God gave Noah hope through a rainbow in the sky (Gen 9:12-15). God himself placed a bright star over the city of Bethlehem when Jesus was born, as a tangible sign that the Saviour of the world had come. The sign was so powerful that wise men from a distant land travelled to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. God used the heavens he had created to give tangible signs of his eternal covenant of grace and salvation. These signs ministered to people who had unveiled eyes to see them.

Even now, God’s creation is not superfluous. His word does not return to him empty. He has given us the skies to minister directly to our hearts– not through intellect, audible words or logical reasoning– but through our senses, intuition and emotions. It is the wordless speech of AWE and JOY.

The Star of all stars

Ps 19:5-6

David experienced awe as he described the sun’s daily arc across the sky as a happy bridegroom and a champion marathon runner. I’m picturing my favourite Blitzbok player, Cecil Afrika, sprinting from one side of the field to the other to score a try, dreadlocks trailing behind! Or perhaps the sun is like Wade Van Niekerk demolishing the 400m track at the 2016 Olympics! It’s amazing that David pictured it as a ‘circuit’ even before he knew the earth was round.

It is easy to take for granted that the sun shows up every morning to run its race, but this is just one of the laws of nature that God has written into the earth’s fabric. The sun is God’s gift that reflects all the colours of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Without the sun, we would have no colour at all! Only an artist would bother creating a colourful universe. James 1:17 is one of my favourite reminders:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows”.

The sun is a daily reminder that the joy of the Lord is our strength! I’ve had the joy of driving my children in an Easterly direction to school over the last ten years and we have watched the sun rise nearly every morning. As hard as it is to wake up on a dark and cold winter’s morning, the sunrise is exactly what we need to start the day. Here are some ways the Lord ministers to our bodies through the ‘Star of all stars’ that He carefully placed in the perfect spot, 92,935,700 miles from planet Earth:

The Sun:

  • Contains Full Spectrum Light, which increases dopamine and serotonin.
  • Increases Beta-endorphins, which improve mood and reduce pain.
  • Relaxes the nervous system and makes us calmer
  • Decreases need for painkillers by 21% post-surgery.
  • Increases Nitric Oxide, which helps improve blood flow
  • Increases Vitamin D
  • Lowers inflammation (UV is an immunosuppressant)
  • Improves Blood flow, brain function and alertness
  • Increases metabolism
  • Is anti-Microbial – the sun can irradiate large amounts of blood – against fungi, bacteria viruses, etc…
  • Increases CD8 Cells, which help the immune system
  • Breaks down adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones.

In case you’d like to watch the sun rise or set, follow the phases of the moon or explore the treasure ‘vault’ of stars and planets in your region, visit https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/south-africa/johannesburg

No eye has seen

It is too wonderful for words that God is so much brighter and more glorious than even our amazing sun! We cannot even look upon His face and survive (Ex 33:20). It is hard to imagine that when the Lord returns and transforms the earth to its original perfection, God will be the light for us in the day and the night. Our sun and moon, which are so vital for life on earth, are only temporary lights in the sky, but our Creator is eternal, and His light will be all we need.

“The sun will no more be your light by day,
    nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory”. (Isa 60:19).

No wonder Paul wrote:

“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—(1 Cor 2:9).

That will be a day to behold! In the meantime, let us not cut ourselves off from God’s creation, but rather become fluent in the language of awe and joy.

Live it out!

  • In a world that is full of sin, hate, ugliness and destruction, do you take time to lift your eyes and gaze at what is beautiful and good? Allow God’s free gift of the skies to minister to your heart and share it with your family. It is a practical way to live out Phil 4:8:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”.

Coming up!

For the next two weeks on The God Walk we will be looking at the rest of Psalm 19:

Psalm 19:8-11– Seeing God’s face in the Scriptures.

Psalm 19:12-14– Showing God’s glory through our lives.

Worship

Click below to listen to “Indescribable,” sung by Chris Tomlin.

Useful Resources:

  • Fulbright, Exploring Creation with Astronomy; Exploring Creation with Botany; Exploring Creation with Zoology: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day (Reading this amazing series of books with my children was one of the greatest blessings we shared.)
  • Website to visit https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/south-africa/johannesburg
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Abraham’s Dark Night of the Soul

Theology is the study of the nature of God and religious belief.

Abraham’s theology was tested in the laundry room of real experience. So is ours. His belief in God’s faithfulness spent 25 years in the laundry basket of delay. His faith in God’s goodness was whirled about in the washing machine of a risky future, famine and fear. His theology was hung out to dry on the washline of conflict and then pressed under the iron of testing. But when Abraham was around 115 years old, the iron got piping hot in the greatest test of all. God’s command to slaughter Isaac as a burnt offering may have been an acceptable practice in Canaan, but it conflicted with everything Abraham understood about the loving, faithful God who had sworn a covenant and guaranteed it with His own life (Gen 15; 17:19; 21). It made no sense at all. God had assured Abraham that Isaac would inherit the covenant promises—the nation, land, descendants and blessing to the nations. Isaac had been born by a miracle of God from a barren mother in her nineties (Gen 21:1-2). Along with the agony of killing his beloved son who brought laughter to their home, Abraham could not square God’s command with his covenant. Surely we would not blame Abraham if he ditched God at this point and followed his instincts and reason, just as he did in Egypt? “Did God really say…?” must have crossed his mind more than once on that terrible journey. However, Abraham did not delay or argue with God. Abraham’s darkest hour of fear was also his finest hour of faith.

As this ancient father trudged for three days up Mount Moriah with his only beloved son, his torment could only be paralleled by God the Father as His Son journeyed from Gethsemane to Golgotha two thousand years later.

Let us learn from Abraham’s faith in the darkest night of the soul.

Genesis 22

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns.He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

A father and son

In the three dreadful days it took for father and son to walk to the place God had told him about, Abraham had plenty of time to process the sting of God’s command. But time was not the same for the eternal Yahweh. In his sovereignty, God had already provided a ram in the thicket and instructed the angel to stay Abraham’s hand. God knew the outcome of the test but Abraham did not. As God’s faithful friend for over a century, Abraham must have felt that God had turned against him in his old age.

Amazingly, the author does not even mention how Abraham or Isaac felton this journey. Our text only provides painful details of what they did.Just unquestioning, humble obedience and a brief exchange between father and son:

“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Isaac asks his father. “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Gen 22:7-8). As a parent I want to scream at them to run home and abandon this ill-fated excursion!

But, in his darkest hour, haunted by doubt, despair and disorientation, Abraham chose to believe God rather than his perceptions.

The promised son also obeyed, rather than out-run or out-wrestle his aging father. Isaac, a sturdy youth, allowed himself to be bound and placed on the altar, like a meek lamb, a silent sheep before its shearers. One cannot help but see images of the Promised One in Isaiah 53:710.

Father and son’s faithful obedience was not born from a stoic sense of duty, but from a deep conviction that God would miraculously ‘provide’ on the mountain (Gen 22:8Heb 11:171819). They obeyed even though the means of provision remained a mystery.

Abraham teaches us something important about faith in the dark night of the soul which is confirmed by the wise advice of Jon Bloom:

“When your perceptions tell you something different than God’s promises, always, always, always trust God’s promises over your perceptions.” (When Your Worst Storm Comes.)

Father, I pray that you would give me grace to trust and obey you, even when my instincts and feelings pull me in another direction. May I act on your word, even if it leads to the loss of something precious. I cling to the certainty that somehow you will always provide.

Father and Son

Your only son that you love” echoes three times in this story (Gen 22:21215), emphasizing the crux of Abraham’s test:

Isaac was Abraham’s promised seed, but he was also his only, belovedson. It is impossible to miss the parallel with the unique, earth-shattering sacrifice on a nearby hill two millennia later, when the Father of heaven did not spare his only begotten Son:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

 Abraham trusted that God would provide on the Mountain of the Lord. God did indeed provide (Gen 22:813-14): First a ram in the thicket in exchange for Isaac’s life. Then His own Son in exchange for every sinner who believes (Rom 8:32). The truth of God’s provision was revealed to John the Baptist on the day Jesus was baptized,

“Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

“The Ram in the thicket” was a preview of the main feature film, “Jesus The Promised One”! God’s Son was provided on the mountain of the Lord in 33AD.

I wrote a little poem titled “Father and Son

Not a bundle of sticks, but a wooden cross

Borne upon his bloodied back

A Father grieves a precious loss

As noonday sky turns black.

Not a thicket, but a crown of thorns

Frames His disfigured face

“My God, My God!” The Father mourns

As the Son bears our disgrace.

The Father did not stay His hand

When darkness fell upon the land

For His perfect will was finally done

When He did not spare his only Son.

Father, thank you that you loved us so much that you did not withhold your only beloved Son. It was your will to make his life an offering for sin, so that you could suspend your hand of judgment on all who believe (Isa 53:1011). Thank you that your Son saw the ‘light of life’ when He was raised from the tomb and that I am one of those stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore you promised Abraham– a child of the covenant!

Epilogue on Abraham!

We have come to our last devotion in the life of Abraham. I hope you have enjoyed the journey! His remarkable story weaves together the faith, obedience and sacrifice of a flawed man who walked with the Lord and unwittingly became a central pivot of redemptive history. Just so that you know, Abraham saw his son Isaac marry Rebekah, and then went on to live to 175 years, “an old man and full of years, and he was gathered to his people” (Gen 25:7). That is a beautiful epitaph for a great man, isn’t it?

But even greater than the mortal man himself, are the stunning previews of the gospel screened through Abraham’s life two millenia before the appearance of God’s Anointed. Like all of us, Abraham saw through a glass dimly, but he believed that God would do what He had promised, and Jesus commended him highly for this expectant, hopeful faith:

Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:56-59)

Abraham’s faith ebbed and flowed like ours, but Paul makes a stunning statement about God’s promises to Abraham:

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).

Abraham was not blessed because he obeyed and was willing to sacrifice his son, although this pleased God greatly. Abraham was blessed because he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6Rom 4:9Rom 4:22Gal 3:6). Faith in God’s provision made Abraham a friend of God, not his obedience or sacrifices. It is the same for us today. Only Jesus, the perfect God-man, can be our once-for-all sacrifice. Only the Son of God qualifies as the human substitute who stays the Father’s hand of judgment against us (Heb 10:5-67).

Only when we trust in the ‘Lamb’ God provided, do we have the right to call God our ‘Father’ and we are called His ‘friend’.

As children of God, it is only natural that we will want to live a life of sacrifice and obedience, as Abraham did (Hebrews 13:15-16Phil 4:18and Romans 12:1). Sacrifice and obedience are always woven together in the lives of God’s friends, because they are the proof that faith is real (James 2:20-23).

Father, I can scarcely believe that I am called your friend! Help me to trust your promises and build my life on them, regardless of my confused vision. Help me to obey like Abraham and Isaac without needing to know how all the pieces fit together.

A Blessing for fellow pilgrims

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb 13:20-21).

    • Listen to this great hymn sung by Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin: The Wonderful Cross.

Abraham the Advocate

The dictionary defines an Advocate as a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause, a protector or patron. A person who puts a case on someone else’s behalf, who speaks for, argues for, pleads for.

In Genesis 18, at the ripe old age of 99, Abraham humbly but boldly approaches God like an Advocate approaches the bench of a High Court Judge on behalf of a guilty accused (Gen 18:27). Armed with a new name and a secure covenant, Abraham begins to live out God’s promise to make him a blessing to all families on earth (Gen 12:2-317:5).

In this extraordinary interchange, Abraham does not only plead for his nephew Lot and his family to be saved, but also for the contemptible Canaanites who live in Sodom. Like an Advocate for a monstrous criminal, Abraham pleads with God to save his disgraceful client. He begs the just Judge to spare the city’s wicked inhabitants on account of the righteous few who live among them.

In this unique chapter, Abraham points us to the Lord Jesus Christ, the only righteous Advocate qualified to represent sinners in the High Court of heaven. We get a glimpse of our great High Priest, who intercedes and prays to God on behalf of every believer. May this image remind us that we will never face any difficulty alone, as Jesus is pleading our case in the throne room of heaven (Rom 8:34).

My prayer is that this text may encourage us to live as God’s royal Priests (1 Peter 2:9), soft-hearted and bold like Abraham, always ready to serve and intercede in prayer on behalf of our family, friends, city, nation and world– even our worst enemies (Matt 5:44). Only the gospel can spare sinners from the judgment to come (2 Peter 2:69).

Our text today is Gen 18:22-33:

22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

Abraham the Intercessor

In Abraham’s role as pleading priest, he unwittingly provides a peek preview of the Great High Priest who pleads on behalf of believers in the throne room of heaven. Abraham is also an archetype of Christ’s royal priesthood in every generation (1 Peter 2:9). If we are children of God, we are called to be intercessors in our community, no matter how evil it may be and regardless of people’s foolish choices (eg, Lot in Gen 13:10).

The Canaanite community of Sodom and Gomorrah were not nice people (2 Peter 2:6Gen 13:13Ezekiel 16:49). Genesis 18:20 tells us that their sin was grave and their offence great. The “outcry against Sodom” paints a picture of cities without moral boundaries, where the cries of the oppressed and violated were heard by no one except God. Genesis 19 paints a sordid portrait of their vicious debauchery. Many modern contexts spring to mind, where powerless victims of abuse have no protectors, and atrocious evil runs wild.

Yet Abraham poses the question to God five times: “Suppose I find a few righteous people in the city, will you destroy the whole city?” The ‘righteous few’ shrinks from 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 to finally 10 people (Gen 18:242829303132). Each time, God’s reply is laced with grace and mercy, despite the depravity of Sodom. “For the sake of the few, I will not destroy the whole city.” These are not Abraham’s people he is pleading for, but violent, degenerate Canaanites who had previously captured Lot and his family (Gen 14). His appeals on behalf of a pagan city are unique to the Old Testament.

But then Abraham abruptly stops before the punchline! I can imagine him studying the fingers on his two hands as he pleads for God to save the city for the sake of 10 people. He never finishes by asking God what would happen if he found just ONE righteous person in Sodom. Perhaps Abraham realized that he would not find ten good men if he scoured the cities from top to bottom. Perhaps he knew that even Lot, his wife and two daughters had been tainted by what they saw and heard, living day after day in Sodom (2 Peter 2:8). But perhaps the truth dawned on him that “there is no one righteous, not even one. No one seeks God. All have turned aside. No one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). Perhaps Abraham instinctively understood, even without the law or scriptures, that “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). I believe that Abraham knew there was no truly righteous person to be found in Sodom, or on planet earth for that matter.

The Ultimate Go-Between

Abraham could not have foreseen the appearance of one truly righteous man qualified to represent and save the many who deserve judgment– even Abraham himself. He could not have imagined that Yahweh, the just Judge of all the earth would send His Son to earth to die for the guilty, to be their High Priest and Advocate, their Bridge—the ultimate Go-Between and only Mediator between man and God (1 Tim 2:5John 14:6Heb 9:24).

What a wonderful picture this story paints of Jesus as our great High Priest, interceding for us in the throne room of heaven! He who stood like a rock through every temptation; passed every test with flying colours; triumphed through every trial and stayed on the cross when He could have saved himself—that same Jesus is praying for you and me as we face our own trials! He is fighting as our Champion who has conquered death itself. As our Advocate, He is campaigning on our behalf, pleading our case before the Father even when we give him good reason to disapprove and find fault with us. We stand acquitted, forgiven and freed from judgment, only because we are represented by the perfect Mediator of a bettercovenant than Abraham ever had. What a powerful rebuttal when Satan accuses us! Read how the writer of Hebrews describes it:

22 This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.

23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:22-26)

It is good to know that our high priest lives to make intercession for us, but even better to know what He is praying for.

What Jesus prays on our behalf

In the High Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17, the Lord Jesus gives us a peek into some of his pleas for all Christians throughout the ages. Jesus prays:

That we will be kept safe from the evil one (John 17:15); be kept holy in the world (John 17:16); that we would be sanctified by holding tight to the truth of God’s word (John 17:1719); that God would equip and send us out into the world as his emissaries (John 17:18); that we would be credible witnesses as we abide in Christ’s love (John 17:2126); that we would be united with other believers and together shine God’s love for all the world to see (John 17:23), and that we would get safely to heaven to enjoy Christ’s reign forever and ever (John 17:24).

Now that we know Jesus’s prayer requests for us, let us plead and pray these same prayers on behalf of ourselves and those we care about. Even on behalf of our enemies and those we despise. Let us behave as Christ’s priests in our generation, knowing that it is only by grace that we have been called out of darkness to proclaim his wonderful acts to the world (1 Peter 2:9).

What more can we possibly need for this life that the prayers of Jesus haven’t covered?

Pray

Lord, rescue me from the sin of self righteousness. I am no better than Lot or any of the people of Sodom. Help me not to be a critic, a fault finder or a disapprover, but give me eyes to see the grace you have lavished on me to make me your child. Make me your pleading priest in my home, my city, my nation and my generation. I want to be a bridge to lead people to Jesus, the only one who is qualified to take sinners into your presence. Give me energy, boldness and grit to keep interceding in prayer for those who need you. I know you invite me to wrestle with you in prayer and do not despise my sincere appeals. Give me your grace to pray for my enemies and those that hurt me. When all is said and done, may I entrust my future to Jesus, the guardian of my heavenly inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4).

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Meditate on these great words of the hymn “Before the throne of God above” Click here to listen.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands,
My name is written on his heart;
I know that while in heaven he stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because a sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the Just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me
Written by Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841–1923)

Why we should cling to the covenant

“When God makes a covenant he reveals his own job description and signs it.” (John Piper).

However, in Abram’s case, there was a gaping chasm between God’s job description in Genesis 12 and Abram’s reality a decade later. What guarantee did he have that he had not been sent on a wild goose chase? God’s promises must have seemed like a distant dream, not a cause for confidence.

Delay is one of the hardest tests of faith. Like Abram, it sometimes feels like we are on  endless probation. But remember that Abram camped in faith’s waiting room for thirty years! It must have been hard not to doubt God’s goodness and faithfulness. But in Genesis 15, when Abram was around 80 years old, God ‘cut’ a covenant with him and gave him a terrifying, unforgettable  vision. It is one of the Bible’s few theophanies, in which God graciously showed himself to his human friend as a smoking firepot with a blazing torch. During this encounter, God quietened Abram’s quaking heart; answered his honest questions, and offered two tangible signs that He could be trusted. Hebrews explains that God “swore by himself” and showed Abram “the unchangeable character of his purpose” (Heb 6:13-15). It was the ultimate show-and-tell. Today’s text gives us a glimpse into God’s eternal covenant with Abram and his spiritual descendants (Gal 3:29). It is an encouragement to every person who has fled to Christ for refuge and a sober reminder that God himself was torn to pieces to honour his covenant promises. Gospel hope is the only firm and secure anchor for the soul, because it depends on His performance alone (Heb 6:19). That’s why we need to padlock ourselves to God’s promises and cling to His covenant of grace.

Genesis 15

15 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites,Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

Abram believed the Lord (Gen 15:6)

By this time Abram had been in Canaan around ten years with nothing to show for it. No hint of a son and not a patch of land to call his own, much less a nation, a great name and a conduit of blessing to other nations. Abram had successfully launched a rescue mission to get Lot out of Sodom, but apart from this messy victory, he did not have a shred of hard evidence that God’s promises would come true. It is easy for us to skim through Genesis 12 to 21, but Abram was seventy when God first called him out of his comfortable home in Ur, and a hundred when Isaac was born! It was not a quick and easy faith journey.

Despite his limited understanding of the future and unpromising reality, “Abram believed the Lord and God credited it to him as righteousness”(Gen 15:6). Abram was right with God, not because he was a worthyman, but because he took God at his word.

The New Testament tells us that Genesis 15:6 was written not just for Abraham, but also for all “to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rom 4:23-24). Verse 6 applies to Abram and to us, if we have bowed the knee to Jesus.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12; Rom 4; 5:1; Gal 2:163:24Rom 3:23-24).

Do you know for sure you have been made right with God through faith in Jesus?

God stilled Abram’s heart (Gen 15:1)

Verse 1 is one of my favourite verses. God looked into Abram’s quaking heart and knew that his greatest fear was the gap between God’s promises and his disappointing reality.

Is this not also our fear? Do you wonder if God is really a good and faithful Redeemer when you see brokenness in your marriage, your finances, your health and your family? God knows your deepest fears and will not leave you up the creek without a paddle. This is God’s word of comfort to you: “Do not be afraid, I am your shield and your very great reward!”

It is the Lord himself who is our shield and reward, not His blessings and benefits, as much as we love and appreciate them.

Delay does not mean that God has forgotten our plight. If God did not make us wait in prayer; if our lives were always ordered and our path clear, why would we need faith at all? Faith is trusting Jesus for redemption while still in chains. Faith is grabbing his light while in the darkness. Faith is taking refuge in Jesus, while reeling from punches in life’s boxing ring. He is our High Priest who deals gently with our human frailty (Heb 4:14;15;16).

Whom or what are you using as your shield and reward today? What is the anchor of your soul?

God answered Abram’s questions (Gen 15:2; 8)

BUT Abram said….BUT how can I know?” Our BUTS expose the uncertainties which underlie our deepest doubts and fears.

Abram’s awesome but approachable God welcomed his honest, humble questions about the promised son and land. The Lord took his questions seriously and responded with tangible signs. Faith is not immune to doubts, longings and fears, but faith grows when we hand them over to the God who cares. God’s response to Abram shows that He does not dismiss the honest concerns of believers.

As a parent, I know that I cannot fix all my children’s fears or answer all their questions. But I can take their concerns seriously and encourage them to pray their doubts and heartaches to Jesus. I trust that even if He does not provide all the answers, He will reveal his goodness and faithfulness to them. That’s how He answers our questions too.

God gave Abram tangible signs (Gen 15:5; 17)

Not only did God respond with words, but also with tangible signs.

First, Abram wondered how God could give an old, barren couple a child? In response, God took him outside to see the night sky and asked him to imagine his infinite descendants glittering over the vast expanse of the universe (Gen 15:5). I love this visual aid! The sovereign Creator stooped down to his creature-friend to give him a visible pledge. Abram would see this sign each evening when he stepped out of his tent. It was as tangible as Noah’s rainbow.

Second, Abram wondered how God would give a wandering nomad the land of Canaan? It was a legitimate question, as Abram was landless. In response, God rolled back the curtains of the future and showed how He would act on behalf of his people (Gen 15:1013-1618-21).

The gory ritual God acted out while Abram slept under a blanket of “thick and dreadful darkness”, may seem like something out of The Vampire Diaries, but, against the backdrop of Abram’s Mesopotamian culture, it is a covenant with stunning visual effects (Gen 15:9-10):

Whereas we ratify contracts with a signed document of mutually agreed terms and conditions, the Mesopotamians sliced animals into pieces and placed their bloodied flesh on the floor. The two parties bound themselves by walking between the pieces and acting out the breach clause which was clear and brutal: “If I am unfaithful to my contractual obligations, you can do to me what has been done to these bloody, broken animals. You can cut me into little pieces and leave my corpse for the vultures! ” (Jer 34:18).

But instead of God and Abram walking together between the pieces of flesh, the smoking blazing firepot passed through the pieces ALONE (Gen 15:17). The firepot symbolised God himself in his holy, unapproachable perfection (Ex 3:213:21-2214:2419:18Deut 4:11).

Could it be that God was pledging to fulfill the terms and bear the curse of unfaithfulness on behalf of both of them?

It was not a mutual contract at all, but a one-sided, unconditional covenant that God guaranteed with his own life. Its fulfillment and default penalties rested entirely on the Lord, not Abram.

Could Abram have imagined the great and terrible darkness that would descend on the whole land of Israel at noon, while the Lord’s body was broken to pieces? (Matt 27:45). Could he have conceived the scandalous way in which God would pour out his own blood to fulfill his covenant  promises (Matt 26:28Luke 22:19-20)?

Yet, that is exactly what happened when God took on human flesh and was cut off from the land of the living, pierced and crushed for our sins (Isa 53:58). By bearing the curse of our unfaithfulness in 33 AD, God literally “swore by himself,” as he did to Abram in that thick and dreadful darkness. The Lord Jesus, who had no sin, became sin for covenant-breakers like Abram, you and me.

Our soul anchor today

Let’s massage Abram’s story in Genesis 15 deep into our own experience!

When we cling to the covenant, we plead Christ’s promises and trust his grace. We padlock ourselves to God’s trustworthiness and throw away the key!

  • Human beings make and break promises every day in marriage, families, politics and business, because we are all untrustworthy sinners. But God died to guarantee His gospel promises and blessings that belong to all who are “in Christ” (Eph 1:3-14). It is the same gospel that was announced in advance to Abraham (Gal 3:8).

 

  • God’s oath to Abraham and to all his spiritual offspring is the gospel hope that “anchors our soul, firm and secure”. It is like a giant padlock linking us to Christ forever. Our hope is pledged by the tangible sign of the Holy Spirit– the giver of assurance, wisdom and revelation to know Christ better (Eph 1:17-18John 14:16-17).
  • Like Abram found it hard to follow God wherever He led, we are challenged to follow Christ even though our lives are messy and God’s promises seem a distant dream. Jesus commands us to padlock ourselves to Him and throw away the key (John 15:4). Gospel hope takes us spiritually into the “inner sanctuary” of God, and will finally transport us into His  physical presence, where we will worship alongside all His people from every nation (Heb 6:19Rev 7:9-11). What a solid anchor for the soul!

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ” (2 Cor 1:20)

If you are doubting the faithfulness and goodness of God…if you wonder whether you can trust His gospel promises of restoration, redemption and reconciliation…if your faith is weary and weak from waiting…Plead His promises!

Think of Abram and the smoking firepot walking between the pieces. Think of the bloodied, broken body of Jesus on the cross, and ask yourself: “What more could God have done to prove to me that He is trustworthy? Could there be a more tangible sign that He loves me and died to be my Redeemer to the very end?” 

Warm your hands at the fireside of Ephesians 1:3-14 and anchor yourself today to your spiritual blessings in Christ. God knows our tendency to doubt and forget. That’s why he has given us the Holy Spirit to whisper hope in our hearts and padlock us to the Promise Keeper. Could there be a more tangible sign that God will keep his covenant with you right to the end?

“This hope is our anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb 6:19)

Pray

Father, you know me inside out. You know my questions, doubts and fears even before I have words to express them. You know how badly I have broken your covenant again and again and how messy my life is right now. Some parts of my life look beyond redemption to me, and yet I believe that you died to give me an eternal inheritance and to make all things new. Thank you for never giving up on me and being my soul anchor to keep me stable and safe from the raging sea. I look to you to restore those things that seem too hopeless and broken to fix. I pray for patient faith like Abraham’s to cling to your eternal covenant with me. I plead your gospel promises today for me and my family, even though our faith is weak. I hide in the Lord Jesus today, my refuge and very great reward. Holy Spirit, help me to experience the reality of your presence and padlock me to Jesus until I finally meet my heavenly Father face to face, in the company of my father Abraham and all his spiritual offspring.

In Jesus’s name, amen.

Worship Jesus as you listen to There is a Name, by Covenant Worship.

 

Abram the peacemaker

Physical SCARCITY and emotional STRIFE are litmus tests of our heart.

They prove whether our faith is resting in God alone, or propped up by his blessings. They expose the false gods of the heart and reveal our insecurities and discontentment. Scarcity and strife force us into a decision: To choose for ourselves, or trust God to choose on our behalf.

Abram and Lot faced these litmus tests in Genesis 13 when their herdsmen were in conflict over scarce land and resources. Abram’s dealings with Lot show the fruit of genuine repentance and a growing faith. Although the entire land was rightfully his, Abram did not consider it his right to hold close to his chest. Instead, he risked losing the best portions of land to Lot, “entrusting himself to (God) who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Through this family conflict, Abram proved that He trusted God as his shield and his very great reward (Gen 15:1). His peace efforts were motivated by GRACE, rather than by PRIDE or FEAR. Abram was confident of his place in God’s family and chose God’s blessing over what he could see with his eyes or grasp with his hands. As for Lot, he selfishly chose for himself, based on what his eyes desired.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Our text is Genesis 13:

So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.

From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord.

Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.

So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

10 Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) 11 So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company:12 Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. 13 Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.

14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

18 So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord. (Gen 13)

The fruit of genuine repentance

Abram’s faith is a work in progress. In the previous scene, famine and fear propelled him into hasty schemes in Egypt when he chose to trust himself instead of Yahweh (Gen 12:10-20). After grasping at every straw of self-protection, Abram left Egypt in a cloud of disgrace. Today however, we get a snapshot of a repentant man who returns to his previous altar and calls again on the name of the Lord (Gen 13:3-4). Abram shows us that repentance is the only way back when we have backslidden or wandered from the Great Shepherd of our souls. A humbled Abram once again places his confidence in the Lord’s promises and treats his nephew, Lot, with the same undeserved grace that Yahweh showed toward him.

Abram offered Lot an olive branch plucked from the tree of grace.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9).

Genesis 13 is a cameo of a peacemaker in action. It is also a picture of the gospel of grace two thousand years before Christ was born.

Lot should have deferred to his uncle since he owed his existence to Abram (Gen 11:27-28), but in response to this insult, Abram held out an olive branch to his nephew. He overlooked Lot’s offence and gave up his legitimate right to all the land for the sake of reconciliation. Abram valued family relationships more than wealth, pride or status. He took the initiative to be a peacemaker even though he was the older, wiser and more powerful man (Gen 13:8-9).

It is impossible to make sense of Abram’s generous response when we consider Mesopotamian culture, which gave a patriarch absolute authority over his household.

Yet, against the grain of human nature and his culture, Abram repaid Lot’s insult with blessing. Perhaps it had something to do with his recent experience of the grace and forgiveness of God.

Abram responded as a man who knew that he was the heir of God’s blessing which he valued more than anything (1 Peter 3:914). His eyes gazed beyond tents, grass and soil– to a heavenly country –“the city with foundations whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:1016). Even without Scripture to read and before the law of Moses, Abram knew these Biblical truths: “Whoever would love life and see good days…let him seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:10-11). “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:17-1819-21).

Unlike Lot, Abram was not ruled by what his eyes saw, but believed that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous” (1 Peter 3:12).

Abram did not act out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but rather, in humility, valued Lot above himself (Phil 2:3-4). Abram could not have imagined that his descendant would be the Lord Jesus himself “who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”(Phil 2:678). Abram unwittingly had the same mindset as Christ Jesus in his dealings with Lot.

Abram became a minister of reconciliation, just as we are entrusted to be. Our motive for peacemaking is God’s grace, which has been lavished on us when we least deserved it:

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18-19).

Lot chose for himself.

Verse 10 and 11 are pregnant with irony. Lot allowed his worldly eyes to be his guide. Just as Eve “saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye”, Lot’s desires ruled him (Gen 3:6). Instead of seeking the counsel of God or Abram, He chose the best land for himself because he could see how lush it was, “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt”. Ironically, it was Abram’s faithless sojourn in Egypt that had given Lot a taste for the plains of the Jordan.

The land of Lot’s choice was physically fertile, but spiritually barren.

Sodom and Gomorrah’s wickedness is an echo of Genesis 6:5 which describes the great sin of the human race before God destroyed the world with a flood. Verse 10 is an omen of what lay ahead for Lot. He may have initially camped near Sodom, but the next we hear of Lot, he has permanently settled inside the city of Sodom, along with his family. Sin is progressive.

Lot chose to sow his seed in Sodom, and he and his family reaped more wickedness than they could handle (Gen 14:1219:4-56-8Gen 19:30-33). It is impossible to miss the very real danger Christians face when we allow ourselves and our children to set up ‘camp’ close to wickedness as Lot did. We cannot avoid living in the world, but we will not survive as Christians if we allow our culture’s passions, possessions and power to captivate our eyes and our hearts. Lot teaches us that we must remain holy and separate from the rebellion of our culture. Do we realize how much our choices affect our families and future generations? Do we trust the Lord’s choice for our lives, or do we choose for ourselves?

Living by faith and not by sight

Because Abram was not mesmerised by “all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life”, God lifted his eyes to the horizon to survey the land He had picked out for him and his offspring (1 John 2:16Gen 13:14-17). Like an estate agent, he invited Abram to walk the length and breadth of the land and told Abram that there would be no purchase price for this property: “I am giving it to you” (Gen 13:17). It would be another 25 years before Sarah would give birth to Isaac, the first seed of the promise, and about 470 years before Abram’s descendants would finally cross the Jordan river to take possession of Canaan (Josh 14:724:29). Abram lived by faith and not by sight.

Live it out!

Do you see it as your role to be a channel of peace and reconciliation in your family, church and community, as Abram was? Read these New Testament passages and ask how you can practically be a peacemaker.

Matthew 18:15-17

2 Timothy 2:22-26

1 Thessalonians 5:12-135:15.

1 Peter 3:9

Rom 12:17

Pray

Father, give me faith to desire a better country—a heavenly one. Give me eyes to see beyond appearances, conflict and scarcity to your faithful provision and promises. Give me eyes of faith to see that that you alone are my shield and my very great reward. Help me to humble myself under your mighty hand, so that I will make the first move towards peace where there is strife and entrust myself to you–the one who judges justly.

Amen.

From the summit of faith into the ditch of fear

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

When I was a child I was baffled by this idiom. I dreamed up scenarios of rock-hurling inhabitants of little forest greenhouses! (Remember that it was the pre-Google era when people actually applied their minds and imaginations to figure things out!) Eventually Webster’s dictionary clarified the idiom for me:

“People who have faults should not criticize other people for having the same faults.”

This is an apt warning against smugness as we read the story of Abram’s low point in Egypt in Genesis 12. It is easy to criticize Abram’s lapse in faith as he heads down to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan. It is natural to be shocked at his selfish schemes as he leads Sarai to become a concubine in Pharoah’s harem, all to save his own skin! What on earth happened to the bold, intrepid man of faith who followed God’s call into the unknown, the man who boldly built altars and called on the name of the Lord? How did Abram imagine things would turn out for his wife—the future mother of the great nation? Had Abram not heard that husbands should lay down their lives for their wives if the need arises? Did he forget God’s amazing promises (Gen 12:2-3)? Pity he didn’t have Matt 6 and Eph 5:25-28!

But as I hurled rocks of accusation at Abram, I noticed them boomerang right back and heard the faint tinkling of glass around me: “Have I always trusted God for my physical needs and the needs of my family? Have I never reacted prematurely when afraid? Have I never obsessed over a trial instead of praying about it? Have I never responded to danger with alarm and clever deception? Have I always remembered the promises, protection and provision of God? Have I ever been unable to feed my family?” Only when we stand in the shattered glass of our own self-righteousness can we see that the Bible is written about (and for) real people just like us. People who are prone to spiritual amnesia and self-protection. People who are by nature selfish, cowardly and unfaithful. That is why we must never focus on our ‘faith’ to get us through the great tests of life, but only on God’s faithfulness. God’s grace is the only thing that stands between our mountains and ditches of faith. Our texts today are Genesis 12:10-20 and 1 Cor 10:12-13:

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. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 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? 19 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 go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

1 Cor 10:12-13:

12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Plans from panic

Immediately after the spiritual high of his call, Abram faced physical, down-to-earth trials and temptations. He was in Canaan– the promised land– obeying God and enjoying His blessings. But then he was faced with a serious famine, which threatened the survival of his family. When he ran to Egypt to avoid food shortages, he faced another kind of danger: Pharoah, who could perhaps covet his beautiful wife and kill Abram to have her.

Abram faced the fear of CIRCUMSTANCES and the fear of MAN, which every believer will face. Abram had a basic choice, just as we do: Trust God or trust self.

Abram chose his own ingenuity and did not exactly cover himself with glory.

Going down to Egypt

Spiritually speaking, ‘going down to Egypt’ means doubting God’s promises and running to the world for help. Isaiah describes this tendency, which I recognize in myself:

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the Lord,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
    that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
    without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
    and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! (Isa 30:1-2)

The right way is not always the easiest or most instinctive way.

Difficulties are NOT always a sign that we are outside of God’s protection, will and blessing.

We know that God tests our faith through fear, scarcity and danger, “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold… , may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). Testing produces ENDURANCE, proven CHARACTER and HOPE in those who persevere through it, because it teaches us to trust God in ways we wouldn’t in times of plenty (Romans 5:2-5James 1:12).

When the circumstances of life are too difficult and we find ourselves in the furnace of testing, Abram’s failure teaches us to seek wisdom. It is better to remain where God has put us and trust in Jesus, rather than trust in our own hearts. Panic and fear lead to foolish and hasty decisions.

So this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone,
    a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who relies on it
    will never be stricken with panic” (Isa 28:16).

“Those who trust in themselves are fools,
    but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe” (Prov 28:26).

Plans from self preservation

The Bible often warns us against spiritual amnesia (forgetfulness). We must not forget who we are and who God is, as Abram did in his furnace of testing. Abram did not deny God’s existence. He did not curse God for the famine. But He also did not wrestle with God’s promises. He simply forgot how great God is and went about making cunning plans to save himself.

Abram failed to ask for God’s direction or protection. He went into survival mode and then hoped that God would bless his plans and schemes.

Paul reminds us not to trust in our faith or ingenuity, but to look to God, who will provide a way of escape so that we are able to endure it (1 Cor 10:12-13). No trial is an exception to this rule. It is our stubborn and proud hearts that instinctively seek shelter in the shadow of ‘Egypt’ instead of the Almighty: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps 91:1).

As with Abram, fear is a terrible driver of our thoughts and behaviour. The only antidote to fear is to continually turn God-ward rather than in-ward– before we make our plans.

A web of sin

Abram’s panic led to self-made plans. His desire for self preservation led to rash foolishness. His forgetfulness of God led to selfishness, compromise, deceit and sacrifice of his wife’s chastity. When Abram made plans that were not the Lord’s, he added sin to sin (Isa 30:1). He deliberately chose a convenient lie over the truth that Sarai was his wife. He even instructed her to lie on his behalf (Gen 12:13). Abram used the same lie again in Genesis 20, and Isaac did the same to his wife, Rebekah (Gen 26:7-10). Parents are role models to their children– for good or ill. It may have seemed like a small half-truth to Abram and his culture, which viewed women as chattels, but it was a serious offence to God (Gen 12:17).

Abram wandered into sin through the gateway of fear and compromise. The consequences were dire for everyone…for generations.

At first, it may have seemed as if Abram benefited from his lies (Gen 12:16), but the sweetness of sin never lingers long. The poison of deception must have killed Abram’s soul as he saw the line of sheep, oxen, donkeys, servants and camels wafting into his yard…but no Sarai in his house. His ill-gotten gain would have brought him no satisfaction.

We need to hear God’s heart on the sanctity of marriage today:

Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4).

There is no compromise for God. Whatever the prevailing culture says, faithlessness to the marriage covenant is always an offence against God. It was wrong even before God gave Moses the commandments: You shall not commit adultery. You shall not lie (Ex 20:14; 16). Marital faithlessness causes chaos and destroys many in its wake, including children and whole communities. Even the pagan Pharoah knew that what Abram did was wrong and deported him in disgrace (Gen 12:20).

Instead of being a blessing to the nations, Abram’s lie cursed the Egyptians and destroyed his witness there. It is likely that Hagar, (the Egyptian maidservant who bore Ishmael), was one of the gifts that came from Pharoah – payment for Abram’s marital faithlessness. Lot (Abram’s nephew) got a taste for Egypt and would later choose the plains of Sodom as his home, since the land was fertile “like the land of Egypt” (Gen 13:10). Abram’s sin affected generations to come.

Abram learned some painful lessons from Egypt: 1) Live by faith, not fear; 2) Always tell the truth; 3) The end never justifies the means, and 4) Our sins will always find us out. May the Lord help us to learn from Abram’s mistakes without having to repeat them ourselves.

But the greatest lesson Abram would have learned in Egypt is that God is faithful when we are not.

God’s grace in our unfaithfulness

In grace, God intervened and rescued Sarai from Pharoah’s harem. Yahweh had not forgotten his promises to his servant Abram (Gen 12:1-3). If God had not cursed Pharoah’s household with plagues, he may not have known anything was wrong. Pharoah did not harm Abram and sent him away with Sarai and all their goods. In mercy, God did not give Abram what his sin deserved. Despite all Abram’s wrongdoing, God worked all things together for his good and God’s glory. God never left Abram, but he did allow Abram’s sin to work itself out.

I’m sure Abram did not speak of his time in Egypt with pride. He probably lived all his life with pangs of regret and remorse—especially when he looked into the eyes of his wife, Serai, and saw those stupid animals which were a reminder of his ill-gotten lobola. But you will never find this failure mentioned in the New Testament, because God forgave Abram’s sins and kept no record of them. He chooses not to remember the faults of his repentant children, because He has judged our sin in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Despite Abram’s faithlessness, God remained faithful to his covenant with Abram. The book of Hebrews describes the covenant God has made with each and every sinner who puts our trust in Jesus:

This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people…

12 For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”(Heb 8:12).

Only Abram’s faith is remembered, not his failure. Like Abram, the only difference between our faith and failure is the grace of God. That’s encouraging but humbling also.

Pray:

Father, help me to think of myself with sober judgment, knowing that even the measure of faith I have is a free gift of grace you have assigned to me (Rom 12:3). Lord, please sustain and strengthen my faith so it may stand the test of fear.  Please help my unbelief! Help me to trust you during the furnace of testing so that my faith can grow deeper and stronger. Thank you for your grace, which is the only reason I am your child in the first place and the only reason my faith will endure to the end. Breathe your faithfulness into me, so that I may give you the glory in everything. Help me to fear you, rather than what circumstances and people can do to me.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship as you sing “I will wait for you”, by Shane and Shane.

Abram: Faith Faces An Uncertain Future

The Wild Coast is dubbed the “graveyard of ships”. This section of eastern Cape coastline is known for its pounding breakers, cauldron currents and treacherous rocks which have smashed and swallowed thousands of ships. One was an East-India vessel called the Grosvenor on its voyage from India to England in 1782. It carried 150 people and large stashes of gold, cash and diamonds. Stephen Taylor’s intriguing book titled Caliban’s Shore– The Wreck of the Grosvenor and the Strange Fate of Her Survivorspieces together the true story of the 91 crew and 18 wealthy British passengers who made it to shore and their fate thereafter: Of the 123 initial survivors, only six eventually reached the safety of a frontier farm and a further twelve were later rescued. All 18 survivors were the strongest and fittest young men on the ship, under the age of 29. The remaining 105 wandered aimlessly up and down and eventually starved to death, drowned in rivers, disappeared in dense forests, and fell victim to animals, local tribesmen, dysentery, sunstroke, scurvy and exhaustion. Two men and at least four women and children were permanently assimilated into local Pondo and Xhosa tribes. It is believed that the latter became wives and mothers in these villages. What struck me most was that the fate of the passengers was sealed by their weak Captain, John Coxton. Owing to flawed judgment, leadership and character, Coxton caused the group to splinter in different directions. Worst of all, he abandoned the women and children under his care in an attempt to save his own skin (and bag of diamonds). In the end, he saved neither. Captain Coxton is not remembered today for his heroism.

The Wreck of the Grosvenor made me think of the ancient heroes of Hebrews 11 who were commended by God because of their faith while they lived as strangers in an inhospitable land (Heb 11:21339). Unlike Captain Coxton, these heroes of the faith are like a line of footprints in the sand for Christians to follow. They teach us not to give up or wander about aimlessly on our journey home (Heb 12:1-3). They teach us to be bold and intrepid in the face of uncertainty. They show us what “Perseverance of the Saints” looks like in the messiness of life. However, the Bible makes no attempt to airbrush or photo shop their stories. The Scripture records frankly how they fared in various tests, revealing that the heroes of the faith were not very different from ourselves. Sometimes their faith was steadfast, but often it faltered and buckled to fear, pressure, unbelief and impatience.

The flawed ‘heroes’ of Hebrews 11 show us that God is the true hero of every journey of faith.

We have already looked at Abel, Enoch and Noah’s faith. For the next few weeks on The God Walk, we will look dig into the lives of Abraham and Sarah. Our texts are from Hebrews 11 and Genesis 12:

Hebrews 11:8

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 

Genesis 12:1-12

Now the Lord said  to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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 dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

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 that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came 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 offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.From there he moved to the hill country 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 upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.

Believe and obey—the heartbeat of Abram’s faith

These nine verses mark a pivotal point in God’s plan of salvation. God took the initiative and called an ordinary man and his wife out of idolatry. Abram and Sarai were no more holy than everyone else in Ur. God chose a liar and a future polygamist to be the father of all who believe (Gen 12; 20; Gen 16:3Gen 25:1).

God called Abram to believe his word and leave everything that was comfortable and secure–To go towards an uncertain, uncomfortable future that God would show him. Abram believed God’s promises and obeyed his call. His faith wobbled many times along the pilgrimage, but this intrepid response to God’s call is the heartbeat of his faith. Volumes could be written about the call of Abram and God’s promises to him, but I will focus on just a few thoughts regarding Abram’s faithful obedience to God’s call.

Abram’s call demanded his all.

Abram’s unequivocal obedience to leave and go was uncomfortable and costly. There was no halfway house or return ticket to Ur. God’s call took Abram right outside of his comfort zone.

So Abram went, as the Lord told him” is a stark, simple record of obedience. God had revealed his explicit instructions to Abram while living in Ur, and Abram had taken God at his word and set out for Canaan with his wife (Sarai), father (Terah) and nephew (Lot), leaving his clan behind in Ur. Terah only got as far as the town called Harran, where he died aged 205 (Gen 11:10-32).

Yahweh called Abram to give up all he had ever known to follow wherever God led.

It must have been a mighty convincing revelation! Abram’s call meant leaving the comfort and protection of his clan, job and contacts in Ur– no small sacrifice in a world ruled by raiders and wars. Abram and Sarai uprooted themselves on the basis of God’s naked word.

They sacrificed a known, sure future– for a dangerous, uncertain one. Uncertainty did not paralyse them.

They gave up the sophisticated community of Ur and its culture of libraries and learning– to pitch their tent as strangers. There would be no welcoming committee from the Canaanites who practiced child-sacrifice and public prostitution to coax blessing from their fertility gods– Baal and Asherah. Abram and Sarai left the wealth and privilege of their extended family– to trust in God’s provision alone. Their faith was bold.

Abram’s faith held tightly to what he could not see, rather than what his culture deemed important. By faith, he pitched temporary tents while building permanent altars to the Lord (Gen 12:7-8Heb 11:9).

Abram built altars wherever he went.

Abram traded the familiar lunar gods of Mesopotamia to worship Yahweh, whom he could not see. He swapped the great Ziggurat (temple) of Ur for altars he built out of stone, first in Schechem and then among the hills between Ai and Bethel (v 7 and 8).

God promised to make Abram’s name great, but instead Abram built altars to the Lord and “called” (qârâ) on the name of the Lord. Qârâ means to ‘proclaim’, ‘call out to’, ‘preach’ or ‘accost.’ It is poignant that he built altars on the southern and northern borders of the promised land of Canaan—symbolically taking possession of the land before it was given to his descendants. He boldly built an altar under the oaks of Moreh where soothsayers practiced divinations and sorcery, bringing Yahweh’s light to his dark pagan world (Gen 12:6;7).

In the previous chapter of Genesis, people had built the Tower of Babel to make a name for themselves, but Abram built altars to proclaim God’s name instead of his own (Gen 11:4).

In building altars, Abram consecrated himself and his family for God’s glory. Abram lived not for his own greatness, but for the fame of God.

Abram believed against all hope.

God’s promises seemed far-fetched and impossible.

Sarai was barren and getting on in years—but God promised that through a family of his own, Abram would become a great nation that would enjoy God’s blessing (Gen 12:2-3).

Abram was unknown – but God promised that his name would be great (Gen 12:2).

Abram and Serai were childless—but God promised that Abram would be a conduit of blessing to all families (nations) on earth (Gen 12:3).

Abram was a nomad in a land inhabited by formidable pagans—but God promised to give his descendants the land (Gen 12:7).

Abram did not waver in believing that God would fulfill his promises.

Romans 4:18-20 is a commentary of how Abram walked by faith and not by sight:

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

By faith, Abram was fully convinced that God would do what was humanly impossible. Likewise, God calls all believers to believe God’s promises to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Abram’s call announced the gospel.

God’s ‘impossible’ promise to Abram was, “In you all families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3). Later God confirms this promise in a covenant, “Behold my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4).

Our God is astounding! Four thousand years ago, when God called Abram, He knew his promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, would come to earth and ‘pitch his tent’ among us as Abram did in the land of Canaan (John 1:14). He made sure Jesus was a direct descendant of Abram (Matt 1:1). God knew that his Son would be the ultimate fulfillment of these promises to Abram, opening the way for any person, from any nation, to become a child of Abraham through faith in Jesus. He knew every man, woman and child who would become ‘heirs’ of His promises. God knew about you and me if we are believers and followers of our Lord Jesus today! Paul states clearly:

The call of Abram was the first Gospel announcement!

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 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.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (Gal 3:7-8)

God’s call to go the nations

Jesus’s call to every believer is to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation, making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands. His promise is that He will be with us always, to the very end of the age (Mark 16:15Matt 28:18-20).

Hudson Taylor believed God had called him to China to do exactly this. In 1865 on Brighton beach he told God that he would go anywhere, do anything, suffer anything. He asked God to give him the guidance and provision He would need. He knew it was a call to a rugged life that would be hard on his body and would require complete dependence on God and not on any man. He began preparing by exercising his body, sharing the gospel and serving medically in the poorest slums of his hometown. He moved out of his comfortable home and lived among the poor, renting a cold, unfurnished apartment and existing on a very sparse diet. He embraced every opportunity to trust God for physical needs. Eventually, Hudson and his wife Maria, led the way for thousands of missionaries to proclaim the gospel in all the provinces of China through ‘China Inland Missions’. Through the Boxer Rebellion, serious illnesses, deaths of his wife and four of his eight children, Hudson continued to yield himself to God’s call on his life. In 1900 there were 100 000 Christians in China. Today there are probably around 150 million. Hudson’s statement of faith was simple:

“Depend upon it, GOD’S work done in GOD’S way will never lack GOD’S supplies.”

I ask myself today whether I am prepared to experience even slight discomfort and uncertainty to channel the blessings of the gospel to strangers, friends and family on my doorstep?

Live it out!

It is important not to read ourselves into Abram’s story, but it is also impossible to miss the features of faith that should be visible in every believer:

  • Do you obey God without hesitation as Abram did? Jesus said that obedience is the external evidence that we are Abraham’s children: “Abraham is our father,” they answered “If you were Abraham’s children,… then you would do what Abraham did” (John 8:39). Faith has nothing to do with ethnicity, church membership or being better than others. But true children of Abraham trust in God’s promised Saviour and then follow him in obedience.
  • Have you experienced a “leaving” and “going” in your life? It may not be geographical, but God’s call never leaves us where He finds us spiritually. Jesus did not invite us to a safe, private faith, but to a lifetime of denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following him (Luke 9:23-25). We are called to let go of cultural practices and thinking which do not conform to Christ.
  • Do you rely on God’s promises today and look to the future with hope? Faith is childlike dependence on God, one day at a time (Matt 18:1-4). His work in us in never finished until the day He takes us home.
  • Does your faith shine with joy and life to those in your culture? God calls us out of this world to declare his praises (1 Peter 2:9); to worship wherever we go (1 Cor 10:31) and let our light shine in our pagan world (Matt 5:16), just as Abram did in his.

Pray:

Father, thank you that you loved the world so much that you gave your only beloved Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. I hold tightly to this firm promise and I believe you when you say that we are saved by faith– in Jesus alone. Thank you for your provision and for the many wonderful blessings of life I enjoy, but I ask that you would loosen my grip on the comforts of this world so that they would not become my idols. I believe you when you say that I am a child of Abraham– your own beloved child. Today I offer you every encounter, every unique moment of my short life, and lay it down– like bread cast on the waters– to be used for your glory. I pray that when I face uncertainty for myself and my family, I will boldly obey and trust you to provide for every need. I trust you to equip me for every good work you have planned in advance for me to do. I trust that I will be in the presence of the Lord Jesus the moment I die. I believe you will return to restore the new heavens and new earth better than my wildest imaginings. I pray for grace not to hold anything back from you in the days you give me on earth. I ask for an intrepid, obedient faith like Abram’s.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship as you sing the hymn, Take my Life and Let it be, Consecrated Lord to Thee. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0Byp7aK2DA