He is here
It is wonderful to consider the way in which God, who measures the cosmos with a single span, is able and willing to focus on a single individual. I sometimes think of it as one of those ‘zooming in’ sequences we see in films and adverts. This is one of the wonders of the Bible revelation of God. Some religions have a god who is so transcendent that ‘nothing on earth touches Him’; one worldwide religion teaches that if the whole world were saved it would give God no pleasure, and if the whole world were lost He would shed no tears. Some religions teach that god is constantly ‘under our feet’; he is everywhere, in every stone and stream and must be placated with careful sacrifice and ritual. The Bible teaches that God is, at one and the same time, Transcendent and Immanent. (immanent means ’permanently everywhere’, imminent means ‘about to happen’.) Although the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, He holds all things in His hands, and, at the same time, He is here. Go on, tell yourself some truth, speak the words, “He is here”.
Abraham was a descendent of Shem and hence Semitic. He was also a descendent of Eber and hence Hebrew. [Gen 11:10,15, 26] However, there was nothing inherently remarkable about Abraham, until God chose Him. It seems that when God embarks upon a campaign of reclamation He always chooses a human beachhead. My dictionary tells me that a beachhead is ‘a military term for a fortified position established on a beach by landing forces’. When God was about to reclaim the human race in the days of Genesis 6, He chose ‘a fortified position’ whom we know better as Noah. In Noah, God had landed. God re-peopled the earth from this ‘fortified position’ and the immediate danger of a world taken over by a race graphically described in Gen 6:5 was averted…
the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
What a terrible description… only evil, continually. Invariably, unendingly evil. The flood was an act of mercy for our race.
one man standing
There is an important truth to grasp from the story of Noah and the Flood. God’s covenant of salvation was made with Noah. Read Genesis 6-9 again, if possible in an archaic translation that will let you see the personal pronoun ‘thou’. God’s dealings were all with Noah. God’s covenant of salvation was with Noah personally. All those who enjoyed that salvation are described by their relationship to Noah himself; Noah, Noah’s wife, Noah’s sons, the wives of Noah’s sons. Everything hinges on Noah. Noah is God’s beachhead. God’s promises are to Noah but those who are rightly related to Noah benefit from them.
God’s purpose with Abraham was different, but he too would become God’s beachhead. In Abraham too, God had landed. God’s promises to Abraham were all made to Abraham personally.
And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. [Gen 12:2,3]
We notice again that the blessings are all personal to Abraham and the relationship of others to Abraham will determine their destiny and their own blessing, or otherwise.
I wonder what Abraham made of the first part, “I will make of thee a great nation”. We need to put ourselves into Abraham’s sandals and think what did he understand from this? How did he understand nationhood? How do we? In the 3rd Century BC the Old Testament was translated into Greek. For the Hebrew word ‘nation’ the Greek Septuagint translation used ‘ethnos’. Ethnos can mean a nation state, but it can also mean a people bound together by a culture and history. I doubt that Abraham was thinking in terms of nation states and dynasties, but here was a promise that Abraham would not remain alone. Others would be added who would share his culture and history, and his destiny. Abraham’s people ultimately would be identified by their trust in God and their abandonment to Him.
I will bless thee…
And what a wonderful word this is; I will bless thee. People can bless people; Melchizedek will bless Abraham, Jacob will bless Pharaoh, but what a promise this is that God would take personal charge of Abraham’s blessing. We shall see Abraham later, turning from those who would bless him in earthly ways, lifting his hand and rejecting all riches that did not come from God. This is a challenge to our day. What do we want? Do we want blessing or do we want God’s blessing? In some circles we hear that kind of language, “have you received the blessing?” What are we seeking, blessings or the Blesser?
The blessing continues with promises that God will make thy name great; literally I will cause it to grow. With God, growth is always more important than size. Growth is a sign of life, size is not. Consider the lilies, see how big they are? No, consider the lilies, how they grow. How do they grow, by the way? They abide in the place of their planting, and God brings everything necessary to them, in the place of their abiding. Strange, isn’t it, that some people will cross oceans to get a blessing, when all they needed to do was abide in the place of God’s choosing?
be a blessing
And the last personal word of the blessing? The KJV says and thou shalt be a blessing, but the ASV translators spotted something that they were able to capture in their version. They noticed that the mood of the verb was imperative; that is to say not a promise but a command.
I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.
Abraham would be blessed. There was no doubt about it, but the ultimate purpose of Abraham’s blessing was not his own personal benefit but that he, in turn, would become a blessing… in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
He was to be God’s beachhead; a fortified position established on a beach by landing forces. He was just the starting place for an amazing campaign of reclamation; so are you. The blessings that God brings into your life are not intended to make you a shining museum trophy. You are God’s point of contact with those men and women around you. In you, God has landed. You are the way in which God has determined to bless men and men around you. It’s the way we faith-sons of Abraham (of either gender), do things. It is part of our culture and history; it’s the way we do things in our family.
be thou a blessing… in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
It is a very obscure verse and seldom preached on but it gives a unique insight into the gracious care of the creator.
How lovely are your dwellings, Jehovah of Hosts! My soul longs, and even faints for the courts of Jehovah. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Yes, the sparrow has found a home, And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young, Near your altars, Jehovah of Hosts, my King, and my God. Psa 84:1–3 WEB.
What would a sparrow be doing in the Tabernacle? Imagine the bustle, the priests moving to and fro, the bleating of the sheep, the flames on the altar spitting and flaring. And yet the psalmist has noticed something and it has touched his heart. In the midst of all this activity, sweat, and blood a sparrow has found a place where she can settle. A home in the holy place.
Sparrows aren’t swallows. They don’t soar in graceful arcs above the storms of life. They struggle to get a few crumbs to keep their poor bodies alive. In the last few months I have experienced the sudden loss of two of God’s sparrows. They were both elderly women whose lives had been completely disrupted by events that were far beyond their control.
The first had sustained serious injuries in a car accident when she was a child. She never regained her full cognitive abilities. She lived alone and had few, if any, real friends. Her relatives had moved abroad years previously. I don’t know how she came to attend our meetings but she found a spot near the radiator and nestled. Slowly she was drawn into the family of the church and revealed extraordinary skill in knitting. She knitted dozens of beautiful little coats for the Unuit children. She had found her own place in our church family. The sparrow had found a home. A few months ago she flew the nest into the loving arms of One who always noticed the sparrows.
The second was an elderly women whose life seemed to have been dogged by tragedy. She lost all her children in their early years, one by one, through a degenerative hereditary condition. Later her husband died in an accident with a gas leak. She was crushed. Her emotions and thinking processes were just overwhelmed with the enormity of the tragedies that had broken, wave upon wave, upon her life. She was taken into a local mental hospital and well cared for but her life was a routine of pointless events. Why would she take the trouble to make the effort to live? What would the next wave bring?
A young woman from the church came into contact with her and in spite of the disparity of ages they became friends. She began to come to the meetings and was taken into the heart of several families. Slowly she emerged from the shell of her existence. Her sense of humour surfaced. She spent many hours with the saints and was regularly in the meetings. She began to enjoy the hymns and developed some personal favourites. She managed to find a place in a care home just a hundred yards or so from the meeting hall. She was often early to the meetings and greeted her friends with a broad smile of welcome. She had found her own place in our church family. The sparrow had found a home. She flew the nest early this month and we attended a sweet little thanksgiving and burial service just this week.
It is easy to develop a picture of ‘church’ that is straight from the glossy advertising folder. Lots of bustle and activity. Our sparrows would have struggled to make it in the mega churches. They never aspired to ministry. They wouldn’t have understood the concept. They never became burden bearers or prayer warriors. They never evangelised the neighbourhood . But they found a home prepared for them by God, a corner where they knew they were loved and safe and where they could nestle. Whatever your vision and mission statements, be sure you keep a place in your heart for the sparrows. God does.
I am an accidental Arminian. By that I mean I have not ‘signed up’ to Arminius’ theology but as I discover it I find a fellow traveller. For some time I have been convinced that the main thrust of the Biblical doctrine of Election was not a ‘non conditional personal’ topic but rather one of the ‘conditional corporate election of those in Christ’. This is pretty much exactly Robert Shank’s thesis in this excellent book. It is a long time since I read a book that I wanted to underline so frequently. Happily with the kindle version I can do that readily.
The book is a follow up to an earlier book, not yet available in Kindle, entitled “Life in the Son”. In these two books Shank thoroughly examines Calvinism’s P and U of the infamous TULIP blueprint. “Life in the Son” examined the “Perseverance of the Saints” and “Elect in the Son” covers the “Unconditional Election” theme and, at the same time all the other letters of the TULIP. In fact Shank quotes from “Life in the Son” and so this “Elect in the Son” is fully self-standing as an examination of TULIP. Thus we have a comprehensive examination by an Arminian of the distinctive features of Calvinism. And, in my view, I doubt that it could be more comprehensive. The book was originally written in the 70s so the names of contemporary big hitters on the Calvinism team are missing but in as much as the likes of Packer, Piper, Carson and Driscoll are following well-trodden paths Shank’s arguments stand up well in this book.
Shank divides his topic into
- Thy Kingdom Come
- Elect in the Son
- A Ransom for All
- The Election of Grace
- The Called according to His Purpose
and has two very valuable Appendices in
- The Question of the Order of the Decrees
- An Examination of the Rationale of Calvinism
The second of these appendices covers Calvin’s own stated rationale in the introduction to the various editions of Institutes of the Christian Religion. This, on its own, would provide a cautionary introduction to Calvin’s writings and the position of his followers.
Shank is respectful to Calvin, honouring his contribution and labours in many fields, particularly Calvin’s Biblical commentaries. He ‘plays the ball and not the man’ as the English say. He does not detour into medieval politics or the thorny Serverus issues but concentrates simply on the theology of the matter. And this is a theological book. To get most benefit you will need some theological reading background and at least ‘access’ to some New Testament Greek. It is also a book written by a man of an older generation and some of his sentences are as long as Paul’s! So be prepared to read them slowly, and thoughtfully. So this is a study tool and you will need your Bible to hand to check out some his references.
Having said that, if you are willing to invest the time and thought required into the book you will be richly rewarded. His method is logical and precise. Some call that pedantry but it is what is sorely needed in this kind of topic. The warmth of his love for God and His purposes permeate the book so this is not dry theology, but it is theology. I thoroughly recommend this study and give it 5 stars.
Chapter Two: The Blessing
It is time now to examine the Blessing. Thus far we have identified Abraham as an ordinary man who became an extraordinary man. He was born into no special family and had no special advantages but he is a man with an amazing destiny. My purpose in making such a leisurely start has been to emphasise that in choosing Abraham God did not choose a star or a man with all the right qualifications. What God has done once He can do again, and what He has done with one He can do with another. Why not you, why not now?
Let’s see if we can reconstruct the events of the Blessing. We have two accounts and we shall see if we can combine them to discover the original scenario. One of the questions we must answer is “Was there one call, or two”. Where was Abraham living when God pronounced this blessing? Was it in Ur of the Chaldees or 600 miles to the North West, in Haran?
Stephen tells us plainly that it was in Ur that God appeared to Abraham.
And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, And said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee. Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell. [Acts 7:2-4]
first, obedience by faith…
A careful examination of Stephen’s words will show that this is not the promise of blessing that we find in Genesis 12 but a series of separate commands; “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee.” It links very neatly with the letter to the Hebrews where an important truth is almost lost by the position of a verb. The KJV says
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. [Heb 11:8 KJV]
The verb is pushed to the end of the sentence. The original word order is captured much better in the NKJV By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called… The first word to Abraham was not the promise of a blessing but a command to obey; faith, of course, is necessary for such obedience. This was not a conditional promise, it was a non-conditional command; and Abraham obeyed. So too pilgrims in our own age must bow the knee to become heirs of the promise,
And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent [Acts 17:30].
God’s first word to us is a command not a promise and “all men, everywhere” doesn’t leave many escape clauses.
I suspect that the best known translations of Gen 12:1 have based their translation on evidence gathered from Acts 7 and have “Now the LORD had said”. This “had said” pushes the next verses back to Ur, but there is no real reason to have translated it like this. It simply says as in the ASV
Now Jehovah said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee: and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed. So Abram went, as Jehovah had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.
…then the blessing
When did God say this? Well, the end of this section has the location as Haran. In other words this is a second encounter. The first was a revelation of God in Ur of the Chaldees with a command, the second is a word which comes to Abraham years later and one which adds a series of blessings to the original series of commandments. The first half of the message is a repeat of the original, but the second part is just full of ‘blessing’.
If this scenario is true we can construct an interesting history for Abraham. Abraham’s departure from Ur was triggered by the circumstances of his father’s migration AND by a clear word of command from God who appeared to him. Terah was heading for Canaan; Abraham had no idea where he was going, but went anyway. When the clan arrived at Haran they settled down. Later Haran is referred to as the city of of Nahor [Gen 24:10]; that branch of the family had found all they wanted in Haran and saw no need to further their journey. Terah died here. The story could well have died here too except that Abraham had a second encounter with God who reminded him of the original command and added that series of amazing blessings;
and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
This is enough for Abraham. He loads up and moves on, leaving Haran behind. The truth that excites me in this account is what we might call the gospel of the second chance. Now, I know that evangelicals can get very worried about that kind of language, but what I mean is simply the truth captured in Jonah 3. Jonah had ‘blown it’; he was the ‘prodigal’ prophet. The consequence had been ejection into the storm and finally a place in the stomach of a great fish. When you have ‘blown it’ do you ever feel ‘down in the mouth’? No-one was ever so ‘down in the mouth’ as Jonah! But what a prayer!
When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD. [Jon 2:7]
here come the prodigals
The Prodigal Son came to himself, the prodigal prophet remembered the LORD. In Jonah chapter 3 the story just flows on without a break and with the words And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time. Oh Hallelujah, this is the God of all grace, Who comes the second time.
GREAT God of wonders! all thy ways
Display the attributes divine;
But countless acts of pardoning grace
Beyond thine other wonders shine:
Who is a pardoning God like thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?
Perhaps someone who reads feels that they have ‘blown it’. Prodigals! The Bible is full of them; prodigal sons, prodigal kings, prodigal wives, prodigal prophets, prodigal apostles. Men and women who started well; they began with such courage but somehow they find themselves in Haran, and the vision has dimmed. “You were running well, who hindered you?” Is it too late now? Not while we have a God who will speak the second time, and with such grace, adding to what He has already said.
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him. [Gen 12:4] So here he is, back on the flight path; a fresh start with even greater possibilities. My old Bible School principal used to say “can the bird with the broken wing ever fly as high again?” then he would pause, smile and say “no… higher!”
Chapter One: Beginnings
The story of Abraham’s family begins with a little list of sons and daughters which comes to an abrupt stop; “but Sarai was barren she had no child”. Perhaps it’s something to do with the wonder of the inspired scripture but as I read the words, 40 centuries later, I can still feel the pain. She lives in the bosom of her family, in relative prosperity. She is a handsome woman with a loving husband. What more could she want? “But Sarai was barren she had no child”.
The book of Proverbs has lots of lists too. It lists four unquenchable hungers; things which cannot be satisfied or put off. Four hungers which know no rest and no respite; the grave, the barren womb, the parched earth, the raging fire. [Prov 30:16] The insistence of these four hungers submits to no reason. In Sarah this unsatisfied longing was to lead to a short term compromise whose repercussions are with us 40 centuries later, but that is farther into our story. Sarah’s hunger led her to the conclusion that ‘something must be done’ not realising, as Oswald Chambers said, that “despair is ever the gateway of faith”. It seems to me that frustration is always a call to prayer, never to action. Achievements motivated by frustration always carry bitter seeds.
My soul, wait thou in silence for God only; For my expectation is from him. [Ps 65:2 ASV]
The relatively new Hebrew word “frustration” did not appear in Hebrew until the mid-seventies, and in fact, before it was absorbed into the language, people who spoke only Hebrew were never “frustrated”. They may have been “angry” or “disappointed” or they may have experienced a sense of turmoil in certain situations, but the angry label of frustration itself was unknown to them until the word for it was translated from the English language. Sometimes it is good to force ourselves to use a different word. If we were not allowed to use the word ‘frustration’ and had to use another in its place we might make an interesting discovery. ‘Frustration’ always has a solution as long as someone else will do something. “I am frustrated, and it is his fault.” If I force myself to use the word ‘angry’ or ‘disappointed’ it opens up another solution; I am the problem. Christians have long had an alternative spelling for ‘disappointment’, they change the ‘d’ to an ‘H’. Frustration is usually just a sign that God is not allowing me to be god, and I am discovering that I don’t like the idea.
There are a surprising number of stories in the Bible relating to childlessness. When God introduced Himself to Moses He called Himself the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Did you notice that each one of these men had a wife who was barren? Was this part of the pain that caused them to seek God? We subsequently read that the sons of both Rebekah and Rachel were born in direct answer to prayer. [Gen 25:21, 30:22] but what of Sarah? Did she pray? Did Abraham? And when you have prayed, what do you do then?
another ‘hungry’ couple
There is a wonderful illustration of answered prayer in Luke’s gospel. The issue was the same; childlessness. Zechariah and Elisabeth have the greatest marriage testimony in scripture.
They were both righteous before God, walking in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. [Luke 1:6]
This would be exceptional if it referred to one person, but this verse plainly says both. Their walk together would have begun when they were young folk in the hills in Judaea. Their marriage would have been accompanied by prayer for children and Elisabeth would have breathed her silent amens. As the early years passed well meaning friends would have offered their condolences; “don’t worry dear, it will be alright, you wait and see.” And they did wait, and the years passed, and more years passed, and still they waited…
Through all these years of heartache, and it had other painful connotations in their culture, they maintained their walk in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. They never became hard and critical, never became bitter, just kept on walking in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. What a pair! At some point in their long wait Zechariah had prayed. Of course, he had prayed often, but there was one particular time he prayed… How do I know? Because of Gabriel’s word to him;
‘Fear not, Zacharias, for thy prayer was heard, and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear a son to thee, and thou shalt call his name John. [Luke 1:13 Literal]
This is a reference to a single prayer that was heard sometime in the past.
in His way and in His time
I have no doubt that Zechariah knew exactly which prayer Gabriel was referring to. I think that at some point he had poured his heart out to God. He had known it was different, that he had ‘got through’. Perhaps he returned and kept the secret in his heart, and the years passed, and more years passed. And the memory grew dim, and they ‘both were now well stricken in years’. The last hopes faded and still they walked in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. When God hears prayer He doesn’t always change things immediately, but change they will… in His way and in His time.
Sometimes when we pray we know that our prayer is heard. To continue to pray when we know the prayer has been heard would be pointless. Worse, we could conceivably pray ourselves from faith back into unbelief. There is no longer a need to pray when the prayer is heard. Now all that is needed is patient waiting upon God. This was Elijah’s pattern. He prayed once but sent his servant seven times, and while the servant was to-ing and fro-ing Elijah was waiting upon God, his face between his knees.
So what are your secret sorrows? From the outside all looks well and all your peers are impressed but deep within you have those deep-rooted hungers. Child of God, lay hold of God in prayer, let the tears flow, be honest, tell Him how you feel; God cannot change the person you are pretending to be! But when you know He has heard, stop pestering Him. Trust it all into His hands. Hold it before Him in expectation. David’s simple testimony was
this poor man cried, and the LORD heard him. [Ps 34:6]
It was from the pain and joy of her own experience that Elisabeth was able to bring a unique encouragement to a young woman who was just beginning to carry an amazing promise;
And blessed is she that believed; for there shall be a fulfilment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord. [Luke 1:45]