Just trying to touch all the bases and ensure that everyone hears this who ought to…
In February we conducted our first ‘focus event’ in Bracknell, Berkshire, England and many said how much they appreciated it and were blessed. Me too! Thank you for being part of it in prayer, support, presence! Now we want to ensure that others are blessed too so we are heading for Scotland. I’m sharing the coordination of the Scotland Focus Event with Ian Macmillan, and old and faithful friend. (not so old!)
A weekend conference in a Scottish castle.
Our venue will be a castle! Tulliallen Castle in Fife. We have accommodation for all who want to join us. You can come for the whole weekend with full bed and board, as we say in the UK. (bedrooms with en-suite, and full meals). There will be no formal charge but opportunity will be given for any to make a contribution to the costs of the weekend. We want to be sure that no one is missing due to lack of funds, so we look forward to seeing you all. More details on the website.
New Covenant Priesthood: His and Ours
Our topic for the ‘focus’ this time will be “New Covenant Priesthood: His and Ours.” And our speakers will include Ron Bailey and Robert Wurtz II from the Delaware Christian Fellowship in Independence, Missouri. Robert is another old and faithful friend (not so old!) who has been a constant support and encouragement to the work of biblebase for many years. Robert has authored several books and is a regular blogger and YouTube presence and well as being a contributor to various biblebase forums.
Come and join us… and book in today.
Over many years we have been blessed with visits to England from various brothers in Scotland. Their faithful presence at meetings in the ‘deep south’ (of England) have been a challenge and encouragement to many. Now we have an opportunity to ‘return the blessing’, so read the full details of the weekend under the Scotland Focus Event on the website and please sign up as soon as you can. We need to know numbers, particularly for catering, as soon as possible.
The purpose of the weekend is prayer, fellowship and an opportunity to give some time to appreciate our wonderful inheritance in the Better Covenant!
If you need more information please contact me. Looking forward to seeing you there.
The Lord bless you
Let’s continue a little on the theme of God’s promise of blessing for and through Abraham.
We use it so often don’t we? The word ‘bless’? As a testimony; “The Lord blessed the meeting”, “I was really blessed”. Or an exclamation of gratitude; “Bless the Lord O my soul”. Or a prayer; “Lord, bless this marriage”. “God bless America”. Have I ever stopped to ask, “what do I expect God to do in answer to this prayer?” Someone prayed for me, (by email!), just this morning; “Lord, Bless my friend Ron…” What am I asking for? If I don’t know what I am asking for, how will I recognise the answer when it comes? (more…)
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]
Chapter One: Beginnings
Looking forward to The City
“A journey of a thousand miles,” say the Chinese, “begins with the first step.” The beginning of any venture is vital; if there are mistakes in the foundation it will be very costly to rectify. This is especially true of spiritual buildings and journeys. How often God has to bring us back to a place where we ‘began wrong’ before He can take us onwards in His will. But the first step is not the whole journey, and to begin is no guarantee that we will arrive. How can that initial enthusiasm be sustained? Desire is the dynamic of progress. Ultimately desires determine direction and direction determines destiny. In elemental terms, we follow our hungers. We shall not understand Abraham’s perseverance unless, in our more modern phrase, we can discover what ‘made him tick’.
Abraham was torn out of his context with a command to get thee out and a promise that his destination would be the land that I will show thee. What gave him the courage to start and subsequently sustained him? Again we find the answer not in the Genesis narrative but in the Spirit inspired commentary;
he was looking for the city, having foundations, whose architect and builder is God. [Heb 11:10]
This is a fascinating phrase which has deep roots biblically. Even the tense is interesting. He was looking for; this is the imperfect, or continuing past tense. He was continually looking for the city. From the remainder of the verse we see that the statement covers his exodus and his perpetual sojourning; this was the abiding pattern of his life. From the moment of his leaving Ur of the Chaldees he was constantly looking for the city. I’ve restored the definite article too; this was not just any convenient city which he might stumble into, this was The City. The City would be distinguished from all other cities by the fact that its architect and builder was God Himself. What was Abraham looking for?
And where did he expect to find it? The word ‘looking for’ is not the word for ‘search’; Abraham was not ‘searching for The City’. The word is used elsewhere in the New Testament and earlier in the book of Hebrews;
But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. [Heb 10:12,13]
Here the same word ‘looking for’ is translated ‘expecting’. It has the sense of expectation, anticipation. It is not ‘looking for’ but ‘looking forward to’. Expectation/anticipation is a vital ingredient of faith. This was not some weary, dogged plod through hundreds of miles of sand. This was a man with an excitement and hunger which drew him on in every step. He was fully expecting to see The City.
a tale of two cities
In some ways the Bible is a tale of two cities. The first city was called Enoch and was built in direct defiance of God’s punishment. [Gen 4:12-17] Its architect and builder was Cain. He had murdered his brother and God’s sentence was that Cain would be a ‘fugitive and a wanderer’. Cain is fearful that man’s vengeance might be more summary than God’s and complains. God marks Cain as a man under God’s sentence not man’s. Cain leaves God’s presence and heads eastwards, but he refuses to remain under God’s sentence and defends himself against those he fears by building the first city. This is man refusing to submit to God and who is determined to ensure his own safety. The human race is obsessed with security. We feel vulnerable and exposed so we build our cities. (We need a 4000 year mind-set transplant here; in the 21st century everyone is heading for the country because of the dangers in the cities. In Abraham’s day people lived in cities to secure themselves against the dangers of the country.)
Biblically, the city becomes a symbol of arrogant security. Man is secure, against God Himself. The cities became vast enterprises fitted for every danger; they could sometimes withstand sieges for years. They come to represent absolute systematised independence. The city comes to symbolise ‘The World’, not ‘evil’ necessarily in its most obscene forms but, the ‘evil’ that is independence from God.
There is a wonderful cameo of the rich man captured in Proverbs 18:11
The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as an high wall in his own conceit.
The rich man needs nothing and no-one; his riches are his strong city; it’s a powerful picture. The rich man can buy, for the most part, protection, health, provisions. He is secure in his independence. The World is rich; its technology, strategy, science, education, religion, provide a powerful defence. Some years ago a member of the British Royal family addressed a meeting of farmers. He spoke of their industry, their skills, their machinery, and their miracle crops. He summed up the confidence of the industry with the phrase “we don’t need God now”. That is the spirit of the World, not essentially entertainment, philosophy or anti-religious, but independence from God. The ultimate among cities, in the development of its arrogant independence from God, is Babylon, with its tower;
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. [Gen 11:4]
Their project echoes the even older blasphemy of the power behind Babylon’s king; “I will ascend into heaven” [Isaiah 14:13-15]
Lest we are too quick to point the finger we should examine our own resources, our own riches. Many are rich in character, spiritual experience, bible knowledge, communication skills, musical ability, counselling expertise. If God didn’t turn up to the meeting on Sunday, how would we know? How far can we manage without Him? The answer to that question is the measure of our worldliness. Christ’s testimony was, “of myself I can do nothing”.
Abraham had seen cities. If he left Haran at 75 years of age that would put his birth pretty much in the middle of the dynasty of Ur-Nammu. Ur-Nammu himself reigned from BC 2112-2095 and his family reigned until the fall of Ur in BC 2004. Ur-Nammu was one of the great builders of the ancient world; the Great Ziggurat of Ur being his greatest remaining work. Abraham’s growing years were spent among the evidences of empire, as they came under attack. He saw Ur in its finest hour and watched as it began to be destroyed. The builders of the day built on solid foundations and tried to include spiritual foundations too. The British Museum has an Ur-Nammu Foundation Peg; a small bronze peg, perhaps pushed into the ground by Ur-Nammu himself, depicting him as a priest providing a foundation for the city. Abraham had seen its glory, and was watching its fall. He had seen, with the unerring sight of revelation, that on earth we have no continuing city.
In its place had grown a hunger for spiritual reality, not another city, but The City. A city which would be all that Ur could never be. A city with solid foundations like no other, a city that had God as its architect and builder. To Abraham this city was more ‘real’ than any earthly city. He hungered for a security which could be found in God alone. Henceforth he would put his confidence not in the works of the earth but in heavenly things. There is a worldly-wise saying that suggests that a man or woman can become so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use; the opposite is the more pressing danger. If we would become Friends of God we will need to become those who have discovered that heaven is more ‘real’ than earth, and live our lives on earth with the hourly expectation that heaven will break through.
The sacred record comes to its end with the book of Revelation and human destiny finds its consummation in a breathtaking vision. The translations hardly do full justice to John’s words;
and I John saw The City, the Holy One, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. [Rev 21:2]
A city, not prepared to withstand attack, but prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; she will find her consummation not in the defiant arrogance of self-sufficiency but in the submission of love.
I once heard it testified of a man that of all men he would find transition to heaven the least difficult. Surely, these are the men (and women) of whom God will say, “Welcome, My Friend”. Abraham looked forward to The City, for the whole of his pilgrimage. The hope and expectation sustained him, and the day came when a single next-step carried him through its open gates. As the New Year opens* may we walk its days with such consciousness of heaven’s nearness that we feel the very next step may see us home. Have a blessed 2004.
* originally written in January 2004
Chapter One: Beginnings
When he was called
The story of the steps of the faith of our father Abraham is not only to be found in the book of Genesis. Again and again the scriptures return to this man, often adding unique information to the original story. So the story continually builds of the man who, a thousand years after his death, God still called, “Abraham, My Friend.” [Isaiah 41:8]
Abraham and his clan
I’m wondering how many people actually left Ur at this time. At the head of the group was Terah, whose name links him with the worship of the moon-god. He was head of the clan and the scripture says he took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law. [Gen 11:31] He set out with the intention of travelling to the land of Canaan, although he never arrived. From later evidence we deduce that Nahor and his family were also part of the caravan. I wonder too how many servants and members of the household were part of this migration. It seems from the evidence that the ‘clan’ prospered in Haran and on the second leg of the journey to Canaan they took with them all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran. [Gen 12] By the time we get to Genesis 14 Abraham is a minor chieftain with a personal army of over 300 men. If we give each of those men a wife and 2 children, we can estimate that by this time Abraham’s own ‘clan’ was more than 1200 souls. As an answer to our original question, my personal estimate of the size of that original group which migrated from Ur is more than 2000 souls. Time to revise those Sunday School pictures of Abraham in his solitary tent in an empty desert?
We cannot be sure of the motivations for their journey. Perhaps they were migrants or refugees from troubled areas. Perhaps Lot just followed his grandfather. Perhaps the servants had no choice. But for one man out of the thousands his motivation is clear; Abraham had seen God.
And he (Stephen) 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, Acts 7:2
We can see again the insistence on God’s initiation. Abraham did not find God, God appeared to Abraham. In the midst of his muddled theology Zophar the Naamathite asked Job a very pertinent question; Canst thou by searching find out God? [Job 11:7] The answer, by implication, is ‘No’. It is not possible for the finite to discover the infinite. We could know nothing at all about God if God had not chosen to reveal Himself, but we are not left in the dark; the God of glory has appeared. The God of glory, The King of Glory, the Lord of Glory seem to be titles of the Son. Is this partly what the Lord was referring to when He said Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad [John 8:56]? We shall look at some other possibilities later. According to the scripture, God’s appearances to Abraham were very few but Abraham’s response to those revelations changed the history of the world.
There is something very wonderful about this first event. It did not happen in a lonely desert or at a ‘convention’. It happened “when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran”. In the city dedicated to the moon-god, in a family which served the moon-god, “the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham”. In the ordinary course of his everyday life God broke in and the God of glory appeared. God still breaks in to the everyday patterns of our lives. Later we look back at His providential preparations and see His hand in a thousand touches upon our lives, but for the man or woman who will be God’s Friend there must be a conscious encounter. We may not see a form or hear a voice but we will have absolutely no doubt that we have met Him. It may be that He will appear in the Scripture as we read, but if so it will not be logical deductions drawn from proof texts, as Tozer described it, but a vital encounter with God Himself. It is this encounter with God that begins the process of separation from the herd. Many may appear to be heading in the same general direction, thousands even, and for a while their paths may be side by side, but ultimately Abraham’s footsteps of faith will lead him in unique ways. Abraham’s real journey begins with a personal revelation of the God of Glory. So does ours.
We are not told if He fell at His feet as dead, as did John in the Revelation, but like John he heard a voice;
Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: 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.
We shall need to return to this word to Abraham, but for the time being please take careful note of the personal pronouns, I and thee; ‘thou’ is singular. This is an ‘I-Thee’ encounter initiated by God. In the midst of his family, and in the midst of a city wholly given to idolatry, the voice of God singled out Abraham; “Get thee out of thy country…and I will make of thee a great nation”.
There is promise of great personal blessing here and the promise of being a channel for even greater blessing but its implied condition is obedience. God says ‘Abraham, you do this, and I will do this’. The moment is captured wonderfully in a single verse;
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. [Hebrews 11:8]
If we compress the verse we may see its impact more clearly; “Abraham, when he was called… obeyed”. It is a simple life if we would but live it simply. Faith is response to revelation; faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. We cannot kick-start faith, God must speak. We must not berate ourselves that others have achieved more and gone further; we cannot ‘obey’ until He ‘calls’. To go earlier would be presumption, to delay would be disobedience. But when God speaks, His word has creative power in the lives of those who receive it, and we must never say “I can’t”. For, as Gabriel said to Mary, “no word from God is powerless”. When God speaks you can walk on water and you can stretch out withered hands. But not until He speaks.
This word to Abraham is a little short on explanation. It is simply a command; “Get thee out”. It was addressed to Abraham and no other. It was the beginning of a pilgrimage in which God would strip Abraham of all dependence upon any other resource than God Himself. He would not be able, as a contingency, to ‘fall back’ on his family or culture; this is all the eggs in one basket. And the simple wonder of it all is that “when he was called.. he obeyed”, and he went out, “not knowing whither he went”. Many would obey God if He would only explain to them why or where He was leading them, but Abraham’s greatness lies in that “not knowing whither”. He can have had no idea where his simple obedience would lead him… nor can we.
Here then are our final questions; when He calls ‘will I obey or will I demand an explanation?’ ‘will I demand a vision for the future or will my vision of God Himself suffice?’ ‘will I demand a route map with all the answers written in or am I ready to move out now not knowing?’ The God of glory stands ready to be ‘all in all’ to the man or woman who, when He calls, by faith, will obey.
Chapter One: Beginnings
Known unto God
In British War Cemeteries throughout the world you often come across the words ‘Known unto God’ engraved on tombstones. The words were authored by the writer Rudyard Kipling whose own son was killed in World War I.
It signifies that the person whose remains lie in this spot cannot be identified. At one and the same time, it is a bleak comment on the lonely anonymous sacrifice of so many and a reminder that, in truth, we are never alone.
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. [Matthew 10:29]
Modern translators feel an urge to complete this sentence and add words such as ‘without your Father’s will’ or ‘without your Father’s knowledge’ or ‘without your Father’s permission’. It is better to leave it just as it is, ‘nothing happens without your Father’ and then think about the implications; God cannot be excluded. (more…)