Read: Genesis 12:1-4, Isaiah 41:8
The call of Abraham marks the launching of God’s plan to eventually bring blessing to all of the earth’s peoples, and it all started with God’s decision to single out this one ordinary man.
Recently TIME magazine, the leading news weekly in America, ran a cover story on Abraham. For a person to be featured on the cover of a major news magazine some 4,000 years after his death must mean there’s something pretty significant about him! In Abraham’s case, of course, the significance has to do with faith. The TIME cover story revolved around the fact that all three of the world’s great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—trace their physical and spiritual origins to Abraham.
It’s entirely appropriate to focus on Abraham because in a real sense the main story the Bible was written to tell begins with him. While the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis tell about the origins of the world and of the human race and of humanity’s fall into sin, salvation history starts with the call of Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia and travel to an unknown destination at God’s command. The Bible is a bit like a great river. Its contents sometimes meanders, splitting into different channels or spreading out into backwaters. But the main flow of its narrative tells a single story about God’s determination to rescue and redeem his people from among all earth’s nations. This is the goal towards which scripture continuously rolls, and it all starts with Abraham. The history of Israel originates with Abraham’s descendants, Isaac and Jacob. Ultimately all those who are believers in Jesus Christ trace their spiritual ancestry back to him as well.
The Bible says a number of remarkable things about Abraham. In fact, one of the common ways the Old Testament has for distinguishing the true and living God from all pretenders is to designate him “the God of Abraham.”
Abraham was the first of the patriarchs, the Father of Israel, and the paradigm of faith. This is just as true for the Christian writers of the New Testament as it is in the Hebrew scriptures. As a great Scottish biblical scholar James Denney once remarked, “Whenever any New Testament writer wished to make a point about religion he said, ‘Look at Abraham!’”
In his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus said that “when the beggar died . . . the angels carried him to Abraham’s side” (Luke 16:22). In other words, being with Abraham after you die is for Jesus a synonym for being in heaven. But of all the amazing things that the Bible says about Abraham perhaps the most incredible was spoken by God through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. Addressing his people God described them as “the offspring of Abraham my friend“ (Is. 41:8).
Listen to that. God called Abraham not his servant, not his follower, not his worshiper, not even his prophet, but his friend. Did you ever think God could have a friend? Could you imagine him wanting to be your friend? I know I need friends. But does God need a friend? Not in the same way we do, of course, but still, it is amazing that he should speak of any human being this way. During the Clinton presidency a group of his influential supporters was known as the F-O-B’S; the “Friends of Bill.” Well, Abraham’s example can teach us something even better: how to become F-O-G’s: friends of God.
The Call of God
The first thing we can learn from Abraham is that he became God’s friend through faith. Abraham is the premier example of what it means to be a believer. The single dominant characteristic of his life is faith. This is where we have to start if we want to discover the secret of friendship with God.
Abraham’s story begins with a call from God. There is a mystery about this whole process. What made God single out Abraham? He seems to have been just an ordinary man of his time and place. He was living in his father’s household with his extended family, one person in a typical Mesopotamian clan. Abraham’s father Terah had decided for some reason to migrate with his family from their home in the city of Ur near the mouth of the Euphrates River to a place called Haran, far to the northwest near the border between present-day Syria and Turkey.
Archaeologists have done extensive studies at the site of ancient Ur. They have discovered that its major temple was devoted to the worship of the Sumerian moon god. The city of Haran was also a center of the moon-cult. So it’s reasonable to assume that Abraham began his life as an idol-worshiper. But at some point God appeared to him (see Acts 7:2) and spoke to him. “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’” (Genesis 12:1).
Why should the true God, the living God, choose this moment, this time and place, this person, this moon-worshiper, to make himself known? There is absolutely no indication that Abraham was even searching for God. Nothing is said about any special qualities in Abraham that attracted God to him. It’s just the mystery of grace. The call of Abraham marks the launching of God’s plan to eventually bring blessing to all people on earth. It all started with God’s decision to single out this one ordinary man.
Our faith in God, you see, is always responsive. It’s not something we initiate, like a boy asking a girl out on a date. It’s much more like a woman responding to a marriage proposal and saying yes to her lover’s invitation to become his wife. Faith seems like it’s simply a matter of our choosing God. When a person becomes a believer it often feels as if it’s just making a personal decision to accept the gospel. But a deeper experience of God and a further understanding make it clear that God’s decision for us precedes our decision for him. Faith isn’t just choosing one day that we’re going to become religious. It is hearing God’s invitation to follow him, and responding to it.
Leave and Receive
The whole process of grace and faith, call and response, seems wonderful to me. I mean that in the literal sense; it is a wonder, a miracle. Grace is mysterious. I don’t understand why God chooses to love us. But then so is faith mysterious. If God’s decision to reveal himself personally to Abraham seems amazing, Abraham’s response to that revelation is equally amazing. Nothing quite like this had ever happened before. How did Abraham know it was God speaking if he didn’t know God to begin with? How did he even come to recognize who the real God was? And what made him think he could trust that God? Where did Abraham find the faith to obey the mysterious voice that told him to leave everything on the basis of a promise?
The response of faith leads to blessings beyond imagining, but it always costs something as well. Notice that God’s call to Abraham begins with a command to leave.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household.” (Genesis 12:1)
For Abraham this meant leaving nearly everything of value in his life, cutting almost all natural ties of land, clan and blood kinship. Humanly speaking he was giving up the whole world.
The culture of Ur, Abraham’s original home, in Mesopotamia, was the birth place of civilization. It was the fertile crescent which served as civilization’s cradle. Mesopotamia was where culture, art, writing, music, architecture and science all arose. It was certainly not Abraham’s natural interest that prompted him to leave the heart of civilization and set off across the desert for he knew not where. Nor was it restlessness or the spirit of adventure that made him give up his family and friends, all that was familiar and dear to him, to begin a new life at the age of 75. No, it was the costly and demanding call of God.
But also it was the richly rewarding call of God. God’s demand that Abraham leave his old life was followed by an invitation to receive. “Go to the land I will show you,” the Lord continues, adding this breath-taking promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great” (v. 2). God’s call is never just to sacrifice. When he commands us to give up the world, he invites us at the same time to receive the limitless blessings he intends to bestow upon us.
Here is the standard pattern of God’s call: it contains a command and a promise. The great New Testament example is in the book of Acts, 16:31: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”—there is the command—“and you will be saved”—the promise. So faith means taking God at his word by obeying the command and believing expectantly in the promises. In Abraham’s case, these promises of blessing were that he would receive a land (Canaan, the “Promised Land”) and descendants to fill it, beginning with a son (cf. Genesis 15:1-5).
God’s promises to Abraham had both a literal and a spiritual fulfillment. He did have many physical descendants ultimately who inhabited the land of Canaan, but as the New Testament makes clear, anyone who shares Abraham’s daring and doing faith in God is his true descendant (Rom. 4:11-12, 16). And the earthly promised land was really only a temporary symbol of a better country, a heavenly one which God intends to give to all his children from whatever race or nation they have come (Heb. 11:16).
Walking the Walk
The most important part of Abraham’s faith was his obedience to God’s command. The really significant thing about him is that he promptly acted on his belief. He did what God told him. Listen again to the key foundation passage, Genesis 12:1-3:
The LORD . . . said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
And after that stirring command and those glorious promises, the very next verse (v. 4) opens with a single Hebrew word that could literally be translated “So-he-went.”
In the final analysis what really determines whether our faith is genuine is not what we say but how we obey. “So Abraham went, as the Lord had told him.” What could be more eloquent than that simple statement? We could go on and on about the heroism of Abraham, the personal struggles he went through (some of which indeed are described as his story unfolds in the book of Genesis.) But nothing could be more powerful, I think, than that single word at the beginning of Genesis 12:4: “So-he-went.” In the end faith doesn’t soar; it plods. It isn’t about trumpet calls and grand heroics; it’s about identifying the place where God has called us to go and then continuing to put one foot ahead of the other until we get there. Faith, as the saying goes, is walking the walk.
Here it is in plain language. This is what constitutes faith: faith is hearing and obeying what God tells us to do and believing what he promises to give. So Abraham is a great model of faith. His life demonstrates all the qualities of the man or woman who lives by trusting God, and for obeying God.
That’s why Abraham became known as the friend of God. Would you like to have the infinite, eternal, holy God of the universe call you his friend? It’s really quite simple: trust and obey.