Abraham, Tested for Growth
God used Abraham to teach and to illustrate key doctrines. One of the important things that we as believers need to understand as we read our Bibles is that God gave these examples, these stories, these episodes to us in order to be examples. 1 Corinthians 10:1-3, all these things happened as a type, an example for us. Our ultimate goal is to think biblically. We are to renovate our thinking, not to think as the world thinks but to think according to Scripture. When we look at people like Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, we think about these as real flesh and blood individuals who are facing the same kind of problems and difficulties—marriage problems, parental problems, children problems--that we face. And we ask how they handled those problems. How did they succeed and in what ways did they fail, in what ways were they an example to us? By being familiar with these people, the episodes, the events gives us the framework to be able to analyze what they did, what they didn't do, how they used the promises, so that that then becomes a pattern for us. So then when we come to similar situations and events in our life we can say, Wait a minute, this fits that situation that David had over here, that Abraham over here, and how did they do it? That is why these narratives from the Old Testament really carry such weight. When we come to the New Testament it has didactic literature that teaches specific doctrines and principles in one form, but the examples, the flesh and blood, the outworking in the lives of people is what we find in the Old Testament.
And this is the way we teach doctrine to kids. With children you don't just teach rote doctrine of theology, the abstract, but you take the lives of these people and use these to teach more abstract doctrine or theological principles that we find in the New Testament.
So we come to Abraham and ask the question: How is the life of Abraham utilized in the New Testament to illustrate and teach certain key doctrines. In Hebrews 11:8 we see that it is by faith, i.e. by trusting in certain doctrines. When we look at the words "by faith" in Hebrews 11 it is not simply by the act of trusting. Trusting what? It is not this faith in faith concept that so many people think about, that you just believe and everything will be okay. No, it is not just believe, it is believe in doctrine, trusting doctrine. So it is the active sense of trusting something but it also has to do with that which is trusted, that body of doctrine that is applied. "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 where he went." That is the start of his spiritual advance. It was his first test. Then in verse 9 we read, "By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." So he is able to live in his present reality without having a permanent home, without having ownership of the land, and he lived in light of a promise that he never saw fulfilled in his lifetime. It was so real to him that it defined his day-to-day existence. But he had to get there, and that is the process of his spiritual growth.
James 2:21, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" That is that vindication that came at the end of his life.
James 2:22, "Then, do you see that faith is working together with his works [application], and by works was faith made perfect [mature]?" The hearer of the Word, i.e. the person who is listening to the teaching of the Word, needs to be a doer, i.e. an applier of the Word. He believes it and that leads to works or application. So it is by application that one's faith is matured. The word "perfect" is the word TELEIOO [teleiow], a key word. "And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness." That is phase one when he first trusts Christ. The vindication of his faith occurs at the end with his obedience to God and the willingness to sacrifice Isaac. That concept of TELEIOO, of maturity, is crucial and it is rooted in James. The reason we have this illustration of Abraham at the end of James chapter two is that it is a development of the theme that is laid out in the first four verses of James chapter one. He says, "My brethren, count it [add it all up] all joy"— when you reach the summation of all the events in your life the conclusion is joy—"when you fall into various trials [tests, difficulties, adversities]." Why? Because you know something. It is really an adverbial participle in the Greek that has a causal sense. You are able to count it joy because you know certain doctrines in your soul. So it is on the basis of knowledge that you are able to apply doctrine to these tests that you fall into. James 2:3, "Knowing this, that the trying of your faith [Doctrine in the soul] produces endurance [HUPOMONE, u(pomonh]." This is a process, a procedure that we go through. James 2:4, "But let endurance have its maturing [TELEIOO=faith is perfected/matured by works] work, that ye may be mature and complete [in the spiritual life], lacking nothing." The application of doctrine is because of what you know when you have a test. As you endure, that produces maturity.
So how did Abraham get from point A to point Z? Test, test, test, test, test. That is done by walking by faith, as illustrated in those verses Hebrews 11:8-12. That is the mechanics, trusting in God. So he is the illustration of the faith-rest drill as he moves from point A to point Z, and that comes through application of doctrine.
The tests of Abraham's life
The first test was to go to a new land and to leave the family behind. To understand the tests we have to go back and understand the framework, the Abrahamic covenant. The positional promises that God gave Abraham are reduced to three: land, seed, and blessing. The tests all relate to one of those three promises. In terms of our position in Christ, how many aspects are there to that positional grace provision? We have all learned that God gave us forty things. That is our positional reality—all those things that God did for us, that we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies, which is a lot more than forty. So the tests that we encounter are going to be tests related to understanding what God gave us at the instant of salvation, because those are our eternal possessions that can never be taken away from us. So just as God tested Abraham with regard to the three components of that promise—land, seed, and blessing—we are going to get testing in relationship to understanding all of the dynamics of the Christian life in terms of what God has done for us in adopting us into the royal family, and all the aspects related to salvation—redemption, propitiation, reconciliation, aspects related to the Holy Spirit, His indwelling, baptism, sealing, filling, plus the fact that we are also indwelled by Jesus Christ, all these things. That is what we are going to be tested on. So that means that before we have the test we are supposed to acquire the knowledge. We learn in first and then apply it.
So the first test is to go to a new land. Is he really going to trust God to provide for him in the geographical place that God has provided for him. We know that he was a little hesitant in trusting God at first, so he goes to Haran first and is there for probably fifteen years or more, and then he moves on to the land finally.
Then he gets tested in relation to the land. Genesis 12:7, "And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto your seed will I give this land: and there built he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him." This is after he arrives in the land, and this is the second statement of the land promise. Is he going to trust God and stay in the land when the famine comes, or is he going to try to solve the problem on his own? He tried to solve the problem on his own, which is what you and I do. Abraham is down in Egypt and out of fellowship, and God is just multiplying his wealth! When he finally leaves Egypt he is wealthy, even though he has failed in his spiritual test, but he has picked up certain things that will be the basis for further tests. That is just what happens with us. But Abraham and Lot become so wealthy that when they get back to the land, which has a famine problem, the land which God has promised him can't support them. So now there is going to be this family rivalry.
We often have all kinds of tests in life. We have tests of things that are just inconvenient, we have to deal with people who are just not doing the job the way they should, we have to deal with bureaucracies and systems, we have health testing, financial testing, testing in the area of grief or loss, weather disasters—all of these things that can happen, and we have to decide how we are going to respond to each one. The issue there is always how we are going to choose to handle the situation. We can either handle it through human viewpoint or we trust the Lord, so that the foundation of all of our problem-solving is really the faith-rest drill, and that leads to the use of one of the ten problem-solving devices. That is divine viewpoint. If we go to human viewpoint we just forget trust, forget faith-rest drill, and we operate on human viewpoint. We work out really good rationalizations for what we are doing. It sounds good, and it may have a lot of truth in it. In Job, if you look at the statements made by Eliphaz and by Bildad and by Zophar there are a lot of things that they say that are right, but their structure is wrong, their framework is wrong. That is why it is so important to have a framework of biblical doctrine because even though you have components within your framework that are true if they are not put together in the right structure the structure is not going to hold weight. There are verses in Job that can be pulled out and we say it is a great statement, it is true. But of you look at the context he has positioned it within a faulty argument. In a case like that a person is mixing truth with error. And that is what we all do. We rationalize, we justify. For example, Abraham when he told Abimelech Sarah was his sister: "My life is going to be threatened here, I have to protect myself, don't I?" That was his rationale. It is just human viewpoint trying to solve life's problems without really trusting God. So we develop the strategies that get very complex to protect ourselves from perceived danger, loss, whatever we think that the threat is; and they all just come out of our sin nature. We see that Abraham has to go through this process because in the early stages here he is half obeying and half failing. But in that incremental stage he learns a little bit more each time about the trustworthiness of God.
This is really illustrated in Lot because Lot is so arrogant that all he can focus on is the temporal reality. Abraham, when he comes to the third test when Lot's servants and his servants are fighting against each other and he says that the land is too small to support both of them, Abraham has learned from the previous test. The previous test he flunked. He didn't respond by trusting God (no faith-rest drill); he didn't respond by grace orientation. He didn't recognize that God had graciously given him the land therefore God would graciously provide for him in the land even though there was a famine. Now he is back in the land and he still has a famine problem, and now he has a people-testing problem because Lot and his servants are causing problems, but Lot is totally self-absorbed and he is focusing on temporal reality. Abraham has learned to be gracious, so he says take your pick of the land. Lot is willing to sacrifice his whole spiritual life so that he can live in the right place, and he wanted to be there because that's where the entertainment was, where the action was, and where the city life of his day was. So he is going to justify it in his mind and that leads to self-deception where he is completely divorced from reality. We really saw that picture when judgment eventually came on Sodom because his wife just doesn't want to leave. She looks back, she just can't pull herself back from all the carnality and all the attractions of the cosmic system. So God judges her for that.
We learned about the arrogance skills and the whole cycle from self-absorption, self-indulgence, self-justification, self-deception to self-deification where we become our own god. That is the same process that is illustrated in Romans chapter one, and if we don't break this cycle through confession of sin and humility, realizing what God has done for us and humbling ourselves through the mighty hand of God—1 Peter 5:5-7—then we are just going to continue to deteriorate until our lives just fragment, and then we get the natural consequences intensified by divine discipline.
So the third test was the test to treat Lot with grace and generosity, and again it is related to the land. And when it is over with he passes the test God takes him aside and, at the end of chapter thirteen, and says, Walk in the land in its length and width for I give it to you. So God praises him for passing the test.
Then we come to the fourth test which is related to blessing. Abraham is mandated to be a blessing to those around him. We see the invasion of the four kings. So the test is going to be related blessing and to grace orientation. Is he going to deal with his pagan neighbors and with stupid Lot on the basis of grace and on the basis of God's character rather than his character? He passed that test and demonstrated that he can be a blessing to his pagan neighbors. And that is an interesting example to us, that we can be good and kind to the pagans in our environment who are completely hostile to everything that we stand for.
Then the fifth test which was the test to express his gratitude to God. That is when he returned to Salem and he meets Melchizedek, the king of Salem. Melchizedek represents a royal priest, and he is going to be the type of the priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ. But in this event Abraham has had a victory and so gets to express his gratitude to God and does so by giving the tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek as an offering of gratitude to God for what He has done. He also refuses to take anything from the king of Sodom because he wants to make it very clear that his victory and his involvement in the battle was related to his obedience to God and he didn't have anything to do with the perverts in Sodom.
The sixth test in chapter fifteen is again related to the seed. It has been some time now since God promised Abraham descendants, and it hasn't happened yet.
Abraham was apparently beginning to worry about this a little bit, so God comes along in chapter fifteen and He gives him a command. That is how we know it was a Test. When there is a command then there is a test related to obedience to the command. Genesis 15:1, "After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am your shield, and your exceeding great reward." It is in this chapter that He makes it clear that the descendant will come from his own body, it won't be through his servant. The covenant is cut at this point.
The next test is related to the seed again, in chapter sixteen. This time it is, Are we going to trust God to provide the seed through Abraham and Sarah or are we going to try to make another human viewpoint end run? This was the incident with Hagar resulting in the birth of Ishmael who becomes the father of a certain segment of Arab tribes, and this is where the whole Arab-Israeli conflict had its beginning. So he fails that test. Rather than sticking with it, persevering, and trusting in God no matter how impossible it seemed that Sarah could have a child, he gave in to human viewpoint rationalization.
Then we have another test related to the seed in chapter seventeen. Here the covenant is reconfirmed, but now a sign is going to be given of the covenant, the sign of circumcision. This is going to be a picture of sanctification, the removal of the influence of the flesh, the sin nature. He trusts God and he and all those in his household are circumcised. Again, God reconfirms the covenant with him and He states in addition that it is going to be with Sarah and that He will establish the covenant with his son, Isaac. So the contract is expanded even further.
A ninth test comes in chapter eighteen and again this relates to blessing. Three visitors show up. One is the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus Christ and the other two are angels. He is very hospitable to his visitors and so he passes the grace orientation test. Another test in the chapter follows and this is again a test of grace orientation. God is going to take Abraham into His confidence and tell him that He is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain. That is where Lot lives and so it is a test to see if Abraham is going to exercise impersonal love towards Lot. But Abraham passed the test, he has functioned honorably, he has passed the test of being a blessing to his undeserving neighbors and relatives, and he has dealt with them in grace.
The eleventh test occurs in Genesis chapter twenty, and again it relates to the seed. How is he going to protect the seed? Is he going to continue to trust God? Sarah still isn't pregnant, so now they go to live in Philistia, in Gerar, and Abraham lies about Sarah being his wife again. Why? Because he is afraid for his life. Rather than trusting God he is afraid somebody is going to kill him and take Sarah for his wife. So he fails the test, but he is learning. He is learning that God is the one who is going to protect him, and no matter what that seed is coming, the child is going to be born through Sarah, and in chapter 21 Isaac is born. And again there is a test to protect the seed. Now there would be the threat of rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael and Hagar are sent away to protect the inheritance and the seed.
Abraham's final exam is in chapter twenty-two where God tells him to take Isaac the promised son to Mount Moriah and to sacrifice him. So again it is a test related to the seed, it is a test related to the faith-rest drill, and it is a test related to his personal love for God. Is the promise of God more real to him than his circumstances?
Does he love God so much that he will do anything that God asks him to do, even it means to take the life of his cherished son he had waited for for so long. He reasons though, based on Hebrews eleven, that because God had promised that he was going to have a multitude of descendants through Isaac, therefore God, who has always been true to His Word, must be true to this word. Even if he killed Isaac God could bring him back to life, so that was what he thought God was going to do. So he never gives it a second thought, he takes Isaac to Moriah, lays him out on the altar, comes to the point where he is going to kill Isaac. God stops him, and he has demonstrated that he is trusting God no matter what. And God provided a substitute, a perfect picture of salvation, that Jesus Christ is our substitute.
Abraham passes these tests, according to Hebrews 11:10, because he had a future focus. The reality of God's plan for him in the future was greater than his present circumstances. And that is the challenge to us, to grow to that point where no matter what is going on in our life this is only temporary, it is only this world. It is a future world that He has prepared for us that He is preparing us for, and we have to go through these tests just as Abraham did and every other believer does in order to have the capacity to properly function in terms of the responsibility and the privileges that God is going to give us to reign as kings and priests in the Millennial kingdom. Abraham pictures that.