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Five Character Traits of Abraham

A mysterious story in Genesis 18:1-8 reveals 5 important character traits of Abraham.

In 2 Chronicles 20:7, King Jehoshaphat called Abraham God’s “friend”, and this characterization was confirmed by James:

You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.
James 2:22-23

It’s very high praise to be called “friend of God”. Although no mere man will ever approach the power, authority, and majesty of the Creator, this term implies that Abraham was as near to that stature as any man could be. Neither Moses, who led the Hebrews out of Egypt, nor Elijah, who was taken directly to Heaven without seeing death, were ever given a title as intimate as “friend”.

We know that Abraham didn’t earn a place in God’s inner circle through obedience or great deeds, but through his trust in God’s promises and reliance on divine Providence for his life and sustenance.

…we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.
Romans 4:9

Yet, Abraham’s faith was not–could not be–without actions. Romans 4:9 says that Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness, but v12 refers to “the footsteps of Abraham’s faith”. “Footsteps” implies action. As James wrote, “Faith without works is dead”.

Hebrews 11 describes this principle at work in Abraham’s life:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going….By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son.
Hebrews 11:8,17

Character Is the Difference Between an Acquaintance and a Friend

All of Scripture holds Abraham up as the paragon of faith and faithfulness to YHWH. Other than Yeshua himself, I don’t believe there could be a better role model for a believer in the God of Abraham, than Abraham himself.

We know that God loves both faith and obedience and many people throughout history have had an abundance of both. I already mentioned Moses and Elijah, but also consider Enoch, Noah, Joseph, David, Elisha, and Daniel. They were all men of great faith and obedience.

Everyone admires some people and calls other people friends, and these two sets of people are frequently not the same. The difference between them is not due only to proximity or convenience. You can admire a person’s accomplishments and appreciate his loyalty without actually liking him and calling him a friend. In those cases, the difference between an acquaintance and a friend most likely lies in the person’s character.

Something about Abraham’s character set him apart in God’s eyes from all other righteous men and women, but what was that something? Our only reliable source of information about his life is the Bible, and I think the story in Genesis 18 about him entertaining three travelers nicely illustrates several of his outstanding qualities.

Abraham and the Three Visitors

And YHWH appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
Genesis 18:1-8

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but Genesis does an outstanding job of painting complex pictures with few words. These eight verses contain volumes about Abraham’s character.

Abraham Is Hospitable

Abraham was an old man at this time, ninety-nine years old, and lived near the Dead Sea in the land we now call Jordan. Although parts of the text in chapters 18 and 19 hint that this event took place in the spring, it was evidently an unseasonably hot day, because Abraham was resting from the midday heat in the coolest place available, just outside the entrance of his tent. Out of the sun, but still in the breeze.

The three men who approached on the road had no servants, guards, or other retinue. They had no mounts or baggage. Although the text makes it plain that this was YHWH himself on his way to Sodom, it’s also clear that Abraham didn’t know this until they left his camp. There is nothing at all to indicate that they appeared to be anything other than ordinary men. I’m sure that Abraham had seen many itinerant laborers traveling much as these men did.

Yet, despite his discomfort, when he saw three men approaching in the distance<1>, he jumped to his feet, ran to meet them, and begged them to stop at his tent to eat and rest. He couldn’t have expected to make any trade deals or receive payment in exchange for anything he might offer them, because they had nothing to trade. He didn’t mind his own business, waiting for them to approach him. Abraham was just exceptionally eager to offer his resources for their refreshment. He considered it an honor to host and entertain strangers.

Abraham Is Generous

According to most sources I found, a seah is a dry measure equaling nearly two gallons, yet Abraham told Sarah to prepare bread for his visitors from three seahs of flour. That’s far more bread than any person could possibly eat! I believe that Abraham was either preparing a feast for his entire household with his visitors as guests of honor or else intended to send them on their way with sacks full of bread for their journey. In either case, he gave far more than they would have asked if he had waited for them to ask.

This wasn’t yesterday’s bread or leftovers from the morning meal, although such was undoubtedly available. Nor was this barley or course-ground; it was fine ground wheat flour, something that most people would probably reserve only for rare occasions, if they could afford it at all.

Abraham then picked out a young calf from his herd and told one of his servants to slaughter and prepare it immediately. Ranchers typically wait until a calf is at least nine months or, more often, twelve to eighteen months old before sending it to the butcher. This age range represents the ideal concurrence of weight and consistency, maximizing each animals profitability. The meat of a younger calf may be more tender, but there’s less of it, making it much more expensive…but still far more than three men could eat.

In short, Abraham was extraordinarily generous to three men whom he probably believed he would never see again.

Abraham Is Impartial

When Joseph dined with his brothers in Egypt, he gave Benjamin more than the others. He was hinting to the rest that he knew more about them than they did about him, but he was also showing favoritism to his only full brother. If a wealthy man in the desert hosted a party of travelers, they would have expected him to give a larger proportion to their leader.

However, when Abraham met the three men on the road, he didn’t try to determine which was the superior. He didn’t ask who was the leader or show any deference to one above the other, he bowed to all three together. When he sent Sarah to prepare bread, he told her to use three measures of flour. One seah would have been enough for all three men, but Abraham wanted to make bread using one measure for each man, symbolically not showing favoritism to any of them. If he sent them off with the leftovers, he could send each man with an equal amount.

His behavior was in keeping with a consistent principle in God’s Law of treating all people with a basic level of respect no matter what their resource or station in life.

Now then, let the fear of YHWH be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with YHWH our God, or partiality or taking bribes.
2 Chronicles 19:7

Abraham Is Humble

The first thing that Abraham did when he saw the three men was jump to his feet and run to meet them–he didn’t wait for them to come to him–and when he reached them, he bowed to the ground as if they were royalty, and he called them “lord”. Perhaps at some level he knew that he was encountering God himself, hence his use of the singular “lord”, but it doesn’t appear that he had any conscious knowledge of it.

Abraham was an extremely wealthy and influential man. As the story of Lot’s kidnapping in Genesis 14 shows, he was a peer of the region’s kings. Anyone visiting his camp would have expected to bow to him and call him lord, but that’s not the way Abraham treated his visitors. He humbled himself from the moment he saw them. He bowed, praised, begged, and served them, and then he stood by, refilling their glasses and plates, as they ate and rested. When they left his camp, he accompanied them along the road.

Like Messiah Yeshua, although Abraham was next to kings in wealth and authority, he made himself to be a servant for the benefit of strangers.

Abraham Is a Leader in His House

Although Abraham served his guests, he would have been derelict in his responsibilities as a host if he had left them alone for more than a moment. Instead he directed Sarah to prepare bread and a servant to prepare meat. Neither of them asked why three men needed so much. I’m certain they were used their patriarch treating guests lavishly, but they didn’t complain. Like Noah’s family, they followed his instructions despite how outlandish they might have sounded.

This was far from the first time that Abraham demonstrated superior leadership qualities–remember again the incident when he rescued Lot–but it’s one thing to command servants and lead men in battle. It’s another thing to inspire your wife to complete devotion, even, as Peter wrote, calling him “lord” as he debased himself before strangers.

Lest you think that this quality is limited only to men, remember what Paul also wrote in 1 Timothy 5:14 about women in the congregations he planted around the Roman Empire: “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.” Men are to lead their households as husbands and fathers, but so are women as wives and mothers, under the authority of their own husbands.

Abraham Is an Example for All Believers

Each of these characteristics–hospitality, generosity, impartiality, humility, and patriarchal leadership–is an example for all worshipers of the God of Abraham.

“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling,” Peter wrote. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another.” Paul wrote that “God loves a cheerful giver,” and James that, “if you show partiality, you are committing sin.” How many times did Yeshua tell us to follow his example in being a servant to all? “The last will be first and the first will be last.” Finally, Paul wrote to both Timothy and Titus that no man is qualified to be a leader of God’s people if he is unable to keep his own family in order. An elder in the congregation must first be a patriarch in his own house.<2>

These five qualities aren’t just something to be admired. They are deep in the heart of God. When Paul wrote in Romans 12:2 “be transformed by the renewal of your mind”, this is part of what he meant. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” by following the examples of Paul and Abraham, even as they followed the example of Yeshua.

Be hospitable.

Be generous.

Be impartial.

Be humble.

Be a leader.

Of course, none of these things can earn you a place in God’s Kingdom, whether in this life or the next. For that, one needs faith, a complete reliance on the grace of God to forgive inevitable sins. Fortunately, I believe that Abraham’s obedience holds a secret to improving faith along with behavior. As with everything else a person can do, you can strengthen your faith by exercising it through obedience. Through faith, decide to keep one more of God’s commands than you did yesterday–or keeping one better–believing that all of his instructions are for our benefit. As your obedience proves the wisdom of God’s word over time, it will also strengthen your faith.

God doesn’t expect you to be perfect today, or even in this lifetime–he certainly knows that I am very far from that goal–but perfection in faith and righteousness, like Abraham, remains the aim of all our studies, prayers, and efforts at obedience.


<1> The ESV says he saw the men “standing in front of him”, but the Hebrew could as easily be translated “standing across from him”. Since he ran to meet them, they could hardly have been standing only a few feet away as the English sounds to modern ears.

<2> 1 Peter 4:9-10, 2 Corinthians 9:7, James 2:9, Mark 9:35, 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and Titus 1:6.

Possess the Gates of Your Enemy

And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!” Genesis 24:60

In Genesis 24:60, Bethuel and Laban send Rebekah away with this blessing:

And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate them!”
Genesis 24:60

We all know from Hollywood that the city gates are the key to capturing an enemy city. If you can break through the gates, you’ve all but one the battle.

We know from the rest of the story that Bethuel and Laban were much more concerned with what they could get out of other people than what they could give, so it’s the kind of blessing we might expect from them. “May you take everything from anyone who tries to take from you!”

However, the Angel of YHVH blessed Abraham’s offspring in the same manner:

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
Genesis 22:15-18

Did God mean to bless Abraham’s son with military victory over all his enemies? To an extent, yes, but the Bible uses the idea of gates in a much broader sense than this.

Gates are, by definition, the primary point of entry to any city or home, but they are also the focus of trade, public discourse, and justice. The elders of a town meet at the gates to hear complaints and try criminal cases. God wants his Law written on the gates of our cities and homes, not just to remind us whenever we pass through them, but to signal that all true justice aligns with his standards, not ours.

  • Lot sat in the gate of Sodom. (Genesis 19:1)
  • Abraham transacted business at the gate of the city of Ephron so that there would be public witnesses. (Genesis 23:18)
  • Shechem and Hamor called the men of their city to the gates to discuss a proposed treaty with the Hebrews. (Genesis 34:20)
  • Trials, executions, and civil disputes to take place in public at the city gates. (Deuteronomy 21:19, 25:7, Joshua 20:4)
  • Kings held court at the city gates. (2 Samuel 19:8, 2 Chronicles 32:6)
  • Religious rituals and celebrations took place at the city gates. (2 Kings 23:8, Acts 14:13)
  • Public and private charity was dispensed at the gates. (Luke 7:12, Acts 3:2)

If you sit in the gates of a city, it means that you are a respected elder and judge. People bring their disagreements and accusations for you to hear, and they expect you to tell them what to do. You are the arbiter of public morality.

For the people of God to possess the gates of their enemies doesn’t necessarily mean to defeat them in battle. It can also mean to have a defining influence over justice, trade, diplomacy, and the mechanisms of government.

We aren’t called to overthrow earthly governments or conquer nations in order to convert them forcibly to Christianity. We are, however, called to exemplify and teach God’s ways to our communities. Wherever we live, we have an obligation to promote God’s standards of justice: Equal weights and measures. Judicial impartiality. Due process, including the right to defend oneself and refute all evidence and witnesses. The sanctity of marriage. The defense of the helpless. Generosity to the poor and landless.

For a variety of reasons, we in the United States are utter failures in that calling, and I hear people offering two mutually exclusive solutions: Rise up in arms and take the country back by force or else retreat to mountain camps to wait for God to rescue us.

But I don’t believe that either of these are real solutions.

I tell you that you are Petros, and on this Petra I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of hell will not overpower them.
Matthew 16:19

Most of us live within the gates of Hell even now. Our courts, centers of trade, and seats of government are occupied and controlled by wicked people who have made themselves to be God’s enemies and therefore ours as well.

Yeshua told Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against his assembled people (ekklesia). Clearly he didn’t mean that we are literally to storm the gates of Hell, and divinely ordained armed insurrection is very rare in the Bible, despite the many wicked tyrants described on its pages.

Likewise, Christian isolationism, in which we hide from the world in our homes and simply pray for better times, isn’t an option for God’s people. We have been commanded to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven and to be a light to all peoples, teaching the way of salvation and obedience to God’s instructions.

The Great Commission doesn’t end with witnessing to strangers on the street or coworkers in the office. It extends to city hall, the governor’s mansion, and Capitol Hill in Washington. It extends to Wall Street and Silicon Valley as well, because all of these are the city gates, and almost all of them are now in the possession of our enemies.

If you love God, you will promote his worship and his kingdom, and if you love your neighbor, you will promote justice at the city gates. As the people of God and subjects of the Kingdom of Heaven, we have an obligation to cultivate influence in the city gates here on earth through righteous means, not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of all the people who live within the domain of those gates.

What Is the Fear of the LORD?

Proverbs 1:7 says that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge but fools despise wisdom and understanding. But what does it mean to fear God? On a basic level this is saying that no matter what else you know, no matter what else you think you understand, you’ll never have true understanding, you’ll never have true wisdom until you’ve learned to fear God.

This is the most basic level of wisdom.

So what does it really mean to fear God? Does it mean that that God is waiting in the sky to smite wrongdoers and you have to be on your toes at all times, always watching what you’re doing? Maybe you do need to, but no that’s not really what it’s talking about.

God isn’t up there waiting for us to do something wrong so that he can knock us around. We don’t have to be afraid that he’s vindictive and capricious.

Instead think about God more like you would an intense furnace or a nuclear reactor. You treat it with respect, never casually. Never abuse it. You follow its rules because, if you don’t, you could be burned; you could be destroyed. Not because it wants to destroy you but because, by its nature, it is so powerful, so holy, so different from anything else you know, that have to treat it with that level of respect.

The fear of the Lord is the fear that a child has for a stern, but very loving father.

God doesn’t want to be treated casually. He doesn’t want to be treated like your boyfriend or your buddy. God is an unimaginably powerful force, and you will never understand what it means to have wisdom, to have understanding…you’ll never really understand the universe until you understand God’s power and until you learn to fear it and fear him and respect him as your creator.

The Link between Lot and Rahab

A series of parallels in the stories of Lot and Rahab

In his creation of life, God reused code in projects as varied as people and plantains. That’s not a lack of imagination as some ignorant people insist. It’s a love of elegance. Things that appear to be wildly different becoming quite similar when you look closer.

God clearly loves a good pattern, and this character trait comes out all through Scripture. From a distance, Genesis, Leviticus, Psalms, Ezekiel, Matthew, and James all look very different, but when you put them under a microscope, segments of reused code–like DNA–begin to emerge.

Consider the characters of Lot and Rahab. They are fairly minor characters in the Old Testament, but they are both discussed in the New Testament more than Josiah, Ezekiel, Esther, Samson, Ezra, or Nehemiah, all of whom are might seem to be more significant. When you look closely, they have a lot more in common with each other too.

LotRahab
A sinner living in a sinful city, doomed to destruction.A sinner living in a sinful city, doomed to destruction.
Two men entered the city gates by day.Two men entered the city gates by day.
Sheltered the two visitors in his house at night.Sheltered the two visitors in her house at night.
Men of the city demanded he surrender the two visitors.Men of the city demanded she surrender the two visitors.
Believed the two visitors.Believed the two visitors.
His home city was destroyed.Her home city was destroyed.
Saved himself & part of his family.Saved herself & part of his family.

That’s pretty amazing! It’s what Tony Robinson calls a “thematic connection,” and I don’t recall anyone every mentioning it in Sunday School.

It’s very cool, it’s fascinating, but, having made the connection, is there any practical value to be had?

Yes!

A sinner living in a sinful city. Neither Lot nor Rahab were perfect people. In fact, they are remarkable for their glaring failures. Who else is a sinner living in a sinful city, doomed to destruction? You and me. We’re all sinners (Romans 3:23), and all cities are doomed to eventual destruction. Whoever you are, wherever you live, you are a sinner living in the modern equivalent of Sodom, Jericho, and Nineveh.

Two visitors sheltered, nourished, and believed. Unlike the ACLU and the court of public opinion, God never passes judgment without due process. He respects his own rules, and he provides both warnings of pending judgment and credible witnesses to all accusations. We have been warned by an unending stream of prophets and teachers from the very beginning, and there are several pairs of witnesses that testify of our sins. Just four of those pairs are (1) the Torah and the Spirit, (2) the Tanakh (the Old Testament) and the Apostles (the New Testament), Moses and Yeshua (Jesus) and (3) the written word and the living Word.

Lot and Rahab took their two witnesses into their homes, sheltering and nourishing them. We need to do the same with the written word, as Moses instructed us (Deuteronomy 6) and as David exemplified (Psalm 119): read, listen, study, discuss… Hide God’s Law in your heart. We need to pray and commune with God regularly and consistently (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Worship, prayer, and emulation are like the food of God. He doesn’t want us to be always learning and never doing. He wants us to spend time with him, and he wants to see us living as Yeshua lived. In these ways we ensure that God’s witnesses will be in our favor at the end and will rescue us from the destruction that awaits those who refused them.

The men of the city. We are assailed daily by attacks on our faith, on the reliability of the Scriptures, and on the reality and sufficiency of Yeshua. Schools, courts, friends, family, and employers under the sway of humanists and God-haters tell us that God’s Law is evil and that sin is virtue. The primary mission of our Enemy is to defile everything that is pure, and the more determined you are to hide God’s word in your heart and display it in your life, the more determined he will be to tear you down. Your only hope for salvation is in the forgiveness of the Father and the strengthening of the Holy Spirit.

Salvation of self and family. Like Lot and Rahab, your faithfulness can help to save your family. You can’t force anyone to believe in Yeshua–remember Lot’s wife–but you can have enormous influence on them through your own faithfulness. As your character and your love increases, those who have a willing heart will be drawn to God through you. Noah, Joseph, Paul’s and Silas’ jailer, the faithful wife of 1 Corinthians 7… all these were able to save some or all of their families through extraordinary obedience to God.

What really connects Lot and Rahab–and you and me–is their faith. God sent messengers to warn them of the destruction of their cities. Alone of the inhabitants in the city, they believed God, they acted on their belief, and their faith was counted to them as righteousness.

They weren’t perfect; they were sinners like you and me. Lot fathered children with his daughters, and Rahab was a prostitute who betrayed her people. This too is a consistent pattern. David was an idolater, adulterer, and murderer, yet God loved him and called him faultless because of his faith and repentance from sin.

We are Lot and Rahab and David, and if there’s hope for them, there’s hope for us too.


For more on Rahab’s faith, check out this video:

What Purpose the Crucifixion?

In the eyes of God, Yeshua's blood erases our sins and his righteousness becomes ours.Someone on Twitter recently told me that he is still not sure why the Messiah needed to die. My reply (brief due to the limitations of Twitter) was something like this:

Something has to cover (atone) our sins before we can approach God. A precise understanding of how atonement works is probably beyond our comprehension, but I think of it like neutralizing a bad odor. God can’t stomach our stench, so he sent Yeshua whose blood covers and removes it. His good odor becomes ours in God’s nostrils, hence the repeated description of sacrifices as “a pleasing aroma” to God.

This interaction reminded me of another conversation I had with someone a long time ago, reproduced here:

Q: What purpose did the crucifixion and resurrection serve?

Among other things, the Crucifixion satisfied the requirement of the Law for the death of the sinner, and the Resurrection established Yeshua’s permanent mastery of death. The Law still requires death for certain offenses, but there is forgiveness apart from mere physical death. Yeshua’s crucifixion opened the door for grace at the final judgment and for eternal salvation.

Q: Did they change anything? If so, what, when, and for whom? Was the world a different place after the resurrection than before Christ’s death on the cross? In what way?

There was a change, but it was subtle (and dramatic at the same time, if that makes sense). Without Yeshua’s death and resurrection, nobody at any point in history, backwards or forwards, could ever be saved from eternal damnation or granted eternal life, but the method of salvation didn’t change after that event from what it was before. In other words, someone in 100 BC is saved the same way as someone in 100 AD: through faith in God’s mercy enabled by the blood of Yeshua. Salvation has always been available to anyone who asked and subjected themselves to God’s mercy. No one was ever saved by his own circumcision or obedience to Law, but by the grace of God in providing a substitutionary payment for the sins of all people who have ever lived.

Yeshua’s resurrection proved his innocence. He could not be condemned because he never violated a single point of the Law and so could not be held in the grave. Untainted blood acts as a sort of spiritual shield or mask that allows us to approach God (and vice versa) closer than we could as our natural, fallen selves. In the eyes of God, Yeshua’s blood erases our sins and his righteousness appears to the Father as our own if we willingly place ourselves beneath it. But since God exists outside of time and could look through that blood at Abraham and David as well as at you and I, this doesn’t really answer the question.

The world was a different place after Yeshua’s death and resurrection in three important ways.

First, our perspective changed. Abraham knew a redeemer must come and looked forward in faith to that day. We now know that the redeemer has already come, and we look back at that day in faith that his blood is sufficient to cover our sins. The ultimate fulfillment of redemption is yet to come, but the payment has been made in full. An earnest of delivery was given in the form of the Holy Spirit, and we now look forward to the reality.

Second, although God exists outside of time, our spirits do not. Before Yeshua, the Scriptures seem to indicate that the dead went to some place like the underworld common to most ancient mythologies: “Abraham’s Bosom” for the faithful and Hades for the unfaithful. They could speak and thirst and could sometimes even return to the land of the living. Yeshua changed something in that arrangement, although I won’t pretend to understand exactly what.

Third, Yeshua, who has become a man and the firstborn of the resurrection, can now operate as our high priest in the supreme tabernacle in Heaven. When we accept his kingship and covering of our souls, our obligation is transferred from the Law, which holds us in bondage as lawbreakers, to him, who sets us free by mercy. His priesthood is superior to that of Aaron’s and his forgiveness supersedes any condemnation we might have under the Law.

Q: Did He die only so that we wouldn’t have to go to Jerusalem every year and kill animals for God?

No. The sacrificing of animals never had anything to do with eternal salvation. They atoned for inadvertent or accidental sins. There has never been an animal sacrifice for deliberate sin. Having said that, I don’t know exactly what affect his death and resurrection has on animal sacrifices. Since they were never intended to save anyone’s soul and there is no altar on which to offer them anyway, it’s not something I’m going to worry about overmuch.

However, there are prophecies that appear to indicate there will be animal sacrifices offered up again on an altar in Jerusalem under Yeshua’s personal supervision. If that is a correct understanding, then his death could not possibly have negated all need or use for sacrifices. Perhaps no sin offerings will be made, but other kinds will. I’m not sure.

Q: The patriarchs of old, were they really saved through their faith that Yahweh would send a walking talking Messiah one day thousands of years in the future to walk and talk with their descendants, or were they saved through simple childlike faith that Yahweh would somehow make good on His word that He would redeem all of His people?

Both. They were saved by their faith in God’s mercy that he would give them life despite their sins. The mechanism of that mercy was the Messiah’s death, which some of them knew was necessary. I don’t believe they had to know the precise details of what form that mechanism would take, so long as they trusted in God to provide it. I believe the same is true today.

Q: Did they really know who the Messiah would be or what purpose He would serve?

Some of them, yes. I believe Abraham knew after God provided a sacrifice in place of Isaac. He prophesied of the Messiah when he told Isaac, “God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” (Hebrew for “burnt offering” is olah, which means “an ascending”. It implies something that burns and rises up in smoke, but it could be interpreted as anything that ascends to Heaven.) God actually provided a ram that day, not a lamb. The promised Lamb of God appeared centuries later in the person of Yeshua, was killed, rose from the dead, and ascended to Heaven.

Q: Christ said “believe on me and you shall be saved.” How about those who lived and died before Christ? Did Job appeal to his Maker or to his cousin Abraham’s seed?

Isn’t Abraham’s seed and Job’s Maker one and the same? In order to believe on Christ, no one needs to know the specific sounds that make up his human name (or any facsimile thereof) or even to know that he has already come. They only need to know that they are sinners and hopeless in themselves and to trust in (“believe on”) God to provide the means of their salvation. That means is Yeshua, but Job didn’t need to know the name of the Messiah nor the specific time or place of his birth. He just had to trust God to take care of it.

Q: Another very odd thing about the Scriptures is that they almost always, when properly translated (such as in the KJV, remarkably enough), say that the faith OF Christ shall save us, not our faith IN Christ. Now isn’t that strange?

The limitations of human language. We cannot possibly be really saved by any actions or thoughts of our own. Salvation is provided solely by God based on his own criteria. Fortunately, he has promised that salvation to us based on certain conditions which do not include physical obedience to any law.

Q: And what of Mark 9:24, where the man says “I believe. Help my unbelief.” How does a man need help believing if he is already fully convinced?

Is anyone ever fully convinced of anything? I trust and believe, but sometimes I still have doubts.

Romans 7:15-17 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

There are so many questions concerning spiritual matters for which we only have unsatisfactory answers, at least intellectually. But this is one of the greatest things about God and his plan for our salvation. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how well you can wrap your mind around the incomprehensible details of an infinite God. What matters is that you are able to perceive and admit your own imperfections and to trust in Him, and our capacity to trust is not tied to our capacity to reason.

Faith Is Like a Seed. Make It Grow.

Four essential elements to growing stronger faith in God.

Faith is ubiquitous in Scripture.

  • Faith makes us well. (Matthew 9:22 & 29, Luke 17:19, Acts 3:16, James 5:15, etc.)
  • Faith makes great works possible. (Matthew 17:20, Luke 17:6, Hebrews 11, etc.)
  • Faith inevitably leads to good works. (Acts 20:21, Romans 3:31, Hebrews 11, James 2, etc.)
  • Faith makes our good works effective on the spiritual plane. (Hebrews 11, James 2, etc.)
  • Faith is essential to our eternal salvation. (Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8, Hebrews 11, etc.)

Over and over, the scriptures say, “If you had faith, you would be healed.” If you had faith, big things would happen.

Clearly faith is vital. Without faith, we are powerless. Without faith, we are lost.

Yet we all struggle with insufficient faith. We believe, but, for most of us, big things aren’t happening. As the desperate father in Mark 9 said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Is it possible to develop faith, to start with a little and end with a lot? We know that God can simply give us greater faith–he is God, after all–but from long experience we also know that’s not how he usually operates. Yes, our faith can grow over time. Paul told the congregation at Thessalonika that he thanked God for their continually growing faith (2 Thessalonians 1:3), and Yeshua hinted at this fact when he compared faith to a seed. (Matthew 17:20) Seeds aren’t meant to be static. They were designed to sprout and grow into something much larger, which in turn produces many more seeds of its own.

The big question is how. How can we develop our faith from a mere seed to a plant? I know that this is a question that I have struggled with all of my life. Why aren’t people healed when we pray? The answer to that question can be complicated, but Scripture is very clear that, at least in part, people aren’t healed because they or the one praying for their healing have too little faith.

So how can we grow more faith?

Yeshua’s metaphor of the mustard seed implies that faith doesn’t grow only by virtue of its existence. No seed sprouts and grows without fertile soil, water, stress, and light. There are things besides faith itself, which we need to add to our little seed before it will grow to the piont of moving mountains and healing the sick.

Deep, Rich Spiritual Soil

Just as in the parable of the sower and the seed of the Gospel, the seed of faith also needs deep, healthy soil to prosper. It needs to be embedded in an environment which encourages long-term, meaningful maturity. The environment in which our faith sprout–or doesn’t sprout–includes the people, places, things, and habits with which we surround ourselvs.

We have all heard that you become like those with whom you spend the most time, and I believe it’s true.

Pessimists are like the weeds of the parable. Their constant negativity chokes the hope and life out of you until you can’t believe in that anything good could happen for you. They need love as much as anyone–more, evidently–but you can’t keep them as close friends. They will drag you down to keep company with their misery.

The proud and self-sufficient are like the rocks. On the surface, they might be very positive, but their hearts are hard. Why should they trust in God when they believe they already have all that they need. If you spend too much time with them, the seed of faith will have no opportunity to put down roots, and it will whither and die.

Maintaining and building faith requires keeping company with people of faith. Surround yourself with people who trust God. Be active in a community of faith. Be a friend to people who are where you want to be, and be careful not to speak negativity into their lives.

And not only company, but our home, work, and religious environments need to be conducive to developing faith. What kind of art hangs on your walls? What is the usual conversation like in the break room? Do your personal and spiritual habits focus on God’s faithfulness or on God’s wrath?

People like to denegrate religion, but ritual and tradition have always been very powerful instruments for building faith. Liturgy, rituals, annual observances, and the like will never save anyone. If your church teaches that they are necessary for salvation, that will tend to degrade faith. However, if they use these things to emphasize God’s dependability and mercy, they can be wonderful. The forms of traditional religion that unite people and build faith while honoring God’s commands are nearly endless. It’s important that your religion honors God by adhering to his standards, but don’t throw out all religion because some people and organizations have abused it.

If there are elements of your environment that discourage faith, consider how you can replace them with something more positive.

Good Spiritual Nourishment

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:17)

The Bible is full of God promises and stories of those who trusted him and also those who didn’t trust him. Memorize God’s promises and read those stories often. They are all through the Scriptures, but especially focus on Genesis, the historical books1 the Psalms, and the Gospels2. There are also many stories of faith and miracles outside the Bible. The biographies of missionaries are especially rich nourishment in this respect.

Entertainment and education should also be designed to promote a strong faith and relationship with God. If your favorite author writes disdainfully of the miraculous and if your favorite bands mock the promises of God, how can they do anything but discourage you? It’s counter-productive to read about divine Providence in the morning and listen to someone talk about how it’s all “me, me, me” in the afternoon.

Pay attention to what’s being fed into your life, and try to filter out those inputs that aren’t helpful. Replace them with books, videos, podcasts, conversations, etc., that will encourage you and reinforce your faith.

Spiritual Stress

Yes, stress. Just like children, all plants need some kind of stress to mature and produce good fruit. Some plants need a touch of frost. Some need a hard freeze. Some plants need a strong wind to scatter seeds and some need to be eaten. Almost all plants need pruning in order to reach their greatest heights and productivity.

Your faith will never grow if it is never put to the test. How do you learn to trust someone if you never need to trust them. You start by acting as if you have faith, whether or not you do. You make yourself vulnerable and take a chance.

Take risks. Get banged up a little. If nothing else, you’ll toughen up a bit and gain some life experience.

Shining Spiritual Light

In Yeshua was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

Faith isn’t the belief that God exists. Faith is the belief that God is who he says he is, that he keeps his promises, that he loves you and will never abandon you. Faith is another word for trust.

How do you learn to trust a friend, your husband, your wife? Through experience. You trust a good friend because he has been there for you in the past. He stood by your side when everyone else disappeared. If you want to trust God more, then you need to spend more time with him. Set some time aside every day to read your Bible, to pray, and to listen.

Your prayers don’t have to be limited to any particular format. Kneel and pray aloud if that works for you. Or sit in a comfortable chair and sip your morning coffee. Go for a walk. Dance. Whatever language allows you to speak most freely is fine because God speaks that language too.

Corporate worship is also important. Liturgical and informal prayer, singing of hymns, blowing shofars, dancing, waiving banners, pilgrimages… Like intimacy in a marriage and shared experiences with friends, all of these things create mental and spiritual reactions in us that draw us closer to God, that strengthen our emotional ties to the one being worshipped. (And be careful that your worship is directed upward and not to a performer on stage or to an experience.)

Getting to know God isn’t limited to the proverbial prayer closet and time spent focusing vertically. We can also gain a deeper knowledge of God by focusing laterally, toward the people around us.

The King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

Everyone around you–young and old, sick and healthy, good and bad–bears the image of God, and they are all the focus of God’s loving attention. If you want to know God better, go find someone with a need that you can meet and then meet it. Pay attention to the things that God pays attention to. Be kind. Be generous. Love your neighbor, and not just your wealthy and nice smelling neighbors. In showing love to people who desparately need it, you will learn something of God’s heart, of the love and the pain that God feels for each one of us, and God himself will draw nearer to you.

It’s not enough to let God’s love illuminate you, because you weren’t designed just to be a solar collector. You were designed to take the spiritual light of Yeshua and turn it into fruit full of good works meant to feed God’s people. If you want more faith, then you need to be the instrument through which God answers the faith of others.

Faith is a living, growing thing. It requires attention, care, and feeding. It needs a healthy environment in which to take root. It needs a constant stream of reinforcement and encouragement. It needs exercise. Most of all, faith depends on an ever-growing relationship with the King in whom we have faith and with his people for whom we ARE faith.

Gardens don’t spontaneously spring up from the ground. They take planning, deliberate action, and hard work. Even Eden needed a gardener.

When I sit down to write, I usually have an idea of what I intend to communicate, but sometimes God leads me in a direction I wasn’t expecting. This is one of those times, and this is a message I needed to hear. Using this structure of a seed needing good soil, nourishment, stress, and light, I’m going to develop a faith-growing plan for myself and my family.

I encourage you to do the same.

Evaluate your current environment and your life’s inputs and identify those things that would tend to discourage faith. Don’t try to fix everything right away. Remember that God told Israel only to drive the Canaanites out of the land as they were ready to advance and occupy it. Instead, remove a negative influence and replace it with a positive one. Then another. Have a plan with a definite goal in mind, and don’t be afraid to alter the plan as you go and circumstances require. As long as you continue to move forward, your faith will too.

 


1 Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.
2 Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts.

The Roles and Fields of Righteous Men

Every laborer has his place in God's vineyard.Four of the great patriarchs of Torah were faced with the deserved destruction of unrighteous people, and the all reacted differently.

When God told Noah that he would destroy the entire world by a great flood, he spent his days building an ark to save his family according to God’s command, but also in preaching to the lost. Even though God had told him the world was beyond saving, he meant to try it anyway. God did not rebuke him for it, and the Apostles even praised Noah for his great work as a preacher. Even so, his efforts seem pointless. I doubt that he gained anything useful from them except for a greater understanding of the debased nature of man. God killed every living person on the planet outside of Noah’s small family.

A few hundred years later, God told Abraham that he was about to destroy Sodom. The people there had never done anything for Abraham, and in fact had caused him a considerable amount of trouble. Abraham knew that Sodom was a cesspit and didn’t want anything to do with it, yet he dared to bargain with God to save the people of Sodom anyway. The remarkable thing is that God entertained this negotiation. Like Noah before him, Abraham’s efforts went unrewarded beyond the personal gain of a greater understanding of God and man. God sterilized Sodom with fire, saving only Lot, his wife, and two daughters.

Lot too, tried to save more than were only in his house. He tried to save his married daughters and their families as the angels told him, but he couldn’t even convince those whom God had told him to save. He should have been working to save the people of Sodom all along, but he waited until it was too late, and then he couldn’t even save what was once his own. Even those family members who had escaped with him would be taken away, his wife by her own disobedience, and his daughters by his own poor judgment and the infectious wickedness of Sodom that they had brought with them. Lot, too, learned something of God and human nature, but he couldn’t save anyone.

Later, Moses would be given the opportunity to save others multiple times. He tried to save Pharaoh and the people of Egypt through preaching, but he already knew that they wouldn’t listen and would be crushed beneath God’s wrath. However, the outcome in Moses’ other opportunities was different than all those previous. He called Israel out of Egypt, and they followed him and the pillar across the Red Sea to safety. He interceded on Israel’s behalf several times in the wilderness, even offering his own life, and caused God to spare them each time.

I’m not sure that Moses was such a better man than Abraham or Noah. (A strong argument could be made concerning Lot, however.) They were all great men of God. So why did Moses succeed where his ancestors had failed?

The answer is the same that must be given to the man called to be a shepherd who would rather be a traveling evangelist, to a prophet who would rather be a king, and to a hand that would rather be an eye: It wasn’t their job.

Noah’s job was to clear the land. He uprooted trees, cut sod, and tilled the soil. It didn’t matter how long he preached to the blades of grass; they would never become wheat. Abraham planted seeds in the soil Noah had prepared. He weeded, watered, and fertilized. And Lot…well, Lot tried, but in the end, all he could do was transplant a few questionable tares from one garden to another.

But Moses harvested. He arrived in just the right season, and he reaped where he hadn’t sown. That was simply his role to play. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Moses was greater than Abraham. Where would the reaper be without the sower? Moses just had a different job to do.

(Originally written for Soil from Stone, January 22, 2013.)

The Real Difference Between the Righteous and the Wicked

The Scriptures call Noah, Abraham, and David righteous men, but Paul said that “all our righteousness is as filthy rags.” The Biblical narratives of these men illustrates Paul’s point very well:

The second thing Noah did when he got off the boat was to plant a vineyard so he could get drunk. (You have to give him props for patience and long-term planning.) When push came to shove, Abraham lied and gave up his wife in order to save his own skin. And who can forget the story of David and Bathsheba? Over the preceding decades, he killed hundreds of men with his own hands and then topped it off by stealing a friend’s wife and having the friend killed to cover up his adultery.

After all that, how can Scripture call them righteous men, “a friend of God”, and “a man after God’s own heart”?

Psalm 32, written by David, is a chiastic song (see here for an explanation of chiasms) that helps us understand this seeming contradiction.

A chiasm in Psalm 32

  • A – V1-2 Blessed is the forgiven who honestly repents
    • B – V3-4 Living in unrepented, unconfessed sin is oppressive to a righteous man
      • C – V5 I determined to confess (speech) and I will be forgiven.
        • D – V6-7 Let the righteous pray to God before it is too late. God will save them.
      • C – V8 Let me tell you (speech) how to find the peace that I have.
    • B – V9 Don’t cling stubbornly to sin. Don’t prompt God to reign you in forcibly.
  • A – V10-11 Steadfast love and joy are for the righteous and upright in heart

David began by describing the reaction of a righteous man to sin in his own life. “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. Day and night your hand was heavy upon me. My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” He vividly described a tormented, guilty conscience. He continued by describing the antidote to his shame: confession, forgiveness, repentance. He said the same will work for every righteous person: “Let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may still be found.”

Adopting the perspective of God speaking to the penitent David, he wrote, “I will teach you how to walk and will watch over you as you go.” The wicked, to the contrary, do not repent, but cling stubbornly to their sin. If they feel shame’s call to repent, they suppress it until they can no longer hear it. Longing to be free, they reject God’s Law of life and love, and replace it with another, harsher law of death and hatred. “Many are the sorrows of the wicked,” David said, “but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in Adonai.”

David was a righteous man, yet he sinned. The difference between a righteous and a wicked man, according to David’s testimony, isn’t sin itself, but the man’s response to it. The righteous man doesn’t want to sin. He wants to be perfect, to be obedient to God’s instructions. He listens to his conscience and to God’s words. The wicked man hears the same words, feels the same shame, but trains himself to ignore it, to submit instead to a yoke of sin that can only lead to death.

Be the righteous man by confessing your sins to God, asking His forgiveness, and by endeavoring not to repeat them. In Romans 1-2, Paul describes what will happen if you ignore God’s call for too long.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
(Romans 1:28 ESV)

Eventually, it will be too late. You won’t be able to turn back, either because God won’t let you or because you have just run out of time.

(This post is about what separates the heart of the righteous from the heart of the wicked. Later this week, I’ll talk about a few outward evidences of what’s going on inside.)

Hunter vs Shepherd

Everyone has a role to play in God’s plan. Don’t be afraid to be who God intends for you to be.
Everyone has a role to play in God’s plan. Don’t be afraid to be who God intends for you to be.

Genesis 21:20 And God was with the boy, and he grew, and lived in the wilderness, and became an archer.

At least on a personal level, archery is almost exclusively an offensive art. You can’t effectively defend yourself with a bow the way you can with a shield or even a pike. So it fits with Ishmael’s character and God’s prophecy about him that he would be an accomplished archer.

Like other shady characters in the Bible, Ishmael was a predator by nature. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; God needs hunters too. They can put food on the table (or the spit, as the case may be) and can take down the enemy’s king from a distance in the heat of battle. But a man who is a predator by nature may not be suitable for certain roles, such as carrying on God’s promise to send a Messiah who would take away the sins of the world.

Of course, this does not mean that Isaac was chosen for that role because of his superior character. He was only an infant. He had no character yet. Isaac was chosen to inherit the blessing of Abraham because that’s what God had promised to do. Nothing more or less. There was nothing Isaac could have done to merit God’s grace.

We all have our roles to play in God’s plan. Some of us are hunters and some shepherds; some are doctors, janitors, soldiers, or millwrights. The important thing is to be who you were called to be and not to be jealous of other parts of the body of Messiah.

(Edited and relocated from “Soil and Stone” where it was originally published on 2/16/2013.)

Sometimes Faithfulness Requires Coloring outside the Lines

Abraham and Sarah sending Hagar into the wilderness
Abraham and Sarah sending Hagar into the wilderness

Peter told us that Sarah obeyed Abraham, not the other way around. (1 Peter 3:5-6) She respected her husband so profoundly that she even called him “Lord.” Can you imagine what kind of reception that would have in one of today’s churches? They would probably call the police on Abraham and report him for emotional abuse. Even so, Peter points to her attitude as the biblical ideal, saying, “Ladies, if you are Sarah’s daughters you should emulate her.” (See Mutual Submission in Marriage, part 1 and part 2.)

Peter painted a rosy picture of Sarah-homemaker and Patriarch Abe, but it was incomplete. Sarah and Abraham weren’t perfect. Far from it. They didn’t always believe, Abraham wasn’t always wise, and Sarah wasn’t always respectful. Consider the matter with Hagar.

Genesis 21:10-11 And she said to Abraham, Cast out this slave woman and her son. For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac. (11) And the thing was very evil in Abraham’s sight, because of his son.

Sarah overstepped her bounds when she told Abraham what to do with Hagar and Ishmael. She had every right to make her wishes known and to give Abraham advice (respectfully and gently!), but this was neither a wish nor advice. It was a command. Old Abe would have been perfectly within his rights to tell her to take a hike.

Whatever we may think of polygamy and concubinage, God recognized both as legitimate–if not always wise–marriage. Abraham had a responsibility to Hagar as her husband and to Ishmael as his father. They needed him. He had put them in this position of need and, even if they weren’t faithful to him, he was determined to be faithful to them. He couldn’t just abandon them. The very idea is abhorrent to an honorable man!

Nonetheless, Abraham knew that Sarah was not normally given to such termagent outbursts. Instead of replying in anger and dismissing her words, he considered them and brought them to God who told him she was right. There was much more going on here than just a personality conflict between two women in the same house. Their lives were prophetic. Hagar and Ishmael had to go in order to set the stage for millennia of conflict that was necessary for God’s ultimate plans. They had to go in order to further establish a pattern of dividing sheep from goats.

My point is that despite Sarah’s flawed manner, if Abraham had refused to listen, doing what he thought was right instead of what God said was right, he would have rejected God’s promise too. God would have either made his life very much harder until he complied or Abraham would have become Ishmael, the cast out one. God would have chosen someone else.

Don’t be quick to anger, and don’t be so bound to propriety that you cannot hear truth through a difficult tone of voice.