The twenty-first century since creation brings us halfway to the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Savior who would crush the head of the serpent and deliver the elect from the bondage of sin. God has used 2000 years of history and eleven chapters of the Bible to paint the background and broad sketch of Christ on the canvas of history. Now God uses eleven chapters to cover a mere one hundred years of history. He begins to paint some details of the portrait. At this half-way point, God establishes his covenant with Abraham, and we have an explosion of truths regarding the salvation God is preparing for his church. Of all the beautiful truths that God reveals in and through Abraham, the truth of faith stands on the forefront. Jehovah’s salvation will be applied to God’s people in the way of faith alone; it will not be earned or merited by our efforts or good works. Given the great power of sin to drag man down so quickly and seemingly reduce the church to only a few souls in a short time, this truth of faith is a great source of hope and comfort to the church as she lives in this world.
Abraham was born at the beginning of this century, only a few years after his grandfather Nahor died at the relatively young age of 148. Nahor was the sixth generation after Shem. Of those generations, Shem’s son Arphaxad, grandson Selah, and great grandson Eber, along with Shem himself, continued to live during Abraham’s first one hundred years of life. The aged patriarch Noah died two years after Abraham was born, at the age of 950 years. The shorter lifespan of men is striking in that Nahor died before his father, his grandfather, and six great grandparents, including Noah. What is happening? The curse of death now looms much closer to each man born into this world. This dramatic trend of shorter lives would strike terror and defiance in the hearts of the ungodly, but turn the hearts of the church in faith to the promised Savior.
By now the descendents of Ham had established the kingdom of Egypt and would soon begin building the pyramids. Descendents of Ham and Japheth may have crossed the land bridge into the Americas, or as suggested by the ancient historian Josephus, “there were some also who passed over the sea in ships.” The Japhethites by now began to establish kingdoms in China and Japan, and the Indo-German tribes began to form. Descendents of Shem, on the other hand, did not explore as far but remained in the regions of Asia. Here God would prepare the stage for the glorious unveiling of the promised Messiah.
The church again was growing very small. Where godly families did exist, the masses of the ungodly around them were departing from the knowledge of the one true God, and were rapidly developing in idolatry and having a powerful influence on godly homes. Even in Abraham’s home town, and within his own family circles, man was busy reducing God to human ideas and making images and idols. Here and there godly men such as Melchizedec or Job could be found with their families, but the fear of Jehovah seemed to be dying away quickly as the old patriarchs Noah and Shem grew old and died. When Noah found himself alone in the world, God called him to build the ark and preach judgment upon the ungodly world. Through the flood God demonstrated his sovereign control and power over Satan and his influence among the ungodly. This time, however, God scattered the ungodly into the world to form the various nations and peoples from which he would later gather his church. Instead of facing the ungodly each day, Abraham was called to leave his homeland and live as a pilgrim and stranger in the land of Canaan. The church had become very small, but God would now demonstrate the sovereign power of his grace to gather and preserve his church as a people separated from the world, yet living in this world.
The church needed to understand that God’s plan of salvation involves the gathering of countless throngs of people, and that it will take a long time. Faith is necessary for a people living and waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. God had commanded man to fill the earth. Generation after generation must be born, and the numbers must swell into the billions. Each one of the elect, chosen from all eternity, must be born in his or her time of history and live in this world in a spiritual antithesis for the time appointed by God. Life in this sin cursed world, for however short or long a span, is necessary to prepare each child of God for life eternal and give a taste of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. All this life takes time. The salvation God has in store will not be fully realized until every last child has been prepared, and the church must learn to wait upon God and know that God will accomplish what he has promised. God walked with Abraham in covenant fellowship to teach his church what it means to live by faith in this world.
In Abraham we find the whole spectrum of spiritual life experiences that every child of God can expect to face. “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:29) God called him out of Ur and Haran to reveal the truth of the antithesis and our calling to live as pilgrims and strangers in this world. Canaan was a picture of heaven: perfect covenant fellowship with God. Salvation would not be fully enjoyed in this life and world, but will involve a radical move and change. Abraham and all the patriarchs were called to live among the Canaanites, but to remain spiritually separate from them. We see how God graciously sustained his covenant friend when he stumbled and fell in unbelief when he left Canaan and went to Egypt. God led Abraham through the painful experience of watching the chastisement of his dear nephew Lot, as well as the blessed meeting with Melchizedek after delivering Lot from his enemy. He demonstrated his faith when he refused to strive with Lot over the best land. He refused to take a gift from the wicked king of Sodom, but did receive gifts and a blessing from Melchizedek, the godly king of Salem. God had promised him a child, and God strengthened his faith by reassuring him of his promises and establishing a covenant bond of friendship with him. When Abraham saw the great dangers and threats to his spiritual life with God and the promises of God, God provided perfect consolation and comfort in the covenant relation that he established. The wonder and power of God’s grace is revealed in the wonder of Isaac’s birth. God revealed the comforting truth that he will provide everything necessary for salvation when he provided the ram instead of Isaac for the offering.
To be sure, the church already knew about faith. By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice, Enoch was translated, and Noah prepared an ark (Heb. 11:4–7). The church always has had a “certain knowledge whereby [we] hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word” (Lord’s Day 7), but now as God readies the church for the promised Savior, he will assure her that all the benefits of salvation found in Christ alone are received by faith alone. The salvation that God has in store for the church is not something that God’s people need to earn or merit, or even be persuaded to make a decision to accept. This faith that opens our eyes to see God’s salvation for us and assures us that it belongs to us is worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit as we hear the word of God (Acts 16:14, Matt. 16:17). It is in the life of this man Abraham that God develops and illustrates this beautiful truth of faith. God will have his church to know and have an assured confidence first and foremost that this wonderful salvation he has promised and the merits of Christ belong to her and to each member individually by a true faith.
In these chapters of Genesis, God records for us how he taught Abraham the beauty of faith. Instead of relying on his own earthly wisdom to solve what he perceived to be problems of drought, the desires and ambitions of wicked men, and having children, he learned to trust that God would provide. As God spoke to him and the Holy Spirit applied that word to his heart, Abraham’s faith grew and deepened. The trials that God sent served to strengthen that faith and bind him ever more tightly to God. And through that bond of faith God revealed to Abraham and the church more clearly his plan and certain elements of the salvation he had prepared. The gathering of God’s people will be an enormous multitude and it will take time, so God’s people need to learn to wait and live in hope.
Abraham learned that the old man of sin would cling to him all his earthly life and battle against the new man in Christ who walked by faith. Faith would grow weak, and he would experience the troubles of sin. Relying on his own wisdom and works in an attempt to “help” God fulfill the promise of a son, Abraham took Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael. By the time this century of history came to a close, Ishmael was a young boy of five years old. The child no doubt brought some joy and delight to Abraham’s life, but it was only an earthly joy. God would soon reveal his purpose and plan to give him and his wife Sarah a child when this looked impossible from a human perspective. Salvation would be a wonder of grace worked by the power of God alone. To that truth the church must cling by faith.