Great Moments in Bible History
Can anyone afford to give up their rights for God?
Is It Worth It?
Is it worth it to sacrifice our rights for the sake of God? In our last issue we saw that Abraham refused the offer of the king of Sodom. Abraham had fought a battle to rescue his nephew Lot from slavery and in the process had recovered all the wealth of the city of Sodom that its enemies had stolen from it. According to the rules of that society Abraham had the right to keep all that loot for himself. The king of Sodom knew that and told him to keep it for himself. He merely asked Abraham to give him back the people of Sodom that he had rescued. Very few in today’s society (or any other society) would have refused that offer. But Abraham knew the sinful character of that city and refused to get rich from such a people.
But was it worth it? In the very next verse after Abraham’s reply to the king of Sodom, God appeared to Abraham in a vision and said, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1) Clearly God approved of Abraham sacrificing his rights. He promised him a great reward.
This was not the first time God had made such a promise to Abraham. When Abraham first entered our story back in chapter 12 God told him to leave his father’s house and go to a land He would show him. If he would do that, God promised that he would make of him a great nation and that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. Ultimately, that promise would be fulfilled when his descendant Jesus arrived, but it would be almost two thousand years before that happened. After that initial promise God appeared two more times to Abraham, each time promising to give his descendants the land Abraham was living in. The vision in today’s story is the fourth time God appeared to Abraham and gave him these promises.
The problem Abraham faced was that the riches he refused were right now while the promises God gave him were for the future—in fact they were promises to his descendants. What made it even more difficult was that he had no descendants—and he was getting on in years. “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:2) Abraham had a large household, but it consisted not of his children (he had none) but of workers who took care of his flocks. Apparently, his chief servant was Eliezer. When Abraham died, Eliezer would inherit everything. Then where would all of God’s wonderful promises be?
God gave Abraham a very encouraging response, “ This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” God then took Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.”
So Abraham was trading a sure thing right now (the wealth of Sodom) for a huge promise for his descendants—something so big that no amount of money could buy it. Was it worth it? That depends on how confident Abraham was that God would keep His promise.
Abraham Believed God
Most people know that faith (or belief—in the Bible faith and belief are the exact same thing) is a very important subject in the Bible. In today’s story we have the very first mention of this topic in the Bible. This is rather surprising. We know that there were people before Abraham who believed God. Noah, for example, definitely believed God when God told him that he needed to build an ark, but the story does not tell us that. It just tells us that he did what God said. And Abraham earlier showed his faith in God by leaving his family when God told him to. But even in that story the word “faith” or “belief” was not mentioned. Our author has kept that word in reserve until now. Immediately after God made the wonderful promise we discussed in the previous article, we read, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
That one verse is so important that it is quoted in three different books in the New Testament (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; and James 2:23). In that one verse we learn what faith is and how important God considers it.
What is faith? It is simply believing God’s promise.
How important is faith? So important that God counted it to Abraham for righteousness. But what does that mean? Wasn’t Abraham already righteous? After all, when God told him to leave his family and move to a place he had never been before, he obeyed God. Isn’t obeying God righteousness? Yes, it most certainly is. But we have also seen times when Abraham sinned. The story recorded in Genesis 12 tells how Abraham lied about his wife and got her into quite a pickle. That was not righteous behavior. Being mostly righteous is not good enough with God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) If that is the standard for righteousness (and it really is), none of us is righteous. But God graciously counted Abraham as being righteous in spite of his sins. He counted him righteous based on his faith.
Though Abraham could not have understood this at the time, his faith in God’s promise was ultimately faith in Jesus, the promised one. As time went on God would teach Abraham more about that promised one, but even though Abraham understood very little of that promise at this time in his life, God nevertheless counted his faith as righteousness.
What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
We live in an age when people love to use the word faith (or belief) in ways that sound good on the surface, yet actually have nothing to do with biblical faith. People like to say, “You just have to believe in yourself.” God did not count Abraham righteous because he believed in himself. If Abraham had to believe in himself, he was sunk. The point he made to God was that he had no children, so how could God’s promise to him ever come true? Abraham believed not in himself but in God whom he trusted to keep His promise even though it seemed impossible at the time.
Sometimes when people are engaged in a project whose outcome seems rather iffy, one of them will say, “You just have to believe.” What they mean is that you have to believe that things will work out. But without God this is just another term for hopeful (if not wishful) thinking. That is not the faith Abraham had.
Among Christians there is another mistake about faith that is quite common today. They understand that we are not saved by our own righteous behavior. Instead God counts us righteous because of our faith in Jesus (who is the descendant promised to Abraham). But then they reason that righteous behavior does not matter with God just as long as they believe. The Bible does not teach that at all. James called such faith a dead faith (James 2:17). James even used Abraham as an example of someone whose faith motivated him to obey everything God told him to do—even when it was very difficult.
In the book of Revelation Jesus wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea. He was not happy with their behavior. “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16) If Jesus says He is going to spit someone out because He does not like their works, then it should be obvious that our works really do matter.
In Abraham’s case he did things because of his faith in God that someone without that faith would simply have been unable to do. The author of the book of Hebrews devotes the entire chapter 11 of that book to a list of great Bible heroes who did great things by faith (their faith in God). He includes several people that we have already studied about in this paper: Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham. There are many more, some of whom we will learn about in future issues. The point the Hebrews author is making is that faith in God is powerful. It gives us the strength to serve God as nothing else can.
My prayer for each of us is that we will truly be people of faith.