November 2013 Yavoh

Our Father Abraham

The Scriptures say that Noah walked with God. The word picture is that of a child being held by the hand by a fatherly figure. The story of Noah building the ark by God’s instructions and riding out the flood with God’s instructions would support Noah’s hand being in the hand of God.

But after the flood, another man emerges from the Scriptures whose name is first Abram and then becomes Abraham. It is said of him that he walked before God. The word picture is considerably different from Noah. Instead of walking hand-in-hand, Abraham is pictured out front, listening to God’s instructions as he walked.

The sages say that Abraham’s relationship with God was more mature and that he was setting an example for how we should walk before God. We should be able to hear God’s instructions and act accordingly, rather than being urged forcefully by a handhold or pulled along by a leash.

When we examine Abraham’s relationship with God, we see more than an “out front” approach. There are profound and precedent-setting characteristics in the relationship that reveals much about God and sets the standard for every believer’s relationship with God. As I have studied Torah and tried to understand more deeply what God was doing with me, I have focused on the Messiah and how He fits with the Torah. That was good, because believing in the Messiah is believing in the God of Abraham and understanding what God established with Abraham first.

There was a time when my focus was exclusively on the Messiah, devoid of what God did with Abraham. Simply said, my faith in God was shallow and often did not work for me. I was dissatisfied, and going to church more often didn’t do a thing for me. Then things began to change for the better. I found myself on a journey, just like Abraham. I left my father’s house (the church) and let God take me on a journey to the place He is preparing (the kingdom). I’m not there yet, but I began to learn that what God did with Abraham was the basis of my relationship in the Messiah.

Let’s review God’s relationship with Abraham and try to understand what He established that is true even today for us in the Messiah.

First, God called Abram away from his father’s house and his relatives. He had to separate Abram from the past and the ever-present influences of being in his father’s house and his earthly family. God said that He wanted to establish Abram as a father to others, to establish a new family. Obviously, Abram was to be a different kind of father from his earthly one, with very different values, in order to establish a new and different kind of heritage for his heirs.

It is fascinating to me how the Lord is still doing this when He calls people out of the churches to become Messianic. He is calling them out of the past and ever-present influences of the “church fathers” and also their family influences. Actually, He is calling them back to the heritage of their father Abraham, as I will explain more later.

God made some very profound promises to Abraham in calling him out. First, He was going to show him a new place that would become his home and future – the land of Israel (the kingdom of God). Secondly, He made a strong declaration about Abraham and others.

And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  Genesis 12:3

I am sure that you have heard this Scripture, but the profundity of this declaration by God cannot be overstated. God’s intention for His people is blessing. Anyone who interferes with that will find themselves at odds with God. Simply said, “God is on our side.” Today, that is not a fashionable statement. Critics of God say that not everyone can have God on their side. They go so far as to say that God is not on anyone’s side (even going so far to question if there is a God). This is where they go too far in their criticism. God has declared that Abraham and his descendants are in fact “chosen” by God.

But the critics do bring up one point that is worthy of more thought. If God has chosen a particular people to receive His blessings and someone does curse them, they will suffer the very harm they intended for God’s people. This includes fellow believers who decide to harm one another. If two groups (both believers) curse each other, then they both suffer under God’s declaration.

But the second statement of God to Abram is even more amazing. God’s relationship with Abram and his family is not exclusive at all. He isn’t just choosing Abram and excluding everyone else. It is God’s intention to use him to include all of the families of the earth.

Consider this for a moment. God’s wants a relationship with all of mankind. How does God do it? He must begin with at least one man first and use that relationship to set a standard for others to follow. He must establish and define the relationship in a way for all to follow. Thus God called out Abram, the first Hebrew. He will actually establish and define His relationship with three generations: Abraham, Isaac his son, and Jacob his grandson. From there a nation will come forth. From that nation will come the Messiah, and with the Messiah, the whole world (all the families) will be reached. The Gospel (the Good News) we share today about the Messiah originates from God’s declaration to Abram. The Apostle Paul said the Gospel was first preached by God to Abram when He said, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Abram was a real man. He wasn’t an angel or a perfect man. He had his own character flaws, fears, and feelings. God accepted Abram for who he was and wanted him to accept God for who He was. Abram also had a desire to know the true God. But let’s acknowledge something else about Abram at that time. He was childless and he was past the age of raising children; one could even call him elderly. His wife Sarai was getting old along with him. If he was to be the father of many nations, as God had said, then they better get the show on the road pretty soon. The only heir to Abram beyond his wife was his faithful servant Eliezer.

God then came to Abram and promised that his heir (the fulfillment of the promise to be a father to many) would come from his own body, that he would father a child. He then promised that from that child would come even more—more than the stars of the sky. God then performed a specific ritual to confirm this covenant agreement. God instructed Abram to flay open five particular sacrifices. The ceremony illustrates the promise and punishment of the covenant agreement. Let me explain.

Each party to the agreement would walk between the flayed-open sacrifice, pledging and binding themselves to the agreement. They were also pronouncing a curse upon themselves should they not keep the agreement, for example, “May I be slaughtered as these sacrifices should I not keep the agreement.”

If you examine the story closely (in Genesis 15), you will observe that something strange happened between God and Abram that applies to you and me today. God came in the form like a whirling fiery tornado and passed between the sacrifices; however, Abram did not pass through. What does this mean?

First, God had said that He would keep the promise made to Abram, but because Abram did not walk between the pieces and God had, it meant that He would keep Abram’s part of the agreement also. Should Abram or his descendants fail to keep the agreement, then God will have to pay the price. This is the very basis for the Messiah to be a sacrifice for us all. He was keeping the agreement made with our father Abram.

It was at this point that God began to define faith and righteousness in His relationship with Abram. Because Abram believed God’s promise of a son, his belief was defined as faith. God said that Abram’s faith was counted as righteousness. Before we just slide past this, let us consider more fully what was said.

Today, when someone asks about your faith, they are usually asking about your religion, such as what church you go to. The word faith has been morphed into a word for “religion.” But that is not what the Scriptures are referring to when the world faith is used. The word faith in Scriptures means “believing the promises of God.” Abram believed the promises of God and God counted it as righteousness. Faith is believing in the person who has made a promise to you. Faith in God is based on His promises.

Consider one of the most well-known verses of faith in the New Testament.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; Ephesians 2:8
 
Let me restate that same verse based on the definition of faith from Abram. “For by grace you have been saved by believing the promises that God gave you, not by any works of yours; salvation is a gift from God.”

To show you how perverse the modern definition of faith is, let’s reword the verse using the ‘morphed’ definition of faith. “For by grace you have been saved by your choice of church or religion...” That should shock you as to how deceiving that non-Biblical definition is and how many churchmen have fallen prey to it.

Faith is based on what God has done, not on any action by a man. This is the reason why the Apostle Paul emphasizes the phrase ‘and that not of yourselves.’ This was the mistake of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They thought obedience produced righteousness instead of faith. To them, the action of your faith was more important than what you believed—and from the standpoint of man that is true. Let me explain. The proper response to belief is ‘to do’ (obey). Saying that you believe and then not doing something about it (not obeying) is no faith at all.

Yeshua and the Apostle James taught this. Yeshua told a story of a master telling two of his servants to go work in his field. The first said he would go do the work; the second said he would not. But then, the first servant did not go to the field, while the second changed his mind and did work in the field. Yeshua asked who did the master’s bidding. Everyone agrees that the second one who did go work in the field did the master’s bidding.

The Apostle James specifically took issue with those who say they have faith (believe) and then don’t obey. He taught that faith without works is dead. So, what is the answer to this perplexing matter? Go back to Abram.

Abram’s faith was counted as righteousness. There is no mention whatsoever of obedience. Obedience is presented later and is connected to blessings! Obedience produces blessings, not righteousness. Therefore, there is no salvation by works.

Actually, the full teaching of Abraham on this matter is “Faith is counted for Righteousness; Righteousness has kissed Justice; Justice demands Sacrifice; and with Sacrifice you receive Salvation.” I will explain these relationships in more detail as we go on. Again, nowhere in this explanation is the word obedience. When Paul was teaching justification of the faith (how you receive salvation), he too made this same point.

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works [obedience] of the Law. Romans 3:28

You must understand God’s relationship with Abram if you are to understand your own belief in God leading to salvation. Any salvation message preached separately from Abraham is a false Gospel. This is what Paul was writing about in the book of Galatians. The Pharisees had told the people that they must keep certain commandments of the Law in order to be saved. This is the same issue that caused the Messiah to be at odds with the Pharisees and religious rulers of his day.

Let’s turn back to our father Abraham. God had promised Abram a son that would be fathered by his own body. Not seeing how she could be part of God’s promise of children to Abram because of her age, and wanting to help bring about a child for Abram, Sarai, his wife, suggested that he father a child through her handmaid Hagar. We believe this was approximately 11 to 12 years after God promised Abram a son. While this was a custom in that day, it wasn’t exactly what God had promised. It was more like half of the promise with man’s help.

After Hagar’s son Ishmael was born, God later announced to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son together. Looking back, we now know that Ishmael was conceived by Abram when he was uncircumcised. But Isaac was conceived by Abraham (his name was changed by that time) when he was circumcised. Ishmael was the son of works (the works of men) while Isaac was the son of promise (the one by faith).

Before God promised an heir to Abram and he fatherd two sons, we have the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. This too lays another foundation stone for us in our relationship with God.

In Genesis 17, Abraham is healing from his circumcision when the Lord comes to him in the form of three figures. This is completely consistent with how God had previously manifested Himself – three times. To quickly review, Genesis 12 speaks of the covenant God made with Abram. The theme of that moment is on the subject of the father. In Genesis 15, the theme of the covenant shifts to a promised son and the making of sacrifice. In Genesis 17, the covenant is now sealed by Abram’s name change to Abraham and by the rite of circumcision. Paul said the “circumcision [of the heart] made without hands” was done by the Holy Spirit (Colossians 2:11). Abraham’s new name means the “father of many nations.” God’s covenant with Abraham has clear and distinctive components of a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit.

With all of this accomplished, God now comes to have lunch with Abraham as three figures appearing before him. Abraham has no difficulty addressing them as Adonai (which many English Bibles translate as Lord). At this lunch, Abraham puts forth his best hospitality. Thus, it is said that the works of Abraham are hospitality. Any time we show hospitality to a stranger, we are proving that we are descendants of Abraham.

When the lunch was over, Adonai announced to Abraham that He was journeying to Sodom to judge the citizens of that city. It is utterly fascinating how this unfolds in its telling. One figure negotiates with Abraham for the number of righteous citizens that may live in Sodom while the other two depart for Sodom. Abraham does not have a problem with this at all. He continues to speak with Adonai (Lord), continuing to negotiate with this One. In fact, the negotiations are initiated by a question and statement from Abraham.

And Abraham came near and said, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Genesis 18:23-25

Abraham was making a case for comparing righteousness with justice. Should not the Judge of all the earth make a righteous and just decision? Part of God’s relationship with Abraham involves righteousness and justice. They are bonded together and cannot be separated. Let me elaborate.

To the world, justice has to do with equality and fairness. Equal weights and measures are part of justice. The punishment is to match the crime; that is justice. Eye for eye and payment of damages is the just way. The Law of God clearly states this, and even most unbelievers in the world adhere to this definition of justice. God says that the soul who sins shall die. Those are the wages of sin. That is what must be paid to be just. So, how does righteousness fit into this?

Righteousness means ‘doing the right thing;’ it is the act of dealing justly. That is what Abraham is asking of the Lord. “Will You not deal justly?” Therefore, the Scriptures (the Word of God) say that righteousness and justice are intimate companions. You can’t have one without the other. This was part of the reason why the Lord spoke to the Lord, which Abraham heard concerning Sodom and Gomorrah.

For I have chosen him [Abraham], so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him. Genesis 18:19

This is also one of the attributes of King David and why the Scriptures declare him to be a good king. He ruled with righteousness and justice.

So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and righteousness for all his people. 2 Samuel 8:15

I once knew a brother in the Lord who owned a business. He hired some other brethren to work for him. He borrowed funds for his business from still other brothers. But then he ran into financial difficulty and did not pay his employees their due wages nor repay the monies he had borrowed. He dismissed the complaints of the brothers as it was “just business.” He was right. It was just justice (the action of the court in declaring bankruptcy) but it was not righteousness. It turned out that he had entered into the agreements with his brothers, knowing that his loss was forthcoming. He was not making agreements in “good faith.” Therefore, there was no righteousness. In the aftermath, that brother is no longer in fellowship with his brethren. His promises are no longer believed. No one has faith in him any longer. He lost more than his business.

Abraham was asking the Lord how He was going to integrate righteousness (doing the right thing) with the need for justice (equal punishment for equal crime). This is why Abraham posed the different numbers of righteous men from 50 down to 10. The truth of the matter is that God does NOT punish the righteous with the guilty. His justice and righteousness cannot be separated. If you remember, the three righteous people living in Sodom (Lot and his two daughters) did escape before judgment fell on Sodom and Gomorrah. God was righteous and just at the same time.

If we are to have the kind of relationship with God that Abraham had, then righteousness and justice must be foundation stones in our relationship along with believing the promises of God and having faith.

Let us continue. Justice demands payment for sin. This is God’s rule. This is where sacrifice comes in. Sacrifice is the acceptable substitute that is used for payment. Sacrifice is also the basis for gifting. Thus, if God is willing to accept a substitute as payment for sin, then He is the One who determines the suitability of the substitute. For example, if I run into my neighbor’s car and dent his fender and offer him an apple pie as payment, one would expect him to reject my sacrifice (an apple pie). Instead, you would expect him to require the monies to pay for the repair for the matter to be settled. The same is true of God. He has specified what must be paid (an acceptable sacrifice).

When Abraham asked the Lord how he was to receive the promises of God (namely a son), the Lord specified a series of sacrifices in Genesis 15. The Law also specifies certain sacrifices to be used in the temple service. But here is an eye-opener! The Law does not specify what sacrifice that a man may bring for willful, defiant sin. Instead, the Law specifies that the man die. But it is from Abraham that we learn of a particular promise of God that is apart from the Law. “The Lord will provide the lamb (sacrifice) in that place.” This is what Abraham said to Isaac when he was taking him to be bound and offered. This is the gift of the Messiah to us, the acceptable substitute determined by God for our sins. We can accept or reject Him, but there is nothing we can offer in place, or alongside, of His Sacrifice. Man cannot bring a sacrifice of his choosing for his sins against God. To be passed from death to life, he must accept the sacrifice brought by the Lord Himself. Salvation, therefore, is truly a gift from God to us. And understanding how Sacrifice brings Salvation, it should not be surprising to anyone that the name of the Messiah, Yeshua, is the very Hebrew word “Salvation.”

All of this is pictured for us in the life of Abraham in Genesis 22. Torah teachers call it the “Akedah,” which means “the binding” of Isaac. By the way, Isaac will marry Rebekah. Her name also means “to be bound,” but back to Abraham...

This event happens some time after Isaac has grown to be a man. He was not a child lacking understanding when this happened. Abraham’s relationship with the Lord had grown to the point that God could call upon Abraham directly and he would answer directly.

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." Genesis 22:1

How would you like to have a personal one-on-one relationship with God where you can directly reply to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth when He calls you? To have that, you must first prove that you can hear God’s voice and answer without hesitation what He commands you to do. In the case of Abraham, it is truly profound!

Isaac—the promised son, the son of Abraham’s old age, the son of Sarah beyond her childbearing years, the son whom Abraham loves—is the subject of the test. God tests Abraham, asking him to take Isaac to a particular place to be offered up as a sacrifice (a gift back to God). How could this be right?!? God had promised that Isaac would be the son from which many children (more than the stars of the night) would come. If God takes him back, how could God keep His promise? Besides that, if God spared the righteous from the judgment of Sodom, how can the intentional death of Isaac be righteous, or just for that matter?

I’m sure that Abraham was truly being tested; yet he obeyed what God said. Abraham and Isaac did build an altar and Abraham prepared Isaac for sacrifice. What is amazing is that Isaac understood what was happening and willingly submitted in trusting his father and the Lord. But the Lord stopped the preparations in the moment before slaying Isaac. Here is what God said then that is part of the foundation of our faith today.

12He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me. …16By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” Genesis 22:12,16-18

The Lord has just revealed another foundational principle in our relationship with Him. Obedience produces blessings. “You obeyed Me, therefore I will bless you.” Obedience does not provide salvation as faith does. But obedience does reflect righteousness; obeying the Lord is certainly “the right thing to do.” But again, obedience does not lead to salvation; it leads to blessings.

Let’s review Abraham’s relationship with God and summarize the principles:

Hearing God’s word is the ability to hear His promises. When you believe what God has declared, then it is called faith (you believe in the person and what he has said). Therefore, faith comes by hearing, hearing the Word of God. Faith is then counted as righteousness. Righteousness is the intimate friend of justice. But justice demands payment, which is called sacrifice. Once sacrifice is paid, then you receive salvation. But on another track, we know that hospitality leads to intercession and that obedience produces blessings (disobedience produces curses). But then there is a promise for us in the faith of the Abraham—the Messiah.

There are three distinct instances in Scripture which speak of the Messiah coming from Abraham. The first is Abraham’s answer to Isaac’s question where the sacrifice was. “The Lord will provide the Lamb for Himself for a burnt offering, my son.” The second is the ram whose head was caught in the thicket of thorns that was then sacrificed. Yeshua the Messiah’s head was caught in thorns when He was offered up as well. And finally, the promise of God that in Abraham’s “seed” (singular not plural) would blessing come for the whole world. The Apostle Paul emphasizes the singular seed of Abraham as direct promise of the Messiah.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, the Messiah. Galatians 3:16

The relationship that God had with Abraham is characterized this way. Abraham was the friend of God and walked before Him. Abraham was the first Hebrew, the first of three fathers, the first example of how man is justified before God. If anyone is to have a saving relationship with God, then it must match that of Abraham with a belief in God’s promise of the Messiah. That is the faith that is counted for righteousness which leads to salvation.

Abraham also teaches us something about intercession. Abraham’s hospitality led to pleading the case of the righteous in Sodom. If a person is seeking the blessings of God, then he follows Abraham’s example of obeying to gain the blessing. If a person is to intercede in the lives of others, then he must do the works of Abraham (showing hospitality to others).

But there are others who try to define the relationship with God differently. The Pharisees taught, and Rabbinical Judaism still teaches today, that righteousness comes from obedience in keeping the Law (“prayer, penitence, and good deeds averts the severe decree”). Many Christians believe that faith produces the blessings (“send a little ‘seed faith money’ and let’s see what kind of blessing God will give you”). Still others claim that they are no longer part of the “Old Covenant” and are separate from what God did with Abraham and Israel. They think that the Messiah set up a completely new way to have a relationship with God. They don’t see Abraham as their father.

It is on this final point that we conclude this discussion. God developed His relationship with man starting with Abraham. The precedents of that relationship are set. God’s promises, including the gift of the Messiah, come through His relationship with Abraham. But God did not make this agreement with Abraham alone. He made it with Abraham’s descendants. Abraham must be your father, and you must be part of his family if you are to be part of God’s relationship with mankind. So, how can everyone in the world be part of Abraham’s family and call Abraham their father?

It is easy. You are adopted into his family. You are chosen by the Father. Physical birth is NOT the prescribed way to be part of his family. Paul taught this specifically in the book of Romans.

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: "through Isaac your descendants will be named." That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. Romans 9:6-8

Paul is saying that physical descent is not the key to being a descendant of Abraham and being part of Israel. Instead, he is saying that as Abraham believed God and his faith was counted for righteousness, so must the descendants do as well. Instead of being natural born, every true descendant of Abraham must be a child of the promise. This is how all the families of the earth have the potential to be blessed by Abraham.

Many years ago, early in my ministry, I was invited to teach at a week-long discipleship school. I began teaching about Abraham early in the class. At one of the breaks, I walked into a conversation among the students where one commented about me saying, “It seems that whenever Monte speaks of Abraham, he is speaking of his real father.” I joined the conversation and answered, “That is correct. And if you do not begin to see Abraham as your father also, then you will not be part of God’s plan including the Messiah. This is essential to your spiritual growth in the Lord.”

Once you see Abraham as part of your faith, you are one of his descendants. Then all of the promises of God, including the promised land and the kingdom, belong to you. God promised them to Abraham and to you. You believe in them and can act on them. You then see yourself as part of Isaac and Jacob’s family. You see yourself as part of Israel. You then see yourself as part of the Messiah, the King of Israel. If you fail to do this, then your faith will be confusing and more often than not simply not working right. When you call on the Lord, sometimes He answers and sometimes He doesn’t. If the Lord tests you and tries to prove you, you generally freak out and fail. Your life will tend to flow from one crisis to the next, one problem to the next, with very little peace or contentment. Quite simply, your faith doesn’t work because your relationship with God is distorted and dysfunctional.

One of the greatest prophecies of the end of the days is about the prophet Elijah. Elijah is to come just before the Messiah comes, and he is to help all of us with a very important element for the coming kingdom. It is found in the last two verses of the Tanach.

Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse. Malachi 4:5-6

The Scripture takes us all the way back to Abraham. He was the first of our fathers. It is also our custom at every Passover that we set a special cup for Elijah, hoping that he will join us each year. There is no reason to wait until he comes. Our hearts can be restored to our fathers when we learn what God did with Abraham in the Torah. That is when we discover and learn about our father Abraham.