From the Beginning Genesis 12:1-3


Genesis 12:1-3

It is Pentecost. Pentecost, as you know, was the last great event in that complex of events that make up the history of the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The virgin birth, the public ministry, his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his ascension or his return to heaven are all mentioned in the great creeds of the church: the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. But there was one event still to come. Our Savior spoke of it explicitly before his death, he spoke of it again after his resurrection, and as he was leaving the world he told his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came in his place and that when he came and as a result of his coming they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Jesus himself laid great weight on Pentecost. He saw it as the fulfillment and the continuation of his work, the essential step necessary to transform his death on the cross into the world’s salvation. The Spirit, he said, would take his place in the world as he left it and would bring to the world the message of God’s love in Christ. It is this event, Pentecost, occurring fifty days after his resurrection (“Pentecost” means “fifty”), that completes the one chapter – the Lord’s public ministry through his physical presence among men – and opens the next, his ministry throughout the world through the Holy Spirit. It is Pentecost that takes the redemption that Christ accomplished and makes it the possession of mankind as a whole. It is Pentecost that makes Jesus the Savior not simply of the Jews but of the world. It is Pentecost that makes Christianity a missionary faith in a way utterly unique among the religions of the world. It is Pentecost that transformed those few unknown and humanly insignificant disciples of Jesus of Nazareth into a company of the mighty who would turn the world upside down. Because of Pentecost, as Jesus had predicted, out of their bellies flowed living water to the world. It is Pentecost that accounts for what has happened over the past 2,000 years as the gospel’s course of conquest first began in Jerusalem and then continued uninterrupted, the light of life falling upon one nation and people after another. It was the last great event in the history of redemption to have occurred and we will not have another until the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pentecost defines the age in which we live.

But despite its immense importance in the history of salvation, Pentecost has remained a step-child in the creeds and in the liturgical calendar. All Christian churches celebrate Christmas and Easter, but many fewer are even aware that today is Pentecost. The Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed do not mention Pentecost. And that was a great mistake. Our Westminster Confession of Faith and the two Catechisms, Larger and Shorter do not so much as mention Pentecost. And that is a great mistake. And so, as I told you some years ago, we’re going to observe Pentecost each year and I’m going to preach a sermon apropos Pentecost every year as well. So my text for this morning.

Text Comment

v.2       A “nation” is first a people, a community; then it is a land; it is also a set of laws – a certain way of life – a constitution, and finally it is a government, and in the biblical world that meant a king. All of this will follow in the first five books of the Bible: Abraham will become the people of Israel, they will receive a constitution, God’s covenant expressed in the Law of Moses, and will finally enter the land. Later in Judges through Kings and Chronicles the Bible will be taken up with kingship, with Israel’s rulers. And, of course, all of this is then transferred very naturally and easily to the worldwide kingdom of God: believers in Christ the people, the Word of God their constitution, heaven their land, and the Lord Christ their king.

v.3       The verb “to bless” occurs five times in Genesis chapters 1-11 and now, five times in two verses. The term in its usage in Genesis suggests fertility in reproduction, prosperity, and victory. “[God’s] blessing brings the power for life, the enhancement of life, and the increase of life.” [Horst, cited in Waltke, 205] And that is what God is promising to Abraham here and the world through Abraham. Clearly the idea here is that from Abraham life in its fullness will spread outward to the world.

By the way, there is an interesting observation to be made regarding the grammar of v. 3. The first line of v. 3 is in the plural: “I will bless those who bless you…” but the second is in the singular: “whoever curses you I will curse.” It is a subtle way to suggest what is taught explicitly in so many places in the Word of God: God is inclined to bless not curse. Isaiah calls God’s cursing of people, his judgment of people his “strange work.” He does not desire the death of the wicked but that all men come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth. He thinks naturally of blessing the many, of cursing only the obstinate few.

The Bible can be daunting to read. It is so long, it contains so much history spread over so many centuries, it contains so many different kinds of literature, and, of course, it was written long ago in literary styles that are unfamiliar to us. But, as has often been pointed out, if you know where the Bible is going, it is much easier to understand; if you have a grasp of the overall plot, the overarching story, the pieces of that story become easier to fit into the whole. Well, that is what we have here in Genesis 12:1-3: the grand plot, the overarching story, the outline of the Bible.

The celebrated Anglican pastor and writer John Stott called these three verses the “most unifying” verses in the Bible. What he meant by that was that the rest of the Bible can easily be seen to be the unfolding of God’s purpose as it was first stated here and the outworking of the promise that God made here to Abraham. What we have here is God calling an individual man, making of him a great nation, and then using that nation to reach the entire world with his salvation. That is the Bible in sum!

Abraham did become a great nation. It was to that nation that the first 39 books of the Bible were revealed. It was for that nation that the great apparatus of sacrifice and of atonement by sacrifice was created in the Law of Moses. It was of that nation that David would eventually become king and give the world some sense of what a king should be. It was to that nation that the prophets would deliver their great messages of judgment and hope that still resound throughout the world today. And it was from that nation and David’s line in particular that the Messiah would eventually be born to his virgin mother; his father Joseph, by whom his ancestry was reckoned, a descendant of David, a descendant of Abraham, as the Gospels emphatically remind us. And it was through this descendant, Abraham’s seed, the Lord Jesus Christ, that salvation has come to the world through the Holy Spirit who on the day of Pentecost descended upon the church and empowered her for her ministry of bearing witness to Christ throughout the earth. As the apostle Paul never tires of reminding us, those of us Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ are, for that reason, the sons, the descendants of Abraham. We are the circumcision; we are the Israel of God. We are because  we are heirs of the promise that God made to Abraham.

But the tie between this ancient text and Pentecost is closer than even that. The very salvation itself, the way God’s grace comes to sinners and delivers them was the same in Abraham’s case as it was for those 3,000 who found salvation on the day of Pentecost, and as it has been for every believer in Christ ever since. The Bible in sum is here in Gen. 12:1-3 in this way as well. What God did for and said to Abraham here in Genesis 12 and what Abraham did in obeying the Lord’s summons is the pattern of salvation throughout the rest of the Bible and throughout the history of the world to the present day. There is a reason why we know more about Abraham and about Abraham’s life than anyone else in the Bible, save Moses, David, the apostle Paul, and the Lord Jesus himself. He is the exemplar for all who hear the gospel and respond in faith.

Before we go further, however, it may be important for me to disabuse you of a temptation to which modern people are all too subject, viz. to think of Abraham and his world as primitive, backward, undeveloped, hardly civilized. It is harder for us to relate to a man who lived in a far away place and a long ago time if we think that the world of his day was dramatically different from the world which we inhabit today. It is important for you to know something of Abraham’s world so that you can fully appreciate that he was a man of a world very like our own and that his life can very easily serve as an example for us.

The life of Abraham can be dated with confidence to approximately 2,000 B.C; that is, he lived as many years before the birth of our Savior as we now live after it. And we now know quite a lot about the world in which he lived, much more than was known even a few generations ago. The older, skeptical view of this history was based on an evolutionary theory of human history in which it was supposed that human history moves from the primitive toward the sophisticated and that, therefore, this earlier human life must have been a primitive culture, lacking much of what we associate with civilization. The influential German scholar of the 19th century, Julius Wellhausen, who popularized this view, argued that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch in the 14th century B.C, 600 years after Abraham, because writing had not been invented by that time.

Now, however, we know that the world in which Abraham lived was highly sophisticated and highly cultured. His was already an older civilization. Nations carried on voluminous international trade regulated and taxed by government bureaucracies. Sound familiar? Huge public works projects requiring remarkable feats of engineering were commonplace. The people were widely literate and often in more than one language. Abraham, as we know him from the Bible, fits into this picture neatly: a wealthy merchant, able to travel, to develop new commercial ties, and to maintain his position in an international and entrepreneurial economy. I guarantee you, somebody back then said at some time or another, justifying some new effort at economic development, “A rising tide floats all boats!”

We even have a description from a near contemporary, Sinuhe, an Egyptian nobleman who became the governor of a large Amorite tribe in the 20th century B.C, a tribe located in the Palestinian highlands where Abraham was to spend the largest part of his remaining life:

There were figs in it and vines,
More plentiful than water was its wine,
Copious was its honey, plenteous its oil;
All fruits were upon its trees.
Barley was there and spelt,
Without end all cattle.

A country with literary culture and highly developed agriculture was to be Abraham’s home. Abraham will be called in the Bible “the friend of God,” and “the father of all those who believe in Jesus Christ.” Jesus, in a particularly striking statement, said that Abraham was a believer in him, in Jesus Christ, those long ages before the Lord came into the world. “Abraham rejoiced to see my day and was glad,” he said. Paul will use Abraham’s life story as his crowning demonstration that men are made right with God by faith in Christ and not by their own effort to please God and the author of the letter to the Hebrews will use Abraham as an example of what it means to live by faith and to be a pilgrim in this world. Indeed, throughout the remainder of the Bible, God himself will refer to himself and identify himself as “The God of Abraham.” Abraham is the prototypical Christian in the Bible. In other words, in the life of Abraham, we are face to face with the greatest themes of biblical revelation, set out in flesh and blood in the personal history of this great man, a man whose world, in all really important matters, was very much the same as ours, who certainly  inhabited the same spiritual world as we do, with the same principles, laws, opportunities, dangers, difficulties, promises, and requirements.

So not only is this promise to Abraham in Gen. 12 a summary of what is to follow in the Bible Abraham himself is the exemplar of those who will be saved. What he did, we must do. What happened to him will happen to us as well. Pentecost didn’t change the way of salvation one whit. It just spread that old salvation by grace through faith far and wide. Let me show you what I mean.

I.          First, every Christian life, every individual’s salvation, begins with the call of God.

Where did this great man come from? Why does he suddenly appear out of nowhere as the centerpiece of early biblical history? Was he a man who all his life had loved God and sought God and for his reward was made the father of a great nation? No. Abraham had done nothing of the kind. He was born into an idolater’s family in Ur of the Chaldeans. So we read in Joshua 24:3. No doubt he was raised in that family to worship idols as his parents did – perhaps especially to be a devotee of moon worship as, apparently, his father Terah was – and no doubt he was content to be an idolater like everyone around him. We have no reason to think otherwise. What completely changed this man and all of history after him was the voice, the call, the summons of God. He would have lived out his life and died and his name fallen into perpetual oblivion had God not singled him out, spoken to him, and called him out of his former life.

We have no idea how that summons came, though we know it came to him when he was still in his father’s house in Ur. But like multitudes of his spiritual descendants, Abraham received a divine summons and his life was transformed root and branch. As the Puritan, John Arrowsmith put it:

“Election having once pitched upon a man, it will find him out, and call him home, wherever he be. It called Zaccheus out of accursed Jericho; Abraham, out of idolatrous Ur of the Chaldeans; Nicodemus, and Paul, from the college of the Pharisees, Christ’s sworn enemies; Dionysius, and Damaris, out of superstitious Athens. In whatsoever dung-hills God’s jewels are hid, election will both find them out, and fetch them out.” [BOT (Jan 1983) 6]

And so with every Christian and so with us, whether we have been Christians all our lives or heard God’s voice for the first time only recently. The Christian life begins and continues with God’s personal and particular summons to us and our responding to what he says. So it was on the day of Pentecost. Those 3,000 souls who had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast had no expectation whatsoever that they would be utterly different people by the end of the day, that their lives would be transformed, that they would live out their days for a completely different purpose and with a completely different love in their hearts. They awoke as the people they had always been; they went to bed that night people they had never imagined they would become. But in between through Peter’s sermon and by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts, they heard God’s voice, they felt the force of the truth in their souls, and they answered the summons and believed as everyone will to whom God’s summons comes.

One morning last April, during Spiritual Emphasis Week at African Bible University in Kampala, Uganda, I asked the hundred or so students in the college chapel how many of them had been raised in Christian homes; how many of them had at least one Christian parent. If you ask that question of any larger group of American Christians, you are likely to find that most hands go up; often most by far. Most of them are the product of believing homes. But out of that hundred only a few hands went up. Virtually all the American teachers raised their hands, but almost none of the students. These are first generation believers, just as Abraham was. They were going about their lives with no real thought of believing in or serving Jesus Christ and suddenly, in some way or another, by some means or another, through some evangelist or pastor or Christian friend, they heard the divine summons that Abraham had heard 4,000 years ago. And by the Holy Spirit they believed and obeyed. So it has always been. Salvation comes by God’s address to a human heart: I am your Maker, I am your God, and you must believe in me and follow me. And when God summons, his creatures must answer.

As it was with Abraham, as it was with the 3,000 that Luke says came to Jerusalem from all over the world, as it has been in Uganda, and as it is with you and me, the Christian faith, the Christian life, salvation itself is hearing God’s voice summon you and giving answer from your heart.

Last century the Scottish lay evangelist, Brownlow North, published a little pamphlet entitled Six Short Rules for Young Christians.  The first two of these rules read as follows:

“Never neglect daily private prayer; and, when you pray, remember…that he hears your prayers.”

“Never neglect daily private Bible-reading; and when you read, remember that God is speaking to you, and that you are to believe and act upon what He says.” [K. Moody Stuart, Alexander Moody Stuart, 109]

There is a conversation in salvation, God speaking and our responding. There was with Abraham and there is in the case of everyone who ever has, who is being today, or ever shall be saved.

  1. Second, Abraham is an exemplar of salvation because we see so clearly in his life that God’s summons never leaves a man or woman, boy or girl where it finds him or her.

 

This man, from an idolater’s family, had no knowledge of the one true God. Those around him and in his family worshipped many Gods who were, though they would have hotly denied it, creations of their own imaginations. They were really forms of self-worship as idolatry always is, even when it is the love of money or power or fame or pleasure as are the typical forms of idolatry in the modern West. And then, somehow, we know not how, God spoke to this man and everything suddenly was completely different

As Sheldon Vanauken put it, “When you are in the jungle, and you hear a hyena growl, you might mistake it for a lion. But, when you hear a lion roar, you know damn well it’s a lion!”

Well so it was with Abraham. However the divine summons came he knew the living God was speaking to him, not some figment of his imagination. God can do that! His voice comes with self-authenticating authority. And what was the result of that? Well now Abraham opened his eyes each morning on a completely new world, God’s world, the God he now knew. Abraham now knew that the idols his family worshipped were nothing at all. He immediately saw his life in utterly different terms than he was accustomed to. But that was only the beginning.

When God spoke to him, he summoned him to another country far away, to leave behind family and friends and business and perhaps the accumulated property of generations of his family. And suddenly Abraham found himself on the road to who knows where. That divine voice with irresistible power picked him up and put him down a different man in a different place with a different life. His nice tidy world was in shambles as off he went to follow God.

It must have been the same for those 3,000 who heard the divine voice on the day of Pentecost. There were men there – perhaps most of the 3,000 were adult men, though surely there were plenty of women and some children as well – but there were men who had to return to their homes, either in Jerusalem or its environs, or some days later as they returned from Jerusalem and explain to their wives and children that they were not the same people they had been when they left for Jerusalem a few days or weeks before. They had confessed Jesus as Lord, they had seen remarkable demonstrations of divine power, they had been transformed from the inside out, were now committed to living for Jesus, and, and this must have been the difficult part, they wanted their wives and children to join them in following the Lord. Imagine those conversations going late into the evening, as the father of the home described what he had seen and heard – the apostles speaking in foreign languages – they had never learned, their hearing the gospel in their own language spoken by somebody who didn’t know that language – the healing of the sick; attempting to reproduce for his family the sermon he had heard Peter preach, trying to make them feel the power of that message as he had felt it when it was first preached that Pentecost Sunday, trying to make them believe as they had suddenly and irresistibly believed.

And so it will be for every Christian. God will not leave you where he finds you. He intends to take you to places and to set you to doing things with your life you never thought of. The Christian church is literally full to the brim with people who are doing things with their lives they never could have imagined themselves doing before they heard the voice of God in their souls.

I know women, now happily the mother of a number of children, who once hated the very idea of motherhood, but God spoke to them and everything changed. Or, think of Eta Linnemann, the German Professor of NT, the only woman in that very exclusive and august fraternity back in the 1960s. She had reached the pinnacle of her profession the only woman ever to do so in the German University. And then God spoke to her. And a few years later she was a missionary in Indonesia, telling everyone who asked to burn the books she had written as a German university professor. Could she have ever imagined the revolution in her life, the leaving of her homeland, the completely new set of associations, the forsaking of all that she had sought and obtained at such great cost in the academic world? No more than Abraham could have imagined himself on the road to Canaan, even one day before the sound of the Almighty’s voice reached his ears.

Brothers and sisters, don’t be surprised that your life is often turned upside down, that God takes you across difficult country, and forces you to leave behind much that was once important to you.  He summoned you precisely because he intends to take you someplace else. That is the Christian life and always and everywhere the Christian life.

III.       And, finally, Abraham exemplifies our life because God’s call is always to a future that cannot be seen.

Think, now, and visualize Abraham’s situation when God speaks to him and afterward. He’s to go, he knows not where; to do, he knows not what; to receive a promise which, since he and Sarah are already past expecting a child, seems incapable of fulfillment. And off he goes!

The Bible has a word for that behavior: FAITH! And from the beginning to the end of every Christian life, this is supremely what is required. Faith sees what is promised when the eye cannot.

And here is the power and glory of faith in God and faith in Christ. Look what it makes of a person. Look what that person does and look what that person becomes. An early church father put it this way:

“Give me a passionate man, a hot-headed man, and one that is headstrong and unmanageable; and with faith as a grain of mustard seed, I will, by degrees make that man as quiet as a lamb. Then give me a covetous man, an avaricious man, a miserly man; and with a little faith working like leaven in his heart, I will yet make him a perfect spendthrift for the church of Christ and for the poor. Then give me one who is mortally afraid of pain; and one who all his days is in bondage through fear of death; and let the spirit of faith once enter and take its seat in his heart and in his imagination, and he shall, in a short time, despise all your crosses and flames….Then show me a man with an unclean heart and I will undertake, by his faith in Christ, to make him whiter than snow, till he will not know himself to be the same man.” [In Whyte, BC IV, 109-110]

Look what a titan faith made of Abraham. It made him a pilgrim; it made him the friend of God and the father of all who believe in Christ, a great nation no man can number! Abraham wavered from time to time, but faith, once it has got hold of him would never let him return to the comfort of the old ways. It set him toward the unknown future, the things that God had promised him.

And so it was with those 3,000 on the day of Pentecost. After they had been baptized, however and wherever that many people were baptized in the city of Jerusalem in those days, after all the excited talk had died down, they turned away to return to the inn or the home of the friend where they were staying and, no doubt, many of them thought, “Now what?” What will this mean for me? What am I to do?” I suspect there was some fear, a natural fear of the unknown. What is my family going to say when I explain all of this to them? But then the Lord was there with them and they realized that they didn’t have to figure the future out; they had only to trust the Lord and obey his Word. And so it was and God made something wonderful of their lives and they welcomed a future they never could or would have imagined. They were the children of Abraham now, and, like their great spiritual ancestor, they trusted the Lord to take them where he would have them go!

Abraham to Pentecost to you and me and our present day world. The Bible in sum! Salvation in sum! Our life and faith in sum!