By Faith Abraham
Key Verse 11:13
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.”
We last spoke of the faith of the ancients in verses 1 through 7, tracing the beginnings of faith to Abel, Enoch and Noah. Noah marked a new beginning for humanity after God destroyed the world through a world wide flood but saved Noah and his sons. He became the heir of righteousness that is by faith. (7) What that means is that Noah became righteous in the sight of the Lord through his faith. God counted him righteous not because he was a morally uptight man, but because he trusted and obeyed God by faith. He inherited righteousness because of his faith. Now we know that unless we are made righteous we cannot come into God’s presence nor have fellowship with him; we cannot inherit eternal life nor the kingdom of God unless we are righteous. Noah inherited this righteousness on account of his faith. But if you read Genesis chapters 9-11, you’ll see that after Noah, humanity degenerated rapidly until the whole earth was once again consumed with sin and filled with wickedness. The entire human race at the time revolted against God, and God abandoned them to their own devices. You can read about it in Romans 1:18-30.
Which brings us to the story of Abraham recorded here in Hebrews 11, verses 8-19. Through this man, a new and important era in human history began. To begin with, Abraham is designated “The father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11). What this means is that he is not only at the head of those who are chosen by grace, but he is also the one in whose footsteps, all who are his spiritual children, must walk. We’re talking here about every Christian without exception! The Bible talks about a family resemblance between Abraham and the Christian. The Bible tells us that if we belong to Christ, then we are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29), since “those who believe [who have faith] are the children of Abraham”. (Galatians 3:7) And this is what Jesus said about the children of Abraham: “If you [are] Abraham’s children … you would do what Abraham did”. (John 8:39) In contrast Jesus told the unbelievers: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires”. (John 8:44) It’s true. Worldly people, the unbelievers, bear the family resemblance of the Evil one. But those who belong to Christ walk in the footsteps of Abraham— the man of faith. Now this is what we’ll be talking about in this passage, how Abraham walked in faith. How we too should walk in faith. Let’s see what all that means.
Read verse 8. “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” The apostle is referring to the passage we find in Genesis 12:1-5. Let me read it to you: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ So Abram left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” However the story of Abraham doesn’t begin there. It actually begins towards the end of Genesis 11. Here’s what we read there about Abraham’s beginnings. “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.” (Genesis 11:31-32) In other words when God called Abraham, be didn’t fully obey God’s call right away. His first response to God’s call was deficient. He left Chaldea, but instead of separating himself from his kindred, he took his nephew Lot with him. Instead of leaving his father’s household, he let his father Terah take the lead. Terah decided to stop short of Canaan and settled instead in Harran. Abraham temporized. In other words, he was indecisive, faltered on his commitment to go all the way which God had directed him, and he took his time. He yielded to the demands of his sinful nature. How true this is of us all as well!
But God’s call is irrevocable and absolute. Look at verse 8 again. God called him to leave behind everything near and dear to him, regardless of how painful or costly it might be. Abraham needed to let go of all these things for many reasons, but especially because they symbolized his past life in the flesh, and her needed to begin a new life— a spiritual life— of faith in God. It’s obvious why he needed to do that. Look at the life he led at the time God first called him. Joshua spoke of it when he said: “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods.” (Joshua 24:2) This then was the life God called Abraham to leave behind. He was no longer to be guided by self-will, nor by self-love, nor by self-pleasing. He was to “Deny himself” (Mark 8:34). From then on, his whole life, his will, his desires, were all to be governed and guided by the will of God and his word. It’s also the life Christ calls us to leave behind when he calls us out of our old lives, homes, and comfort to follow him. And the Lord tells us: “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world”. (John 15:19) We are to be apart from the world. Actually, whether it’s painful or not, it’s still a great privilege that God should call us to leave behind our past lives. It was difficult for our father Abraham. But it was underserved grace that called him out— that calls us out as well to leave the world behind and to follow Him. How wonderful is the grace of God to Abraham. The gracious God condescended to reveal himself to one who was steeped in sin, who worshipped idols and who had no regard for the Only True God. There was nothing in Abraham that deserved God’s notice. But God called him. And finally, Abraham obeyed God and went.
Read verse 8 again. “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” The operative words here are faith and obeyed. The apostle has already taught us much about the importance of obedience in faith and worship. Abraham obeyed God. He obeyed God because he worshipped God. In truth, there is no real worship apart from obedience. They go together! If you truly worship God, you also obey him implicitly, without question. You obey him regardless of how strange or unreasonable or difficult his words may be. Just as faith and hope, or grace and apostleship are inseparable, so also are worship and obedience— they cannot be separated one from the other. When the word of God calls us to worship, in essence it is calling us to obey God. Now Abraham’s faith was a faith that worships and obeys God.
We already talked about Abraham’s delayed journey to Canaan and his father’s settling in Harran, where a great deal of time was lost. We don’t know how old Abraham was when he actually left Ur of the Chaldeans. But we know that when he arrived at Canaan he was about 75 years old. At that time God appeared to him and said: “‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.” (Genesis 12:7) And from then on everywhere this man went he built an altar of worship to God. It seems that his life was from one altar to another. What does all this mean? Think about it! Some arrogant and self absorbed people like to build legacies for themselves. If they have the money, they construct buildings and build corporations and give them their own name. In history some have built magnificent temples and churches, with their names written on the walls so that all may see what they’ve donated and done. But they’ve offered no worship. Their lives are marked with legacies of human vanity and pride. But not our father Abraham! Now Abraham was different. He built altars of worship and he worshiped God wherever he went. That was part of his faith legacy. What legacy do you want to be remembered for?
Read verses 9-16. “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith Abraham, even though he was past age— and Sarah herself was barren–was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country— a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
There’s truly too much to consider in all these verses, an we cannot cover it all. But the apostle tells us that when Abraham arrived in the land God promised him, he lived in tents as did his children and children’s children. They all lived like strangers in a foreign land. All of them never received the things promised them— in fact they only saw them from a distance and continued to live as pilgrims in a strange country. Why? The apostle tells us it’s because they were living by faith. And he also tells us what that means. He tells us that they were not interested in settling down anywhere in the world, but were longing for another country— the kingdom of God— a place built by God rather than by people. The apostle also tells us that Abraham’s wife was instrumental in all this. She believed that the faithful God who promised them a son would fulfill his promise in spite of her old age and worn-out body. And God made good on his promise and gave them not only a son but more descendants than they could count. Verse 13 says that “All these people were still living by faith when they died”. How glorious was their faith! It doesn’t matter how many faults, mistakes, failings, shortcomings and failures they had, God speaks only of their faith! God should be ashamed of them because they were sinful, weak and clumsy, and without any special human qualities. But God isn’t! He’s not at all ashamed to be called their God— that is, to embrace them and to be identified with them before the heavens and the earth. They were great in the sight of God! They were great because of their faith. They lived by faith. They kept the faith. And they waited by faith for his coming kingdom.
Now we cannot ignore such faith by which they lived until they died. Look at verse 9 again. “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” Once again let me tell you what this means— what faith is all about. It means Abraham never settled down! Settling down is such a necessity for human beings. We like to settle down in a place we can call our own. We want to feel as if we belong somewhere, that we own something. Some people spend most of their lives working and saving up to buy a property they can settle in and pass on to their children. They feel they owe to their children to provide them with comfort and security. Their children grow up and follow in their footsteps, until they too can settle down. Settling down in a place we call our own seems to be a symbol of our security or success in this world— a sign that we’ve earned the right to settle down in a place we call our own. Ever since God put a curse on Cain to be a “Restless Wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:14), human beings have been anxious to find a place to put an end to their wanderings. They don’t know that even if they settle down in a place they call their own, their hearts still anxiously wander here and there. There is only one place where we can stop wandering. And it’s in God’s kingdom. But people aren’t looking for the kingdom of God any more. Not even Christians seem to be any more. Even if they say with their mouths that they are looking for the kingdom of God, their hearts want to settle here in this world. They want to be able to raise a banner for their accomplishments.
But Abraham! Now this man— the man in whose footsteps we are called to walk— was so different! He settled in Canaan, but he dwelled in tents. Even though God said “This land is yours. I’m giving it to you and to your children” (Genesis 13:15), Abraham kept himself in humble tent dwellings. How beautiful is this picture, a prince of heaven like Abraham living in shabby tents. It reminds us of the True Prince of heaven born in a manger who later said: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head”. (Luke 9:58) Some may think that Abraham had to live in tents because he was a herdsman and needed to pitch his tents wherever there was grass and water. But that’s not true. His nephew Lot was also a herdsman, but he settled in Sodom. Proverbs 27:22 says: “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man.” It’s true. Although he started out following God like Abraham, Lot’s heart hungered after comfort and ease, after the security of this world, and after the respect of his worldly peers. He had no wisdom to see that settling down in Sodom would surely affect his family, would corrupt their faith, and would erode their conscience! Eventually his settling down in a place he called his own was the ruin of his family. His wife died because she couldn’t abide losing her mansion in Sodom. His daughters had no moral sense— no shame to do what’s unthinkable with their own father.
Abraham, on the other hand, lived in tents because of his faith. He lived by faith and taught his children and his children’s children the life of faith. He didn’t think he owed it to his children to provide them with the comforts and securities of this world and a chance at worldly success. He believed that he owed it to them to live humbly before the Lord and to seek God’s approval and pleasure through the blessed life of faith. He taught them God’s word of promise. He taught them faith, obedience and worship. He prepared them for something much more important than settling down in this world. He taught them to “set [their] hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” He taught them to “Set [their] minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:1-2) We should walk in the footsteps of our father Abraham, who valued the promises of God and his kingdom more than the urgency of settling down in this perishing world. Then God will not be ashamed to be called our God. God would be happy to say: “I am the God of Abraham”, “the God of Ebube”, and “the God of Daniel”.
Read verses 17-19. “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”
Now we come to the end of Abraham’s life and the ultimate sacrifice he made in offering up Isaac, the son God had given him. Abraham had other children, but Isaac is the one God called his “only son”. (Genesis 22:2) Isaac was his only son because he was the miracle son of promise, begotten by God’s grace and power. God didn’t ask Abraham to offer Isaac until he had come almost to the end of his life. We wonder why. But the reason may be clear. He wouldn’t have had the faith to do it. We know that God never tests us beyond what we can bear. (1 Corinthians 10:13) God didn’t ask Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael on the altar. First of all, he wasn’t the son of promise. And also because Abraham wouldn’t have done it at the time— we can be sure of that. Actually Abraham begged God to let him keep Ishmael and to make him the son of promise. He wasn’t ready at the time to do something like this. Also we can be sure that at the beginning of Isaac’s young life, Abraham wouldn’t have offered him. So we’re not talking about a young Isaac in this story about sacrifice. The Bible doesn’t say what age he was, but certainly he was a much older Isaac. Some believe he was roughly 30 years old when God commanded that he be sacrificed. It was now that Abraham was ready to obey God and to trust him fully.
At this point then came the testing of Abraham’s faith. And what a test it was! Young or old, it was the hardest thing Abraham was ever asked to do. God wanted to find out if Abraham loved God more than he loved Isaac— if he valued God more than the blessing of Isaac. God wanted to find out if Abraham now, after all these years of training and spiritual discipline, understood something very fundamental about the nature of God’s promise. He wanted to know if Abraham understood that Isaac belonged to God— that he was given to serve God’s purpose— that he was in essence an instrument of salvation for the world— and as such God can do with him as God wished to do with him— that Isaac was not just a son given as a prize to a childless old man. It was a test of Abraham’s faith, and a test of his true love for God. It seemed cruel. It seemed unfair. It seemed more like a punishment than a test. It was a nightmare. And it didn’t make sense. How could Abraham sacrifice him after God had promised to make a nation out of him! If he died, it would be the end of Abraham’s line and the end of the promise. What would Abraham do? In times of trial and testing, all kinds of negative and often wicked thoughts pass through our minds. Some people abandon God to follow the devil who often appears and speaks to them as an angel of light. (2 Corinthians 11:14) But not Abraham. Abraham reasoned as a spiritual man would. He reasoned, even in the midst of this painful testing, that God knew what he was doing, that somehow if Isaac was sacrificed, he would be raised from the dead. Abraham never doubted. How could this be? It could be, because he had learned how to reason all things with faith, he had worshiped God and obeyed him all his life, and God had never let him down.
All this gives us a glimpse into Abraham’s home. As Joshua tells us, he came originally from a godless home where idols were worshipped and where God was dishonored. Many people do not understand why the Lord instituted the principle that a man should leave his father and mother and be united with his wife. But it’s clear that they should if they are to have a home of their own. In a spiritual sense, they need to make mistakes and to learn from their own mistakes— they need to weather their own failures— they need to have their own experiences without the constant interference and advice of kin. This is crucial in building the home God would have them build, living by faith in God. Many people do not understand that. But we need to understand it if we are to have a godly home and learn to walk in Abraham’s footsteps of faith.
There is much advice and so many rules and regulations these days about marriage, and they’re given to those who would establish a home or to those with broken or dysfunctional homes. Without sounding disrespectful to those who mean well, let me tell you that all these rules and regulations and advice are useless until like Abraham and Sarah you are walking by faith, and are living by faith. If you’re a child of God, you ought to walk by faith and live by faith in your home. The husband or father ought to walk by faith and the wife or the mother ought to walk by faith as well. And the truth is you will still not have an ideal home. What foolishness it is for those who say they have an ideal marriage and an ideal home. Many of us have been married a long time, and God knows we argue and disagree on so many things. The truth is, she has a right to be wrong, and he has the right to be wrong as well. But the beauty of things is when he and she can still love the lord and each other, and come to God in faith. That’s what’s important. Abraham and Sarah made many mistakes, had many failures, had their share of arguments. But they both had faith and grew in faith to trusting and depending on God in small or big crises. It wasn’t an ideal home, rather it was a faith home. At the time of testing, the greatest test of all, to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham knew enough to trust God that he was ready to do as the Lord commanded him. He had faith to obey God and to worship him and to trust him to get him through any circumstance and situation. He was confident “That he who began a good work in [him] will carry it on completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) That was the secret of his home and family and children and life in general— it was faith in God through and through. Some day God will test you and me, and it will not be easy. How shall we stand the test of faith?