The Life of Abraham
Practical, Prophetic, and Doctrinal Lessons
From Truth & Testimony 2009
There can be little doubt that Abraham occupies a special place on the pages of the Holy Scriptures. Over 300 times we find the name of Abraham (or Abram) in the Bible. Not only is a significant chunk of the book of Genesis devoted to his biography (much of chapters 12 – 25) but many other books of the Bible mention the patriarch as well.
The OT mentions him in all five books of the Pentateuch, in Joshua, 2 Kings, 1 Chr., Nehemiah, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Micah. The NT mentions Abraham in Matthew, Luke, John, in the Acts as well as in the Epistles to the Romans, the Galatians, and the Hebrews, as well as in by James and (First) Peter. This makes 22 books overall, 13 in the OT and 9 in the NT.
Particularly striking though is the amount of space allotted to Abraham on the pages of the New Testament. Important doctrinal statements are illustrated and/or defended with the help of lessons from the life of the Father of all those who believe (to allude to just one of them). The purpose of this article is to highlight – as briefly as we possibly can – some of the key lessons connected with Abraham. We group them into three main categories: practical, prophetic, and doctrinal.
Applications to the personal life of believers (practical)
Abraham lived in a different dispensation but his biography contains many important lessons for believers today. To name just a few:
Abraham life brings out the importance of obedience. When he obeyed God's call he was able to enjoy the land of promise (Gen. 12), but not before , while he was not yet fully obedient (Gen. 11).
see doctrinal subjects below
Abraham was to be blessed and to be a blessing, that is the object as well as the instrument of God's work in grace Gen. 12)
Once in the land, Abraham built an altar (Gen. 12). We do not read that he built an altar before this. An enjoyment of our heavenly position and blessings is a precondition for worship in Spirit and in Truth.
Abraham left the choice to Lot , renounced his own rights, but was blessed with peace and God appeared to him (ch. 13).
Abraham dwelt in the land as a stranger. So believers today are strangers as to the world while privileged to enjoy the land. The more we realize that we are strangers in the world the more we will be able to enjoy the land.
Impact through separation
In contrast Lot who pitched his tent towards Sodom Abraham steered clear of this place characterized by great ‘evil in the sight of the Lord'. Lot sat in the gates of Sodom but had no influence nor testimony. Abraham was separate from the world and ended up rescuing Lot (Gen. 14). Lot's son-in-laws despised his testimony (Gen.19) but Abraham (who did not even want to accept a burial place as a present, nor spoil from the king of Sodom ) was regarded as a ‘prince of God' by them (Gen. 23).
Abraham believed God (15:6). This is what justified him (see doctrinal subjects below). But his practical life was also marked by faith (Heb. 11:8-19). On God's word, he went out “not knowing where he was going” (Heb.11:8).
Failure and restoration
Abraham failed when he did not leave his father (ch. 11), when he went into Egypt (ch. 12) and when he lacked patience (ch.16). But by God's grace he was always restored to the place where God's purpose wanted him.
While staying separate from the world Abraham intercedes for it (Gen. 18)
Patience, or the lack of it
Abraham believed that God would bless him with children but did not have the patience to wait – a mistake that had grave consequences (Gen. 16).
Repeatedly, God appears to Abraham (12:7; 17:1; 18:1). He introduced Abraham to His plans, whether for blessing as with Abraham and his descendents or for judgement (as with Sodom ). God communed with him as with a friend (Is. 41:8).
A number of events then future were foreshadowed in a kind of prophetic panorama of events – the best known of which is the sequence of chapters 22 – 25 showing the gift and sacrifice of the Son of God (Gen. 22), the birth of Rebecca (22:23), the setting aside of Israel, prefigured in Sarah, i.e. her of whom the son had come (Gen. 23) and, subsequent to this, the call of the bride for Isaac (Gen. 24) and millennial blessings as foreshadowed in Gen. 25. But there are other prophetic pictures as well: Israel was ‘called', received the promise and, at times, was in the land but at other times lost its enjoyment – just like Abraham. For further detail on this line of enquiry the reader is referred to the address given by Max Biletter and printed in this magazine.
The future hope of Israel
The story of Abraham is of vital importance in another (much debated) question: does Israel have a future? Is there a basis for Israel as a nation to have the hope of living, undisturbed in ‘the land', i.e. the land of Canaan ? Were the promises given to Abraham fulfilled when Israel entered the land (see Joshua)? Or are the promises fulfilled in some spiritualised way in the church? Surely not. The promises to Abraham were unconditional “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (Gen. 12:7); “all the land that thou seest will I give to thee, and to thy seed for ever” (13:15). See also 15:18; 17:8; (and also 28:13 and 35:12 showing that the promise was renewed to Jacob). It is true that all those who believe are children of Abraham and, therefore, blessed through his Seed, which is Christ (Gal. 3:7.9.16). But the blessing of the land is reserved for Abraham's earthly seed. This question is dealt with very capably in a book by T B Baines – of which an extract is included in this issue of T&T.
Calling (Gen. 12, Acts 7, Is. 51:2)
A new thing in the ways of God: God called Abraham out of his family and country. This was a new way in God's dealings. Before, He had judged the world by deluge. Then He had promised not to do so again (as signified in the rainbow). But men had fallen into worse sin than before: at this time idolatry seems to have emerged (Joshua 24:1.2). So what could God do? He vindicates Himself and acts in grace and for His own glory at the same time. How? By calling Abraham. Publicly and visibly Abraham would be separated from his God dishonouring environment to go out and belong to God.
Of grace: the people of Ur in Chaldee, including Abraham's own family, were idolaters (Joshua 24:1.2). Abraham was no better than others in himself. But God decided to call him and to bless him. Why him ? Because God in His sovereignty decided to do so. This makes the call even more wonderful because it makes clear that it was purely of grace.
For the Christian calling see, for instance, Eph. 1:18; 4:1.4; Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 3:1.
Justification by faith (Romans 4)
Having established that justification is ‘by faith without works of law' (Rom. 3:28) the Apostle raises the question 'how about Abraham? Was he justified by faith or by works?' (4:1.2). He quotes Gen. 15:6 to prove that Abraham was justified by faith: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”. This truth is a blessed one, giving all glory to God and no boasting to the flesh, i.e. to man (v. 2 and v.20). Another possible objection countered by Paul is this: “But is not circumcision needed to be justified? Again, the answer is based on Abraham's life: circumcision was a sign given to him later as a seal demonstrating that he had been justified, not the other way round (v.11).
Works of faith (James 2)
Before God, it is faith that justifies. But men cannot look into other people's hearts, they can only see their works. But true faith produces works of faith (“faith without works is dead”, James 2:20), and this is how we can ‘see' other people's faith: “Shew me thy faith without works, and *I* from my works will shew thee my faith” (v.18). Again this truth is illustrated with the life of Abraham: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21). Note that justification by faith (Gen. 15) preceded justification (before men) by works (Gen. 22).
Faith vs. Law (Galatians 3)
An important issue that had arisen in the Galatian assemblies: ‘should Christians be circumcised / keep the law?' To answer, Paul refers, again, to Abraham: he was justified by faith, therefore, surely, faith was the way to become Abraham's sons (v.6.7), not the law. But could not both be necessary, faith and law? No, says Paul. The promise to Abraham was unconditional – and not invalidated by a law given 430 years later (v. 17.18). There is no need to be (or become or behave as) a Jew to be blessed on the basis of faith: it was clearly promised to Abraham that all nations should be blessed through him (v.8).
Liberty vs. bondage (Galatians 4)
Law is for servants, liberty for sons. Paul illustrates this with the help of Abraham's two sons Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael had resulted from Abrahams own (fleshly) initiative and he was the son of the servant (bondmaid) Hagar. The application is that the minute we want to obtain blessing based on our own initiatives, actions, strength, goodness, power, whatever, we use ‘works of law' and are, therefore, on the ground of bondage, not the liberty to which we are called as sons – as Isaac had the place of son and heir.
The life of Abraham is an extremely fruitful field of study. Not only does it bring out valuable practical lessons for believers of any day and age. It is also a picture book giving us rich illustration and lessons in connection with prophetic and doctrinal themes.
This brief survey neither covers all reference to Abraham, nor can it bring out the detail of the prophetic, doctrinal, and practical instruction offered by the biography of Abraham and the conclusions drawn from it in the NT. But we hope and pray that glimpses given may encourage writer and reader to a fuller study of this rich theme. May the Lord grant us to honour Him through a life of faith, appreciating our justification and the grace shown to us in calling us, as well as the vast plan and counsel of God as illustrated the life of Abraham, the ‘friend of God' (Is. 41:8).
Acts 7:2 shows that Gen.12:1 occurred prior to Gen. 11:31, i.e. God first appeared to Abraham and called him, then Abraham went to Charan, not yet fully separated from his family and apparently led by his father.