Thursday, July 12, 2007

Abraham and Sarah: Faith Tested and Tried

Special Insights No. 2
Third Quarter 2007 Adult Sabbath School Lessons
“For Better or for Worse: Lessons From Old Testament Couples”
(Produced by the Editorial Board of the 1888 Message Study Committee)
“Abraham and Sarah: Faith Tested and Tried”

Abraham was called by God out of his pagan environment and instructed to “walk before” God all the days of his life. Sounds simple enough, wouldn’t you agree? Abraham merely strapped on his sandals and took a hike in the southwesterly direction from Haran until he came to the place that God had designated as Abraham’s future home.

Abraham had no trouble staying on the path as long as God was before him, that is, as long as Abraham kept God in his sights and didn’t deviate from the path. God leads, we’re supposed to follow. However, it wasn’t long after arriving in Canaan that Abraham decided he needed to travel a little farther down that road. A famine came to Canaan. Word about town was that there was plenty of good food in Egypt. To Abraham, going on down to Egypt seemed like the right thing to do. But to do it, Abraham had to walk away from God’s plan for him. God’s plan doesn’t include any side excursions into Egypt or Philistia or Sodom.

Where was Sarah during all this walking? Sarah seems to take a minor part in this narrative. In fact, Sarah is acted upon rather than appearing to take an active role throughout most of the story. In several sections, with the lack of concern Abraham shows toward Sarah’s feelings, it seems that her husband thinks little more of her than he does his livestock. Abraham is more concerned for his own safety when confronted by the Egyptians, and later by Abimelech, than for what might happen to his spouse. In both these situations he allows his precious wife to be taken away by another man, endangering Sarah’s moral integrity by placing her in an adulterous situation. What could Abraham have been thinking?

Self. Eyes focused on our desires, our plans, our methods always obscures God’s way. He has told us “this is the way, walk ye in it,” but most of the time we wander along paths not of His will.

When Sarah does come to the forefront of the story speaking her own thoughts, apparently her concern is for her husband. The promise of an heir was made to Abraham that a child would come from his loins, but no specification that it would be Sarah’s dead womb that produced the child. Why not follow the custom of the people around them? Barren wives often employed their slave girls as surrogate mothers. Maybe it would work this time to provide her husband with a mother for his promised heir. You know the story well. Not only did this fail to produce the promised heir, but it introduced strife and competition into the household.

After the debacle with Hagar, God again visited Abraham. He tells Abraham, “I will make My covenant between Me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.” This is a repeat of what God told Abraham when He called him out of Haran (see Gen. 12:1-3). In the calling out, the covenant promise was stated, although the word covenant was not used. In chapter 15, God further defines and then confirms the covenant promise through a mysterious ritual. “Then it was that the covenant was made; not as usually, by both parties passing between the divided sacrifice, but by Jehovah alone doing so, since the covenant was that of grace, in which one party alone—God—undertook all the obligations, while the other party received all the benefits” (Alfred Edersheim; Old Testament History, Book. 1, p. 90; originally published in 1890). God made the promise; Abraham believed, and “God declared him righteous because of his faith” (15:6, NLT).

Then we come to chapter 17. Was the rite of circumcision a new covenant, or an addition to the covenant of chapter 15? Read the context, which includes chapter 16. After Abraham attempted to fulfill the covenant promise through his own means, God plainly stated that the fulfillment of the everlasting covenant was His job, not Abraham’s.

There’s a distinct difference between chapter 15 and 17. To catch it you must take note of the Hebrew words. “The expression ‘I will make My covenant’ (Gen. 17:2) is quite different from that rendered by the same [English] words in Gen. 15:18. In the latter case, it is ‘to make’—literally, to ‘cut [Heb. berith] a covenant;’ while the terms in Gen. 17:2 are, ‘I will give [Heb. natan] My covenant,’ i.e., establish, fulfill it” (Edersheim, p. 92; emphases in original).

Why then was circumcision given? “Abraham received ‘the sign of circumcision,’—a cutting off of the flesh. This was to show that since in the flesh ‘dwelleth no good thing,’ the promises of God can be realized only by the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh, through the Spirit” (E. J. Waggoner, The Glad Tidings, pp. 31, 99; see also Waggoner, The Everlasting Covenant, p. 72, Glad Tidings Publishers, 2002 edition; A.T. Jones, 1893 General Conference Bulletin, pp. 399-400, and 1895 General Conference Bulletin, pp. 473-474, original editions).

The rite of circumcision was not a new covenant, but a reminder that the works of the flesh, i.e. legalism, or old covenantism, have no part in true righteousness by faith. Our promises are as “ropes of sand” and can only lead to bondage (see Gal. 4:22-26). What God is waiting for is a faith response from His bride—that true “heart appreciation of the cost of salvation” that brings with it true righteousness and obedience to His will (see Review and Herald, July 24, 1888, para. 5; Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 91-92; The Glad Tidings, pp. 56, 61, and 70-72).

“Righteousness, whether to men, to angels, to bright seraphim, or to exalted cherubim, comes not by obedience of their own, from their own ‘promise’ under a ‘compact,’ upon ‘condition’ and proviso. It comes only from the grace of God through the faith of Jesus Christ; never their own righteousness which is of the law, but always only ‘that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.’

“And in this word ‘faith’ I mean not a mere theoretical notion, but ‘faith’ in its only true meaning of the will submitted to Him, the heart yielded to Him, and the affections fixed upon Him. This only is faith; and this itself by the grace and gift of God. And this faith, of the will submitted to God through Christ, of the heart yielded to God in Christ, and the affections fixed upon God by Christ—this is the faith of angels as truly as of men (A. T. Jones, The Everlasting Gospel of the Everlasting Covenant, p.19).*

This was a lesson both Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had to learn. It remains a lesson for the bride of Christ.

—Ann Walper

* To download a PDF file of this publication by Jones, please go to and click on “Sabbath School Insights.”
(Note: A series of CDs on these lessons recorded by this Robert J. Wieland is available from the office of the 1888 Message Study Committee: 269-473-1888.) Listen to the audio recording for Lesson 2 now in MP3 format. To listen from a blog as a Podcast click here.

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