Trust in the Lord with All Your Heart

This is a sermon that Drew Maust preached at First Baptist Church (FBC), Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday, July 10, 2022, as part of the church’s summer series on the book of Proverbs. Listen using the player below or by downloading the MP3.

Introduction

  • “One hand cannot tie a bundle.”
  • “Millet does not sow itself.”
  • “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.”
  • “Children are the reward of life.”
  • “Knowledge is like a garden—if not cultivated, it can’t be harvested.”
  • “A weaver bird will build its nest with the support of other birds’ feathers.”

Several years ago in Cameroon, for my organization’s annual branch conference, I was asked to submit a collection of my photos from around the country for to go on display in our main auditorium. I chose photos reflected the breadth and diversity of this country nicknamed “Africa in miniature.” For a caption, I twinned each photo with an African proverb, the text and image working together to present a visual metaphor of the continent’s collective wisdom.

One of my favorite photos was that of a bright yellow weaver bird hanging upside down at the entrance to his inverted nest. (By design, the upside-down construction makes it extremely difficult for predators to gain entry.) To this photo, I joined the proverb, “A weaver bird will build its nest with the support of other birds’ feathers,” in order to highlight the importance of partnership in missions.

Imagine my surprise when later during the conference a senior Cameroonian colleague attributed this “African proverb” to me! “In the words of Drew, a weaver bird…” Despite this flattering attribution, I cannot in any meaningful way be considered the author of this or any other proverb, except perhaps for our Maust family motto: “Getting it done while having fun.”

Even so, you might say that I mastered these proverbs for the way that I applied them at the right time for the right purpose. Surely that’s the point of proverbs: they’re wise reflections that spark our sustained reflection and eventual application. They beckon us down the path of life, equipping us to successfully navigate its contours. It is not enough to simply know old sayings, since “A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a stick with thorns, brandished by the hand of a drunkard” (Pr 26:9 CSB). If “true wisdom” comes down from above, then it’s not even necessarily our duty to author wisdom as much as to master it.[1] For it is in mastering God’s wisdom that we begin to enjoy life as he designed it.

Today we are continuing the church’s summer series in the book of Proverbs. We are going to look first at the wider teaching of Proverbs 3:1-12 before focusing in on 3:5-6, a passage at the heart of the book of Proverbs.

Proverbs 3:1-12

Proverbs 3:1-12 divides itself into six sets of commands and incentives. Here we find a caring father teaching his son how to navigate life. And while the father is lecturing his son, we are all invited to listen in and carefully consider his words of wisdom.

Six Commands

He offers six sets of exhortations:

  1. Don’t forget my teaching. (3:1)
  2. Never let loyalty and faithfulness leave you. (3:3)
  3. Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways know him. (3:5-6)
  4. Don’t be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil. (3:7)
  5. Honor the Lord with your possessions (3:9); and
  6. Do not despise the Lord’s instruction. (3:11)

Six Incentives (Motivations)

Each of these commands is followed by a favorable outcome that is intended to motivate obedience.[2] They help answer the question, “Well, why should I listen to you? Why should I obey?” To which the father responds, If you obey, …

  1. You will enjoy a long, fulfilling life characterized by peace, wellbeing, prosperity–shalom. (3:2)
  2. You will find favor and a good reputation with both God and others. (3:4)
  3. The Lord will clear the road for you. (3:6 CEV)
  4. You will find health for your body (your “navel” if we’re reading the Hebrew). (3:8)
  5. You will have an abundance of food and wine, more than you’ll ever need (3:10 CEV); and
  6. The Lord will love you as a father, delighting in helping you return to his paths of righteousness. (3:12)

This loving father makes an appeal to the whole person, rather than just extending a blunt “because I said so.” When taken together, these incentives form quite an impressive package. What else could one want out of life? We must trust the truth of these incentives; his outlook on life is simply taken for granted.[3]

As is often observed in the book of Proverbs, these rewards are not categorical, unconditional promises as much as descriptions of general truth. They are incentives for following the father’s instruction, prizes that await those who commit themselves to act in certain ways.[4] For if you fear the Lord, trust in him, swerve to avoid evil, and don’t seek to be wise in your own eyes, then in the view of Proverbs, you will in general enjoy a long, quiet, yet fruitful life.

As one commentator put it,

“Wisdom is the insight into life and the way the world works, so that people avoid the pitfalls that might lead to an early death or a damaged reputation. They also allow one to have the insight that will accrue in great material wealth. In this passage the [author] wants to motivate people to pursue wisdom. Other passages will grapple with the fact that some wise people are not wealthy, healthy, and powerful, while some wicked people are.”[5]

Living life the way God intended is smoother than blazing your own trail. He designed you. He made you in his image. He knows what makes you tick, what makes you happy. He’s perfectly tuned in and knows exactly what you need, what’s good for you. What’s more, he rejoices over you (Isa 62:5). It’s for good reason that the Lord hates “Arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet eager to run to evil, a lying witness who gives false testimony, and … stirring up trouble among family members” (Pr 6:16–19 CSB, adapted). Life based on your own understanding is half-lived, with one foot in the grave.

Now, even if this is not a full-orbed biblical theology of wealth and possessions as Christians today might want to articulate it, we discover essential tools for navigating life. Confronted with these incentives, I find it comical how quickly our minds run to find exceptions to these time-tested realities. “But what about…? What about…? What about…?” Yes, yes, but please take a moment to dwell on these incentives before resorting to whataboutism. Don’t let exceptions spoil the carrot. Spend as much time entertaining the general truths on display in these words of wisdom as chasing after the exceptions. The father stuffs our backpacks full of provisions for life’s journey. It’s on us to obey and use them skillfully and judiciously. Life, the good life, is the goal.

The emphasis on prosperity in Proverbs can make us feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in light of the excesses of some teachers who too narrowly focus on prosperity to the neglect of the whole teaching of Scripture. Does the thought of pursuing the good life all cushy and comfortable make you uncomfortable? If so, you’re not alone. On this, one commentator has helpfully suggested that

“Perhaps the best way to think of it is that [God] built the world in such a way that punishments are inherent in bad actions and rewards in good actions. [But he] is ultimately behind all consequences.”[6]

Proverbs 3:5-6

In Proverbs 3:5-6, we read:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and don’t rely on your own understanding;
in all your ways know him,
and he will make your paths straight.”

“Trust in the Lord”

Trusting in the Lord means to have confidence in his goodness. It’s a command and a warning, a warning against trusting in any person or thing apart from trusting in the Lord.[7]

Ancient Israelite View of the Good Life

In the Old Testament, trust in the Lord is typically associated with rescue from danger with a view to thriving in safety. For an ancient Israelite, the good life was growing old in peace and security, enjoying abundant crops, and seeing your family progress through the generations before arriving at the end to lie down with your ancestors of natural causes, hopeful that the Lord is in the process of fulfilling his covenant promises. The ancient Israelite trusted the Lord for this good life. This was what wisdom and following God’s Instruction were supposed to afford his faithful ones. It was, however, a very this world perspective–a perspective that perhaps some of us have overlooked.

The opposite of the good life for an ancient Israelite was an untimely, unnatural death before or during the prime of life. The person who suffers this fate may have been ambushed by enemies or simply been a fool. They meet this end either through their own foolishness and wickedness or that of others. The ancient Israelite prays against this daily, trusting in God for protection and deliverance.

The ancient Israelite entreated God for deliverance because, for the most part, they believed that this life was their only shot. Once in the grave, you continued a reduced existence in the belly of the earth as a shadow of your former self. There was neither praise nor trust in God in the grave. In Psalm 6:5, for example, the psalmist bluntly bemoans to God, “No one is going to praise you when they are dead. Who gives you thanks from the grave?” (Ps 6:5 CEB) Or in Psalm 30: “What gain is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your truth?” (Ps 30:9 CSB). Or again, in Psalm 115: “It is not the dead who praise the LORD, nor any of those descending into the silence of death” (Ps 115:17 CSB). Or Isa 38:18: “For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Is 38:18 NIV).

The result is that you as an ancient Israelite cry out to God to deliver you from the jaws of death, so that you can experience the good life now consistent with his paths of righteousness.

Do You Trust the Lord?

Do you trust in the Lord? I recently asked one of my retired missionary colleagues this question when he shared with me that he’d been diagnosed with cancer. As we talked, he mentioned that the reality of the diagnosis has yet to sink in. As good Christians do, I told him that I’d pray for him. But then, I asked him, “Can we trust the Lord even when we get such news?” His response?

“We can always trust the Lord. He is faithful to his promises. He never promised us that we’d never have to suffer. Sorry, but it’s true. We have no guarantee of an easy life. I do hate to suffer, though. I do not believe in the so-called prosperity gospel, but I do believe in the risen Lord Jesus the Messiah. For me this is somewhat uncertain sailing in uncharted waters, but the Father in Heaven is still in control. I’ve decided to trust him. Yet, sometimes my brain is more certain about that than my heart.”

Our conversation then turned to talking about “the good life.” We agreed that the prosperity of the good life as portrayed in the Old Testament only fully comes to fruition in the Messiah. I did try to protest by saying, “But what about him making our paths straight?” I was told in no uncertain terms that this line is not to be taken out of context but read with the grain of the whole counsel of God’s word.

Stories like this are to be found right here among the congregation of FBC. How can I appeal to you to fear the Lord? Behold a room full of people who fear the Lord. How can I appeal to you to trust the Lord? Behold a room full of people who trust the Lord. Ask someone here if they trust the Lord and why. Ask them if they fear the Lord and why. You will hear a multitude of responses based on a variety of experiences. Based on the culture of this church, you will undoubtedly hear mention of the Bible.

What is the Bible? It’s God’s story. It’s a collection of stories and teaching and songs and more that recount the experiences of people from diverse cultures, times and places who walked with God. It’s people who feared him and those who failed to fear him. It’s those who trusted him as well as those who failed to trust him. The Bible paints pictures of what’s it like to fear and trust him. The more you get to know God through Scripture, the more you will trust him. The record is clear: God has and continues to show himself faithful throughout history.

  • “The person who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence indeed is the LORD, is blessed.” (Jer 17:7 CSB)
  • “The people who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion: never shaken, lasting forever.” (Psa 125:1 CEB)
  • “God is my salvation; I will trust him and not be afraid, for the LORD, the LORD himself, is my strength and my song. He has become my salvation.” (Isaiah 12:2 CSB)
  • “Those who know your name trust you because you have not abandoned any who seek you, LORD.” (Psalm 9:10 CEB)

Entrusting to God

A biblical synonym for trust is committing things to God, placing them in his hands. On the cross, Jesus placed his life into the Father’s hands: ‘He called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.” He then breathed his last’ (Lk 23:46 CSB, adapted).

That’s what it is to trust: recognizing that God’s gracious hands are open wide and then handing over to him circumstances, fears, personhood. Peter admonishes us: “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator while doing what is good” (1 Pe 4:19 CSB). This is not a passive attitude; it’s doing good while trusting that God is in charge of how it turns out.

Similarly, Acts 14 and 15 describe how Paul and Barnabas were “handed over” to the grace of God—his benevolent care—for their first and second missionary journeys. Then, before sailing off in Acts 20, Paul bids farewell to the Ephesian elders and says: “I now entrust [or commit or hand] you [over] to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32 CSB). Curiously, Paul entrusts them in the first place to God and secondly to the word of his grace, the message of God’s favor, the gospel.

When we trust God concerning someone or something, we willingly hand them over to his grace, having confidence in his goodness.

Commissioning as a Pact of Trust

That is what FBC did for me and my family when you commissioned us for missionary service over ten years ago on Sunday, April 17, 2011. My wife and I came right down front, you gathered round, placed your hands on us, prayed over us, and handed us over into the gracious hands of God. Confident of his goodness, you gave us over to him for his mission.

Do you still trust him? I do. And I know you do, too, because this church continues to commission and send out members so that others might come to know the good news of God’s grace in Jesus the Messiah.

You entrusted us to God and to the word of his grace, and an unspoken pact of trust was created between you as our sending church, us as your missionaries, and the host communities whom we serve abroad. In the case of our ministry with Wycliffe Bible Translators, it is a pact centered on ensuring access to God’s Word. We long for everyone to access God’s word in the medium and languages that serve them best. We want to see people flourishing in community using their languages to know God and make him known.

Pact between Translator and Reader

In the world of Bible translation, there is an unspoken pact of trust between translator and reader. You trust that your translation of the Bible has been done correctly, because unless you know Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, the Bible must be translated for you.

Additionally, you trust that I as your missionary translation consultant will provide good advice to translation teams abroad. When I was working recently with a team from Côte d’Ivoire on the book of Numbers, I discovered that the translators had left out the second half of a verse. When asked about it, they cited the difficulty of translating all the different tabernacle utensils: snuffers, firepans, tongs, sprinkling basins, ladles, etc.

So as your missionary, what do I do? I assume that when you commissioned me, you sent me out to help ensure quality in the Bible translation process, so that God’s word is translated in its entirety and translations don’t omit passages willy-nilly because they’re difficult or obscure or mention snuffers. I think I already know how you might respond if I asked you whether the second half of this verse should be included.

So, what did I do? I asked the translators what their people would think if they opened their Bibles and found half a verse missing. Would they be happy? These translators, too, have been commissioned by their people under a pact of trust and therefore have a sacred responsibility to faithfully render God’s word. They agreed that their people would be expecting to find the entire verse. If they trusted their own understanding, leaving out tricky words could risk betraying their community’s trust in them. So, we agreed that it would be best to revisit this verse with their community and ask for help to find the best way to talk about snuffers and firepans and all those essential concepts in their language.

Once the translation is revised, I will then have to trust them that these newfound words are currently the best option for their translation. You, in turn, will hopefully trust me that I have guided the translators to the best of my ability, so that access to God’s word is in fact access to God’s word. Translation is thus very much a matter of loyalty and trust.

How do you trust the Lord in your work?

How do you trust the Lord in your work? How do you ground your understanding in trust in the Lord? What does trusting the Lord look like in your occupation? When opportunities present themselves to protect yourself or twist the truth, do you rely on your own understanding? Do you prop yourself up on your own understanding or rely on the Lord? Trust leans on the expectation that God’s ability far exceeds mine and his way of doing things will lead to the greatest joy. Relying on him involves knowing what he requires by consuming his Word and talking it over with other believers.

The Spirit of Ruth

In my work as a translation consultant checking local language translations for quality, we start every day with prayer: “Lord, keep us from stupid errors.” The Lord knows our hearts. We entrust our work to him and trust that he will guide us and complete our understanding where it is lacking while we do our best with the tools available to us.

In my work, I trust that his word will be fruitful, that it will not return unfulfilled, but will do exactly what he wants and accomplishes what he intends (Isa 55:11). When I spend 30 minutes helping a team translate seemingly trivial tabernacle terminology, I trust that God is in the details.

There have been many times when I’ve been startled awake in the middle of the night thinking of a specific verse that we have covered during the week. I call this “the spirit of Ruth” because the thought comes to me in the middle of the night, uncovers my feet and cuddles up next to me in such a way that in the morning I know what the translators and I need to do.

This happened to me several weeks ago when I was working with a translation team on 1 Chronicles. We worked all day on multiple chapters, and then in the middle of the night, I awoke with the chilling thought that we probably needed to add a footnote to such and such verse in order to clarify something for the reader. In the morning, when we went back to that verse, we found that that verse needed more than just a footnote; something had gone terribly wrong, and the text of that verse had been all turned around and jumbled.

“Lord, keep us from stupid errors.” Our understanding must be built on trust in the Lord once he has brought us to the understanding that failing to do so is foolishness. Some say they, “trust the process”; I trust the God of the process. Do you?

Hezekiah’s Prayer (2 Kings 19:14-19)

The clearest example I know of trusting the Lord is Hezekiah’s prayer recorded toward the end of 2 Kings. In this section we find the city of Jerusalem under siege by the Assyrian army. Surrounded by the invading forces, Judah’s King Hezekiah is bombarded by threats and mockery from bloodthirsty aggressors:

“Royal spokesman said to [Hezekiah’s servants], ‘Tell Hezekiah this is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: “What are you relying on? You think mere words are strategy and strength for war. Who are you now relying on so that you have rebelled against me? Now look, you are relying on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff that will pierce the hand of anyone who grabs it and leans on it. This is what Pharaoh king of Egypt is to all who rely on him. Suppose you say to me, “We rely on the Lord our God.” Isn’t he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You must worship at this altar in Jerusalem”?”’ (2 Ki 18:19–22 CSB)

“Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria. This is what the king says: ‘Don’t let Hezekiah deceive you; he can’t rescue you from my power. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to rely on the Lord by saying, “Certainly the Lord will rescue us! This city will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.”’” (2 Ki 18:28–30 CSB)

“Say this to King Hezekiah of Judah: ’Don’t let your God, on whom you rely, deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria. Look, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to every country: They completely destroyed them. Will you be rescued? Did the gods of the nations that my predecessors destroyed rescue them…?’” (2 Ki 19:10–12 CSB)

How did King Hezekiah respond to this clear and present danger?

In 2 Kings 19:14-19, we read:

14 Hezekiah took the letter from the messengers’ hands, read it, then went up to the Lord’s temple, and spread it out before the Lord. 15 Then Hezekiah prayed before the Lord:

Lord God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you are God—you alone—of all the kingdoms of the earth. You made the heavens and the earth. 16 Listen closely, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see. Hear the words that Sennacherib has sent to mock the living God. 17 Lord, it is true that the kings of Assyria have devastated the nations and their lands. 18 They have thrown their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but made by human hands—wood and stone. So, they have destroyed them. 19 Now, Lord our God, please save us from his power so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are God—you alone.

When faced with a situation of incomparable danger to mortal life, Hezekiah took the threat, read it, went into the Lord’s temple (the Lord’s presence), and spread it out before the Lord, and prayed. He called on God to open his ears and hear, open his eyes, and see. He pleaded with the Lord to save him and his people, so that all would know that the Lord is God alone. Hezekiah showed trust through faith in action.

So let me encourage you, the next time you face a situation where you don’t know how you will get by, I invite you to take that perceived threat, that danger, that mental anguish, that fear–I invite you to take it into the Lord’s presence in prayer, boldly approaching the throne of grace. Open your hands and in your mind’s eye, picture whatever it is, place it in your hands and lay it out before the Lord. Present it to him in prayer. Hold it in your hands, spread it out before the Lord. Know that because of Jesus, his ears are open to your cry, his eyes are open to your plight.

In that moment, pour out your heart to him. What are you afraid of?

“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never allow the righteous to be shaken” (Ps 55:22 CSB).

Pray the words of Psalm 62:

“Rest in God alone, my soul,
for my hope comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold; I will not be shaken.
My salvation and glory depend on God, my strong rock.
My refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts before him.
God is our refuge. Selah” (Ps 62:5–8 CSB)

Pray, pour out your heart and then selah–pause for a divine interlude.

“The fear of mankind is a snare, but the one who trusts in the Lord is protected.” (Pr 29:25 CSB)

Put Your Hook in Their Nose

Back in April I was checking a translation of 2 Kings with a team in Cameroon, a community who lives under constant threat of terrorist attack. Buildings are burned. Homes are pillaged. Fields are stolen from the hands of subsistence farmers. While working on 2 Kings, we were moved by the trust-filled actions of King Hezekiah and the Lord’s response to him. Since then, we continue to pray the last stanza of the Lord’s response concerning the king of Assyria:

“Your raging against me and your arrogance have reached my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth; I will make you go back the way you came.” (2 Ki 19:28 CSB)

We pray the Lord’s words after him. “Yes, Lord, hook their noses and turn them around!” Have you ever needed to pray that prayer? Don’t be afraid to pray specific prayers. Notice that Hezekiah prayed, “Listen closely, LORD, and hear; open your eyes and see. Hear the words…” and the Lord replies saying, “all this has reached my ears.” Did his words reach the Lord through Hezekiah’s prayer? Every time we say “amen” we are verbally demonstrating our trust in God and inviting him to act in accordance with his character.

This is what it is to trust the Lord. This is what King Hezekiah became known for and this is what the people of God will be known for:

“Hezekiah relied on the Lord God of Israel; not one of the kings of Judah was like him, either before him or after him. He remained faithful to the Lord and did not turn from following him but kept the commands the Lord had commanded Moses. The Lord was with him, and wherever he went he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him.” (2 Ki 18:5–7 CSB)

“With all your heart”

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” “With all your heart,” answers the question: “How are we to trust the Lord?” It’s with your whole being, your whole heart, the entirety of your inner self.[8]

Sometimes in the Bible the word “heart” can point to one aspect of our inner life, such as feelings, emotions, the will, or the mind. However, in our passage it’s probably best to take “heart” in its most comprehensive sense: all your inclinations, your entire nature, every ounce of your personality; with the heart seen as the governing center of all of these.[9] This means that with all that you are, trust the Lord. Not a single part of who you think you are is excluded from the command to trust the Lord. The ultimate dysphoria then is the dissatisfaction of not trusting in the Lord with all our heart.

“Do not rely on your own understanding”

Twinned with the command to trust in the Lord is the complementary instruction to not “rely on your own understanding,” your own discernment. To rely on something is to lean on it, depend on it, support yourself with it. This is not a command to turn off your brain as if to say, “If I can’t rely on my own understanding and I need only trust the Lord, why have any understanding at all?” That’s anti-intellectualism and is opposed to the life of faith and contrary to wisdom.[10]

Wisdom starts with the fear of the Lord but goes on to trust him while seeking to understand as much as possible about his world. Do not be content with your own understanding. Let us develop Christian minds out of fear of and trust in the Lord. Fear and trust seeking knowledge are the seeds of which sprouts the mature Christian mind.

The tragedy is that a feeble thought-life leads us to lean on our own understanding more while perhaps giving the appearance of leaning on the Lord. But that’s not truly leaning on the Lord, that’s leaning on stupidity.

Brothers and sisters, as a missionary living overseas for the last decade or so, I have to say I am troubled witnessing from afar numerous trends and events in America. My non-American friends and colleagues abroad—people from all over the world, Christians, and non-Christians alike—are asking me questions that I not only find difficult to answer but find embarrassing. I’m at a loss for how to respond because I lack sufficient understanding to have an informed opinion about certain issues. I don’t even have to name or list the trends and events, because I’m sure that as soon as I mentioned this, something immediately came to your mind. That says a lot.

So, whatever came to mind for you: have you been trusting the Lord, or have you been relying on your own understanding? Have you been acknowledging God in your ways of thinking and acting? Where have you been trusting the Lord with less than your whole heart? Where have you been trusting half-heartedly while leaning on your own understanding? Conversely, where have you been trusting with all your heart despite not understanding? Where have you been leaning confidently on the Lord in the face of opposition?

Why do I bring this up? I think we have yet to see the best of the Christian mind. With unprecedented access to knowledge, tools and one another, the best of Christian thinking may yet be in front of us. But in order to get there we cannot settle. We must trust the Lord in the style of faith seeking understanding. Fear of and trust in the Lord must be primary and come first. Then we must go all in to discover which elements in our faith and practice are cultural and which are biblical, recognizing God’s creative design in unleashing human beings as culture makers. 7,000 languages spoken and signed on Earth. There may be just as many cultures. But all of these have the same goal: communication and communion, with one another and the Creator of heaven and earth.

The Marks of Scholarship

I’m relieved that I’m not the only one who finds this present time equal parts troubling and confusing. Professor Mark Noll, an evangelical historian of Christianity in America, has pointed out similar findings and was recently encouraged to publish an updated edition of his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In it, he laments a loss of what he calls “the marks of scholarship.” They are “patience, wide-ranging research, care in defining the objects in view, eagerness to engage in critical responses, and willingness to examine problems from multiple perspectives.”[11]

Sure, we’re not all scholars nor are we striving to be, but as a sort of evaluation, I would like to ask us to submit ourselves to what we might call a “rely on your own understanding test.” Using these “marks of scholarship,” ask yourself how you’re doing on each of these points:

  • Am I patient in dialogue, quick to listen, slow to speak (Jam 1:19), listening carefully and uttering a patient reply (Sir 5:11)?
  • How do I inform myself of current events? Do I read widely? Do I seek news and information from a wide range of sources?
  • Do I exercise care in identifying the issues at hand or do I tend to attack people’s motives and character?
  • Am I eager to engage with people with whom I don’t see eye to eye in peace-loving ways?
  • Am I willing to examine issues from multiple perspectives?

How are you doing? For me, not answering positively to some of these criteria stems from my own insecurity and lack of trust in the Lord. In order to embody these “marks” I must distrust my own understanding and wait on the Lord, trusting his design for the good life as revealed in Scripture. To be clear, we must pursue knowledge God’s way, recognizing his authority in all domains. But do I trust the Lord enough to strive to embody each of these criteria or am I trying to assure the outcomes through my own understanding? I don’t want to be wise in my own eyes “doing my own research,” rather I want to pursue God’s wisdom.

In Proverbs, we find instruction from one of the wisest human beings to walk this earth. He did his own research and concluded that in order to be truly wise, in order to lead the good life, one needs to 1) fear the Lord (Pro 1:7) and 2) trust the Lord (Pro 3:5). To that he added immense knowledge and learning. But becoming wise should not inspire confidence in one’s own intelligence or lead to arrogance.[12]

Waiting on the Lord

Living this way will require waiting on the Lord, but anyone who waits on the Lord will not be disappointed. When I think of “waiting on the Lord” I think of a trust fall, when someone lets go with an active belief that someone else will do what they’re supposed to do.[13]

What if I invited a volunteer onto the stage right now to do a trust fall? Would someone come? Well, if they did, what if I purposely let that person fall? What if I deliberately didn’t catch them? How would you react? How would you feel? “That’s unjust!” you might scream because that’s not what I’m supposed to do. Society cannot operate like that, and the Lord would never do that.

One Saturday recently at my boys’ soccer practice, I was standing around chatting with another dad from church. He asked me what I thought it meant “to wait on the Lord.” “Wait on the Lord, and he will rescue you” (Pro 20:22 CSB). He wasn’t sure but assumed “to wait on” in the Bible was similar to “to wait on someone” as in “to serve someone with food or drink.” I shared that it was my understanding that “waiting on the Lord” has more to do with hope than serving. Hope is quite a different thing to serving. Hope is not something you do for the Lord (serving him as if he needed anything), but how you respond in faith to the Lord. Standing there, I asked my son George, who’s seven years old, if he trusted me.

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Do you trust me enough to do a trust fall?”

He immediately jumped up. Once we agreed that we were both ready, he leaned back. He fell into my arms, waiting—hoping—confident that I would catch him. As he was falling, he was waiting. The wait was only as long as it took him to reach my arms, arms that he was confident were both ready and capable of catching him.

Ask a little child to do a trust fall with you. Watch their face as they close their eyes and lean back. A blank stare will turn into the most delightful smile. That is what it’s like to trust in the Lord. Falling into his arms and pursed lips turn into a smile born of thrill and hope requited. The child trusts you, leans back in faith, and waits for you to catch them. As the child is falling, the child is waiting, trusting. The thrill and joy of that child cradled in your arms will multiply thrill and joy in you.

Your heavenly Father will always catch you. He delights in you. Trust in him, trust him, wait on him, lean into him in faith mingled with magisterial awe. It’s a trust fall, except where your heavenly Father is concerned, he is the one pulling you—guiding you—toward him. You see, if you come to trust the Lord, it’s because he has drawn you into that trust. “No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day” (Jn 6:44 CEB).

Dear friend, he is drawing you today, inviting you into an intimate relationship built upon the most unshakable trust this world has known or will ever know. So come to him, trust him. Know that he acts for your good and not for your harm.

Do what’s right while leaving him in charge of the outcome.[14]

“A greedy person stirs up conflict, but whoever trusts in the Lord will prosper. The one who trusts in himself is a fool, but one who walks in wisdom will be safe.” (Pr 28:25–26 CSB)

And even when I suffer, or things don’t go as I expected, I know that God is working it out, working it together, and corrects me as a beloved child in whom he delights.

“In all your ways know him”

“All your paths” is your entire way of life and echoes the words of “with all your heart.” “Know him,” commands us to pay attention to God. Be knowledgeable about him, what he requires and what he desires. Be intimately acquainted with him, recognizing his authority. Be aware of God in all that you do.

While society encourages us to make uphold personal autonomy, wisdom looks to God every step of the way, in every decision, in every desire, preference, and determination. We are not autonomous; we are subjects in his kingly creation. It’s his world, his choice. “In all your ways know him” is a declaration of God’s authority, the dependent nature of humans, and our insufficiency. There’s hardly today a more radical thought than this: God’s ways are better than our own human judgments.[15]

“He will make your paths straight”

Life is a path.

“The promise of straight paths (3:6) [as one commentator noted] is especially poignant because paths in ancient Israel were often winding, tortuous roads that took much effort on the part of travelers. A straight path, which would be relatively easy to traverse, was rare. ‘He will make your paths straight’ does not necessarily mean that one’s course in life will be comfortable and trouble-free. It does mean that through his Word God will reveal the right direction and destination, even if bearing the cross is required in order to get there.”[16]

A path is always marked out by previous travelers. God has marked it out in his Instruction and the person of Jesus. In Scripture, the righteous enjoy smooth, straight paths whereas the paths of the wicked lead them and others astray (Pro 12:26). They are full of thorns and snares (Pro 22:5). By contrast, the righteousness of the blameless person will clear their path (Pro 11:5) while the wicked fall because of their own wickedness. The righteous will provide guidance to their neighbors (Pro 12:26), since “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, shining brighter and brighter until midday” (Pr 4:18 CSB).

As you trust in God, he will be the one to straighten and direct your paths. Otherwise, you’re the one directing, and unless your paths correspond to his, they won’t be straight. The path will not lead to life.

Proverbs 3:5-6 Synthesis

So, what do we do with all of this? Remember that in Proverbs 3:5-6, we are overhearing the voice of a wise and experienced father speaking to his son: “My son.” Ask yourself: Am I in a place to listen? This is advice from someone who reached the pinnacle of human knowledge. Vast knowledge obtained, he turns around only to tell us not to rely on our own understanding but to “trust in the Lord with all [our] heart.” These two elements “click” together like the parts of a seat belt and complement one another completely.

In short, we are to conform our ways of doing life to his way of life. Before being conformed, we have to recognize our own inadequacy. Regardless of your level of learning and apparent wisdom, you are insufficient in and of yourself to not only live the good life as God intended but even less so are you able to guarantee the success of your actions. Wisdom, knowledge, and understanding that don’t trust in the Lord are not true wisdom, knowledge, or understanding.[17] True living with understanding is only possible by trusting in the Lord.

I appeal to you today in the same way that the author appeals to his son: not based on my own wisdom or reasoning but based on the good life that he offers you in Christ. Why should we trust the Lord? Because his ways lead to life and life in all its fullness:

  • “You reveal the path of life to me; in your presence is abundant joy; at your right hand are eternal pleasures.” (Ps 16:11 CSB)
  • “The one who follows instruction is on the path to life, but the one who rejects correction goes astray.” (Pr 10:17 CSB)
  • “For those with insight, life is an upward path, avoiding the grave below.” (Pr 15:24 CEB)

This, brothers and sisters, is flourishing. Do you not want to experience life as God intended it? Do you think that human flourishing is opposed to faith in God? Does admitting to desiring this kind of life make you uneasy? Maybe that’s why we find it difficult to integrate books like Proverbs into our overall view of God and life and square its reasoning and worldview with our own. There is tension that doesn’t immediately fit nicely together. I admit that I find it difficult to incorporate every aspect of the Proverbs worldview into a Christian worldview. Even so, we have confidence that all comes to fruition in Christ.

But is this sort of life only for the life to come and entirely absent from the here-and-now? I don’t get that impression from the Bible’s wisdom literature. Yes, complete, new creation flourishing is yet to come in the new heavens and earth. But equally true is that Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God among us. “The kingdom of God is in your midst” (Lk 17:21): Jesus the king. “If anyone is in Christ, new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).

Jesus Baptist asked if Jesus was it, to which Jesus responded, “Go tell him what you see.” What they saw was everything that threatens the good life being pushed back, not merely reversed but reconfigured as new work of God. Sickness, death, spiritual oppression, etc., everything that could cut life short.

Jesus and the good life

If we apply each of the incentives of Proverbs 3:1-12 to the life of Jesus as a test for the good life, we may be inclined to suggest that he did not obtain it. In fact,

“Some of the most pious of God’s people have hardships that seem to fly in the face of these [incentives]. Christ himself possessed no material wealth and was crucified in the prime of his earthly life. His appeared to be a failure on Good Friday, and to some even on Easter Sunday. Most of his apostles were martyred, and few could be considered a success by worldly standards.”[18]

Did Jesus live the good life? No, he was cursed for us: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Gal 3:13 CSB). Dying, he descended into the grave for you.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51 CSB)

“For the life of the world.” He gave his flesh for the life of the world. So that you would know life, the good life, life as God intends.

Jesus, the perfect Son, perfectly mastered and applied wisdom. The good news about him—his life, ministry, atoning death, descent, resurrection, and ascension—is called the wisdom of God. But Jesus himself experienced a “bad death,” dying in the prime of life after perfectly obeying God. How can this be?

At his crucifixion, Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father, into your hands I entrust [place] my spirit.” And then breathed his last” (Lk 23:46 CSB). The chief priests and scribes and elders recognized that there was a disconnect—something was off—and mocked him, saying, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now” (Mat 27:43). He trusts God, so where’s his deliverance?

Three days later God the Father did deliver but in an entirely new way: resurrection.

“In Jesus Christ’s resurrection, immortal life has been actualized in history [–it’s now a thing]. His resurrection becomes the basis for all resurrection, and all resurrection is to be understood in terms of his. No longer does the hope of resurrection rest, as in the OT, merely upon prophetic vision or upon inferences from God’s covenant relationships. No longer is resurrection to be defined simply as renewed life [after escaping the grave]. Resurrection-life now finds its meaning in the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29).”[19]

You see attempting to live the good life in a world dominated by sin and death apart from the wisdom of God is a fools’ errand. It’s impossible. So, Jesus has inaugurated a new creation, a new kingdom in which death is dead, sin is dead, and we are free to live and serve. There is hope beyond the grave. The grave is not your final destination. Your final breath is not you waving goodbye to the good life regardless of how you meet your end. Jesus has run the course of death ahead of you to clear the way and forever change our outlook on this world and the world to come.

Those who are in Christ—those united to him by faith—are already part of that new creation, bringing that kingdom way of life into the present as a preview of what’s to come. There is no guarantee that we won’t experience a bad death, but rest assured that being united to Christ by faith is for your flourishing. Flourishing in ways that ancient people of faith only started to catch a glimpse of. The good life outlined in Proverbs is a shadow of the good life in Jesus the Messiah.

We can trust in God and not our own understanding because Christ demonstrated that trusting in God results in ultimate vindication, justification, being declared to be in the right: “That’s the way life is to be done.” Trusting in your own understanding says, I have to fight like Sheol to prosper in this life because this is all I got.

Trusting in God says, “I will entrust myself to the one who orchestrates all things for the pleasure of his good will and my good.” It trusts that living a life marked by faith—active trust—in God will lead to ultimate flourishing, even though we may not see it yet.

What does it mean to trust the Lord for the good life? It means trusting God’s instruction, trusting that the way God has told us to live is in fact the way that leads to true happiness and salvation. It’s being ever conscious of what pleases him.

The author of Proverbs is living the good life of his day and wants to make sure his son is too. Isn’t that what Jesus does? He welcomes us into his family. He not only adopts us, calls us “son, daughter” but doesn’t leave it at that; he shepherds us. He pours out his Spirit to indwell us so that we grow into his likeness.

The new covenant perspective Jesus preached radically transforms the Ancient Israelite’s vision of the good life. In the resurrection life of the risen Messiah, the good life hinted at in the Old Testament reaches its fulfillment. He is the pioneer and trailblazer of our faith (Heb 12:2). He showed that death was not the end but through defeating death he opened a new path to the good life everlasting. He was obedient to death even a bad death to show that God is Lord over all. The earthly, fleshly physical deliverance in this present world isn’t and wasn’t the highest prayer that one could offer. No longer the highest aim of life. No, he removes the fear of untimely demise and near subhuman existence thereafter. He injected it with his blood, his new resurrection life to inaugurate true and ultimate human flourishing in this world and the world to come.

Trusting in God says, “I will unite myself to Christ by faith. I am free from every plan of darkness, free to live and free to love. I no longer fear death. My life is not snuffed out when I die. My hope is not in the here and now. My hope is in the God who reigns over all.”

Will you not unite yourself to him in faith and become a part of the new creation? Call on his name for the forgiveness of sins and cling to him in faith.

Works Referenced

Barnwell, B. O. “Heart.” Page 456 in New Bible Dictionary. Edited by D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman. 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Ellis, E. E. “Life.” New Bible Dictionary. Edited by D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman. 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Fox, Michael V. Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 18A of Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008.

Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. New York: Free Press, 2014.

Longman III, Tremper. Proverbs. Vol. 2 of Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Chicago: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.

Patton, Matthew H., and Frederic C. Putnam. Basics of Hebrew Discourse: A Guide to Working with Biblical Hebrew Prose and Poetry. Edited by Miles V. Van Pelt. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019.

Steinmann, Andrew. Proverbs. Concordia Commentary. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

  1. James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2014).

  2. Matthew H. Patton and Frederic C. Putnam, Basics of Hebrew Discourse: A Guide to Working with Biblical Hebrew Prose and Poetry, ed. Miles V. Van Pelt (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 170.

  3. Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, vol. 2 of Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

  4. Longman III, Proverbs, vol. 2.

  5. Longman III, Proverbs, vol. 2.

  6. Longman III, Proverbs, vol. 2.

  7. Andrew Steinmann, Proverbs, Concordia Commentary (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 110.

  8. Longman III, Proverbs, vol. 2.

  9. B. O. Barnwell, “Heart,” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., 3rd ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 456.

  10. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Chicago: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022), 21.

  11. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 315.

  12. Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 18A of Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 148.

  13. Fox, Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 148–49.

  14. Fox, Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 148.

  15. Steinmann, Proverbs, 115.

  16. Steinmann, Proverbs, 115.

  17. Fox, Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 148.

  18. Steinmann, Proverbs, 116–17.

  19. E. E. Ellis, “Life,” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., 3rd ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 689–90.

Rembrandt's Sacrifice of Isaac

The Faith of Abraham and the Binding of Isaac

This is a talk that Drew Maust presented at Epping Forest Community Church (EFCC) on Sunday, January 30, 2022, as part of the church’s “Faith in Action” series. This is part two on the faith of Abraham. For part one, see “The Faith and Call of Abraham.” Listen using the player below or download the MP3.

Introduction

There are many interpreters of the Bible and many interpretations. Perhaps some of the most powerful are visual interpreters: artists, painters. The painting that you see behind me is Rembrandt’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac.”[1]

Introduction to Series on Faith

Last week we began to explore the faith of Abraham as presented in Hebrews 11. We talked about three parts of faith: 1) faith as knowledge, 2) faith as affirmation, 3) faith as commitment. In other words, learning about God’s truth, agreeing to God’s truth, and entrusting ourselves to God and his truth.

In the Christian life, we are on a cyclical journey through these three parts of faith. As we learn more about God, his Spirit opens our hearts to be receptive to his word. He then empowers us to live in light of that truth. In response, we entrust ourselves to him more and more and we continue learning. Knowledge, affirmation, commitment. This is the infinite journey of the Christian life. We embark on it when God calls us out to follow him, when he opens our eyes, when he pricks our hearts so that we turn our backs on our sinfulness and turn to him. Last week we heard about how God interrupted Abraham in the prime of life. Abraham responded by setting out in faith.

Hebrews 11:17-19

Today we are going to look again at Hebrews 11’s “hall of faith” for a final episode in the life of Abraham. In Hebrews 11:17-19, we read:

“It was by faith that Abraham, when he was put to the test, offered up Isaac; yes, Abraham, who had received the promise, was in the very act of offering up his only son, the one about whom it had been said that ‘In Isaac shall your family be named.’ He reckoned that God was capable of raising him even from the dead; and, in one sense, he did indeed receive him back from there” (BFE).

Abraham offering up Isaac has become one of the most famous and widely discussed pieces of world literature: the sacrifice, or binding, of Isaac as it is known in the Hebrew tradition (Aqedah).

Background to Genesis 22

The essential background to the story is that God had promised to bless Abraham and make him into a great nation (Gen 12:2). He and his wife Sarah, however, were unable to have children (Gen 11:30; 16:1). What’s more, Abraham and Sarah were both growing old, getting on in years. Sarah was well past the age of childbearing (Gen 18:11). As for Abraham, the author of Hebrews humorously calls him “as good as dead” (Heb 11:12). Ouch!

Given their condition, Abraham and Sarah had both laughed in response to God’s promise, with Abraham asking: “Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child?” (Gen 17:17 CEB). But God is faithful:

“The Lord was attentive to Sarah just as he had said, and the Lord carried out just what he had promised her. Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to a son for Abraham when he was old, at the very time God had told him. Abraham named his son—the one Sarah bore him—Isaac” (Gen 21:1 CEB).

They had no trouble naming the child. Isaac (יִצְחָק) in Hebrew means, “He laughs.” But the laughter would fade fast as Abraham’s story makes a U-turn towards the serious.

God promised that through Isaac Abraham’s rightful descendants would be named (Gen 21:12). Isaac was therefore a promised child in many ways since the future of not only Abraham’s family, but an entire nation was depending on him. But now God puts Abraham to the test to see if Abraham will sacrifice Isaac back to him.

Genesis 22:1-19

In Genesis 22:1-19, we read,

1 After these events, God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!”

Abraham answered, “I’m here.”

2 God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” 3 Abraham got up early in the morning, harnessed his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, together with his son Isaac. He split the wood for the entirely burned offering, set out, and went to the place God had described to him.

4 On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place at a distance. 5 Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will walk up there, worship, and then come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?” Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.” Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

8 Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.

9 They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?” Abraham said, “I’m here.”

12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense under[growth]. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

15 The Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I give my word as the Lord that because you did this and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, 17 I will bless you richly and I will give you countless descendants, as many as the stars in the sky and as the grains of sand on the seashore. They will conquer their enemies’ cities. 18 All the nations of the earth will be blessed because of your descendants, because you obeyed me.” 19 After Abraham returned to the young men, they got up and went to Beer-sheba where Abraham lived. (CEB)

Genesis 22:1-19 (verse by verse)

When we read the story of the binding of Isaac closely, there are a number of fascinating details that deserve closer inspection. Let’s take a look.

Verse 1

When the story opens, God calls to Abraham, “after these events.” We are not told exactly when this takes place, but it could be that Isaac is now at least a teenager. The author, though, is more interested in pulling back the veil on God’s plan. He wants to let us in on the little secret that what is about to take place is to “test” Abraham. Interestingly, this is the only time in Scripture where God is said to test an individual.[2] We may then be surprised that after all that Abraham has been through on his journey of faith, God still finds it fitting to test him. Could it be that now that Abraham has finally received his promised child his love for God has started to shrink? Will Abraham pass the test?

Abraham responds, “I’m here” or “Here I am!” This response carries a sense of willingness to listen carefully and respond favorably to whatever God is about to say. This will be the only thing that Abraham will say to God in this story.[3] “I’m here!” “Here I am!” “Yes, Lord.” Are we as quick to listen? Are we as willing to obey when God calls to us?

Verse 2

God then gives the surprising command to take his son and go to the land of Moriah. When speaking of Isaac, God piles on the description: “your son,” “your only son,” “the one whom you love,” “Isaac.” Everything that is said of Isaac adds weight to God’s request. God moves from the general to the specific, from the obvious to the near and dear. Just as he had earlier told Abraham to go from his land, relatives, and father’s house to an unknown land (Gen 12:1), so now he asks him to take his son, his only son, the one he loves… Isaac. Even before we get to the command, tension builds between love of only son and love of God.[4]

God commands Abraham to go using the same expression that we heard back at Abraham’s call: “You, go.” In Genesis 12, Abraham is asked to separate himself from his land, his family, their pagan rituals, and his past. Here, Abraham is being asked to separate from his future, a future of countless descendants whom God had promised through Isaac. Abraham had already sacrificed his past; would he now have to sacrifice his future?

“Go to the land of Moriah! Offer Isaac there as an entirely burned offering.” “An entirely burned offering” was typically an animal slaughtered, cut into pieces, and then presented on an altar of wood to be burned to ash. The worshiper sends the offering up in smoke as a total offering to God.[5] Would God now require Abraham to do the same with his own only son? Is he being asked to mimic a pagan ritual? And not just a pagan ritual, but one which entails murder? Is a father not supposed to love his child more dearly than himself! How can this be?

A dilemma presents itself: God is God. Abraham is a man of faith. Sacrificing a child is not only pagan, but a sin. What is Abraham to do?

Isaac is without a doubt the most precious sacrifice that God could have asked of Abraham. What a horrifyingly devastating, deeply personal idea.[6] To think what would become of Isaac. What would become of God’s promises? This command appears to stand in direct opposition to God’s character and his earlier promise to make Abraham a father of many nations (Gen 17:5). Will Abraham sacrifice the one person who can fulfill God’s promises, promises that were to bless Abraham’s descendants so that they thrive?[7] At stake are God’s reputation and the future of his people.

Verse 3

While we are left pondering this dilemma, the narrator proceeds to tell us that, “Early in the morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.” Abraham shows no hesitation; he’s almost keen to obey God’s apparently unethical command. He rises early to make it happen. Where’s Sarah? No protest? While the story is focused on Abraham, it reveals nothing of what he (or she) must have been thinking. Abraham apparently busies himself with action while his servants stand idly by. Why didn’t they chop the wood?[8] Is Abraham now trying to stall? Where is Sarah?

Verse 4

Abraham treks for three days. On top of asking Abraham to do the unthinkable, this long journey must have triggered further mental anguish.[9] What was Abraham thinking all that time? What was Isaac thinking? We get no sense that Abraham is questioning or doubting or desiring to turn back. He is focused on obeying God’s word. His resolve to take God at his word is cementing further and further, day after day. He is obeying God because he wants to, not hastily on a whim.

Verse 5

“He said to his servants, ‘You two stay here with the donkey while the boy and I go up there. We will worship and then return to you.’” “We will worship and then return.” We? What does Abraham have in mind here? Is he simply confused?[10] Is he using “we” to hide his intentions from the servants and from Isaac?[11] Is he not going to follow through with the sacrifice?

The author of Hebrews takes this as a sign of faith, faith in God in the face of apparent contradiction: 1) sacrifice Isaac and 2) fulfill promises through Isaac. How can both be true? Just like Abraham received the promises, he trusts that he will also receive his son back from the dead. God is able to raise Isaac back up even from ashes. Job says, “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (Job 1:21), but Abraham goes further: “the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, and the Lord gives back.”[12]

Verses 7-8

Finally, Isaac breaks the silence.[13] His words must have pierced Abraham to the heart. “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham’s response is curiously pregnant with ambiguity: “‘The lamb for the sacrifice?’ God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

The words “the burnt offering, my son” are chilling indeed. It’s possible to read the Hebrew not as “My son, God will provide a lamb for the offering,” but “God will provide a lamb for the offering, namely my son.”[14] Is Abraham giving Isaac a hint of what is to come? There is no reply. “The two of them walk on together.”

Verse 9

Abraham constructs an altar, and the wood is readied for the fire. Isaac is bound. Surprisingly, the young man who had asked about the lamb for the sacrifice doesn’t ask about the ropes. “Why are you tying me up?” A much younger Isaac could have easily prevented his aged father from tying him up.[15] We may read something of Isaac’s obedience into this. Just as Abraham displays faith through obedience, so, too, Isaac shows trust in his father through cooperation.[16]

Verses 10-11

We now reach the most terrifying point in the story. Abraham is going to go through with it. Hand poised, knife drawn. If ever there was a time to crave divine intervention, it’s now. A voice resounds from heaven with urgency: “Abraham! Abraham!” Once again, Abraham’s response is one of supple attentiveness. “Yes? I’m listening.”

Verse 12

“Don’t harm the boy! … Now I know that you fear God[.]” Was God’s knowledge lacking? No. In the Bible, faithfulness must be demonstrated by action—faith action—to be confirmed in God’s sight. “Fearing God” means to honor him in worship, obedience, and an upright life.[17] It is not the same as being afraid of God. As someone pointed out, “We are afraid of God when we have [sinned] and feel guilty, but we fear Him when we are [ready] to [act so] that we can stand before Him.”[18] So, to fear God is to adopt a posture of total dependence, obedience, and confidence.[19] “It is obedience which does not hold back even what is most precious, when God demands it, and commits to God even that future which he himself has promised.”[20]

Verses 13-14

God provides a ram (a male sheep) which Abraham sacrifices in place of his son. Abraham isn’t told to do so, but he reasons that this animal is God’s provision. Like Noah who offered a sacrifice upon exiting the ark, so, too, Abraham exits from the horror of human sacrifice and offers an animal sacrifice out of gratitude and devotion.[21]

He then names that place Yahweh yireh (or Jehovah jireh as we sometimes hear it in English), meaning “Yahweh sees to it, or provides.” Note that he doesn’t call it “Abraham obeys.” We are to be more impressed by God’s faithfulness than Abraham’s.[22] Yahweh provides.

Verses 15-18

In these verses, we are reassured that Abraham’s ordeal wasn’t all for nothing. As a result of Abraham’s faithfulness and God’s gracious provision, God’s promises are repeated to Abraham in full and in their most emphatic form yet: “I will bless you richly and I will give you countless descendants.”

Unbinding Aqedah

This tenth trial in the life of Abraham is as disturbing as it is perplexing. How can the author of Hebrews hold up such a gruesome tale as the ultimate faith experience of Christianity and Judaism’s most celebrated patriarch? How can Abraham serve as a model of faith if what he did once should never be repeated?[23] As Jewish commentator Nahum Sarna remarks,

“[There is] an undeniable atmosphere of the singular and the unique [that] pervades this episode. God’s request is treated as something utterly extraordinary, something that a person would never think of doing on [their] own initiative… God’s request is so clearly shocking and unrepeatable that the reader is informed in advance that God is only testing Abraham and does not want the sacrifice for His own needs.”[24]

The Impossibles: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration

When we consider the central beliefs of our Christian confession, we find it organized around one-time events that are not to be or cannot be reproduced, events that are in fact impossible. In the Christian storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, we find in each something of the impossible.

Creation

First, at creation, we confess that something was created from nothing. We would do well to confess that in the beginning there wasn’t nothing; there was God. He always has been and always will be. Hebrews 11 opens with this thought, taking us back to the beginning of all things in order to prepare us for the impossible: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Heb 11:3 CSB). In the beginning was God. his word brings forth the impossible.

Fall

Secondly, at the fall, the seemingly illogical—the impossible—would take place. How is it that God would prepare a luscious garden for his people, provide them with all that they need, and walk with them in the intimacy of perfect communion, yet they would rebel and do the one thing that he asked them not to do? Sin truly is temporary insanity! Nakedness with no worries thrown to the wind only to scratch a moment’s itch. But before we cast the first stone, we ought to withdraw our hand upon realizing that this is what we do, too, when we fail to obey God’s word. Has he not given us everything we need for life and godliness just by knowing him (2 Pet 1:3)?

I encourage my children in their schoolwork by telling them that “knowledge is the prize.” If knowledge is the prize, then knowing the supreme God is the supreme prize. But we like Adam and Eve reach out and take from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than from the tree of life. Impossibly possible!

Redemption

Thirdly, at redemption, once again the impossible takes place. God becomes man so that we can become like him. As I preached in December on the Incarnation, God the Son put on flesh so that you could put on faith. Not only that, but God became man to accomplish only what God as man could accomplish, namely the forgiveness of sins; not his own sins, but as John the Baptist proclaims, “the sin of the world” (John 1:29). One man dying for his friend is a noble feat and full of virtue, but one man dying for the sin of the world is an abstract absurdity! One man charged with the crimes of a multitude? O “with God, you see, nothing is impossible” (Luke 1:37 BFE)! “What’s impossible for humans … is possible for God” (Luke 18:27 BFE). This has for effect that if anyone is in Christ, “there is a new creation. Old things have gone, and look—everything has become new” (2 Cor 5:17 BFE). “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (1 Cor 1:18 CEB).

Restoration

Fourth and finally, restoration. How is it that God has already started putting the worlds to rights when creation is still groaning? As quickly as the author of Hebrews announces that God has placed everything under Jesus’ feet, he hurries to add that, “As things are at present, we don’t see everything subjected to him” (Heb 2:8 BFE). The already and the not yet. The impossible becoming possible; the creation distorted at the fall taking a new breath with the resurrected lungs of the Son, plotting a trajectory towards restoration (Acts 3:21). How can this be? How will this happen if not by the one through whom the lasting effects of temporary insanity are not simply reversed but translated into the makings of a new creation? As if something from nothing were too small a task, he is now making something greater from something lesser. Who will accomplish all this and more? Thanks be to God.

You see, the Christian faith does not shy away from the impossible. Abraham trusted God for the impossible. When stuck between a command and a promise, he was not immobilized seeking to resolve an ethical dilemma, a logical tension, but faithfully obeyed the word of God. He trusted God for the impossible. “Being fully convinced that God had the power to accomplish what he had promised,” “Abraham reckoned that God was capable of raising [his son Isaac] even from the dead” (Rom 4:21; Heb 11:19 BFE). Abraham trusted God for resurrection. “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you” (Rom 8:11 CEB).

I don’t know if we fully appreciate how radical that is. In Abraham’s day, no one had been resurrected. It’s difficult to imagine Abraham even having that category in his mind. When you die, you stay dead. And that’s what we know from our experience as well. That is, that is what normally happens according to our ordinary human experience. But God’s direct intervention has a habit of disrupting the normal flow of history. The extraordinary displaces the ordinary. Creation, fall, redemption, restoration.

Closing Clarifications

What can we conclude about the binding of Isaac?

First, if we are unbearably troubled by God’s request, we have every reason to be and that’s perhaps even an indication that the story is having its desired effect on us, binding up our emotions. If that’s the case, then let us remind ourselves of what we know about God from a wide reading of Scripture. He is good. He reveals himself in specific ways at specific times. He issues at times extraordinary commands at unique times in unique contexts. God has sufficient reason to do what he does. He does not erratically wield his power over his human creation for the thrill of watching us reel.[25]

Secondly, the binding of Isaac invites us to be honest with ourselves (and others) about the uncomfortable. Certain aspects of the Christian faith are not—cannot—be explained away. The power of the binding of Isaac is that it binds up the thought-life of its attentive listeners. I still remember the first time I heard it at youth camp. I can still picture the youth leader holding out of a fake knife over a bound camper. So, too, Jewish Nobel Peace Prize-winning author and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel candidly says of the binding of Isaac:

“[This] is a tale of anguish and faith that has never left us. Actually, it never let us go. The event that happened on Mount Moriah 4,000 years ago continues to haunt our memory and our lives like a stinging wound. It’s impossible to detach ourselves from it. It is with fear and trembling that Soren Kierkegaard approached the subject and it is the same for us. The more I explore it (and I do so often), the less I come closer to a resolution. The more I dive into it, the more I find myself lost as if in a thick, black forest for which no way out leads to a single and maybe reassuring truth. All the questions I’ve asked myself more than 30-odd years ago here remain open and burning. What history of the Jewish people is going to begin in a way that violates what is most frail, most human in the human being, with an attempted murder? I still do not understand why Abraham needed a tenth test to prove the strength and solidity of his faith in one God, nor do I understand why God needed this test.”[26]

Secondly, we can confidently establish that God does not desire human sacrifice as was practiced by the pagan nations surrounding the Israelites.[27] God made this request of Abraham to test him, not because he somehow wanted, or required, Isaac to die. As the prophet Hosea confirms, God desires “faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6 CSB). Or as an eloquent scribe replied to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel:

“[T]o love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is far more important than all … burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33 CSB).

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is different in that he offered himself up willingly to do God’s will. Furthermore, Jesus is the greater Abraham. His mental anguish extreme in the garden of Gethsemane, wrestling with God’s will. God the Father would himself experience in full measure what he asked of Abraham in giving up his one and only beloved Son to be bound on a cross. Jesus was bound to the cross to unbind us, dying to redeem us. He, too, was brought to the place of sacrifice by his father. He, too, bore the wood of his altar, his cross. Jesus is the ultimate sacrificial ram crowned with thorns offered in our place.[28]

Imitating Abraham’s Faith

What then of Abraham’s faith should we imitate if we are to heed Hebrews’ exhortation to not be lazy but imitators of those “who are inheriting the promises [of God] through faith and patience” (Heb 6:12 BFE)?

First, we are to live lives marked by obedience to God’s word. We are to trust him, even when we don’t understand. We are to trust him for the impossible. We are to entrust ourselves to him for redemption and restoration. The sacrifice of Isaac underscores the extent of Abraham’s faithfulness.[29] “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (Heb 11:17 CSB). Abraham’s faith was revealed in a complete dependence upon God.

Secondly, we are to walk humbly with our God—and others—on this journey of faith, not relying on our own reason. In the information age of “do your own research” and distrust of authority, this is a challenge to submit to the wisdom of others, to remain teachable and open to new avenues of thought.

Thirdly, our own reasoning can only take us so far. That is why some have talked about taking “a leap of faith.” We can never know the specifics of life’s most significant occasions, but we can confidently cling to what God has revealed to us in his word. As Moses said towards the end of his life:

“The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29 CSB).

In closing, the author of Hebrews would have us look to the life of Abraham and the binding of Isaac as sources of courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. Jewish martyrs found renewed purpose in Isaac’s compliance when being offered up to God. Sarah’s silence invites reflection on the role of motherhood and female voices, even if the author of Genesis limits his narrative to Abraham. How will we live by faith in the God of the impossible, God the provider? How can the unrepeatable become a model for our lives? For it is these incomparably heavy unrepeatables that exert unequal force on our daily lives.

God will see to it.

Rembrandt’s “Sacrifice of Isaac”

Rembrandt’s “Sacrifice of Isaac”

Works Cited

Antoine, Gérald, François Bovon, Grégoire Rouiller, and Donald G. Miller, eds. Exegesis: Problems of Method and Exercises in Reading (Genesis 22 and Luke 15). Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series 21. Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1978.

Boehm, Omri. The Binding of Isaac: A Religious Model of Disobedience. New York: T&T Clark, 2007.

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.

Kessler, Edward. Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians, and the Sacrifice of Isaac. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Long, Siobhán Dowling. Sacrifice of Isaac: The Reception of a Biblical Story in Music. The Bible in the Modern World 54. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

Martin-Achard, Robert. “Isaac (Person).” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Rembrandt. The Sacrifice of Isaac. Canvas, 1635. https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/digital-collection/01.+Paintings/43367/.

Sarna, Nahum M. Genesis. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16–50. Vol. 2 of Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Inc, 1994.

“Elie Wiesel on the Akedah.” MP3. Boston University World of Ideas. WBUR, 21 October 2007. https://www.wbur.org/worldofideas/2007/10/21/elie-wiesel-on-the-akedah.

Footnotes

  1. Rembrandt, The Sacrifice of Isaac, canvas, 1635, https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/digital-collection/01.+Paintings/43367/.
  2. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, vol. 2 of Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Inc, 1994), 103.
  3. Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 151.
  4. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 102.
  5. Gérald Antoine et al., eds., Exegesis: Problems of Method and Exercises in Reading (Genesis 22 and Luke 15), Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series 21 (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1978), 18.
  6. Omri Boehm, The Binding of Isaac: A Religious Model of Disobedience (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 14.
  7. Hamilton, NICOT, 104.
  8. Hamilton, NICOT, 106.
  9. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 106–7.
  10. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 107–8.
  11. So Sarna, Genesis, 152.
  12. Hamilton, NICOT, 108 (emphasis added).
  13. Sarna, Genesis, 152.
  14. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 109; Hamilton, NICOT, 109–10.
  15. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 109.
  16. Hamilton, NICOT, 110.
  17. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 110.
  18. Kant, quoted in Boehm, The Binding of Isaac, 119.
  19. Antoine et al., Exegesis, 23.
  20. Hamilton, NICOT, 112.
  21. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 110.
  22. Hamilton, NICOT, 113–14.
  23. Siobhán Dowling Long, Sacrifice of Isaac: The Reception of a Biblical Story in Music, The Bible in the Modern World 54 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013), 24.
  24. Sarna, Genesis, 393.
  25. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 50.
  26. “Elie Wiesel on the Akedah,” MP3, Boston University World of Ideas (WBUR, 21 October 2007), https://www.wbur.org/worldofideas/2007/10/21/elie-wiesel-on-the-akedah.
  27. So Josephus, quoted in Edward Kessler, Bound by the Bible: Jews, Christians, and the Sacrifice of Isaac (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 37–38.
  28. Robert Martin-Achard, “Isaac (Person),” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 470.
  29. So Philo, quoted in Kessler, Bound by the Bible, 38.
landscape art building desert

The Faith and Call of Abraham

This is a talk that Drew Maust presented at Epping Forest Community Church (EFCC) on Sunday, January 23, 2022, as part of the church’s “Faith in Action” series. This is part one on the faith of Abraham. For part two, see “The Faith of Abraham and the Binding of Isaac.” Listen using the player below or download the MP3.

Introduction

In the 21st century, if you want to learn a new skill, you will likely turn to the master of all trades, YouTube. How to tie a tie. How to draw. How to vote. How to make slime. How to make pancakes. How to lose belly fat. How to cook rice. How to take a screenshot. How to pronounce quinoa. How to solve a Rubik’s Cube. How to renew a driving license. These are in fact some of the UK’s top trending how-to searches of all time (purposely, of course, overlooking all those directly pandemic related).

We know from experience that learning a new skill usually has three parts. It starts with what we might call a knowledge phase: “Oh, I’ll just have a quick search on YouTube to see how to make perfect rice.” That part is easy and even pleasurable. We’re on a fact-finding mission.

The second step then is slightly more involved in that it requires us to discriminate between all the new input we’re receiving:

“’How to restring a rotary clothesline’… Hang on, what? Why’s this video 15 minutes long? Wait, why’s he doing that? Why he’s got the clothesline strung all over the place? I’m not doing it like that! Next… Ah, there we go. This video’s only two minutes long. Oh yeh, that’s more like it. I can do that.”

In this second step, something about what we’re seeing clicks. It makes sense. We can now proceed with a bit of assurance.

The third and final step is where it all (hopefully) comes together after knowledge is acquired (“OK”) and knowledge is affirmed (“OK, yep”). It’s now time to try it ourselves. Slime ingredients at the ready. Rubik’s Cube—check. “I’ll take a side of QUINOA please.” TV, off; running shoes on. Fingers positioned just right for that screenshot the world is yearning to see. Let’s make pancakes.

Now, you wouldn’t ever claim to have made pancakes yourself after only having watched a YouTube video, would you? After watching someone else tie a tie? Learning all about swimming, watching instructional videos by Olympic swimmers, feeling the desire to go swimming, and making plans to make it happen doesn’t make you a swimmer or prove that you know how to swim, does it? You can’t learn to swim without plunging into the water.[1]

Similarly, we find that faith, too, has three parts. It starts when God intervenes in the life of an individual and fills them in on what he’s up to, most notably in the message of the gospel which can be summarized as: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration through Jesus Christ. When presented with the gospel, the hearer may then respond positively “OK God,” or negatively, “Nope, next.” Their response is seen by whether they commit themselves to that newly affirmed knowledge (whether they plunge into the water) or whether they carry on unchanged. Christians for centuries have therefore found it helpful to describe faith in three parts: knowledge, affirmation (a “yes”), and commitment. But

“…because Christianity is a relationship with a Person and not just commitment to a set of truths (though this is, of course, essential), the capacity to develop emotional intimacy and to discern the inner movements of feeling, intuition and God’s Spirit in the soul is crucial to maintaining and cultivating commitment to God… These three classical distinctions—noticia [knowledge], assensus [affirmation] and fiducia [commitment]—are indispensable to helping us build a broader understanding of the concept of faith.”[2]

An additional definition of faith then becomes: “trusting what we have reason to believe is true.”[3] We see that faith is an action, an active trust, and in our case, an active trust in a person, God.

Series Introduction

In this series on faith, we are hearing about people of old who responded with faith when God interrupted their lives. Last week, we looked at the life of Noah and how he walked faithfully with God. By faith Noah was sure of what he hoped for and certain of what he did not see, namely that God would rescue him and his family from coming judgment. By faith Noah pleased God. By faith, Noah understood that his world was not to be held onto. By faith Noah understood the past, looked to the future, and lived in the present. He hoped in God for a better future. He took God at his word. By faith he chose to walk with God rather than being pulled by the current of society. By faith Noah obeyed God, built a big boat, and sought refuge in it. By faith, Noah worshiped God. In holy fear, Noah partnered with God. Noah took the plunge.

This week and next we’re looking at the life of Abram, or Abraham.

The Hall of Faith (Hebrews 11)

In Hebrews 11:8-12, we read:

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

11 By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy. 12 So in fact children were fathered by one man—and this one as good as dead—like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore. (NET2)

In the Context of Hebrews

Earlier in Hebrews 6:12, we are warned not to “become lazy” but to “be imitators of those who inherit the promises [of God] through faith and perseverance” (CSB). What would cause the author of Hebrews to organize his letter around a series of warnings? From the chapter which precedes the hall of faith of our series, we get the impression that those to whom he is writing are experiencing severe persecution.

In Hebrews 10:32-39, we read:

32 But remember the earlier days, after you saw the light. You stood your ground while you were suffering from an enormous amount of pressure. 33 Sometimes you were exposed to insults and abuse in public. Other times you became partners with those who were treated that way. 34 You even showed sympathy toward people in prison and accepted the confiscation of your possessions with joy, since you knew that you had better and lasting possessions. 35 So don’t throw away your confidence—it brings a great reward. 36 You need to endure so that you can receive the promises after you do God’s will.

37 In a little while longer, the one who is coming will come and won’t delay; 38 but my righteous one will live by faith, and my whole being won’t be pleased with anyone who shrinks back.

39 But we aren’t the sort of people who timidly draw back and end up being destroyed. We’re the sort of people who have faith so that our whole beings are preserved. (CEB)

The author then moves into a description of faith that we’ve already heard about:

What then is faith? It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see. It is what the men and women of old were famous for. (Heb 11:1-2 BFE)

After that, he goes on to list the acts of faith of God’s people. And of all the Old Testament examples, our author spends the most time on the life and trials of Abraham. He focuses on his call and wandering in the land, the miraculous birth of Isaac, and finally the binding of Isaac where Abraham is called to sacrifice his miracle baby boy.[4]

Today we are going to focus our attention on the first of these episodes (Gen 11:31–12:9; Heb 11:8-10), and unfortunately won’t have time to explore in detail the roles of Sarah and their children (Heb 11:10-11, 20-22). Next week, we will explore in closer detail the ultimate faith experience of Abraham’s life, the binding of Isaac (Heb 11:17-19).

Let us now turn to the account of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12.

The Call of Abraham (Genesis 12)

In Genesis 11:31–12:9, we read:

31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (the son of Haran), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and with them he set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. When they came to Haran [חָרָן], they settled there. 32 The lifetime of Terah was 205 years, and he died in Haran.

1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household
to the land that I will show you.
2 Then I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you,
and I will make your name great,
so that you will exemplify divine blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
but the one who treats you lightly I must curse,
so that all the families of the earth may receive blessing through you.”

4 So Abram left, just as the Lord had told him to do, and Lot went with him. (Now Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.) 5 And Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they left for the land of Canaan. They entered the land of Canaan.

6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the oak tree of Moreh at Shechem. (At that time the Canaanites were in the land.) 7 The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So Abram built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

8 Then he moved from there to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshiped the Lord. 9 Abram continually journeyed by stages down to the Negev. (NET2)

God is awfully specific although startlingly concise about what Abram is to do. Curiously, he gives more instruction about what Abram is to leave behind than where he is taking him.[5] This will require faith to move from the familiar, the casual, the comfortable, to venture out following God’s leading to a land yet to be shown. Abraham is to experience movement from his land, his people, and his family into a closer relationship with his God.

God makes three promises to Abraham: 1) I will make you into a great nation, 2) I will bless you, and 3) I will make your name great. Here we see God’s plan for redemption laid out. As we read the Old Testament, we will see it threatened repeatedly before finally coming to fruition in Jesus the Messiah.

Faith in Three Parts

What do we mean when we talk about “the faith of Abraham”? If we feel confused about “faith,” then it is not surprising given the variety of ways that we talk about faith. Even in the Bible, faith language can mean any number of things, and we get the impression that it undergoes a development from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Even so, faith is a central aspect of the relationship of God and his people. If we are to be his people, we are to live lives marked by faith.

But what do we mean by faith? Some have found it helpful to divide faith in three parts. Those are faith as knowledge, faith as affirmation or agreement, and faith as commitment. An exploration of these three parts will hopefully cast light on and give us a greater appreciation of the faith of those we read about in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11 and Abraham in particular.

1-2. Faith as knowledge (noticia) and Faith as affirmation (assensus)

From our YouTube introduction, we can easily grasp what is meant by faith as knowledge and faith as affirmation or agreement. But what about faith as commitment?

3. Faith as commitment or loyalty (fiducia)

Faith as commitment or loyalty is a relationship marked by faithfulness and is demonstrated by obedience as in the case of Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Gen 6:9 NIV).

When we look at this third part of faith—faith as commitment—we find that the concept of covenant is key, a covenant being “a passionate, interactive relationship between [God] and [his] people.”[6] We see that “to have faith in God or Jesus is to be faithful to a covenantal bond, which is initiated by God and bound according to appropriate promises and expectations on both sides.”[7] Faith viewed this way is not just a mental exercise, it is a response to a relationship that shows itself in our emotions and our actions. Faith is a relationship of loyalty in both directions.[8]

Yes, by faith we know that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb 11:6), but we do not always know what he is up to, nor can we always have complete certainty that our personal understanding of him is entirely accurate. While faith as loyalty does assert certain beliefs about God, it seeks to demonstrate faith by walking with him, listening to his voice, faithfully obeying, faithfully bonding.

So, too, the author of Hebrews introduces the faith of Abraham this way:

“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and set out for a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb 11:8 CSB).

Abraham demonstrated faith by affirming God’s promises not audibly with his mouth (“OK, God”), but visibly with his feet: “The Lord said to Abram: ‘God from your land…’ So, Abram went…” In response to God’s call, Abram started down a path of loyalty to the one who called him out—all of this with imperfect knowledge of his future: “Go from your land… to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1).

Feet do not insist on understanding; obedience does not require full knowledge, but trust; trust not as a heartfelt emotion but putting into practice the conviction that God has plans for my well-being and not for harm; a future, a hope (Jer 29:11).

We may think of Abraham as a shining example of faith, but that was not always the case. It was a process. God turned Abraham into a model of faith. In the very next episode after his call, Abraham tries to give up his wife, probably because she was barren. And later in life he would do it again. Abraham is on a faith journey, learning to trust God through life’s trials.[9] God is faithful such that at the end of his life, God will say of Abraham: “Abraham listened to my voice and kept my charge, my orders, my decrees and my instructions” (Gen 26:5 BFE).

How can we not trust a God who continues to demonstrate himself trustworthy and faithful? Faith exercised in this way is a mind-body exercise where we demand of our bodies what our mind may struggle to affirm. Abram is commended for setting out when called even though he did not know where he was going. It is not so much faith in action as faith-action, faith actioned. Faith that moves feet before it moves mountains.

Two Calls

What do the message of Hebrews and the faith of Abraham call us to today?

A Call to Faith

We, too, are called to faith-action. We, too, are called to leave certain things behind while faithfully walking with God to a place and a personality that he will show us.

At the start of the New Year, I made the mistake of informing my children that I want to become the kindest person they know. They laughed in reply. Their laughter has spurred me on to print out 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 on A5 sheets of paper to keep on my bedside table, in the bathroom, and in the kitchen. My goal this year is to make it the first thing I read when I wake up. Every day, knowing that I have a long way to go and that I will not get there by accident. Every time I put on the kettle:

“Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things…” (1 Cor 13:4-7 CEB)

“The kindest person my children know.” What a challenge when it feels like child-rearing exists not for our self-satisfaction but for our sanctification. When else in life are adults constantly pushed to humble themselves, all while being subjected to routine tests of patience? Love is pushed to its limits when 3 AM cries sound beckoning a bleary-eyed parent to set off on a benighted journey through the house. Raising children, being in that close of a relationship with another human being, is a tool that God employs to chisel away the things that are not of him in order to reveal the person he has created us to be.

This week I made the mistake of asking one of my children to read me the sheet. Their sweet little voice provoking me with each pronouncement of love’s character. My conscience calling to me that I am not patient, not kind, I do act arrogantly. There is a reason Paul lists love among the spiritual gifts in his letter to the Corinthians. If we are to love as Christ loves us, then his Spirit will have to bring it about when my flesh is failing me. I can accept like Abraham to embark on the journey of trusting God, but it is the tendency to wander and the temptation to give up and return to a former, less than godly way of doing things that I on my own cannot avoid. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57)!

If we think primarily of Abram’s faith as one of mental assent to a body of doctrine, then we may find it odd to assert that faith must be put into action. How is doctrine enacted if not enacted through obedience to the issuer, through relationship, a bond? Seeking the Christian virtues of faith, love, and hope (1 Cor 13:13) in response to the same being shown to me by God in Christ is the fuel of faith-action. Faith enacted. Faith actioned.

Faith actioned in this case thus starts with understanding (finding out) what God requires—faith as knowledge. This new knowledge is either then affirmed or rejected—there really are no other options, for to half-heartedly or hesitantly affirm is in part to reject.

Once affirmed, the new knowledge now at home invites us to entrust ourselves to its wisdom: “I trust that this is for my good and not for my harm. God is working out his plan. I want to be a part of it.” As a result, then, when confronted with whatever hardships, afflictions or troubles life may present—whether they be domestic in the form of child-rearing or growing in Christlikeness through the sanctifying effects of marriage—will I, a believer, one called out by God, remain steadfast? Will I be found trustworthy, true, faithful to the God who called me? Will I respond in obedience to the call of God on my life or will I falter? O Holy Spirit accomplish this work in me!

Faithfulness to God’s new covenant in Christ calls me to step out in faith even when the outcome is unclear; calls me to greet from afar God’s promises to right what is awry in this world through the constitution of a new creation of which I am evidence and participant.

Guided by the Spirit, I will step out in faith today by being obedient to the things that I know God has already called me to. I will be faithful in the seemingly unimportant things as I work toward Christlikeness in all things. I will investigate the Scriptures with fellow believers, both ancient and modern, to keep the cycle of faith ever maturing. I will seek to embody faith seeking understanding as I about who God is and who I am, affirming his truth in my heart, and entrusting myself to him with my feet.

How is it that without faith it is impossible to please God? Because he has told us what he requires of us. He has told us how to please him. Trying to seek his approval any other way is a fool’s errand. He has prepared good works beforehand for us to walk in them.

Faith is required to please God because faith-action responds favorably to his good intentions. It starts with a knowledge-seeking exercise to gain an awareness of what he requires (noticia). That comes through hearing the good news of the gospel, reading the Bible, meditating on Scripture, conversing with God in prayer, and shared meals and drinks. It’s secondly an awareness brought about by the Holy Spirit that that knowledge is true. It’s a conviction that what one has learned in fact corresponds to reality (assenus). It resonates with you, and you accept its true value. But it shouldn’t stop there because even demons have awareness of such things and perhaps even more so than we do: “You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear” (Jam 2:19 NET2). That’s why thirdly and lastly, it is trust that leans into the truth (fiducia). It’s a whole person awareness, acceptance, and handing over to the object of one’s faith, or trust. We entrust ourselves to what we have reason to believe is true.

A Call to Perseverance

What links together the recipients of Hebrews with the heroes of the faith is the need to endure faithfully amid life’s challenges. In hardship, there’s the temptation to abandon the faith to avoid further persecution. At these times, we are called to demonstrate faith. We are called to demonstrate faith when we want to give up or when the outcome isn’t clear. We are called to put faith into action when the world around us makes earthly life uncomfortable.

Faith when the lie presents itself that it’s easy to escape this or that look of judgment, to escape missing this or that social function, to avoid being the odd one out. When the fear of missing out in the eyes of the world collides with the fear of missing out in the eyes of faith, who wins out? Our neighbors, our coworkers, our families will surely give us a break if we only take a break from our faith. But is it worth it?

The hall of faith in Hebrews 11 tells story after story of a faithful God and those who trust him, those who lives are marked by faith. How did God do it? By faith. How did these people of old accomplish what they did? By faith. “By faith,” is repeated over twenty times in this chapter.

God has called them out to live a life walking in fear of him while temptation all around beckons them to abandon and chase after their previous life.

Our natural inclinations draw us back to our old selves. It’s always easier to keep doing what we’ve always done. But faith calls us to preserve, to step out, to take daily leaps to follow Jesus in ways both ordinary and radical.

But we are not persevering so that we can create our own self-made future.[10] Our success—either now or in the future—is not dependent on “the power of passion and perseverance” that we can muster up to keep going.[11] We look rather to the one who is passionate about fulfilling his promises—promises that stretch right back to Abram and run down through the centuries undeterred generation after generation. We look to a God-created future, not one that we create.[12]

Conclusion

Elsewhere it’s been pointed out that,

“Tis not the dying for a faith that’s so hard…—every man of every nation has done that—’tis the living up to it that is difficult.”[13]

Whatever God calls us to, no matter how clear or unclear it may be, let us respond in faith like Abram. Faith like Abram’s faith. Faith that moves. Faith of a friend of God as Abraham is called (Isa 41:8; 2 Chron 20:7; Jam 2:23). Interestingly, some early Christians must have found it difficult to accept that one could be called “a friend of God,” for they crossed out philos “friend” and replaced it with doulos “servant, slave.”

Maybe that’s where you’re at today? You feel more like a passionless slave of God than an energetic friend of God? Make no doubt about it: you do in fact belong to God. Make no mistake about it: faith-action is fashioned from a bond of seriousness.[14] But he is drawing you in closer than just servant. You are a son; you are a daughter. He has provided all that is required for you to be right relationship with him, if you will only respond in faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was calculated in his favor, putting him in the right” (Rom 4:3 BFE).

That God made decisive movement toward an Ancient Near Eastern semi-nomadic tent dweller calls out to us today. He speaks, interrupting the life of Abram and the flow of human history: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘You there, Abram, go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household’” (Gen 12:1 NET2). Abram takes decisive action: “So Abram left, just as the Lord had told him to do” (Gen 12:4 NET2).

Let us not just respond in faith on that day, but respond in faith day after day, footfall after footfall, embarking on a journey of faith like Abram. The journey is winding, but the destination is sure, a city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:10-11). We see it now from a distance (Heb 11:13), but that distance is ever decreasing for the friends of God. It’s like starting a journey up a spiral staircase.

Let me leave you with a story about American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. who actioned faith in time-altering ways. Fellow activist Marian Wright Edelman reflects on visiting King’s church after his death:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, [my son] Jonah and I went to the Civil Rights Memorial, and then we walked around to Dexter Baptist Church and went up into Martin’s pulpit. I’d forgotten what a little place it was. We looked out from the little pulpit in that little church and talked about how something so big started from a place so small. Just a lot of committed people of faith in church on one side of the street, and all the power of Alabama in the state capitol right across the street. As a young lawyer, I used to listen to Dr. King in chapel at Spelman College. One of the things I liked about him was that he didn’t pretend to be a great powerful know-it-all. I remember him discussing openly his gloom, depression, his fears, admitting that he didn’t know what the next step was. He would then say: ‘Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.’”[15]

“Take the first step.”

Amen.

Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Cocozza, Paula. “Is Grit the True Secret of Success?” The Guardian, 7 May 2016, § Life and style. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/07/is-grit-the-true-secret-of-success.

Edelman, Marian Wright. “Kids First.” Mother Jones, June 1991.

Gupta, Nijay K. “Faith.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Edited by John D. Barry. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Ho, Andrew Chinpeng. “A Paragon of Faith?: Doubting Abraham.” Themelios 42.3 (2017): 452–64.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. Hebrews: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Kim, Yung Suk. “Between Text and Sermon: Hebrews 11:8-16.” Interpretation 72.2 (2018): 204–6. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020964317749548.

Kloppenborg, John S. Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Moreland, J. P., and Klaus Issler. In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God. Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, UK: IVP Books; Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.

Ratcliffe, Susan, ed. “Faith.” Oxford Essential Quotations. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191843730.001.0001/q-oro-ed5-00004252.

Tietjen, Mark. “Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith.” Blog. TheLAB (The Logos Academic Blog), 26 September 2018. https://academic.logos.com/kierkegaards-leap-of-faith/.

Footnotes

  1. Mark Tietjen, “Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith,” Blog, TheLAB (The Logos Academic Blog), 26 September 2018, https://academic.logos.com/kierkegaards-leap-of-faith/.

  2. J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, UK: IVP Books; Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 19–22.

  3. Moreland and Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith, 18.

  4. Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 288–89.

  5. NET2, Genesis 12:1, fn 4.

  6. Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 76.

  7. Nijay K. Gupta, “Faith,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

  8. John S. Kloppenborg, Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 14–15.

  9. Andrew Chinpeng Ho, “A Paragon of Faith?: Doubting Abraham,” Themelios 42.3 (2017): 452–64.

  10. Yung Suk Kim, “Between Text and Sermon: Hebrews 11:8-16,” Interpretation 72.2 (2018): 205, https://doi.org/10.1177/0020964317749548.

  11. Paula Cocozza, “Is Grit the True Secret of Success?,” The Guardian, 7 May 2016, § Life and style, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/07/is-grit-the-true-secret-of-success.

  12. Kim, “Between Text and Sermon,” 205.

  13. Susan Ratcliffe, ed., “Faith,” in Oxford Essential Quotations, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191843730.001.0001/q-oro-ed5-00004252.

  14. Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith.

  15. Marian Wright Edelman, “Kids First,” Mother Jones, June 1991; Ratcliffe, “Faith.”

Translating as Drawing a Mountain Ridge

Translation is like drawing, or painting, a mountain ridge. The contours won’t match up perfectly, try as the artist might to reproduce the intricate ups and downs with exactitude. In the end, you’ll be left with your interpretation, having flattened out some bits, having elevated others. But as you approach the mountain, the contours fade and you find yourself face to face with an overwhelming mountain.

The role of a translation consultant is to help translators match up the contours and to avoid flattening out the mountain. Some contours will be possible, others not. But the mountain will remain.