Abraham, God's Friend
J. Wesley Ferguson, Antrim, N. Ireland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The first eleven chapters of Genesis are taken up with a survey of the creation of the universe and a considerable part of earth’s early history. It is God’s universe and it has significance in relation to the Bible as a whole because of one planet, earth, which was the scene of a unique manifestation of the character of the Creator, God. Hence, it is not by chance that it was possible for a New Testament narrative to tell of the risen Christ interpreting to two disciples ‘in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’, Luke 24. 27. All of earth’s history and geography are but background to the basic story of the glory of God’s grace told out in the person, the coming to earth, and redemptive work of His Son.
The next thirteen chapters centre on the story of how God had dealings with one man from Ur of the Chaldees, Abraham, as he was later called. He was an ancestor of Christ, and his story has significance for this reason. It is profitable to look carefully at some of the phases of his life as they develop the revelations between God and a chosen man, to whom King Jehoshaphat refers, near the end of the Old Testament in a prayer to God, as ‘Abraham thy friend’, 2 Chr. 20. 7. We remember that 2 Chronicles was the last book in the Old Testament, as the books were traditionally arranged by the Jews.
God’s calling of Abraham from his home in Mesopotamia was of tremendous significance for the story of redemption. When Stephen, in Acts chapter 7, was relating to the Jerusalem leaders the history of how the nation had consistently failed to recognize those whom God sent to lead them, he began, ‘The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia’, v. 2. This was a key event in the dealings of God with mankind. It introduced a chain of events which demanded full treatment in the inspired record in Genesis.
God entered into a covenant with Abraham, promising him many descendants, a land for them to dwell in, and blessings through his ‘seed’ for all the earth. Perhaps the key expression used in the dealings of God with Abraham is, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness’, Rom. 4. 3.
At an early period in Abraham’s walk with God, there arose a dispute between his herdsmen and Lot’s. The size of their flocks was making it difficult for them to continue to live in the same area. Since Abraham ‘believed God’ and God had made promises, he could afford to let Lot choose what area he would use for his flocks, for God’s promise would ensure Abraham had suitable grazing. Lot chose after he had ‘lifted up his eyes’ and beheld the area around Sodom. The episode shows the contrast between people who choose according to what their senses suggest, and those who let God direct their steps. After Lot had chosen unwisely, God invited Abraham, ‘Lift up now thine eyes’, Gen. 13. 14, and we see how bountifully God chose for Abraham. By contrast, Lot’s choice led to disaster for himself and his family.
At a critical stage in Abraham’s relationship with God, the wickedness of Sodom had reached a level at which divine justice demanded that it should be destroyed. At this point in the narrative the remarkable statement occurs, ‘And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?’, Gen. 18. 17. Then God continues, ‘For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord’. With minor variants, modern translations amount to how Knox’s explanatory expansion of this sentence runs: ‘I have acknowledged him (as my own) in order that he may teach his children’. We must not miss the central fact in this context: God acknowledges His relationship with Abraham to be of such a kind that He can-not destroy Sodom without explaining to Abraham what is happening. This is in keeping with the fact that God appeared to him on a number of occasions as their relationship developed.
Isaiah chapter 41 verse 8 refers to ‘Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend’. Similar language is used by Jehoshaphat when he speaks to God about God driving out the inhabitants of the land and giving it to ‘thy people Israel . . . and the seed of Abraham thy friend for ever’, 2 Chr. 20. 7. No doubt these scriptures were in James’s mind when he wrote, ‘Abraham believed God and it was imputed unto him for righteousness; and he was called the Friend of God’, Jas. 2. 23.
This acknowledgement by God of Abraham constitutes a kind of commentary on the original declaration by God in Genesis chapter 18, ‘I have acknowledged him as my own’. No wonder that even men with only a superficial awareness of God would boast, ‘Abraham is our father’, John 8. 39, a claim refuted by the Lord Jesus, for they were not Abraham’s offspring spiritually.
It is important to see that the acknowledgement of Abraham by God was not a single episode. There was a continuing contact maintained by God with His servant. At the climax of this continuing relationship there was the testing of Abraham’s faith in Genesis chapter 22. Before this testing, God had already shown that He could bring life out of death. He had enabled Abraham to beget a son, as He had promised, when Abraham was physically ‘dead’, that is, impotent in view of the ageing process.
Genesis 22 shows once again the ability of God, the giver of life, to bring life out of death. Does God approve of human sacrifice? Certainly not, if we mean the gruesome ordeal of giving humans over to slaughter, simply to appease a god who delights in violence and horror. Abraham had already experienced how God could give, and bless, and fulfil promises beyond all expectation. Yet now He has directed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son of promise, who was now his only son since Ishmael has been exiled and disowned as unfit to inherit the promised land. But Abraham has learnt that God can make the barren woman fertile, the impotent man virile again.
He has also found God to be able to grant the desires of the heart of His servant, even beyond the limits of His trusting servant’s prayers. We remember Abraham pleading that God would spare Sodom in order to save the righteous in it. But Sodom’s doom was now inevitable, ‘its iniquity was full’ . But would God simply ignore His servant’s prayer? What was Abraham’s burden as he prayed for Sodom to be spared? He was thinking of those whom he loved who were in Sodom. God understood, heard his prayer, and answered by taking Lot safely out of Sodom. God answered the desire of Abraham, while not answering as Abraham requested.
But, to return to Genesis chapter 22. It is clear from Hebrews chapter 11 verse 19 that Abraham did some careful thinking on his journey to Moriah, ‘accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure’. Abraham believed the promises of God, which clearly required the survival of Isaac. But he was willing to sacrifice his only son because God told him to do so. Therefore, he reasoned, God must intend to raise Isaac as heir to the promises. He trusted God’s promises when he found it difficult to explain God’s commands. ‘Now I know’, said God, ‘that thou fearest God’, Gen. 22. 12.
This was the climax of Abraham’s education in the school of God, to teach him faith. It is the measure of his devotion to God, but also his graduation in the understanding of the ways of God. Are we justified in thinking that in this episode we have also a picture of God’s grace in giving His own Son? I believe we are. Consider Paul’s climax in Romans chapter 8 verse 32, ‘He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?’ The Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek renders Genesis chapter 22 verse 16, ‘For my sake thou hast not spared thy beloved son’. Paul’s first readers, using a Greek translation of the Old Testament, must have seen the echo of Genesis chapter 22. We read John’s Gospel with delight to see the Father and the Son in close harmony, the constant refrain in the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘My Father’. So they went both of them together towards Calvary. And Paul says, ‘He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all’. And Paul’s readers read Genesis chapter 22 verse 16, where God says, ‘For my sake thou hast not spared thy beloved son’.
Is this one reason why Abraham was called ‘the friend of God’?
AUTHOR PROFILE: Wesley Ferguson is in the assembly in Antrim in N. Ireland. He ministers the word throughout the Province and the UK and is the author of numerous magazine articles, and recently authored ‘Genesis’ in the Ritchie series ‘What the Bible Teaches'.