Origins of Grace
Up until that fateful day on the Damascus road Saul was a respectable, upstanding Jew in first century Israel. But he was unprepared for the events which were soon to unfold and set his life on a new course. Saul was the epitome of a law-abiding, Pharisaical Jew. It was this man, who fully believed he was serving God but in reality was persecuting the Lord’s Messiah. Remember that Saul did not have a New Testament to read or study – his Bible was the Old Testament and he knew it inside and out. What did he come to understand about the grace of God from the pages of the Torah that would have such a profound impact on his life? After his encounter with the risen Lord, he looked at the same Old Testament scriptures but came to a very different conclusion.
To understand the insight given to Saul (whose name was changed to Paul) we must go back to Genesis and consider the life of Abram. Remember, this is because Paul in his writings repeatedly makes reference to Abraham, so it is important for us to understand his life as well to appreciate Paul’s understanding of grace. But before considering Abram’s experience with Yahweh I want to make a few comments about the primeval world of Genesis and the book in general since much of our study is focused there.
When reading a book it is important to know it’s literary genre. For example, is it poetry, fiction, non-fiction, allegory, myth, history, etc.? Genesis is primarily historical, but it is a specific type of history namely, theological history. It is God’s narration of the creation of the world, the introduction of evil and the calling out of a specific individual, family, and nation. Later events in Genesis detail significant events in the formation of national Israel. These shared experiences served to create a cohesive identity for the Jewish people.
After understanding the books genre it is helpful to know how it is put together – the structure of the book. In Genesis, it is quite easy to see three main sections to the book.
- We find Primeval history in chapters 1-11 which covers creation until the tower of Babel. This section represents a long period of time in the distant past.
- The Patriarchal narratives are found in chapters 12-36 and focus our attention on one man and his family for several generations.
- The Joseph story begins in chapter 37 and provides a transition from Abraham’s extended family of more than seventy people to the formation of Israel as a nation.
Brief Review of the Early History
A great deal of primeval history predates the call of Abram. Recall what occurred in the first eleven chapters, we forfeited our position as viceroy over the created order and introduced a curse on the human race, we see the rise of the Nephilim in the days of Noah, and after the flood the sin of Ham leaves a horrific stain on the new world. Finally, the people join together in rebellion against Yahweh at the Tower of Babel building their own religious system, exalting our capabilities and arrogance above all else. At this point God disinherits the nations Deut. 32:7-8.
It was in response to these events that God’s story of redemption begins with the call of Abram. Even in the early church this was understood; listen to how Stephen begins his sermon:
At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angels. This was Stephen’s reply: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. Our glorious God appeared to our ancestor Abraham in Mesopotamia before he settled in Haran. God told him, ‘Leave your native land and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you. So Abraham left…..
Acts 6:15; 7:1-2
I’ve always found it peculiar that Stephen did not mention the earlier events of Genesis. But his point was in tracing the history of mankind’s redemption through the Jewish people. And that story began with Abraham.
Even in the garden God knew what the cost of restoring all things would be and in the previous chapter we introduced the idea of covenant. In the opening chapters of Genesis God covered our first parents with animal skins and then established a covenant with the earth after the flood story. We should recognize that God has always been concerned for both his human family as well as the earth itself and its created order and this is concern is demonstrated through covenant.
These two streams of redemption (humanity and creation) are further developed in the Abraham story and woven together throughout the balance of scripture with numerous references to both the people and the land. The ultimate fulfillment is found in Rev. 21 with these words:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.
As we see God making covenant (providing animal skins) and making a covenant with the earth (post flood) one thing to notice is that these covenants are unilateral. God initiates them without requirement from the other party. This is an early picture of his mercy – we bring nothing to the table, it is all him.
Further, when God makes a covenant he provides a sign of the covenant within the body of the benefactor. For example the covenant with the earth/creation was given with the sign of the rainbow. What was the sign of covenant with Adam and Eve? None other than the promised offspring and perpetual pain in pregnancy was to be a continual reminder of this promised Messiah.
And I will cause hostility between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Then he said to the woman,
“I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy,
and in pain you will give birth.
This is an early illustration of God taking our greatest weakness and turning it into our greatest strength for his glory.
The Big Risk
The short segue above helps to demonstrate the need for redemption and provides clues to the method of its accomplishment. In the preface, I mentioned how God telescopes his plan through a series of continually expanding types and shadows. The blessing of Shem is one such example. From Genesis 11:11 we know that Shem (son of Noah) lived 600 years and it is likely that his life overlapped that of Abram’s father Terah and possibly Abram as well. Recall that Shem was alive during the flood being an eyewitness of the prevailing wickedness and the judgment of God against a wayward world. Certainly, the flood story was passed down through both oral history as well as inscribed on cuneiform tablets. It is also possible that a first hand account may have been shared with Abram’s immediate family due to Shem’s advanced age.
Abram lived with his family in Ur2 , a city in ancient Mesopotamia. Ur existed prior to the flood and it had been rebuilt after the flood. It was a magnificent city of commerce, manufacturing, farming and shipping on the banks of the Persian Gulf and mouth of the Euphrates river. Ur also was home to the great Ziggurat of Ur which supported the local religious worship of the moon and the associated deities. This is the city and culture in which Terah and his sons lived, worked and had societal ties.
The Original Road Trip
The Genesis account does not provide many details, but we could speculate that the flood story and increasing wickedness in Ur may have contributed to the motivation to leave this great city. But something supernatural was also occurring. Stephen during his speech before the high council tells us that the glory of God appeared to Abraham while still in Mesopotamia.
Our glorious God appeared to our ancestor Abraham in Mesopotamia before he settled in Haran. God told him, ‘Leave your native land and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you. So Abraham left the land of the Chaldean’s and lived in Haran until his father died. Then God brought him here to the land where you now live.
But the Genesis record suggests that Terah initiated the move away from Ur. Regardless, what is obvious is that both father and son were in agreement that it was time to leave Mesopotamia
One day Terah took his son Abram, his daughter-in-law Sarai (his son Abram’s wife), and his grandson Lot (his son Haran’s child) and moved away from Ur of the Chaldean’s. He was headed for the land of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled there.
So it seems there was both a positive and negative motivation (the call of God and the wickedness surrounding the family) to leave Mesopotamia and the city of Ur. Consider what would have been required to move a large family with numerous possessions to a land which was unknown. They were unable to scope it out ahead of time as they didn’t know where God was leading them. They didn’t have smartphones, air travel, high-speed rail or social media. How would Terah and Abram stay connected to the people back home? What if tragedy struck? What if someone became ill or the family dynamics became unbearable?
Well, the traveling caravan did run into issues. They failed to make it all the way to Canaan and stopped in a place called Haran, a 600 hundred mile journey from where they began. Apparently, Haran was accommodating and the family decided to settle there. It was in Haran that Terah (the family patriarch) passed away.
Extinguishing the Light of God?
Recall from Gen. 3:15 that it was the seed of the woman who was to crush the serpent’s head. This prophecy portends the significance of the generational blessings which had been kept alive through Adam’s family and passed down to Noah, Shem and now rested with Abram. There was just one problem, Sarai (Abram’s wife) was barren (Gen 11:30). Can you feel the hopelessness? It was not just that Sarai could not have children. No, no, no; the seed of promise and the Messianic line was about to be extinguished. The light of God would be gone forever! This is the background when God began speaking to Abram.
It’s doubtful that Abram understood what was at stake just as we often have difficulty seeing the big picture. If we had been walking in Abram’s sandals, our thoughts may have been something like, “Here I am in a strange land, and my father has now passed on and now the entire burden rests on my shoulders. I now have responsibility for my nephew as well as the people taken into the household, and let’s not forget about the care and feeding of these large flocks. Oh, and did I fail to mention my wife is barren and separated from the land and people she is familiar with?” I don’t think it would be a far stretch to suggest that Sarah probably struggled with depression based on her current lot in life.
What questions might we be asking in similar circumstances? “What about job security, health insurance, and what if enemies attack? What if we’re just not up to the task of caring for all this responsibility? Why did my father have to pass away and leave me in this strange land with so much responsibility?”
Lord, I trust you with my future!
It is in this place of great difficulty that God first calls to Abram and makes the following incredible promise.
“Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s family and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All families on earth will be blessed through you.”
Recall from earlier that God had established a general covenant with Adam and Eve as well as the earth through Noah. Now he is narrowing the scope of his covenant and making the application more specific – to one man and a parcel of land. It is to a single man and his descendants that the blessing of God will flow through to bless all humanity as well as the earth. The Abrahamic covenant did not terminate the covenant of Adam and Eve or the earth. The covenant with Abram added to these covenants focusing the work of God on a specific individual and family line. The covenant with Abraham is God beginning to rebuild a family after his own image.
Doing a careful reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we find a very interesting verse in Galatians chapter 3.
“Now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.”
Could this really be true; God will bless us, and we will be a blessing to others? He will bless those who bless us and curse those who treat us with contempt, and all families on earth will be blessed through us? Since we are relating the Abrahamic covenant to our lives, let’s also consider that God did not dwell on Abram’s past or current challenges.
- His focus was and is on the future; the past is ancient history. Read the promise again in Genesis 12:1-2 and notice it’s all forward thinking.
- Abram did nothing to deserve this blessing and promise from Almighty God. It was a demonstration of his unmerited favor.
- Also, throughout the scriptures, the Lord refers to himself as the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob demonstrating that the covenant is firmly established for all time. There is a biblical principle of establishing everything by multiple witnesses (Deut. 19:15, ll Cor. 13:1). Abraham, his son and his grandson are the three witnesses to this firmly established covenant.
Can we really apply this to our lives, to be blessed by God and to be a blessing to others? Can we trust that God will defend us against our enemies, know that our failures are history and that he’s optimistically looking toward the future, knowing this is firmly established? This really is God’s intention for my life. Abram believed this promise and stood firm in it no matter the circumstances and he is the father of all who believe.
Meditation and discussion
What does it mean to have Abraham as the father of your faith?
Are you releasing the blessing of God into the people and situations which are under your sphere of authority?
When finding ourselves in a difficult place or situation, do we try avoiding it at all costs or is it an opportunity to hear a fresh revelation and promise from the Lord?
What has God spoken about our future? Do we believe and steward those promises?