Aside from Moses, no Old Testament character is mentioned more in the New Testament than Abraham. James refers to Abraham as “God’s friend” (James 2:23), a title used of no one else in Scripture. Believers in all generations are called the “children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7). Abraham’s importance and impact in redemptive history are clearly seen in Scripture.
The life of Abraham takes up a good portion of the Genesis narrative from his first mention in Genesis 11:26 all the way to his death in Genesis 25:8. Although we know much about Abraham’s life, we know little about his birth and early life. When we first meet Abraham, he is already 75 years old. Genesis 11:28 records that Abraham’s father, Terah, lived in Ur, an influential city in southern Mesopotamia situated on the Euphrates River about halfway between the head of the Persian Gulf and the modern-day city of Baghdad. We also learn that Terah took his family and set off for the land of Canaan but instead settled in the city of Haran in northern Mesopotamia (on the trade route from ancient Babylonia about halfway between Nineveh and Damascus).
Abraham’s story really turns interesting at the start of Genesis 12. In the first three verses, we see the call of Abraham by God:
1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3). (NLT)
God calls Abraham out from his home in Haran and tells him to go to a land that He will show to him. God also makes three promises to Abraham: 1) The promise of a land of his own; 2) the promise to be made into a great nation; and 3) the promise of blessing. These promises form the basis for what will later be called the Abrahamic Covenant (established in Genesis 15 and ratified in Genesis 17). What really makes Abraham special is that he obeyed God. Genesis 12:4 records that, after God called Abraham, he went “as the LORD had told him.” The author of Hebrews uses Abraham as an example of faith several times, and refers specifically to this impressive act: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).
How many of us would leave behind everything that is familiar to us and just go without knowing our destination? The concept of family meant everything to a person living in the time of Abraham. In that time, family units were strongly knit; it was unusual for family members to live hundreds of miles apart from each other. In addition, we’re not told anything about the religious life of Abraham and his family prior to his calling. The people of Ur and Haran worshiped the ancient Babylonian pantheon of gods, in particular the moon god, Sin, so God called Abraham out of a pagan culture. Abraham knew and recognized the call of the LORD, and obeyed willingly, not hesitantly.
1. Abraham, Faithful to God
When they came to Bethel, Abram’s and Lot’s sheepherders quarreled because there was not enough land to support the amount of livestock each man owned. So Abram presented an offer to Lot: they would part company, and Lot could have first pick of the land he would occupy (Genesis 13:8–9). Lot chose the land near the Jordan River, as it was rich and lush. Abram took other land, and Lot left his uncle and settled his family near the sinful city of Sodom (verse 12).
The consequences of Lot’s selfish choice soon caught up with him. Five kings in the area (the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboyim, and Bela) were subjects of King Kedorlaomer, and they rose up against him (Genesis 14:4). But Kedorlaomer gathered his allies and defeated the rebelling kings. The victors seized all the goods in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and they took Lot and his family as part of the plunder (verse 12). When Abram heard of this, he and his fighting men attacked Kedorlaomer’s army at night and won. He recovered Lot and his family, as well as all the goods the army had taken from Sodom and Gomorrah (verse 16). Afterward, Lot returned to Sodom.
17 After Abram returned from his victory…18 …Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a priest of God Most High, brought Abram some bread and wine. 19 Melchizedek blessed Abram with this blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And blessed be God Most High, who has defeated your enemies for you.” Then Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the goods he had recovered. Genesis 14:17-20 (NLT)
Who is Melchizedek? His name means “king of righteousness,” was a king of Salem (Jerusalem- which didn’t exist yet) and priest of the Most High God (Genesis 14:18–20; Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:6–11; 6:20—7:28). Melchizedek’s sudden appearance and disappearance in the book of Genesis is somewhat mysterious. Melchizedek and Abraham first met after Abraham’s defeat of Chedorlaomer and his three allies. Melchizedek presented bread and wine to Abraham and his weary men, demonstrating friendship. He bestowed a blessing on Abraham in the name of El Elyon (“God Most High”) and praised God for giving Abraham a victory in battle (Genesis 14:18–20).
Abraham presented Melchizedek with a tithe (a tenth) of all the items he had gathered. By this act Abraham indicated that he recognized Melchizedek as a priest who ranked higher spiritually than he.
In Psalm 110, a messianic psalm written by David (Matthew 22:43), Melchizedek is presented as a type of Christ. This theme is repeated in the book of Hebrews, where both Melchizedek and Christ are considered kings of righteousness and peace. By citing Melchizedek and his unique priesthood as a type, the writer shows that Christ’s new priesthood is superior to the old levitical order and the priesthood of Aaron (Hebrews 7:1–10).
Some propose that Melchizedek was actually a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ, or a Christophany. This is a possible theory, given that Abraham had received such a visit before. Consider Genesis 17 where Abraham saw and spoke with the Lord (El Shaddai) in the form of a man.
Hebrews 6:20 says, “[Jesus] has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” This term order would ordinarily indicate a succession of priests holding the office. None are ever mentioned, however, in the long interval from Melchizedek to Christ, an anomaly that can be solved by assuming that Melchizedek and Christ are really the same person. Thus the “order” is eternally vested in Him and Him alone.
Hebrews 7:3 says that Melchizedek was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.” The question is whether the author of Hebrews means this actually or figuratively.
If the description in Hebrews is literal, then it is indeed difficult to see how it could be properly applied to anyone but the Lord Jesus Christ. No mere earthly king “remains a priest forever,” and no mere human is “without father or mother.” If Genesis 14 describes a Christophany, then God the Son came to give Abraham His blessing (Genesis 14:17–19), appearing as the King of Righteousness (Revelation 19:11,16), the King of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and the Mediator between God and Man (1 Timothy 2:5).
If the description of Melchizedek is figurative, then the details of having no genealogy, no beginning or ending, and a ceaseless ministry are simply statements accentuating the mysterious nature of the person who met Abraham. In this case, the silence in the Genesis account concerning these details is purposeful and better serves to link Melchizedek with Christ.
Are Melchizedek and Jesus the same person? A case can be made either way. At the very least, Melchizedek is a type of Christ, prefiguring the Lord’s ministry. But it is also possible that Abraham, after his weary battle, met and gave honor to the Lord Jesus Himself.
Another example of Abraham’s life of faith is seen in the birth of his son, Isaac. Abraham and Sarah were childless (a real source of shame in that culture), yet God promised that Abraham would have a son (Genesis 15:4). This son would be the heir of Abraham’s vast fortune with which God blessed him, and, more importantly, he would be the heir of promise and the continuation of the godly line of Seth. Abraham believed the promise of God, and that faith is credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). God reiterates His promise to Abraham in Genesis 17, and his faith is rewarded in Genesis 21 with the birth of Isaac.
- Abraham, a Friend of God
In Isaiah 41:8, God speaks to Israel, calling them “descendants of Abraham my friend.” Abraham’s friendship with God is also mentioned by King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20:7 and by the apostle James in James 2:23. Abraham was given the high honor of being called a “friend of God.”
Let’s see more of these two friends interacting:
1 The LORD appeared again to Abraham 10… “I will return to you about this time next year, and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!” Sarah laughed… The LORD said… 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” 17 “Should I hide my plan from Abraham?” the LORD asked…. 19 I have singled him out so that he will direct his sons and their families to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just… 20 So the LORD told Abraham, “I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is so flagrant… 23 Abraham approached him and said… “Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” ..…And the LORD replied, “Then I will not destroy it for the sake of the ten.” Genesis 18:1-33 (NLT)
Here we also see from Abraham what it looks like to have an active relationship with God. While Abraham was quick to obey, he did not shy away from asking God questions. Abraham believed that God would give him and Sarah a son, but did wonder at how it could be (Genesis 17:17–23). In Genesis 18 we read the account of Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham affirmed that God was holy and just and could not fathom Him destroying the righteous with sinners. He asked God to spare the sinful cities for the sake of fifty righteous and continued to work the number down until ten. Ultimately there were not ten righteous men in Sodom, but God did spare Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family (Genesis 19). It is interesting that God revealed His plans to Abraham before destroying the cities and that He was not taken aback by Abraham’s questions. Abraham’s example here shows us what it looks like to interact with God regarding His plans, intercede for others, trust God’s justice, and submit to His will.
- Abraham, a Father like God
1 Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called. “Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.” 2 “Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”
12…“Do not hurt him in any way, for now I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.” 13 Then Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 Abraham named the place Yahweh-Yireh (which means “the LORD will provide”). To this day, people still use that name as a proverb: “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14 (NLT)
Abraham had obeyed God many times in his walk with Him, but no test could have been more severe than the one in Genesis 22. God commanded, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (Genesis 22:2).
This was an astounding command because Isaac was the son of promise. God had promised several times that from Abraham’s own body would come a nation as multitudinous as the stars in heaven (Genesis 12:2–3; 15:4–5). Later, Abraham was specifically told that the promise would be through Isaac (Genesis 21:12).
Given that God’s testing of Abraham involved a command to do something He elsewhere forbids (see Jeremiah 7:31), we must ask, “Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?” The Bible does not specifically address the answer to this question, but in our study of Scripture we can compile a few reasons:
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to test Abraham’s faith. God’s tests prove and purify our faith. They cause us to seek Him and trust Him more. God’s test of Abraham allowed His child—and all the world—to see the reality of faith in action. Faith is more than an inner spiritual attitude; faith works (see James 2:18).
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to validate Abraham as the “father” of all who have faith in God. “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:9). And we today “who have the faith of Abraham” also find that “he is the father of us all” (verse 16). Without Abraham’s response to the command to sacrifice Isaac, we would have difficulty knowing all that faith entails.
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to provide an example of absolute obedience. After God gave the command, “early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey” and headed out with his son and the wood for a burnt offering (Genesis 22:3). There was no delay, no questioning, no arguing. Just simple obedience, which brought a blessing (verses 15–18).
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to reveal God as Jehovah-Jireh. On the way up the mountain to the place of sacrifice, Isaac inquired as to the animal to be sacrificed, and his father said, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). After God’s provision of a ram to take Isaac’s place on the altar, “Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide” (verse 14) and we have another character-revealing name of God: Yahweh-Yireh.
God’s command to sacrifice Isaac was to foreshadow God’s sacrifice of His own Son. The story of Abraham prefigures the New Testament teaching of the atonement, the sacrificial offering of the Lord Jesus on the cross for the sin of mankind. Here are some of the parallels between the sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice of Christ:
• “Take your son, your only son, whom you love” (Genesis 22:2); “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
• “Go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there” (Genesis 22:2); it is believed that this same area is where the city of Jerusalem was built many years later. Jesus was crucified in the same area that Isaac had been laid on the altar.
• “Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2); “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
• “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac” (Genesis 22:6); Jesus, “carrying his own cross,” walked to Calvary (John 19:17).
• “But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7); John said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
• “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8); Jesus is likened to a spotless lamb in 1 Peter 1:18–19 and a slain lamb in Revelation 5:6.
• Isaac, who was likely a young man at the time of his sacrifice, acted in obedience to his father (Genesis 22:9); before His sacrifice, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
• Isaac was resurrected figuratively, and Jesus in reality: “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:19); Jesus “was buried, and . . . was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4).
Many centuries after God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). This is a reference to Abraham’s joy in seeing the ram caught in the thicket in Genesis 22. That ram was the substitute that would save Isaac’s life. Seeing that ram was, in essence, seeing the day of Christ, the Substitute for all of us.
In the final analysis, we see that Abraham was an exemplary individual, we wasn’t perfect, he had his shortcomings, but because his life illustrates so many truths of the Christian life. God called Abraham out of the millions of people on the earth to be the object of His blessings. God used Abraham to play a pivotal role in the outworking of the story of redemption, culminating in the birth of Jesus. Abraham is a living example of faith and hope in the promises of God (Hebrews 11:8–10). Our lives should be so lived that, when we reach the end of our days, our faith, like Abraham’s, will remain as an enduring legacy to others.
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