Advent thoughts: December 2

“…in you [Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3—read Genesis 12:1-9).

Several times in the book of Genesis God speaks a blessing upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The details change from occasion to occasion, but three parts of the blessing remain constant: God will make their family into a great nation, that nation will live on the land God showed to Abraham, and from that family on that land will arise a blessing for all people.

Already by the time of the exodus the Israelites have become numerous. However, the generation that followed Moses out of Egypt to Mount Sinai doubted God’s promise to give them the land. As a consequence, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to take the land under Joshua. When the land had been captured (for the most part), it was divided among the tribes and clans and families of Israel. Part of the Law of Moses stipulated that a family could not lose its inheritance. Even if they needed to raise money by selling land, that land would be returned to them at the next Jubilee year. (Those happened every fifty years.) The connection of the people to the land is a running theme in Moses and the prophets. The chief punishment that falls upon the Israelites is invasion from foreigners, the Assyrians and Babylonians who remove God’s people from the land and replace them with other people.

Under the Persians, the faithful remnant was allowed to return to the land and rebuild what had been destroyed. They no longer had political control over the land; they were part of Empires—first the Persian Empire, then Alexander the Great, then the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and finally the Romans. For a few years the Jews received a form of independence from the Seleucids in a series of events still celebrated as Hanukah. But when Herod the Great came to power, he ruled over the Jews because the power of Rome backed his government.

At that time, God chose to keep the final part of his blessing to Abraham. Therefore, Joseph left Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem to be counted there by the Romans, because he was a descendant of King David. Joseph brought with him his espoused wife, who was expecting a child. That child was born in Bethlehem and was given the name Jesus, from the Hebrew Y’shua, meaning, “the Lord saves.” His mission was to rescue God’s people, not from the Romans or other worldly empires, but from sin and evil and death.

The guest room (or “inn”) on the estate of David’s descendants was already filled when Mary and Joseph arrived, so they were given shelter (or found it on their own) where animals—probably sheep—were sometimes kept. For that reason, when Jesus was born, his mother swaddled him and placed him in a manger, a feeding trough for sheep and other animals. More than thirty years later, another guest room (or “inn”) would accommodate Jesus and his apostles. On that occasion, Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal and said, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” The infant who once rested in a feeding trough—in a town whose name, Bethlehem, translates as “house of bread”—was still feeding his sheep as he made his way toward the cross to redeem the world from sin and evil.

That redemption was not only for the Jewish people; it was for all nations. In this redemption, God’s promise to Abraham was completed. From the nation that began as Abraham’s family, on the land that God promised to Abraham, all the families of the earth were blessed with the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, and victory over all God’s enemies. Thanks be to God! J.

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Christ in Genesis

My writing project for 2016 was a series of studies of Christ in Genesis. I want to publish it all in one place, but now that I have time to work with it, WordPress is being uncooperative. Therefore, as one reader asked, here are links to the twenty-two pieces of the work as published.
Introduction

  1. In the Beginning
  2. In the Garden
  3. A Tale of Two Trees
  4. The Better Garment
  5. Confession and Promise
  6. Raising Cain, Raising Abel
  7. Noah, the Ark, and the Flood
  8. The Tower of Babel
  9. The Promise to Abraham
  10. Melchizedek
  11. Abraham, the Father of Faith
  12. Miracle Babies, and the Rights of the Firstborn
  13. The Sacrifice
  14. The Bride
  15. Birthright and Blessing
  16. Jacob’s Ladder
  17. Wrestling with God, and Seeing the Face of God
  18. Joseph & Bros.
  19. At the Right HandAt the Right Hand
  20. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah
  21. “Am I in the Place of God?”

 

Christ in Genesis: the Bride

Isaac is a picture of Christ in at least three ways. His birth was promised in advance, just as Moses and the prophets promised the coming of Christ. Isaac’s birth to ninety-year-old Sarah was a miracle, just as Christ’s birth to the virgin Mary was a miracle. Isaac’s father was willing to sacrifice him for the good of the world, just as God the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son for the good of the world. It stands to reason, then, that the bride of Isaac should in some way resemble the Bride of Christ, the Holy Christian Church.

Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for his son Isaac and bring her to him. So also God sent prophets to prepare the way of the Lord, so that believers in the coming Savior were rescued by the same faith in Jesus that rescues Christians today. The apostles were sent to make disciples of all nations, and missionaries are still sent into the world, so that the Church will consist of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

Abraham’s servant prayed to God for help. Those who preach and proclaim God’s Word do not save sinners by their own words of persuasion. Only Jesus saves sinners; only the Holy Spirit creates saving faith through God’s Word. The servant brings the message, but only God can provide the answer.

God answers the servant’s prayer “before he had finished speaking” (Genesis 24:15). The timeless God knows what we need and what we will pray. He wants us to pray, to keep in touch with him, but he generously provides for us—even more than what we ask—because of his love for us. Missionaries sometimes find that people who never heard of Jesus or the Christian Church are somehow prepared for the message, coming to faith as soon as they learn of the person and the work of Jesus Christ.

Abraham’s servant places jewelry from Abraham upon Rebekah before he speaks to her about marrying Isaac. The members of the Christian Church are not saved from sin and evil by the good things they do for God; they are saved by the good things Jesus has done for them. We bring nothing of our own to be accepted by Jesus as his people; we bring only the works Jesus has done for us—his obedience to his Father’s will, his sacrifice on the cross as a Ransom for us, and his victorious resurrection from the dead, defeating all God’s enemies on our behalf.

Rebekah is offered no choice whether or not to be married to Isaac. The servant describes his message from Abraham, Laban and Bethuel declare that “the thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken” (Genesis 24:50-51).

Yet after she has been claimed as Isaac’s bride, she is given a choice whether she will linger in her old way of life for several days or whether she will leave immediately with Abraham’s servant to be brought to Isaac. We cannot choose to come to faith, for we were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked, following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:1-2). God made us alive, giving us faith—much as the command of Jesus made Lazarus alive and able to walk out of his tomb (John 11:43-44). Being made alive, we can linger in our old sinful ways or live in the new life provided by God’s Gospel. The prophets and apostles frequently urge people not to linger in the darkness but to walk in the light. People who are alive have freedom to make good choices or bad choices. People who are dead have no freedom.

Rebekah chooses to travel immediately to her husband, not to linger in her old way of life. So also the Bride of Christ comes to him, to the husband who “might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27). Once again, Christians do not sanctify themselves for Jesus; they are sanctified by the work of Jesus, done on their behalf.

Before they left her home and her family, Abraham’s servant “brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah” (Genesis 24:53). When they approached Abraham’s home and Rebekah first saw Isaac from a distance, “she took her veil and covered herself” (Genesis 24:65). She came to her husband in clothing that he and his father had already provided to her. As God cast away the fig-leaf clothing Adam and Eve had made and provided suitable clothing for them, so the Church and its members come to Christ clothed in the righteousness he has provided us. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Clothed in his righteousness, we are his Church. Today we are still engaged to Christ, waiting for the Bridegroom to come in all his splendor to bring us to his mansion. Already, though, we belong to him, chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) to be his people forever.

Christ in Genesis: the Sacrifice

Genesis 22 has inspired awe and horror in God’s people for many generations. Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire book, Fear and Trembling, about this chapter. He makes the interesting point that any man today who dared to imitate Abraham and prepare to offer his son as a burnt offering would be stopped, arrested, tried, and convicted of a crime. Any statement that God had told him to do such a thing would be disregarded as an attempt to obtain a verdict of innocent on the grounds of insanity.

Kierkegaard overlooked the fact that Genesis 22 contains a picture of Jesus and his sacrifice. However, Kierkegaard correctly indicated that this account teaches more than the truth that we should give our best to God. Many teachers see only that lesson—Isaac was the best thing Abraham could offer to God, and God demanded that from him. A vast distance separates our requirement to give our best to God and God’s command to Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice.

How was Abraham capable of daring to obey such a command? “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac… He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-18). Abraham’s faith in the promise of the resurrection made him able to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son. If Abraham knew about the resurrection, he must also have known about the promised Savior. Perhaps Abraham even believed that his miracle son, Isaac, was the promised Savior, the blessing from his family for the entire world. Instead of recognizing Isaac as a picture of Jesus, Abraham may have thought that he was in the presence of his Redeemer in the person of his son.

So a father is prepared to accept—and even to cause—the death of his son for the good of the world. The son trusts his father and does not resist his father’s will. He even carries the wood to the place of sacrifice, as Jesus carried his own cross. Abraham is stopped just in time, because Isaac is not the Christ. He is only a picture of the Christ. A second picture of Jesus appears, a ram taking the place of Isaac as Jesus himself would take the place of Isaac in the future.

As they climbed the hill for the sacrifice, Isaac asked Abraham, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham must have gulped and sighed before he said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” When he said those words, Abraham expected Isaac to be the lamb, for God had provided Isaac by a miracle to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham’s words were made true when he provided a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. They were made more true when God provided his only-begotten Son to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Not only is Jesus depicted first by Isaac and then by the ram; he is also present at this near-sacrifice. He is the angel of the Lord who speaks to Abraham, repeating the promise that Abraham’s family would be a mighty nation and would provide a blessing for the entire world. Jesus himself fulfilled that promise when he suffered and died on the cross and when he rose to life again on the third day. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection and our eternal life. This promise of a resurrection strengthened Abraham to obey the command of God, and (as the letter to the Hebrews says) “figuratively speaking, he did receive him back”—on the third day from the command to sacrifice his son!

Where did this take place? “The land of Moriah… on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you,” God said (Genesis 22:2). This mountain of Moriah is mentioned again in II Chronicles 3:1, where we are told that Solomon built the house of the Lord on Mount Moriah. Moriah is one of the seven hills of Jerusalem, and the animal sacrifices (which, like Isaac, were pictures of Jesus) were offered to God in the Temple on Mount Moriah from the time of Solomon until the Babylonian Captivity, and again in the second Temple until the time of Jesus. Calvary may possibly be the very outcropping of Mount Moriah on which Isaac was nearly sacrificed. If not, we can be sure that the place where Father Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and the place where God the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son were very near each other. J.

Christ in Genesis: Miracle Babies, and the Rights of the Firstborn

Some people say that every birth is a miracle. To a certain extent, I suppose that is true. There would be no babies, or flowers, or ears of corn, if not for the God who made everything in the beginning and who still provides for his creation every day. But when everything is a miracle, then nothing is miraculous. When a baby enters the world in the usual way, we thank God for the new life. When a baby enters the world in a special way, we marvel at the miracle.

God told Abraham that his family would become a mighty nation, but Abraham and Sarah had no children. When God first spoke his promise, Abraham was seventy-five years old, and Sarah was sixty-five. As the years passed, neither of them was getting any younger. Twice Abraham tried to help God keep God’s promise. First, Abraham proposed to adopt Eliezer, his chief servant, as his heir. Later, at Sarah’s suggestion, he used her servant Hagar as a surrogate mother. Both times, God said no to Abraham. The promised heir would be born from Sarah, in a manner that would be undoubtedly a miracle.

Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born. Only God could cause such a thing to happen. To underline the point, God repeated this miracle every few generations. Manoah’s wife could have no children until Jesus appeared to her and promised a son, who was Samson, the mighty man of Israel. Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, could have no children until she prayed to the Lord for a son, who was Samuel, the last judge of Israel. Elisabeth, the wife of the priest Zechariah, was too old to have children, but Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and promised him a son, who was John the Baptist.

All these miracles happened to prepare God’s people for a different kind of miracle. Isaiah told King Ahaz about the coming miracle: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). While it is true that the word translated “virgin” could simply mean “young woman” in Hebrew, it is also true that the word always designated an unmarried woman. Other words were appropriate for unmarried women who were not virgins. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5). Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

Because Abraham did not trust God to keep God’s promise without Abraham’s help, Ishmael was born before Isaac. In Deuteronomy, it is written: “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his” (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Clearly this was written long after Ishmael and Isaac were born, but many ancient civilizations had similar rules. A man’s firstborn son was always to be his primary heir, receiving at least twice as much as any other son.

In Abraham’s family, this rule is repeatedly broken. God favors Isaac over Ishmael, even when Abraham pleads for Ishmael, the firstborn son. God favors Jacob over Esau, even though Esau was born first. Jacob favors Joseph, the son of his favorite wife, over all of Joseph’s brothers, most of whom were older than Joseph. Joseph even receives a double portion in his inheritance; instead one tribe of Joseph, there are two: the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Meanwhile, the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is passed down to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob. When Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, he gives priority to Ephraim, even though Manasseh was Joseph’s firstborn son.

How is Christ pictured by this anomaly? Jesus Christ is eternally the Son of God the Father; the rights of the firstborn belong to him. Yet he entered the world to provide for our adoption as sons. Jesus trades places with us, taking on himself the guilt of our sins and paying our penalty, while granting to us the rewards he deserves. This is why we are all adopted as sons (not “children,” or, “sons and daughters”). God looks at each of us and sees the righteousness of his Son. He says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my Son. You are the One I love. With you I am well pleased.” The ancestors of Jesus acted out this adoption as, again and again, the firstborn was set aside so a brother could receive the blessing, not by law or because of law, but because of grace.

Christ in Genesis: Abraham, the Father of Faith

Abraham is called the Father of Faith. The apostle Paul and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews both stress the faith of Abraham, the fact that he trusted God even when the son God had promised appeared increasingly unlikely every year. The two actions that demonstrate Abraham’s faith are these: in obedience to God, he traveled to Canaan; and, in obedience to God, he prepared to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering.

Between these two acts of faith, probably more than thirty years apart, Abraham often demonstrated the weakness of his faith. During a time of famine, Abraham left Canaan and traveled to Egypt, evidently doubting that God would take care of him during the famine. In Egypt, he persuaded Sarah to call herself his sister rather than his wife, evidently doubting that God would protect Abraham and his family in Egypt. Although he believed that God would provide him a son, he also tried to help God keep this promise. First, he suggested that he would adopt his servant Eliezer to produce a son for God. Later, he accepted Sarah’s suggestion that her maid Hagar be a surrogate mother to produce a son for God. God had to insist to Abraham that neither Eliezer nor Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Hagar) was the promised son. Then, in the land of Gerar, Abraham once more persuaded Sarah to say that she was his sister, not his wife, evidently still doubting that God would protect Abraham and his family from the power of King Abimelech.

One day Jesus and two angels were traveling towards Sodom, and they stopped at the tent of Abraham. Abraham recognized Jesus and insisted that the group stay for a meal. He ordered a calf slaughtered and fresh bread made, and Jesus and the angels enjoyed his hospitality. During the meal, Jesus told Abraham that by that time next year, Sarah would have a son. Sarah overheard the promise and laughed, but when Jesus asked why she was laughing she lied and said, “I didn’t laugh.”

After Jesus had sent the angels to Sodom, Jesus told Abraham that he was investigating Sodom and that he would destroy the city if things were as bad there as he had heard. Abraham knew how bad things were in Sodom, and so he began to bargain with God (always the sign of a weak faith). He had Jesus promise not to destroy Sodom if fifty righteous people were living there. Then, step by step, Abraham worked his way down to ten righteous people. Each time Jesus agreed, even though Jesus knew that not a single person in Sodom was righteous. Knowing the intention of Abraham’s prayer, Jesus did something Abraham hadn’t asked: he had the angels remove Lot and his family from the city before burning sulfur fell from the sky to destroy Sodom and the sinners who lived there.

Abraham’s faith was weak, but it still was saving faith, because it was faith in the right God. Our faith can be as weak as Abraham’s faith. We say we believe God’s promises, and then we do things our way rather than his way. We say we believe his promises, and then we struggle to make them come true by our efforts. We say we believe his promises, and then we try to bargain with God instead of trusting that his will is good. Yet when we put our trust in God, even though our faith is weak, God saves us by his grace through faith. Abraham is our father because we are like him: clinging to Christ with a feeble faith, but saved all the same by the strength of Christ’s work. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Promise to Abraham

When Abraham is introduced in the book of Genesis, one of the first things we learn about him is that God has made him a promise. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Abraham does not earn God’s blessing by traveling to Canaan as God commanded. The blessing is a gift, unearned, and Abraham’s journey is a result of the blessing, not a cause of the blessing. Over the years, God repeats his blessing to Abraham, also to Isaac, and to Jacob. He says it different ways on different occasions, but generally it comes in three parts: Abraham’s family will become a great nation, they will live on the land to which God sent Abraham, and from that nation on that land will come a blessing for the entire world.

Abraham had to wait twenty-five years for a beginning to the first part of the blessing. Isaac was not born until Abraham was one hundred years old. Isaac did not marry for another forty years, and then he had two sons. His son Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter. The family had grown to seventy members by the time they moved to Egypt. When they left Egypt several generations later, the Israelites included 603,550 men of fighting age, as well as children, women, and the elderly.

They returned to the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and land became a very important part of God’s covenant with the Israelites. Each of the tribes of Israel was assigned a certain portion of land, carefully described in the book of Joshua—except the tribe of Levi was given no land. The Law of Moses ordered strict punishment upon anyone who tried to steal land by moving a boundary stone. Land could not be sold; families in debt could rent out use of their land for a time, but they would receive their land again at the next Jubilee Year, which came every fifty years.

Generally when the Romans conducted a census, they simply went door-to-door, counting the members of each household and collecting a tax. The Jews made this census more complicated than anyone else in the Empire. Joseph (and many others like him) was determined to be counted at his family’s land rather than at his current residence; so Joseph took Mary his espoused wife and traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, because Joseph was a descendant of King David. David had many other descendants who wanted to be counted in Bethlehem, so the inn (more of a guest room than a motel) was full, and Mary and Joseph had to take shelter in a cave, one that generally was used to shelter sheep. There Mary gave birth to her firstborn, the ultimate Son of David, who was swaddled and placed in a manger. According to the Law of Moses and the prophecy of Micah, the Son of David was required to be born in Bethlehem to inherit his kingdom.

Jesus is, of course, the blessing for the entire word who came from the family of Abraham on the land that had been promised to Abraham. He was born to inherit a kingdom and to win a victory. His victory was not over King Herod or the Romans. His victory was over all the forces of evil, including sin and death. His kingdom was for all people, not just for the Jews. John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostle Paul all insisted that the children of Abraham are all those who share the faith of Abraham in God’s promises, not necessarily those who can trace their family tree back to Abraham.

God affirmed his promise to Abraham several times. In Genesis 15 God commanded a ceremony involving several animals that were cut in half. I have read that this ceremony represented a form of covenant that was practiced in western Asia three thousand years ago. Generally two people making an agreement would walk between the halves of a slaughtered animal. In this case, Jesus walks alone (with a fire pot and a torch) between the halves, showing again that the fulfillment of the promise depended upon Jesus entirely and not upon Abraham in any way.

When Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God gave another ceremony to Abraham and to his family: the ceremony of circumcision. A small bit of skin was snipped away from the most vulnerable part of a man’s body. Some pain was felt, and a little blood was shed. For the rest of his life, that man had a private reminder of his relationship with God. Babies born into the family, if they were male, were circumcised on the eighth day (the same day of the week that he had been born). Jesus was circumcised in this way, shedding a little blood to foreshadow the blood he would shed more than thirty years later in the battle that won the victory.

Abraham never owned any of the land where he lived, except for a cemetery he bought when his wife died. His descendants claimed that land under Joshua when they battled the Canaanites with the help of God. When they were unfaithful to God, they lost control of the land to Midianites and Philistines and other enemies. This was God’s judgment upon his people for their sins. As their sins grew worse, God called the Assyrians and the Babylonians to remove the people from the land; but because of his promise of a blessing for the entire world, God called the Persians to send the Jews back to the Promised Land. God’s Promise is always bigger than his Judgment.

God always keeps his promises. The accounts of Abraham and his family cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the promises of God. J.