by John W. Ritenbaugh
March 13, 2008
It is the purpose of this series based in Hebrews 11 to make us more acutely aware of the reality of God and of His purpose. It is important for us to understand clearly the legal, spiritual, and experiential ramifications of His calling. Further, we need to be prepared to make the very best use of His calling—not merely to be "in His Kingdom," but to glorify Him and earn a greater reward.
Last time, we learned that II Corinthians 6:1 warns us that we can receive the grace of God in vain, that is, to no good end, without accomplishing anything. What if Noah, after receiving God's grace and warning, decided that the project God had given him was too much bother, too big, and besides, who could fathom that much rain? No work would have meant no ark—and no deliverance from the Flood!
To what does Paul specifically refer in this verse? The prior verse, II Corinthians 5:21, tells us: "That we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." The key word for this series is "made," indicating creation. Noah made or created an ark that proved the means of his deliverance from his end-time tribulations. We are working with God to be created in Christ Jesus, to be made in His spiritual character image. As with Noah, this creation will prove to be the means of deliverance from our end-time tribulations.
Hebrews 11:8 says, "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going." Previous articles covered the first three examples of the uses of faith in the Christian's life: Abel, Enoch, and Noah.
Abel's example illustrates justification by faith in Christ's blood. Enoch takes us a step further, into the sanctification period, revealing the basic nature of the life of faith. Once a person is justified, he is to walk with God throughout his life and at the same time to continue to seek Him. Noah's example, in one sense, witnesses to us of the entire package by adding more specifically what a Christian should do during his walk with God. He works, cooperating with God and carrying out His assignments, and in addition, he is delivered from destruction and rewarded.
In all three cases, God's calling, which set them apart from others, was assumed. Also in each case, the application of faith is foundational and broadly general to all of us. Each Christian is required to use faith to seek God diligently and persistently in order to make the best use of his calling. This seeking is, not to find Him, but to be like Him. Hebrews 11:8 begins a section in which Paul focuses on examples of more specific uses of faith. The first example highlights Abraham's calling.
Father of the Faithful
The Bible devotes a great deal of space to Abraham. His name appears 311 times in Scripture: the first time in Genesis 11:26, the last in I Peter 3:6. In other words, his example spans nearly the whole Bible. He is first seen as the father of Israel, the nation through which God chose to work. This is significant because—following the revelation of the sources of all the peoples on earth in Genesis 10 and the beginning of anti-God Babylon in Genesis 11—God's work among mankind has been limited almost exclusively to Abraham's descendants. He is the forefather of those through whom God works.
More significantly, in the New Testament, God designates him as the father of the faithful. Paul writes in Galatians 3:29, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." Romans 4:11, 13 confirms this:
And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also. . . . For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
Abraham is the father of the physical nation God elected to work in and through, and he is also the father of those He calls to be part of His forming spiritual nation. Appreciating Abraham as the father of the physical nation is easy, but seeing him as father of the spiritual nation is not so simple, as we are more apt to think that, because God begets us, He is our spiritual Father. We must therefore see Abraham's spiritual fatherhood in a different light.
The Jews of Jesus' day did not grasp Abraham's spiritual fatherhood correctly. Jesus gives the answer to this perplexing title in John 8, where a great deal of the dialogue involves ancestry.
"And yet if I do judge, My judgment is true; for I am not alone, but I am with the Father who sent Me. . . . I am One who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me." They said to Him, 'Where is Your Father?" Jesus answered, "You know neither Me nor My Father. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also." . . . Then Jesus said to them, "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things. And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him." (verses 16, 18-19, 28-29)
Abraham's spiritual fatherhood soon becomes the focus of Jesus' instruction:
They answered Him, "We are Abraham's descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, 'You will be made free'?" . . . "I know that you are Abraham's descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father." They answered and said to Him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this." (John 8:33, 37-40)
Members of the same family bear a likeness to one another. It is this principle that designates who is a spiritual child of Abraham. It is not a matter of physical resemblance but a similarity of moral and spiritual attitude and behavior. Christ designates that resemblance to be believing God as Abraham did, as well as doing the works that he did. In the larger picture, a spiritual descendant of Abraham will grow and overcome, gradually changing into the spiritual image of Jesus Christ.
The factor that set Abraham apart above all others was that faith drove, motivated, inspired, and guided—sometimes dramatically—what he did with his life. Thus, Abraham is not only the physical progenitor of Israelites but also the spiritual, moral pattern that his descendants are to conform to.
Regarding Abraham's faith in Hebrews 11:8, Paul first draws attention to the fact that, when God called Abram, as he was called then, he obeyed without knowing where he was to go. His reference is to Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the Lord had said to Abram: "Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
He had to leave his country, which was essentially Babylon; his family, meaning his ethnic kindred, the Semitic people; and his house, his near relatives. Verse 4 implies that he did not dilly-dally around, waiting for further or more specific directions, but that he responded quickly. It is not said how the Lord appeared to him. Perhaps He appeared to him physically, which would explain his quick departure.
Maybe God prepared him beforehand by revealing His existence to Abram, and this brought about social circumstances that added to Abram's urgency. In other words, God provided proof of His existence, which led to Abram receiving a measure of persecution in reaction to what he was learning. This is not unusual for God to do; He often provides incentive by leading a person through experiences in preparation for a more formal calling later.
Two Distinctive Callings
It is helpful to understand that God provides two distinct callings for every person on earth. The first is quite general, and everybody rejects it regardless of how religious he might be. Solomon writes in Proverbs 8:1-4:
Does not wisdom cry out, and understanding lift up her voice? She takes her stand on the top of the high hill, beside the way, where the paths meet. She cries out by the gates, at the entry of the city, at the entrance of the doors: "To you, O men, I call, and my voice is to the sons of men."
Here, the wisdom of God, personified as a woman, claims that the knowledge of God is readily available to mankind. Proverbs 1:20-26 affirms this:
Wisdom calls aloud outside; she raises her voice in the open squares. She cries out in the chief concourses, at the openings of the gates in the city she speaks her words: "How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity? For scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge. Turn at my rebuke: surely I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, I have stretched out my hand and no one regarded, because you disdained all my counsel and would have none of my rebuke, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your terror comes."
Again, God's wisdom is personified, and her testimony is that no one paid attention. All of mankind "disdained all my counsel, and would have none of my rebuke." With this in mind, recall what Paul writes in Romans 1:18-20:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and [divine nature], so that they are without excuse.
In other words, no man can stand before God and claim that he turned away from Him because God never provided any understanding of, not only His existence, but also many details of His power and works among men. How is this possible? Apart from the reality of creation, one reason is the ready availability of the Bible. Into how many languages and dialects have men translated it? Nearly everyone on earth can read or hear it in his own tongue!
Romans 2:14-15 presents yet another claim of God that blocks mankind's excuses:
. . . for when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thought accusing, or else excusing them. . . .
Deep within everyone, regardless of race or location, is a God-given awareness, a consciousness, not only of His existence, but even of some of the basics of what He requires, things written in God's biblical law. Despite all of this evidence, we universally reject Him. So thorough is mankind's rejection of God that, when He came as a man, we killed Him!
Our Distinctive Calling and Election
Matthew 20:16 adds a factor that we need to understand: "So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen." In a sense, everybody is called to recognize God through the natural world, but the word "chosen" shows that God must personally rescue us from our self-centered blindness. Using the term "elect," Titus 1:1 reinforces the idea that God separates some few from the many who are called: "Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God's elect. . . ."
Romans 9:11, 14-16 confirms God's active participation in this process of separation:
. . . (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls). . . . What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
Satan has done his work so well that even God declares that he "deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9). Thus, God mercifully separates some away from their blindness. He directly and personally favors a small number for His purposes. Jesus tells us in John 6:44 that no one can come to Him unless the Father draws him. Many other scriptures show that God personally separates a few from the masses of humanity for His purposes.
"Election" is the noun form of the verb "to elect." To elect means "to select, pick, choose, determine, or separate." Romans 9:11 tells us that God personally determines whom He will favor for His purposes. In the example Paul uses, He favored Jacob, but the same is true of all whom God calls.
Such people are named the "elect" in the Bible. Romans 11:5, 7, 28 clarifies this term further by revealing that "elect" becomes the title of a distinct people.
Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. . . . What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. . . . Concerning the gospel [Israelites] are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers.
The "chosen" and "elect" are synonymous terms designating the group God is personally working with through Jesus Christ. In Matthew 24:24, the term "elect" appears, as it almost always does, as a favorable reference. However, we need to realize that elect does not mean "better than others," though it certainly implies one more blessed because of something for which God is completely responsible.
He Who Has Ears to Hear
Jesus declares in John 5:25, "Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live." His declaration is interesting because the subject directly involves a resurrection, and it is also tied to a vital process that sets the elect apart. The key words in this verse are "hear" and "dead."
We need to add a thought from Ephesians 2:1: "And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins." Before God's calling, even though we were physically alive, we were spiritually dead because of sin. However, John 5:25 says that the dead "hear" His voice. Similarly, those who are spiritually dead cannot "hear" God's Word until they are called, made part of the elect, and enabled by God to hear and thus understand His Word clearly.
Another important factor appears in Hebrews 10:38: "The just shall live by faith." Also, Ephesians 2:8 says that we are "saved by grace through faith." Romans 10:17 adds, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." Finally, in John 6:63, Jesus clinches the point: "The words that I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life." (This series of verses is a partial overview of the doctrine that theologians call regeneration, which means "beginning life again." It, in turn, evolves into the "born again" doctrine.)
This linkage of truths makes vitally clear the importance of the calling and election by God. His enabling of us to "hear" is what begins to sweep away the spiritual blindness that has kept us ignorant of the purpose He is working out here below. This miracle of hearing gives rise to truly effective faith. It makes God's Word truly logical and believable, making commitment in obedience to His purpose possible.
Yet, what if a person cannot "hear" what God is saying? None of these saving elements comes to pass in life because no faith is produced!
Jesus utters another awesome, humbling truth in John 10:3-4, 6, 16:
"To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice." . . . Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them. . . . "And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd."
He describes our calling and relationship with our Shepherd—Himself—in intimate and personal terms. "He calls them by name." He personally leads them out of their pen, a symbol of the world in which we are held captive, enslaved, and spiritually dead. Conversely, verse 6 plainly depicts the spiritual condition of the uncalled: They did not understand. God had not enabled them because He was not calling them to be a part of His purpose at that time. Thus, the miracle that opens our minds so we could "hear" was not performed on them.
Romans 8:30 adds another startling truth: "Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and who He justified, these He also glorified." Only the called are justified! Justification through repentance and the atoning blood of Jesus Christ is what permits us into the presence of God, enabling further growth to glorification in God's Kingdom!
Paul writes in I Corinthians 1:26-27:
For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.
Even a cursory evaluation of the called shows that, according to the flesh, they have nothing to commend them before God. I Peter 2:9-10 further defines the state of the called:
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.
God's calling is a humbling act of sovereign grace in which our minds, our spirits, are aroused into an awareness of God, His truths, His importance, and His purpose that they never had before. We may have been religious prior to our calling, but not in the special way we are now. This awareness is combined with a God-given reverence for Him and a motivation to seek Him according to the patterns He provides to the called.
Never before would we have even thought to do things like keep the Sabbath and the holy days, tithe, pray, or fellowship with the brethren. Our understanding of the Bible is opened in a way and to a degree of importance that we never desired or even imagined. An awareness of the specifics of sins begins to dawn on our minds, and a consciousness of guilt rises to a level we never before experienced. Jesus Christ and what He was, did, and presently is become burned into our mind so that we yearn to meet Him.
Most of the entire package of God and His way that we now perceive as logical and sensible—which the unconverted consider strange, to be avoided, and even to persecute at times—results from His choosing to give us grace.
"Look to Abraham, Your Father"
"Listen to Me, you who follow after righteousness, you who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for I called him alone, and blessed him and increased him." For the Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in it, thanksgiving and the voice of melody. "Listen to Me, My people; and give ear to Me, O My nation: For law will proceed from Me, and I will make My justice rest as a light of the peoples. My righteousness is near, and My salvation has gone forth, and My arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands will wait upon Me, and on My arm they will trust. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath. For the heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner; but My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will not be abolished. Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law: Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation from generation to generation."
Isaiah is looking down the corridor of time, knowing that surely a time is coming when the earth will be no more. Through him, God urges the spiritual children of Abraham and Sarah to look to their forebears for instruction. Why? Because now is the time for those who seek righteousness to take advantage of what God has given. He appeals to us to consider our lives by looking back to what God has recorded regarding Abraham and Sarah. During God's work with them, He established foundational patterns for a life of faith.
In the story of Abraham and Sarah, we can learn much and gather a great deal of practical, spiritual understanding about our experiences in the relationship with Him and with the Family He is busily creating. Learning such things is essential because He requires our cooperation in this creative work. This is exactly what Paul is doing by using the examples of Abel, Enoch, Noah, and now Abraham. With Abraham and Sarah, the Bible provides far more information for us to work with, so it is easier to apply it to our lives.
Abraham's Carnal Religious Roots
The first element of Abraham's life that Paul draws upon is his calling. Joshua 24:2-3 reveals the geographical location of Abraham's family:
And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River [Euphrates] in old times; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from the other side of the River, [and] led him throughout all the land of Canaan. . . .'"
When Abraham was called, he was literally living in Babylon on the plain of Shinar in the city of Ur. He did not come from a God-fearing family, and there is no evidence that he was converted at the time of Genesis 12:1. Every indication is that he, too, was a heathen. As we shall see, every called person begins in idolatry.
God had in all likelihood begun to work with him, preparing him for his calling by guiding his thinking to begin to question areas of life he had previously accepted without question. Historical traditions indicate that his family was of a priestly caste, and perhaps he was already questioning the validity of the false gods he served.
Acts 7:2-4 clarifies a few things relating to the early period of his calling:
And [Stephen] said, "Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, 'Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.' Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell."
What is included in God's appearance is not known. Whether it was literal, in a vision, or by dream is not explained anywhere else. The element we need to understand is that, as with us, Abraham did not earn his calling. He had done nothing to earn or deserve God's notice.
Isaiah 51:2, which we saw above, adds a further piece of information worth considering: "Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for I called him alone, and blessed him and increased him." While Sarah is at least mentioned, no other family members are included within the scope of this statement. It appears that several members of Abraham's family depended on him, since much of his family left with him, yet God makes clear that Abraham was the only one spiritually called.
To how many of us has a similar thing happened? Why does this happen? Nobody knows! It is unanswerable. God shows mercy to whom He shows mercy. He loves Jacob but loves Esau less by comparison, despite their being twins. He accepts Abel and rejects Cain. He chooses only Noah among millions of others to whom He could have given grace.
This we know: At some time before leaving Babylon, God became a living reality to Abraham to a degree no one else near and dear to him experienced. Even amidst his personal self-seeking and self-pleasing, he was motivated to leave his set routines of life. It must have been similar to what Job experienced when he said, "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You" (Job 42:5).
Whether the opening of Abraham's mind was gradual or sudden, God had graciously revealed Himself enough to make him move, and he did so to the extent of leaving his homeland and journeying over 1,200 miles, probably on foot or at best by donkey or cart, to a land known for violent weather, especially for its high temperatures.
Abraham was already 70 years old, yet he severed virtually every relationship that matters to normal human concepts of life and well-being. For a long time, stability became a thing of the past, considering that he never again dwelt in a home with foundations. This may seem an unusually hard and harsh requirement. Nevertheless, he embarked on a journey into an utterly unknown future.
What can we learn from this God-engineered example? Undoubtedly, He was testing Abraham, a process we should expect a measure of in our calling as well. We may never have to leave our homeland and set out on a long journey without knowing where we are headed, but it is highly likely that disruptions will accompany our calling.
A primary instruction God wants us to understand from Abraham's calling is that we must make a complete break from our old lives. We must clearly begin to sever ourselves from the old, "inner" life that was implanted in our character by our living according to the course of this world (Ephesians 2:2). II Corinthians 5:14-17 adds these thoughts:
For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
Paul describes what happened to Abraham and must happen to us. Abraham's mind—and therefore his life—was so arrested and redirected by God's revelation of Himself that he responded dramatically, despite the realization that he could no longer live as he had for 70 years. He had to make changes, and some of them would be considerable and costly.
He could no longer live completely for himself. He no longer perceived people as he had all his life. He especially could no longer perceive his new God and Savior as He formerly had. A new man was being created from within, so he had to make a clean and permanent break from his old life. His life now had a new Object toward which he must walk. His life had a new direction, a new relationship, new desires, and new requirements to fulfill.
We must never forget that Abraham was a special case; he is the prototype who set a vivid, overall example for all his spiritual children to follow to some degree. There were bumps along the way; at times, he fell short of the ideal. Yet, on the whole, he did nothing less than set a superb example for all of us.