Most of us remember long boring road-trips during our childhood. Before the day of portable DVD players, iPods, and Nintendo 3DS’s there wasn’t much to do apart from read or count cars.
Not being much of a reader then, car-counting was my thing. One of the games my twin brother and I used to play was to see who could spot the most models of our own car on the road. It always amazed me how many there were when you started looking.
But there was a time when there was only one. Before the assembly line started rolling out thousands of Ford Cortinas, there was one, the prototype that all the others were modeled upon.
That’s how Abraham is set before us in the Bible; he’s a prototype of all other believers. Although there were believers before Abraham (e.g. Abel, Enoch, Noah, etc.), God presents him as the prototype believer, the one that all subsequent believers are to model themselves on (Rom. 4; Gal. 3).
So, what was exemplary about Abraham’s faith? I’d like to highlight two key features from the last few verses of Romans 4:
His faith diminished obstacles and difficulties.
God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Aged 99, he was still not a father. Indeed, Romans 4 tells us that the child-producing part of his body was already dead, as was his 91-year-old wife’s womb. These were huge obstacles in the way of fulfilling this promise.
But Abraham “did not consider” this double deadness (Rom. 4:19). That does not mean that he ignored the difficulties or that he denied reality. That’s not faith; that’s stupidity. Rather, “did not consider,” means that although he saw and understood the difficulties very clearly, he did not let what he saw and understood determine what he believed.
Faith does not ignore difficulties but rather shrinks them. Faith is like a filter, or a lens, which changes the way we view the world. It reduces the size of difficulties and magnifies the size of God’s promises.
His faith depended on God’s promise.
Paul also tells us that Abraham did not waver or stagger at the promise of God through unbelief (Rom. 4:20). But what promise did Abraham believe? Well, Abraham is given the same promise three times, each time with a slightly different wording: “ I will make you a great nation” (Gen. 12:2); “Count the stars if you are able to number them…so shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5); “You shall be a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4). It’s the latter wording of the promise that’s referred to twice in Romans 4:17-18.
But that doesn’t sound like the Gospel, does it?!
So how can Abraham be a prototype of saving faith if he believed something different to us? If Abraham just believed a promise that he was going to be a daddy with lots of grandchildren, that seems very different to believing the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins, doesn’t it.
Well, the good news is that Abraham did believe the Gospel, the same Gospel as we do. And we have no less a theologian than the Apostle Paul to confirm this: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).
That certainly preserves Abraham’s prototypical and exemplary position for us. He and we believe the same Gospel.
But the question still remains: “How?” How did Abraham believe the Gospel? Where is the Gospel in that promise: “In you all the nations shall be blessed” or any other version of it?
The answer lies in remembering a prior promise. In Genesis 3:15, God promised that he would send a descendent of Eve to crush the devil’s head. Subsequent believers kept hoping that their child would be that appointed one who would bless the dying world with new life (Gen 4:25; 5:29).
So, when Abraham received the promise that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed, that he would be the father of many nations, he put the two promises together and believed that one of his descendants, perhaps even his first child, would be the one who would crush the devil, and bring life-giving, life-multiplying blessing to the world.
In summary, though the vocabulary was different, in essence Abraham’s faith was the same as ours, that is, Messiah-centered.
There was a difference in clarity (he saw in the shadows, whereas we see in the light) and in direction (he looked forward, whereas we look back), but the core, the essence, the focus was the same. His faith wrapped itself around the promised Satan-crushing, world-blessing, life-giving Seed, just as ours does. And the result is also the same – He believed in the Lord and it was credited to him for righteousness.
Great stuff! That’s that sorted then, isn’t it?
Or is it? Paul says Abraham “staggered not, “did not waver,” at the promise of God?
Eh, what about Hagar? And did he not lie about his wife being his sister – twice? Sounds like he’s staggering and wavering all over the place. How can Paul commend Abraham’s unstaggering and unwavering faith as a prototype for ours?
We’ll answer that question tomorrow.