I don’t like waiting for things, and I don’t like making people wait for anything either. A period of waiting causes one to doubt whether something is really going to happen or not. Like, I’m still waiting for that Baltimore Orioles scout who saw me pitch four shutout innings against Rutgers 41 years ago to give me a call like he promised. I’m beginning to doubt if it’s ever going to happen, and I’m fearing I might have lost a few miles per hour on my fastball.
This week we are going to talk about someone who did a lot of waiting, and about a God who is not opposed to making his people wait. Our focus is upon Abraham as illustrative of the theme of declared or imputed righteousness.
To understand our primary passage of focus in Romans 4, we need to recall the background story of the man who is often seen as the ultimate paragon of faith — Abram, or as he was to be known, Abraham.
On most fronts, Abram’s life was going pretty well in Ur and Harran where he lived with varied extended family. There were no children for he and Sarah, but the rest of life was marked by success in material things and the accoutrements of life. We don’t know much of the nature of his faith prior to God’s selection of him, though we know he came from an idolatrous family. He may well have been that himself early in life, but God called him and continued to call him. And God’s calling is generally not much oriented to what a person offers, but is rather according to God’s pleasure in choosing whom he is going to use. It’s a grace thing for sure.
Abram was called (actually first at an earlier time when living in Ur), and the record tells us that he acknowledged God and obeyed, even though it meant a change from everything he knew as familiar.
Genesis 12:1 — The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
This 12th chapter of Genesis gives us what we speak of as the Abrahamic Covenant. God made three promises: that Abram’s name would be great, that he would make a great nation of him, and that all the earth would be blessed through him.
Cool! So, you would think that at ages 75 and 65 (Sarah) that God would get right to work on that building a family thing, right? No time to lose, that’s for sure! But then another 11 years go by, and no family. Now we are in Genesis 15 …
15:1 — After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
With no children, the custom of the day would be for the primary household servant to gain the estate as his own, in this case a guy named Eleazer. Here is an example where the original language in Hebrew throws in a play on words that has a ring of humor to it. The words for “household servant” and “son-heir” sound much alike and rhyme. It would be like saying, “this hired dude I’m paying now is going to be the retired dude who is paid ALL my stuff when I’m gone.”
But God said that this would not be so, rather it would be someone of his own posterity. Man, if it took extra faith 11 years earlier, it took 11 more years of faith to believe it now. But Abraham in verse six did believe, and it was put to his credit as righteousness — the “stuff” that is needed to be eternally in right relationship with God.
But Abram still heard no babies crying. He was wandering around with his sheep as a nomad, living in tents, with God telling him that he was going to inherit all of the land around him. So you can understand why, even while believing, Abraham would request an affirmation of his faith.
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
The act of cutting sacrifices into pieces and halving them was a means of verifying a covenant. Those making the promise would walk between the pieces of the carcasses, symbolizing that if they broke the covenant, they would end up like the chopped-up beasts. They were essentially saying that they were staking their lives, their everything, to the oath being made. And the torch of fire passing through was God giving his word to Abram.
The other details had to have been a mixed bag of blessing for Abram. Great things were going to happen, but he himself was not going to life to see most of it. God’s plans would not find fulfillment for generations … for centuries. And in terms of the universal promises that Christ would fulfill, it would be millennia; and honestly, that continues to today in the ongoing building of the church and Christ’s kingdom.
Yes, the life of faith has a lot of waiting. And the fact is that not everything about God’s promise to any of his people is ever fulfilled fully on this earth. God’s plans and God’s program are so much bigger, and to be a part of it at all is a greatest of blessings for us.
And the way that we are a part of it is by grace through faith. It was true for Abraham, for Moses, for David, for Peter and Paul, and for all of us today. Our faith is in the merit of a reality beyond this world, but by believing and trusting in it, that merit is applied to our spiritual account.