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The blessing of Abraham: What it is and what it isn’t!

In his letters to the churches in Rome and Galatia, Paul addresses two major questions: “How can sinful human beings be reconciled to a holy God?” And “On what basis are human beings justified in the sight of God?” Paul makes it clear that, in his view, faith in Jesus and his redemptive work is the basis on which we are declared righteous, rather than obeying the Torah (the law of Moses).

To support this assertion, Paul cites the example of Abraham, who, as an uncircumcised Gentile, “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Gal 3.6). For Paul, Abraham is both the precedent and the prototype of those who put their trust in Jesus. The kind of faith that Abraham demonstrated when God promised to make him and his descendants a great nation and an instrument of blessing (Gen 12.1-3; 15.1-6), is the kind of faith we are called to exercise when we hear the message about Jesus’ death and resurrection (Rom 4.16-25).

In Galatians, Paul refers to “the blessing of Abraham coming upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.14). Once again, it is clear that in Paul’s mind, the blessing that Abraham received was an imputation of righteousness or a declaration of right standing with God on the basis of trust in God’s irrefutable promises.

The ‘prosperity gospel', which has emanated from the so-called ‘faith movement’, would have us believe that the blessing of Abraham has to do with the accumulation of material assets. The late great Pentecostal scholar, Gordon Fee, called this “the disease of the health and prosperity gospel”.

In actual fact, the blessing of Abraham, as defined by Paul in Galatians and Romans, has nothing whatsoever to do with wealth and material possessions and everything to do with the one thing money can’t buy — acquittal from guilt, the forgiveness of sin, and right-standing with God!

Jesus said, “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Luke 9.25). Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy the salvation of your soul! On the other hand, right-standing with God is a gift that is extended to us through God’s grace on the basis of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I can hear people say, “But what about the Scripture that says Abraham was very rich in livestock, silver, and gold (Gen 13.2). Wasn’t that due to the blessing of God? And what about the verse that says the Lord blessed Abraham in all things (Gen 24.1)? Doesn’t that mean things like flocks of sheep, caches of precious metals, and vast tracts of land?

To answer these questions, let’s have a closer look at Abraham’s family history.

Where did Abraham’s wealth come from?

Abram was born at a time of intense spiritual darkness. Approximately 400 years had elapsed since the great flood and the re-establishment of human civilisation through Noah and his sons. Men had become worshippers of false gods, erecting altars to supposed deities in the heavens and on the earth. Even Abram’s father, Terah, “served other gods” in the land of Mesopotamia (Josh 24.2).

At some point, God called Abram to leave the cities of Ur and Haran which were dominated by the cult of the moon god Nanna. In obedience to the word of the Lord, “Abram took Sarai, his wife and Lot, his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan” (Gen 12.5). Based on this Scripture, it would appear that Abram was already a wealthy man before the Lord called him to embark on his journey of faith.

After Abram arrived in Canaan, the Lord appeared to him and said, “To your descendants, I will give this land.” In response, Abram built an altar to the Lord. However, faced with the prospect of famine and the need to provide for his community of relatives and servants, Abram panicked and went down to Egypt. In the figurative language of Scripture, Egypt symbolises a world system that is under the control of the evil one. Thus, “going down to Egypt” signifies dependence on natural means and natural methods rather than the Spirit of God.

For this reason, the prophet Isaiah warned, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many, and in horsemen because they are very strong, but who do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the Lord!” (Isa 31.1). God didn’t tell Abram to go down to Egypt; he made this decision in a moment of weakness, fearing that if he stayed in Canaan, both he and his household would perish.

Once Abram stepped out of the will of God and started acting on the instinct of self-preservation, things deteriorated very quickly. Fearing that the Egyptians would seize his wife Sarai and make her a concubine of the Pharaoh and dispose of him, Abram concocted a plan to pass her off as his sister. Whilst this was partly true insofar as Sarai was his half-sister, Abram’s intention was to deceive the Egyptians in order to save his own life.

It would appear that Abram had little concern about the honour and dignity of his wife; his sole focus was on his own survival. Simply put, it was an act of cowardice, cruelty, and duplicity. And guess what? Abram made a handsome profit in the bargain! Pharaoh bestowed gifts on Abram as a dowry for Sarai: sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels (Gen 12.16).

However, God was not well pleased with Pharaoh or Abram. The Lord sent plagues on Pharaoh’s house because of the presence of Sarai, prompting Pharaoh to return her to Abram with the retort, “Here is your wife, take her and get out of my land!” (Gen 12.19). Tellingly, the Scripture appends the following epitaph to this sad digression: “They sent him away, with his wife, and all that he had.” Note the phrase, “all that he had.” It is repeated in verse one of chapter thirteen and is pivotal to our understanding of the source of Abram’s wealth:

Then Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, to the Negev. Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he went on his journey from the South as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar which he had made there at first. And there Abram called on the name of the Lord. (Gen 13.1-4).

Notwithstanding his spiritual impoverishment, Abram came up from Egypt with a truckload of riches. However, to attribute the wealth that Abram accumulated in Egypt to God’s blessing, or to use this as a pretext to claim that the blessing of Abraham consists of material prosperity, is utterly preposterous. It is tantamount to a Wall Street stockbroker making millions of dollars by duplicitous means such as insider trading and then suggesting that it’s due to divine favour!

Renowned English pastor and author F. B. Meyer observed that Abram’s visit to Egypt “beyond doubt laid the foundation of the immense wealth of the family in after-time” (Abraham, Christian Literature Crusade). However, as Victor Hamilton notes in his commentary on Genesis, Abram acquired his wealth through a means other than divine blessing. Hamilton labels Abram’s wealth ‘ill-gotten’, and states that in amassing his fortune, “he lost the respect of his wife and any sense of self-respect and dignity” (New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdmans, Vol. 1, 383, 390).

God protected Abram whilst he was in Egypt, but He did not bless his deceit and cowardice. It’s important to remember that an abundance of money is not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing. If that were the case, then the drug cartel bosses in South America and the Triad bosses in Asia would be among the most highly favoured people on the planet. Jesus himself put this into perspective when he said that true life has nothing to do with possessions (Luke 12.15).

Remember, return, repeat ....

Chastised and humbled, Abram retraced his steps “to the place where his tent had been at the beginning … to the place of the altar which he had made there at first.” And in that place, Abram called on the name of the Lord, something that he had not done during his sojourn in Egypt. In New Testament parlance, that’s called ‘repentance’ …. or as the Book of Revelation puts it, “remembering from where you have fallen, returning to the love you first had for Christ, and repeating the works you used to do when you were on fire for God” (Rev 2.4-5).

Therein lies the real blessing of Abraham: being called into covenant relationship with Almighty God; being declared righteous on the basis of trust in God’s promise, and being considered a ‘friend’ or intimate spiritual partner of God.

In his prayer of intercession, Jehoshaphat called Abraham “God’s friend forever” (2 Chron 20.7), a theme picked up by the apostle James in his letter to Jewish believers in the Diaspora: “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God” (James 2.23).

Righteousness or right-standing with God is not an end itself; it is to enable us to come boldly to the throne of grace, to draw near to God with a true heart (Heb 4.16; 10.22), or as Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman, “to worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4.23-24).

The word ‘friend’ signifies more than just a casual acquaintance; rather, it suggests intimacy between two people — a mutual sharing of that which is most meaningful and personal. The depth of the relationship between God and Abraham is demonstrated in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18.17-18).

It's as if God is saying, “Can I conceal my intentions from Abraham, considering that he is my friend and we are in covenant together?” Here we see the position that Abraham enjoyed in the council of God by virtue of the righteousness that had been credited to him through faith: that of a prophet who understood the plans and purposes of God for the world (Amos 3.7), and that of an intercessor who mediated before the throne of grace on behalf of others (Esther 7.2-3).

Thus, in summing up, one could say that the blessing of Abraham is the ability to stand in the presence of God without judgment and the privilege of enjoying intimate fellowship with God each and every day of our lives.

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