Let’s start off with a little fun today. I’m going to give you some biographical facts and see if you can tell me who I am referring to. Most of you will get this right away.
- He was a descendant of Shem, who was one of the three sons of Noah.
- He grew up in a place called Ur, an ancient city in Mesopotamia.
- He and his two brothers came from a family of idol worshipers, yet hundreds of years after his death he would be called “the father of all who believe.”
- His given name meant “exalted father,” but later in his life it was changed by God himself to mean “the father of many.”
- He and his wife enjoyed the birth of one child, interesting enough at a time in their lives when they were both of advanced age.
- She preceded him in death. He, himself, died at the ripe old age of 175.
Know who it is?
To the writer of the book of Hebrews he is a person of significant importance. He is mentioned by name ten times in the book.
His name is Abraham. And the reason why his name is mentioned with such frequency in this book is because his life embodied a virtue these Hebrew Christians needed so desperately to experience: the virtue of patient hope. Hope, that settled confident expectation that nothing can or will ever keep God from fulfilling His promises to us. That’s what hope is, that settled confident expectation that nothing can or will ever keep God from fulfilling His promises to us.
Particularly those promises that relate to our salvation.
Let me explain what I mean.
In one of the striking illustrations of sovereign election anywhere in all of the Bible, Genesis 12 records the call of God to this man Abraham. By all accounts, this man Abraham is still an idol worshiper when his call comes. Yet, of all the people on the face of the earth, God comes to him! And He makes an incredible promise.
Look at it in Genesis 12:1-3.
1 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. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 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.”
What an incredible promise. We call it the Abrahamic covenant. It is a promise of significant magnitude and breadth. God promised to make Abraham a great nation, later telling him his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven. God promised to make His name great and to bless Him, then to bless all the nations through him.
What is most astounding is verse 4, “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him…”
Why is that so astounding?
First, Abraham is 75 years old. Not a time in life when relocation comes easily. Second, packing up and moving a great distance would be no small affair because he was already a man of significant means. He didn’t have U-Haul or Three Men in a Truck. Every move we’ve made in life has been harder because we accumulate and accumulate and accumulate more and more stuff!
More than anything else, what makes Abraham’s response of obedience so amazing is that this promise of siring a great nation was given to a 75-year-old man who had no son. It would have been easier to fathom and believe if he already had a son.
Yet we read, “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him…” Confident in the promise of God.
As you know from the rest of the story, Abraham travels with his nephew Lot and by and by their own estates grow so large that they have to separate. At that point God comes again to Abraham and reiterates the promise.
In Genesis 13:14-16
14 The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.
God reiterates the grand promises of the covenant—“offspring as the dust of the earth” in the place that God will give them, as far as his eyes could see in every direction. But again, as of this point Abraham had no heir at all!
Weeks go by, months go by, years go by and still there is no heir for Abraham.
Then the word of the Lord comes again. In Genesis 15:1 we see these rallying words from the LORD: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
This seems like a reasonable solution, but this was not God’s plan. “And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir’ (Genesis 15:4). So God once again re-establishes His promise.
5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
“Yes, Abraham, you will have a multitude of descendants. That is My promise.”
6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Then God does something amazing.
9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
What is going on here? This seems really strange to us.
But this practice was what was known in the ancient world as “cutting a covenant.” When two parties entered into a covenant relationship, they often did so by pledging their promises to one another in this most unique way.
They would slay these animals, cut them into pieces, and then walk between them, signifying that they too should be likewise torn asunder if they failed to keep their commitments to one another.
But notice that only God passed between those pieces of slain animals. Abraham was asleep. This made it clear to Abraham that God was assuming full responsibility for keeping this fantastic promise. God was saying to Abraham that HE WOULD KEEP IT.
He reiterates this again and again, and here in a dramatic act of covenantal faithfulness He shouts and shows to Abraham, “I will keep my word.”
Finally, twenty five years later, Abraham and Sarah have a son. Just when it seems most impossible Isaac is born and the promise seems on the verge of fulfillment. His name meant “laughter” and that’s what they did every time they thought of him.
But just when Abraham’s life seems to be going smoothly and everything is on track for the promise to be fulfilled, his laughter is shattered by the most shocking command any human being has ever received. God said: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).
Listen, my friends. Listening to the voice of God and obeying the voice of God had finally become a habit in Abraham’s life. But at this particular point in time we can understand if he got a little hard of hearing!
He could have argued that he’d given up enough already. “I turned my back on my way of life in Ur of the Chaldees to become a wanderer, and did so willingly. I gave up my other son Ishmael. But now, to sacrifice Isaac, is to surrender my future, my destiny, the future You promised to me!”
You see, Abraham knew that the promise of God was bound up in the life of that boy. It couldn’t be fulfilled with him dead.
And yet, at the crack of dawn the next morning, Abraham saddles his donkey, assembles everything needed for sacrifice, including Isaac, and he begins the terrible journey.
If I was a betting man I would be inclined to say, although the text does not speak of it, that he didn’t say a word to his wife!
How could he do this? What would you have done? How could he do this with such apparent resolve? The text gives us a clue in verse 5 of Genesis 22. Notice the plural. “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”
Abraham was absolutely convinced that he would return to them with the boy. He wasn’t sure about how it would all work out, but he does seem to be confident about the long-term solution.
In fact, Hebrews 11 tells us that he believed God could even raise Isaac from the dead if need be (Hebrews 11:19). It’s not that he had seen resurrections take place, but he was convinced that God would keep His promise. Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promise to give him descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. Why? Because God promised and because God covenanted with him.
But he was still a man. And you can imagine the emotional turmoil as they ascended Mount Moriah, as they constructed the altar…together, as Isaac comes to realize that he must be the sacrifice, as he physically submits himself to his father. You can see the sobbing, the kisses, the tears, convulsions and nausea and the blade in his trembling hand.
Then, with that blade poised to descend into the heart of his son, the angel of Yahweh cries out, “Abraham, Abraham.” “Here I am.” “Do not lay a hand on the boy.”
That is one of the most moving, more loveable scenes in the Scriptures. We know it well, or at least we think we do.
Do you remember what Yahweh said to Abraham following Isaac’s reprieve?
15 And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
God had promised and reaffirmed that promise many times. He covenanted with Abraham and here he swears an oath. “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this…I will surely bless you…surely multiply your offspring…possess the gate of his enemies…all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
This is an incredible act of condescension on the part of the God of the universe. The God who always, without fail, speaks the truth, stoops to swear an oath of faithfulness and trustworthiness to man. That’s how much God wants Abraham to be sure, to be absolutely confident that God will fulfill His promises—no matter how fantastic they are, no matter how impossible fulfillment seems in the moment.
Now, turn with this as a background, turn with me to Hebrews 6. It is with this Old Testament story that the author draws from when he says in Hebrews 6:13-14…
13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.”
That is what we just saw in Genesis 22—God swore an oath to reinforce His promise to Abraham.
What was the result for Abraham?
15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.
He took God at His Word. A promise, confirmed by an oath—doubly sure. He waited, and finally obtained what he waited for, because God was faithful to fulfill His promise.
Abraham waited 25 years for God to fulfill His promise, 25 years before Isaac was born. That’s certainly an expression of perseverance.
He had to wait another 60 years until his grandsons Jacob and Esau are born. In other words, when Abraham dies 100 years after God first made this promise to him, at age 175, he has one son of the covenant, Isaac, and one grandson of the covenant—Jacob.
Was that the fulfillment of the covenant God made to him? A mighty nation of innumerable descendants? The coming of a seed through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed?
If so, only in seed form.
In facts, Hebrews 11:13 tells us this about Abraham, among other Old Testament saints…
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
So when, for Abraham, was this promise fulfilled? It was when he came face to face with the One in whom this promise would be most fully realized—Jesus Christ.
This is what Jesus meant when he said to the Pharisees in John 8:36, “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced to see my day.”
It is through Jesus Christ that an innumerable company of Abraham’s seed would occupy heaven (cf. Rev. 7). It is through Jesus Christ that all the world will be blessed.
He received glimpses of this promise through the births of Isaac and Jacob, but came face to face with it when he entered glory and saw Jesus Christ surrounded by “Abraham’s seed,” all those who by faith in Christ entered the kingdom.
The point of all this: God keeps His Word, but He does it in His own time.
Abraham waited all of his life to see that promise fulfilled. He is an example to us of what genuine, true persevering faith looks like.
Back in Hebrews 6:12 our author had warned them “not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
Abraham, “waited patiently….received what was promised” (Hebrews 6:15).
Imitate Abraham. He persevered to the end with faith in God’s promise and ultimately received what was promised. Now, I want you to do the same. That is what our author is encouraging his readers to do.