“This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace, to guarantee it to all the descendants — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of Abraham’s faith. He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness. Now it was credited to him was not written for Abraham alone, but also for us. It will be credited to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Romans 4:16-25 HCSB)
My five year old grandson is at that stage of asking lots of questions about life. Lots of “how and why” types of questions. Some of them are easy to answer and some of them are much harder to answer. Last night he came over to play video games with me, I’ve mentioned here how much he likes to play LEGO Star Wars, but last night he wanted to play something else. So, we finished building a robot from a kit we had been working on and then we played a game. On the way home, he asked me a question that caught me off guard, a bit. He asked about whether everyone in our town would die. At first, I thought his question was about something catastrophic he thought might happen but then he explained that he didn’t mean all at once, but that everyone would die at some point. He had asked my wife a similar question last week. He asked her whether all “old people” die? She started to answer him, but then stopped and asked, “are you wanting to know if Papa and I are going to die?” Yes, that’s what he was asking about. She tried to assure him, without giving him false ideas, that we were both healthy and would probably live for many more years. We hope.
Why was he asking such a question? Well, I don’t think it is because he is morbid or playing too many video games but because we are living through the COVID-19 pandemic and we’ve talked about the large number of illnesses and deaths from the virus. His world has changed and he’s asking questions to try and understand and make sense of it. Be honest, haven’t some of these issues caused you to stop, wonder what’s going on and ask some serious but strange questions? Haven’t you cried out to God in your prayers with questions, fears and concerns? I know I have. I’ve prayed for several friends and co-workers who’ve lost parents and family members to this disease. I’ve been praying for friends and family who have tested positive for the virus and asking God to give them healing and strength. I’ve been praying and crying out to God on behalf of my mother-in-law, my children, grandchildren, immediate family and church family for His care and protection upon them. I’ve been praying that Tina an I would stay virus free even while we try and work, pastor and care for those around us.
Sometimes it is hard to understand, but that’s where faith takes over and leads us into obedience and that’s where I want to focus, this week. Paul has taken time to establish our universal failure to obey God’s law, whether that’s the one given to Moses or the one He wrote upon every human heart. We all stand guilty before a holy God because we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory and that puts us in a predicament – righteous judgement. While some today might like to claim that a God of love can just “forgive everyone,” that’s not really right or just. We really do want God to judge the wicked, we just tend to exclude ourselves from that list when we shouldn’t. So, that brings us to the issue of justification and how God declares us righteous and forgiven. He has given Himself as the ultimate and final sacrifice and His blood has been sprinkled on the Mercy Seat resulting in His grace being poured out upon us through faith, faith like Abraham. Faith is not baseless trust, it is based on God’s character, promises and faithfulness and that brings us to today’s focal passage – faith in God’s ability and intent to fulfill His promises, keep His word and fulfill His covenant vows.
That is why the promise is by faith… last week I mentioned that promise language is very different from law language. Law language says “you will” but promise language says “I will.” God takes the initiative in redemption and we reap the benefits and blessings. Paul says that for God to fulfill His covenant promise to Abraham – that he would be the father of many nations – the fulfillment must come according to (or by) grace through our faith in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence by His Word. For this broad and far-reaching promise to be fulfilled, it must stand separate from the Mosaic Law and be accessible to all peoples, nations, tribes and tongues. Abraham is not the physical father of all who believe, but he is the spiritual father of them. The promise cannot be fulfilled on human terms or by man’s moral goodness, because we’ve all failed in that regard.
Think about that, a bit. God’s Word called the universe into existence or, as Paul says, “For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him.” (Colossians 1:16 HCSB) This goes back to my comment last week about Jesus being the “image of God” and anytime God appears physically in the Old Testament it is THAT physical image, Jesus – God in human flesh, who appears.
“Your father Abraham was overjoyed that he would see My day; he saw it and rejoiced.” The Jews replied, “You aren’t 50 years old yet, and You’ve seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:56-58 HCSB)
So, the Lord God who walked with Abraham through the covenant process and made promises regarding his offspring is the same God who has brought salvation to this Gentile believer and made me a part of His promise fulfillment and the same one who can bring you into redemptive grace through faith. But, does your faith ever falter? Do you ever hesitate or doubt? Paul says that Abraham believed, hoping against hope. I think that this struggle of faith is exactly what Paul has in mind with this phrase – hoping against hope. Like the father whose son is in need of healing when Jesus asks: ‘If You can’? Everything is possible to the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:23-24 HCSB) I think this ‘hoping against hope’ is that same struggle to believe and overcome the doubts that haunt our thoughts or cloud our judgments. Like this father, I want to cry out “Lord, I believe! Please, help me when I have doubts!”
I suspect, for some of us American Christians, those doubts might have risen their ugly heads this week as our Presidential election took place and states started (and are still) counting ballots. What often happens is that, like Abraham, we often hitch God’s promises to our earthly ideas and expectations of fulfillment and then become disillusioned, doubtful or even fearful when things take an unexpected turn or delay. We generally have no doubts in the will, kingdom reign and sovereignty of God until things take an unexpected and unwanted turn, then we might begin to struggle or question. This happened in Abraham’s life, Moses’ life, King David’s life and in the lives of the New Testament saints and Apostles. It even happened to Paul as he relates his struggle with his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul says that God’s purpose in this struggle was to keep him humble and completely dependent upon God and so that God’s glory and strength could be perfectly revealed in Paul’s ministry instead of Paul and his abilities. Perhaps that’s what God is doing in America… bringing the church to a state of humble dependence, removing our self-declared strengths, forcing us to rely upon God and focusing all glory on Himself.
Abraham’s belief in God’s promise was NOT contingent upon his own ability to carry that promise through to fulfillment, but upon God’s ability to do so. Paul clearly states that Abraham’s own body, or more precisely his ability to father children, and Sarah’s womb were both dead and physically incapable of carrying out God’s promise. But Abraham was fully convinced (faith) that God was able to perform the miracle of fulfilling His promise. God who spoke life into existence could speak His power of life into their dead bodies and make them capable of being vessels of God’s promise. Abraham believed God, and God credited his faith to him for righteousness. Abraham had faith in God’s life giving power to resurrect the dead and restore them to life in fulfillment of His promise. That’s precisely what I believe, how about you?
A little over thirty years ago, I stood with my three brothers in a small town church and declared my faith in that same promise. My father had passed away at the very young age of sixty. I’ve thought a lot about that day in recent months because I turned sixty just a short 15 months ago – that’s why I said the very young age of sixty. I resemble that remark. Reaching the age at which your father died can cause you to stop, catch your breath, ponder the meaning of life, consider your own mortality and ask yourself some really hard questions. It might have been thirty years ago, but I still remember that day quite vividly. I remember trying to prepare myself emotionally and spiritually to preach my own father’s funeral service. As I prayed, cried, studied and prepared I kept asking myself and God, “what can I say and how can I possibly do this?” The answer reverberated through my soul, “Tell them why you have hope. Tell them why this coffin is not the last word on your father’s life. Tell them about faith. Trust Me and my promises. The resurrection is REAL! He’s not dead, he’s alive!”
So, I will tell you the same things He told me that day. This virus doesn’t take life and avoiding it doesn’t give life, God does. The outcome of this election doesn’t limit or define my faith, nor will it restrict my worship, change my message, alter my hope or my obedience to God’s Word. I will continue to love others, treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve as creatures made in the image of God. I will fervently pray for my enemies and any who might seek to suppress or silence me because of my faith and beliefs and be glad and rejoice in these things (see Matt. 5). Why? How can I possibly do those things? Because He who promised is also able to perform and because those words were not written for Abraham alone, but also for us (see vs. 23-24 of our text). We need to hear them. They need to reverberate in our souls. You might need to stand before the coffin of your dashed hopes and dead dreams and let those words reverberate in your soul. My God is ABLE to bring life out of death and hope out of despair.
How? How can God bring life from death or hope out of despair? I’m glad you asked… because faith will be credited to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead! He was delivered up for OUR trespasses and raised up for OUR justification! Amen, and AMEN! Did you catch that? Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses and then He was raised up for our justification. Our faith in God’s promises as fulfilled in Christ’s death brings us grace and redemption and His resurrection brings us righteousness and justification before God. Not law language, you will, but promise language, I will or I have done everything necessary to bring you life from death and hope out of your despair.
“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you. They will hand you over to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of My name. It will lead to an opportunity for you to witness. Therefore make up your minds not to prepare your defense ahead of time, for I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” (Luke 21:12-15 HCSB)
These words were spoken to the disciples just before Christ’s death and, while I would do a disservice to scripture by trying to align the “threats” that came against the Apostles with modern threats we face as Christians today, I would also be wrong if I failed to tell that you that Jesus’ words to them are also valid for us. Our response to our modern day circumstances “will lead to an opportunity to witness.” The real question is not whether we will witness of Christ, but whether that witness will be positive or negative in nature. Our response in the days, weeks and even years to come about the events of 2020 and this election, in particular, will give witness to our faith in God or lack thereof.
Is God sovereign? Can His plan be thwarted or is the purpose of the church altered by any of these modern day circumstances? Is our faith in God only relevant and is His power effective only when we have the support of government and the power of culture behind us? Absolutely not. The real witness of the church is continued faith in God in the midst of struggles, in the face of persecution or perceived cultural irrelevance. We’ve enjoyed cultural acceptance in the American church so long that we’ve forgotten the church was birthed through the pain of persecution and matured in the midst of cultural rejection. Let me simply close today by leaving you with a quote from Paul’s early teacher, Gamaliel, as he addressed the Sanhedrin Council as they sought to silence the early church. May we hear the wisdom and let it strengthen our faith and our resolve towards obedience…
“We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.” When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered the men to be taken outside for a little while. He said to them, “Men of Israel, be careful about what you’re going to do to these men… And now, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” So they were persuaded by him.” (Acts 5:32-35, 38-39 HCSB)