Text: Genesis 12:1-3
I read a story about a little boy who, on his first day in the first grade, desperately wanted to impress his parents. So on his first day in the first grade, he had one of the upperclassmen teach him part of the multiplication tables. After supper that night, the little boy stood up and said, “Two times two equals four.” And his mother and father were so amazed and surprised—here was their little darling on his first day in the first grade, and he was already multiplying. What they had always suspected was now made true—their little darling was a budding genius. While they were standing there, beaming with pride, thinking they have a genius on their hands, the little boy looked up at them and said, “What’s a two?”
Have you ever been in that situation? I have. I’ve found out that you can sound like you know a lot more than you really do. I think that’s true especially in the church, especially for those of us who have grown up in the church. We hear phrases and words and become familiar with them, and we naturally use them. However, we’re not always certain what those words and phrases mean.
One of those words, I think, is the word faith. I don’t know of any other thing in the Christian life that has such an air of mystery about it as does this concept of faith. I can remember from the earliest days of my ministry when I was in awe of people who were men or women of great faith. I remember reading biographies of men like Praying Hyde and George Mueller, those who were well-known for their faith. There was some special aura about those people who lived by faith.
I learned those words and phrases just like you did. I knew I was “saved by faith,” and I knew I was supposed to “live by faith.” People would tell me, “You just need to trust God”—so I would trust God. And people would say, “You’re just going to have to believe God for this”—and so I would believe God for that. But the truth of the matter is, many times I wanted to say, “What does it mean to believe God? What does it mean to trust God? I know the word and the phrase. I know that I’m supposed to do it, but when you get right down to it, what is involved?”
What does it mean to walk with God? What does it mean to live by faith? What does it mean to step out and trust God in a situation? I think many of us, like that little boy, would like to know what belief is. What do you do when you’re trusting God—do you dress differently, wear sackcloth and ashes, fast, pray?
When I was in school, I was never good at math, and I’m still not. I find math, algebra, fractions, geometry and all that to be a foreign language. I really had a hard time because it’s always been hard for me to follow abstract directions. I’m a concrete person, an image person, and I don’t do well looking at abstract directions. When it came to math, I had a hard time understanding. But if the teacher would turn to the blackboard and work out a problem step-by-step so I could see it, then I could begin to understand it. When she took the abstract and put it in a concrete form, then I began to understand it better.
I think that’s one of the reasons Manley Beasley has been a blessing in my life over the years because he has been an image of what it means to live by faith. It has been a blessing for me to watch him and see how he does it. I think most of us are that way when it comes to these matters. The Lord understands that, and He gave us a person in the Bible that demonstrates to us step-by-step what it really means to trust God and to walk by faith. I’m talking about Abraham.
In Romans chapter four, Paul was talking about Abraham and that experience with Isaac and how Abraham believed God. When he came to the end of that chapter, Paul summed it up by saying, “Now not for his [Abraham’s] sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,” (vv. 23, 24, NASB). Paul was saying that God has recorded all the acts of Abraham in this manner of walking with Him, not just as a matter of historical record, but so you and I could look at it and observe it and believe as Abraham believed. If you and I believe as Abraham believed, then you and I will receive as Abraham received.
I want us to look at the three crises in the life of Abraham, when God dealt with him in a decisive manner to bring him to the place where God wanted to him to be.
CRISIS #1—Let Go of the Land
We’ll begin with Genesis 12:1-3. This is the first time where the name Abraham occurs in the Bible, except for a genealogy in the eleventh chapter. But as far as we know, this is the first time God ever spoke to Abraham; this is where the whole business started.
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (NASB)
Notice the words of separation (“go forth…”) and the words of direction (“to the land…”) in verse one. The first words God spoke to Abraham were “Get out. Leave. Go somewhere else. Turn your back on what you now have. Separate yourself.” I believe that the real essence of faith is simply letting go of one thing so the Lord may give us something else. In this matter of growing in grace and walking with God, there is always the element of letting go of one thing so you may take hold of something else.
God came to Abraham and said, “I want you to get out of the country in which you are now living. I want you to separate yourself from your kindred and from your father’s house.” In other words God was saying, “Abraham, I want you to let go of everything in your life that means security and identity to you. I want you to let go of all that you have so that I can give you a special country.” God had a land He wanted to give Abraham, but He could not give him the Promise Land until Abraham let go of the land he had.
I’m convinced that the thing that keeps God from giving us all He wants us to have is the fact that our hand is tightly clenched around something we’re not willing to let go of. In growth, the matter of letting go is always involved. The only way to grow up is by giving up. That’s true, not only physically, but also spiritually. All the days of your life, you’ve grown by giving up certain things—you have to give up the bottle, the diapers, the toys eventually. We call those people who are not willing to give up those things immature.
You have to give up in order to grow, and it’s not always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s painfully hard. Jesus said that “for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and be joined unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” You have to give up a home in order to make a home. Unless we give up now, we can never grow up into what God wants us to be.
When God came to Abraham, it must have startled him because God had not laid any real foundation with him. All of a sudden, it seems, out of the clear blue sky, God spoke to Abraham, and the word He said was so difficult—get up and leave your country; withdraw yourself from your family, from your kindred and from your father’s house. Now what was God doing here? Basically, I think God was doing two things in the life of Abraham. I think He does the same two things in your life and in my life.
1. God is seeking to isolate us.
God wanted to make a new race out of Abraham. He wanted to fashion Abraham according to His own image, but He could not do that where Abraham was. God needed to draw him out and isolate him so that He alone could be the shaping influence in Abraham’s life.
I have no doubt that what God is constantly trying to do in our lives, in a sense, is to isolate us so that we will not be conformed to this present evil world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Come out from among them and touch not the unclean things.” I’m not saying that you and I should become isolationists or withdraw from the world and live in the mountains somewhere. But there is a very real sense that God is wanting to draw us out of the world so He can be the shaping influence in our lives.
If God wants to start a new work in my heart, He has to start it in a situation where He has me all to Himself. God knows that He cannot do all He wants to do with you and me as long as we are living under the powerful influence of this world. I like the way Philips translates Romans 12:2—“Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its mold.” It brings out the power that is exerted on us by the world. I tell you the truth: you and I are constantly under pressure to be squeezed into the mold of this world. There is tremendous pressure on us all the time to conform to this world’s standards, to act like the world, to live by the ideals and standards of the world. But you can never do that if you’re going to walk with God. You have to leave where you are and come to where God is.
2. God is getting us to walk in the unknown.
The thing that impresses me most about this is that God didn’t tell Abraham where he was going. I often wonder how he broke the news to Sarah. Abraham’s relationship to Sarah must have been a lot different. He came to Sarah one day, and he said, “Sarah, pack; we’re leaving.” “Where are we going,” she asks. “I don’t know.” “How long will it take us to get there?” “I don’t have any idea. A voice from heaven spoke to me today and told me to leave all of this—this country, my father’s house, our kin—and go out in the country and become nomads and live in tents.” Now what would you do if your husband walked in and made that announcement to you. That’s exactly what Abraham did.
God is saying, “I want you to go into a country that I will show thee. I want you to walk with Me in the midst of mystery. I want you to trust Me even when you don’t know what’s going on. I want you to trust Me even when you don’t know what’s happening in your life. I want you to trust Me even when you don’t have the slightest idea where I’m taking you. I want you to be willing to walk with Me, even in the unknown.” I believe that you cannot miss this aspect of faith and understand what it means to walk with God.
I used to wonder why God didn’t tell Abraham where he was going. I think I know. If God had told Abraham where he was going, then Abraham would have kept his eye on the destination. However, if God is the only one who knows where you are going, then you’re going to have to keep your eye on God. If you are following someone, and he’s the only one who knows where you’re going, you’d better work to keep him in sight. I’m convinced that God did that with Abraham so he’d have to keep God in sight. I believe that’s why God doesn’t always lay out everything for us. God doesn’t always tell us in advance what He’s doing in our lives, so that we have no choice but to keep our eyes on Him.
There is an interesting story in the Old Testament in the Book of Exodus about Moses. When Moses brought the people out and they came to the wilderness and they came to Mount Sinai, Moses went up the mountain to get the law of God. I like what the people said; they were so confident. They said, “Now Moses, you go up there on the mountain and find out what God wants us to do. Then come down and tell us, and we’ll do everything God says.” They were so confident, so arrogant. By the time Moses got back to them, they had already broken everything God had given them to do. They were dancing around this golden calf, and I love what Aaron said about it. Moses said, “What in the world is going on?” Aaron responded, “I don’t have the slightest idea. Everybody came and brought me gold rings and bracelets, and we threw them in this fire, and out came this golden calf! I don’t have any idea what happened.
Moses goes back up to pray for the people, and God has had it. He says to Moses, “Don’t pray for this people; I’m going to start all over with a new people.” Moses begins to pray one of the most interesting prayers in the Bible. He says, “God, You can’t do this because You promised them You would lead them into a land. If You do this, You’ll be breaking Your word. And not only that—You’ll be causing Your enemies to mock You.” Then Moses said this: “Lord, if You cannot forgive them, then blot me out of the book which You have written.” The Bible says God changed His mind and didn’t do what He intended to do to the people. He heard the prayer of Moses and told Him to go back and lead the people.
I don’t believe Moses was all that ready to lead the people. He had enough trouble with them and needed some encouragement, and Moses made a strange request of the Lord. He said, “Lord, show me Your face; show me Your glory.” I think what Moses was saying was, “Lord, I need to see You from the front; I need to know You upfront. If I’m going to lead this people, it would help if I knew where we were going and what You were all about. I want to know from the front what’s going on and where we’re headed. It would help me a lot to lead this people if I had that kind of assurance.” And God said to Moses, “You can’t do that. No man can see My face and live. I’ll put you in the cleft of the rock and put My hand over your face. As I pass by, I’ll remove My hand, and you’ll see Me from the back.” And that’s what God did.
And that’s the only way you and I ever see God in this life—from the back. We only see Him in retrospect. We only really see God when we look back over the path from which we have come. I don’t even have the slightest idea where I’m headed tomorrow, and you don’t either. There have been a million times when I thought I had certainly missed God somewhere. I’ve said, “I don’t understand, Lord, how all this can be in Your will because this path I’m on is so crooked and hilly. It has so many traps and snares on it. Lord, it’s so dark, and half the time I’m stumbling around like I’ve lost my way. I must have missed You somewhere.”
But every once in a while, I look back over my shoulder at the path behind me. It’s as straight as it can be; there are no traps or hedges or thorns. It’s well-lit and I think to myself, “Is that the path I just came over? It sure didn’t look like it then.” When I look back over past experiences, I can see the path clearly, and God is everywhere. I see God in retrospect. I’m convinced that’s the way you and I have to live this life. Most of the time, we don’t see God clearly out in front of us. We don’t always know where He’s leading us, but we can turn around and look back and say, “Yes, of course; the Lord led me every step of the way.” And so the issue of faith is whether or not I’m willing to travel under sealed orders and let God keep my destination to Himself.
CRISIS #2—Let Go of Ishmael
God made a covenant with Abraham. He told Abraham that He would give him and Sarah a son through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. That covenant was the basis for everything God did in Abraham’s life. So they walked away with this promise in their heart: Sarah would bear Abraham son, and through that seed, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. There was only one thing wrong. Sarah couldn’t have children; she was barren. Years went by, and they didn’t hear anything from God. So, Sarah came up with the “solution” that Abraham would have a child by her handmaid, Hagar. Moses did that, and Ishmael was born. When Ishmael was born, Abraham and Sarah were satisfied that the promise of God had been fulfilled. All of a sudden, when Ishmael was about fourteen years old, God spoke to Abraham again. He picked up right where He had left off, as if no time had passed, and continued to talk about Sarah bearing a son.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be here name. and I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by here. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (vv. 15-17, NASB)
All of a sudden God spoke. That voice thundered out of heaven, and Abraham did exactly what you ought to do when that happens—he threw himself on the ground and worshiped the Lord. So there he was, doing the right thing. He fell on his face and worshiped God. But while he was down there worshiping God, he did something else—he got the giggles. He laughed in his heart. It’s just like when you were a child in church, and you got tickled about something. You knew that you weren’t supposed to laugh out loud because if you did, your mom and dad would get you, so you tried so hard to hold it in. That’s what happened to Abraham. He didn’t want to laugh, but God had just said the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard in his life. God had said that Sarah would be the mother of many nations, and Abraham just couldn’t believe it. So he said in the next verse, “O God, that Ishmael might live before You!”
What’s happening here? Abraham was telling God that Ishmael was the answer and the son of the promise. What you and I have to remember is that as far as Abraham was concerned, the promise of God had been fulfilled for fourteen solid years. Every day as he watched Ishmael grow up, Abraham knew in his heart, “This is it.” He loved that boy with all of his heart, and God spoke for the first time in twenty years as if Ishmael didn’t even exist. Basically, Abraham was saying, “God, just do it my way.”
What is Ishmael? Ishmael is where your vision collides with God’s vision. Ishmael is your version of the will of God—your dreams, your plans, your ideas. The Lord was saying, “Abraham, if you are to have a child of promise, you must let go of this child. Just as you had to let go of the land to get the Promise Land, so you’re going to have to open your hand again and let go of Ishmael if you’re going to have Isaac. I cannot do My work in you as long as you are grasping and hanging on to Ishmael. As long as you insist on doing it through Ishmael, I can never have My way with you. Let go, and grow up by giving up.”
Faith is a matter of leaving and losing and letting go so that God may give us what He has for us. It is never easy to give up Ishmael. It’s easier to leave the land than it is to Ishmael. All of us have our plans, our visions, our dreams. We picture a certain kind of home and family and job. One day God comes along, and He goes against the grain of that and says, “No, that’s not My will. Ishmael is not Mine. Ishmael is the work of the flesh—your idea of how to do God’s will. Ishmael is your contribution to the work of God, not Mine. You have to let go of Ishmael—of your dream, your vision, your plan.”
I don’t like change. I am an incurable old-fashioned type of person. I don’t like to say goodbye to one era of my life and walk into another. I don’t like to close chapters or give up dreams. I don’t like to shut my eyes to the visions I’ve had. I don’t like to let go. I want to cling to the past and my childhood visions and dreams. I want life to turn out like I planned years ago. When God comes to me and tells me to let go of a portion of my life or a dream or a possession, I find myself crying out, “O God, let Ishmael live before You. God, do it my way. I can’t bear to give up my own dream or vision. Lord, do it my way.”
But you have to let go of Ishmael. All of us have our plans, but they don’t always match the will of God. God can’t bring me what He wants me to have as long as I am clinging to my way. God has something else far greater than I can ever imagine, but I’ll never know it if I’m grasping that one thing.
Abraham tried to get God to see reason. He delicately tried to steer God in a more sensible direction. He wanted to go with the plan that made more sense and seemed to be a sure thing. It’s easier for us to trust God when we have a guarantee that we can see and touch. As a Christian and as a church, you are in trouble when you start banking on the sure things. God doesn’t always come to you that way.
The first time we are introduced to the name Isaac is in this passage. We find that it wasn’t Abraham or Sarah who named the boy, but it was God. Isaac means laughter. Abraham was on his face, laughing at God, and God said, “Let’s name him Isaac, so that every day you look at him, you’ll remember that you laughed at Me. Every time you call his name, you’ll remember that you laughed at Me.”
Crisis #3—Let Go of
Now it came about after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” (vv. 1, 2, NASB)
This is the last great crisis. This is where Abraham’s faith grows up. Isaac was probably seventeen years old and had become the apple of Abraham’s eye, the treasure of his heart. Everything was running smoothly and wonderfully when God spoke again out of the clear blue sky. He spoke with a more shattering tone than He had before.
Abraham was over one hundred years old, and you’d think he had passed all the tests. But there he was in his old age, and God wasn’t finished yet. I think that’s true in our lives. I do not think there is any time in life when we’ve done it all and said it all. The truth is, sometimes the older we get, the tougher the tests and the greater the sacrifices and the bigger the stakes. But aren’t you glad that God didn’t start out with that test. He waited until Abraham was old enough, mature enough and strong enough. I do not believe that God will ever test you in any way that you are unable to bear and pass. God takes us step-by-step, stage-by-stage, and doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
To understand this stage in Abraham’s life is to understand the highest level of spiritual maturity that a person can ever experience. It’s one thing to leave the world behind and give up sin and all that is outside the will of God. But it is another thing to so divest ourselves of all possessions and rights, that even that which is of God, we are willing to let go of.
When Paul was caught up in the third heaven as recorded in 2 Corinthians chapter twelve, he saw things that were not lawful for a man to talk about. It did something to Paul to have that kind of vision and experience. So Paul said there was given to him a thorn in the flesh. Do you know why God gave that thorn to Paul? He says it in chapter twelve: “And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh.” Paul was in danger because God had blessed him so much, and he was being filled with spiritual pride, so God gave him a thorn in the flesh. That which was jeopardizing Paul’s blessings was the fact that Paul had been blessed so much. The thing that was jeopardizing Paul’s usefulness was the fact that he had been used so much.
Sometimes we can’t stand good things; we can’t stand blessings. They do something to us. When my brother and I were cleaning out my dad’s things after his death, we found a quote that my dad had written—“Say not you know another person entirely until you have shared an inheritance with him.” You know, my dad was smarter than I thought he was. I’ve seen families fall out over sharing an inheritance. You don’t always really know yourself. When you don’t have anything, you’re not all that worried about it. But when you start having stuff, then you really get nervous about it and start looking out for your share to make sure you’re being treated fairly. Sometimes it’s not the sin that does us in, it’s the blessings. Sometimes it’s not the empty pews that kill a church, it’s the full ones.
The greatest test for Abraham was not letting go of the land or getting rid of Ishmael, it was letting go of Isaac. Isaac was perfect; he stood for all that was right and sure. Yet God was saying to Abraham, “I don’t have all of you there is to have until I have Isaac.”
Some years ago, we were going through a difficult time in our family. Kaye and I were talking about it, and I said what I thought was spiritual and humble: “The only thing I’m really worried about is the effect this may have on my ministry.” And Kaye said, “Whose ministry?” And I thought back to the Wednesday night before when I preached out of Corinthians where Paul talked about the ministry we have received, and I made a big deal out of it being God’s ministry. There is nothing that bugs me more than to have Kaye or God re-preach my whole sermons to me!
A young man came to me one day and said, “Brother Dunn, I have surrendered myself to God. I’ve given everything up to God, and I’m willing now for God to use me.” I said, “Are you willing for God not to use you? Are you willing to be just for God alone while everyone else gets the accolades and the big churches and the recognition?” God doesn’t have all of us until He has Isaac—the thing in my life that is most perfect and right and of God, the thing that is essentially good and blessed. But it can become for me an idol and a possession.
Possession isn’t ownership. Abraham possessed Isaac, but he didn’t own him. There is nothing that you and I can say we own; it is all given to us as a stewardship. We possess it, but we do not own it. The danger comes when we start thinking as if we own it. One of the first pieces of advice given to me as young pastor was strange, and I just laughed when I heard it. A very old pastor who had been in the ministry for many years said to me, “If the treasurer of your church ever gets to acting like it’s his money, you need a new treasurer.” Hold all things loosely. If you get to thinking you own them, you’re in trouble.
Every time God had asked Abraham to do something up until now, He had attached a promise to it. If you leave that land, I’ll give you another land. If you give up Ishmael, I’ll give you Isaac. But in this last test, there was no promise attached. I believe that the ultimate in walking with God and trusting Him comes when you don’t need the promise of reward to obey Him; you obey Him because He’s worth obeying and love Him because He’s worth loving.
When Abraham left his land, God gave him a new land. When he let go of Ishmael, God gave him Isaac. And when he offered up Isaac to kill him, there was no promise given to Abraham. But, many years later, Jesus Christ stood and said, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day and was glad.” I believe that day on the Mount of Moriah, God pulled aside the curtains of eternity and let Abraham see the real Isaac that would come one day.
We all know that Isaac didn’t die, and it was never intended that Isaac should die. But somebody did die on that mountain—it was Abraham. He died to Isaac, and that’s what you and I must do.