The Fiery Trial of Our Faith
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, July 15, 2007
Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
At one time or another in our Christian lives our faith get severely tested. Such trials reveal whether we are false believers or authentic people of God. From the life of Abraham we want to study what is authentic faith so that we will not be discouraged when we go through the valley of the shadow of death. A true believer can rejoice even in tribulations, knowing God has a purpose in permitting us to go through such fiery ordeals.
When asked, "What must I do to be saved from God's wrath against me, a sinner?" the Bible declares, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered God's wrath for you on the cross." If I believe, then I am saved forever and given death-defying eternal life. I am adopted as God's beloved child, God is my heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ is my sure redeemer.
If we profess to have faith in Christ, God will test that faith to see if it is persevering, authentic, and obedient. Concerning our salvation Peter writes, "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith, of greater worth than gold which perishes even though refined by fire, may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed . . . . Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed" (1 Pet. 1:6-8; 4:12).
A true believer will deny himself, take up the cross, and follow Jesus Christ wherever he leads. Sometimes he will lead us through fiery trials, including painful sufferings and the valley of the shadow of death. True faith and obedience are inseparable like the sun and light. A true believer lives and dies by faith. His faith is not dead faith or the devil's faith. It is a faith that works God's works.
Abraham's faith was tested and proven genuine. In Hebrews 11 the writer gives Abraham the most space as he commends him for his great faith. Abraham's faith was tested in at least four different ways, including in the most painful way imaginable. Abraham suffered the fiery trial of faith.
The First Test: Following God
Abraham's first test came when God asked him to leave his idols and familiar surroundings: "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, though he did not know where he was going" (Heb. 11:8).
Abraham was an idol worshiper like his parents. He lived in Mesopotamia, in the city of Ur, located in what is now Iraq. To the cultured men of that time, city life was the highest form of civilized existence. Abraham was a rich man, a mighty prince. He did not leave Ur of the Chaldees like a migrant worker seeking a job in Canaan. He was living a life of great security and pleasure. But the God of glory appeared to him and demanded that he leave his country, his relatives, and his father's house, to go to a land that God would reveal to him. Abraham was to leave all his certainty and comfort for insecurity and uncertainty.
John Calvin says it is no ordinary trial of faith to give what we have in hand to seek what is far off and unknown to us. But as soon as God commanded, Abraham obeyed and left, not knowing where he was going. Abraham illustrated the definition of faith given in Hebrews 11:1, that faith is the ground of things hoped for, the foundation upon which the believer stands, and the proof of things not seen. Faith is assurance and conviction, not confusion. It is faith in the Lord of glory and in his word.
We can imagine Abraham saying, "God has spoken and I will go now. I will leave my country, my kindred, and my father's house. I do not know where I am going, but I do not need to know. The God who called me knows and he will go before me." Thus Abraham went out from Ur, as his descendants would do many centuries later from Egypt, to the land of Canaan. Abraham trusted in the bare, naked word of God.
We must understand Abraham's background to fully appreciate this act of faith. His parents did not believe in God and he knew no prophets. He had no Bible to consult. Yet Abraham lived by faith and obeyed the God who called him. Faith is a journey into the unknown with God, who knows all things. God asked Abraham to leave his country, and he obeyed. He was a man of true faith. His faith was tried and he passed the test.
The Second Test: Living and Dying as Pilgrims
The second trial of Abraham's faith was to live in Canaan without ever experiencing the fulfillment of the great promises given to him that he would possess the land.
When God led Abraham to Canaan, he told him he would receive it as his inheritance. Abraham was seventy-five years old when he arrived in Canaan with his wife Sarah. He lived in Canaan for one hundred years, yet he never possessed even a foot of ground in Canaan as his inheritance (Acts 7:5).
By the promise of God, Canaan was Abraham's, yet he did not possess it. But he believed God. He lived in Canaan, not in permanent buildings as he had done in Ur, but in tents along with Isaac and later Jacob, his fellow heirs of the promises of God. As a nomad and an immigrant, he moved from place to place. In fact, when Sarah died at one hundred and twenty-seven years of age, Abraham had no place to bury her. He said to the Hittite leaders of the land, "I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here, so I can bury my dead" (Gen. 23:4). Thus he bought the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite for the inflated price of four hundred shekels of silver.
Before Abraham left for the unknown land, God gave him a great promise: "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. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you, I will curse. And all the peoples of earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:2-3).
Where were these blessings God had promised? By the time Abraham died, there was still no land and no nation. Yet Abraham never sought to return to his fatherland to live the secure, comfortable life he had been used to. That would have been unbelief in the God who spoke to him. He lived by faith in God and the future fulfillment of all his promises: "But my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him" (Heb. 10:38). Abraham did not shrink back, but continued to have faith that God's promises would be fulfilled in the future.
Not only did Abraham live by faith, but he also died by faith: "All these people were still living by faith when they died" (Heb. 11:13). To die a good death we must live by faith. Oh, what tragedy when people die in unbelief! Jesus Christ said about such people: "I am going away and you will look for me, and you will die in your sins . . . You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins. If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins" (John 8:21, 23).
Unbelievers die in their sins. But Hebrews 11:13 tells us there is another way to die-to die in faith in God. Believers die trusting that the Lord will come to fulfill all his promises. Jacob exhibited such faith: "Then Israel said to Joseph: 'I am about to die. But God will be with you and take you back to the land of your fathers . . . I look for your deliverance, O Lord" (Gen. 48:21; 49:18). Later, when it was his turn to die, Joseph spoke in faith to his brothers, "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob" (Gen. 50:24).
Abraham and his descendants lived and died in faith: "By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith, when he was dying, Jacob blessed each of Joseph's sons and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instruction about his bones" (Heb. 11:20-22). They were all looking for God to come and fulfill his great promises of salvation. They died by faith in God's promises of future deliverance.
When they died, they had not received the fullness of salvation, but they believed the words of the God of glory that they would be fulfilled. By faith "they only saw [the things promised] and greeted them from a distance" (Heb. 11:13). Jesus said, "Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). By faith Abraham saw his own son Jesus.
The vibrant, authentic faith of these believers brought what was future to the present and energized them to live as strangers in this world. They refused to conform to the world, for they were being transformed by their faith in God's promises. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all lived by faith. They lived fully in the world, yet they were not of the world. What was the motivation behind their pilgrim lives? They were "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10).
The Third Test: Children
Abraham's third trial of faith concerned having children. The God of glory promised to make Abraham into a great nation and give him a multitude of children as innumerable as the stars of the heavens and like the sand of the seashore (Gen. 12:2). But by the time Abraham was ninety-nine years old, he still had no son. His wife Sarah had always been barren, so he appointed his servant Eliezer to be his heir. Yet God came to him again in Canaan and promised a multitude of children (Gen. 15:4-5).
How could this be? His sterile wife was now ninety years old, long past menopause. She herself confessed, "I am worn out" (Gen. 18:12). Sarah was barren, old, and worn out; her husband was almost one hundred years old. He was dead, as far as the ability to father children was concerned. In Hebrews 11:12 the author uses a perfect passive participle to describe Abraham: he was nenekrômenou, meaning "as good as dead," or "in a state of death." Paul used the same word in Romans 4:19. But Abraham believed God, and together with Sarah, received power from the living God to father Isaac because he considered him faithful who promised (Heb. 11:11).
As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations." [Abraham] is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed-the God who gives life and calls into existence things that are not existing. Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had it been said to him: 'So shall your offspring be." Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead-since he was about one hundred years old-and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised (Rom. 4:17-21).
That is exactly what we read in Hebrews 11:11: "By faith Abraham, even though he was past age-and Sarah herself was barren-was enabled to become a father because he considered that the one who promised is faithful." Abraham received the power to beget Isaac because he reasoned and understood who God was and what he could do.
Abraham believed that the "God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" is competent to fulfill his promises. The truth is, God raised up Sarah and Abraham from death. Thus we read in Hebrews 11:12 that from one dead man and one dead woman, by God's supernatural power of resurrection, came a multitude of people who were innumerable like stars of the sky and the sand of the seashore. Abraham's faith was tested and proven genuine. He believed God and received children as God promised.
The Final Test: Sacrificing Isaac
The final and most terrible testing of Abraham's faith had to do with the sacrifice of Isaac. When Isaac was a teenager, God came to Abraham in the middle of the night and demanded that he kill Isaac and burn him up in worship. (PGM) This was nothing less than a fiery trial of faith. Just as Jesus asked Simon Peter if he loved him more than anything else (John 21:15-17), so God was asking, "Abraham, do you love me more than Isaac your son, your only son of promise, the son whom you love?" Abraham's answer was yes. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We cannot serve two masters. God will not tolerate idolatry of any kind. God's demand was clear: he did not ask that Abraham sacrifice his servant Eliezer or his son Ishmael. God wanted Isaac to be sacrificed, and God wanted his father Abraham to do it as a demonstration of his total love and devotion to God.
The problem was, however, that God had promised Abraham that his offspring would be reckoned through Isaac (Gen. 21:12). The Messiah was to come through Isaac and save Abraham and the world. But the demand also was clear. God himself told Abraham that Isaac be killed and burned up. God's demand and God's promise to Abraham were in apparent conflict.
What do we do when God's command clashes with God's covenant promises? We know that God is not a God of contradictions. If God promised to give Abraham descendants, including the Messiah, through Isaac, he would fulfill that promise. If God demanded that Isaac be sacrificed, that sacrifice cannot nullify God's covenant promise.
This apparent contradiction of promise and demand can be resolved. Hebrews 11:19 begins, "Abraham reasoned. . . ." Christians are called, not to live an emotional life, but an intelligent life, a life that demands our full powers of thought. Abraham reasoned that, to fulfill his promise, God must raise Isaac from the ashes. Abraham knew from his own experience that God was able to do so, for he had already raised Sarah and Abraham from death so that Isaac could be born. Now God must also be able to raise Isaac from the dead.
Christianity demands reasoning ability. When faced with this seemingly insurmountable problem, Abraham thought carefully. Finally his reason went back to the infinite, personal God who is highly competent to raise the dead. Genesis 22:5 reveals the reasoning of Abraham. He told his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you". Abraham rose early in the morning and cut up the wood to use in burning up his son Isaac. He walked three days to Mount Moriah, and as he walked he reasoned until he came to this resolution of the conflict: God must raise up Isaac from the dead, and he will.
Our duty is to obey God's clear word. God is altogether holy and reliable. He cannot lie. He is the God of glory, not a dumb idol. Abraham reasoned that God proved reliable so far; thus, he must and would raise up Isaac to fulfill his covenant promises.
As Abraham was about to kill Isaac, God intervened and stopped him. Then God provided a ram for sacrifice, which pointed forward to the son of Isaac, Jesus Christ. But this later ram, Jesus Christ, was not spared from death. He died and was buried, and on the third day he rose from the dead as the Savior of Abraham and the whole world.
The Lord commanded Abraham not to lay a hand on the boy because in purpose and intention, Abraham had already sacrificed Isaac, and God was satisfied. Then God said, "Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son" (Gen. 22:12). Abraham passed the test. He loved God more than Isaac, as God himself certified.
The Secret of Abraham's Faith
The secret of Abraham's faith is revealed in Hebrews 11:10, 14, 16. In verse 10 we read, "For he was looking forward to the city whose foundations whose architect and builder is God."
Abraham truly trusted in God. He was not believing so that he could become healthy, wealthy, and powerful in this world. He was not looking to build a city in Canaan and dwell there. Yes, Abraham was looking for a city, but it was the city of God-a heavenly city designed and built by God himself, a city that cannot be conquered and destroyed, an everlasting city with foundations (Ps. 87:1).
That is why Abraham did not return to Ur of the Chaldees. That is why he did not join Lot in going to live in Sodom. That is why he dwelt in tents and lived as a stranger and pilgrim. He was longing for a home country (Heb. 11:14). He was longing for a heavenly city that is better than all the impermanent cities of this world.
Like Jesus, Abraham considered all the glories and splendors of the kingdoms of this world as less than nothing. Jesus asked, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matt. 16:27). Paul speaks in the same fashion: "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things . . . Not that I have already obtained all this or have already been made perfect. But I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead" (Phil. 3:8, 12).
In Hebrews 12 we find a description of this city: "But you have come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God" (v. 22). Look at verse 28: "Therefore since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken." Unlike all the cities of the world, this God-ruled city is unshakable. It is the rock that Daniel speaks of, that signifies the kingdom of God coming down from heaven, striking at the cities and kingdoms of this world and destroying them (Dan. 2:34-35, 44-45).
We are fools if we put our hope in the cities of this world: "For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come" (Heb. 13:14). All the kingdoms and cities of the world are shakable; the city of God alone is unshakable. "For God has prepared a city for them" (Heb. 11:16). This city is already prepared for our enjoyment that we may dwell in it and be governed by God. Paul writes, "'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.' But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:9).
God has prepared a city for his people. If you are going through trials, listen to the comforting words of Jesus Christ: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am" (John 14:1-3). He is speaking about the city of God, which is the very presence of God, the place of everlasting happiness.
The final destiny of the people of God is to dwell with God. Jesus declares, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him . . . If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our abode with him" (John 14:21, 23). Jesus elsewhere tells us, "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world'" (Matt. 25:34).
The Hebrews writer thus exhorts us, "Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess" (Heb. 3:1). Lift your eyes to the hills, to the heavenly country, to the heavenly city. Lift up your eyes and see Jesus, as Stephen saw him. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2). Paul writes, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us . . . .Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporal but what is unseen is eternal" (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:16). Our citizenship is in heaven.
The city of God is God and his people. It is life eternal: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3). It is God dwelling with man and man with God. Look at Revelation 21: "I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride, beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more pain, crying, mourning, death, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:1-4). This is the new heaven and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matt. 5:8).
In Hebrews 11:16 the writer says God was so proud of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they lived by faith in God that he was not ashamed to be called their God. God will honor those who honor him. God loves to be known as our God.
What is our inheritance? It is not Ur of Chaldees or Sodom or wherever we now live. God is our inheritance, and we are his. Someday we too will dwell with God in the new heavens and the new earth, in the city of God. Henry Francis Lyte wrote: "It is not for me seeking my bliss and building my hopes in a region like this. I look for a city which hands have not piled, I pant for a country by sin undefiled." May God help us to trust in Christ, that we may live with him forever in everlasting bliss.
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Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
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