Abraham’s Faith

One of my students brought this dilemma to my attention today: how can Paul say that Abraham “did not weaken in faith” (Romans 4:19) in considering his age and Sarah’s barrenness; that “no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God” (Romans 4:20); and that he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21), given Abraham’s record of faithlessness in the Genesis account? God makes a promise to Abraham concerning his offspring in Genesis 15. In chapter 16, he sleeps with Hagar—how is that not an instance of weakening in faith concerning “the barrenness of Sarah’s womb”? Then in chapter 17, he laughs at God’s promise of a son, citing his and Sarah’s advanced age as grounds for his doubt. In what way is this an expression of being “fully convinced” that God would keep his promises?

I see only a few options in understanding this apparent inconsistency. One, we could throw inerrancy out the window. Paul was either deceived, or he was lying, or his desire to make an example from Abraham made him whitewash history. In any case, it’s some kind of historical revisionism, and Paul was just wrong. Two, we can try to reinterpret the actions of Abraham in the Old Testament so it looks like he has faith. I’m not sure how some of these narratives could be interpreted to make Abraham look good, but it’s an option. Three, we could play the wild card of biblical interpretation and say that Paul had access to a greater knowledge of Abraham, somehow revealed to him by God. Paul says it, so whatever we think or see in Genesis, Abraham was a man of faith.

I’d rather look through door #4. I think understanding Paul’s evaluation of Abraham’s life of faith and not faith is a tremendous comfort for us in doubt. We have a clear picture of Abraham as a man who trusted God enough to leave his home, who believed God’s promise of a son, and who allowed his faith in God’s word and ways to shape his life profoundly. And yet, Abraham was a doubter. His doubt led him to lie repeatedly about his relationship with his wife, to seek to fulfill God’s promise his own way, and to laugh with disbelief when God made a clear promise about his near future. I don’t think Paul was ignorant of this, or sought to cover it up. And I don’t think he was flat-out wrong about his evaluation of Abraham.

So what are we to make of this, that Paul and other New Testament authors use Abraham as the quintessential example of Christian faith? I think, as I said, that this grounds for incredible comfort. God knows that we are sinful, doubting little creatures. We are not strong in faith. He directs us to trust him, and is worthy of our faith, and is patient with us in our lack of faith. In fact, Sarah’s journey of faith is, I think, the same that we all make. First, we laugh (read: scoff) when God makes promises. It is hard to believe that God gives life and joy in the face of so much seeming evidence to the contrary. And when God makes good on his promises, we laugh again, but this time in relief and humility and joy. 

Abraham and Sarah were not perfectly faithful, but even in their unbelief, they were directed toward God. They struggled with God in belief and in unbelief. How often, I wonder, do we turn from God in shame or indifference because of unbelief, rather than use that doubt to turn to God as the One with whom we have to do in faith and in doubt? I think it is when we adopt the posture of the possessed boy’s father in the Gospel that we will be “children of faithful Abraham.”

The Wisdom of Deacons

The appointment of deacons in Acts and the subsequent story of Stephen is an interesting bit of Scripture.

In Acts chapter 6, Greek believers in the church found that their widows were not being looked after with the same care and frequency as Jewish widows. The twelve apostles thought that the task of looking after the needs of the church, while not being so important as to take them away from their task of preaching and prayer, was nevertheless so important it necessitated the creation of a new office in the church. You may think that the only thing needed in men who were supposed to hand out food would be a sense of honesty and the ability to count. But here is the job description the apostles give: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty (Acts 6:3). So let it be said, so let it be done. Seven deacons.

Then the story shifts to follow Stephen, who will be martyred in the next chapter. He’s described as being full of faith and the Spirit, full of grace and power. He speaks with wisdom and the Spirit, and he performs signs and wonders among the people. Naturally, therefore, the religious leaders snatch him.

When Stephen is falsely accused and stands before the religious leaders to make his defense, we see the wisdom that make him a candidate for deaconry in the first place. I see eight facets of Stephen’s wisdom in Acts 7:

  1. His respect. Stephen has just been falsely accused by some of the most notorious rats in history. I mean, the religious leaders were bad in the Gospels, but in Acts they’re downright skeevy. And when called upon to make a defense, Stephen addresses them as “brothers and fathers.” We know he has some choice things to say about them, and he gets there by the end of his speech, but he doesn’t insult where he doesn’t have to. That’s wise.
  2. His calm. Similarly, Stephen is calm and collected. I’m not sure what is meant by “his face was like the face of an angel,” at the end of chapter 6, but Stephen is certainly collected and in possession of himself in chapter 7. He doesn’t jump to his defense, or to counterattack. He respectfully begins to construct an argument, taking the time to develop a common understanding of the redemptive-historical narrative of which the present has become a part.
  3. His knowledge of the Bible’s facts. Wisdom isn’t limited to Bible facts, but it certainly is wise to have that knowledge to hand, just as it is wise to go camping with matches and a flashlight. Stephen has spent time learning the Bible, so that now, when he is called upon to speak, he can do so in an informed manner.
  4. His knowledge of the Bible’s meaning. More than facts, Stephen has an understanding of what the Bible means—what its major episodes are, and the salient features of those episodes for the point he’s trying to make.
  5. His knowledge of the Bible’s purpose. Going even further, Stephen that the Scriptures events and patterns point beyond themselves to Jesus Christ. He sees that Israel’s story points towards and is ultimately caught up in something far greater than Israel, and he is able to communicate that to his audience.
  6. His ability to interpret present events. Stephen is able to read the times and to see that what is happening now is downstream of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which is what the entire Old Testament was pointing toward. He sees correlations between events in the Old Testament and his present and makes correct judgments about those correlations.
  7. His moral discernment. Having made his case from history, Stephen shows discernment in seeing through the veil of moral rectitude and superiority that the religious leaders have put up to the moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy that characterizes them.
  8. His courageous and prophetic stand. Wisdom is right understanding wedded to right action, and Stephen’s wisdom goes beyond an ability to read people and the Bible. Having made his case, Stephen ends his speech by calling the religious leaders to account for their sin and their failure to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. He sticks it to them, not because he is angry or afraid or defensive, but because that’s what prophets do—they take God’s word and hold the world up to its standard.

Stephen was quite a man, and shows an incredible heart of wisdom, and he was a deacon. We still have deacons today in our churches, often, it seems, chosen because they’re good with a hammer or have a strong back. What would it look like if we sought deacons who not only had the ability to care for the congregation, but the wisdom to know when and how to best carry out that care?

Much Too Holy, And Not Holy Enough

The Bible is a holy book—the holy book, in point of fact. It’s the only one we’ve got, as far as holy books are concerned (I once had a pastor tell me that William Young’s The Shack should be considered a holy book, but that’s a different post). So what does that mean for our reading and reception of it?

To be holy is to be dedicated or reserved for God’s service. But it means one thing for a bowl in the temple to be dedicated for God’s service, and another for a priest in the temple to be dedicated for God’s service. They’re both dedicated, both holy—but that holiness is expressed, as it were, in different ways.

Both weddings and funerals can be holy, but that doesn’t mean they should share the same playlist.

For the Bible to be dedicated to God’s service means that it does what God intended it to do—that it is a witness to the work of reconciliation. And the Bible does this in its own unique and infallible way.

Here’s my point. I think that Bible-believing Evangelicals who have a high respect for God’s Word can sometimes treat it as though everything it says is serious, normal, and unsurprising. It’s the kind of seriousness with which we treat sacred things. But if you show up to a wedding and think that because this covenant is a sacred thing, you must not laugh or cheer or whoop when the newly-married couple kisses at the end, you misunderstand sacred things.

The Bible is holy. It has been dedicated for God’s service, and that service is telling you and me about God’s work of salvation in Christ. In order to do that, to diagnose and expose our sin and show us how we may be saved, the Bible says some surprising, counterintuitive, strange things. Therefore, certain qualities must be cultivated in order to revere the Bible as holy, that is, to understand it as ordained by God for the purpose of understanding its message. Humor, surprise, and the ability to recognize irony are some which come to mind.

Treating the Bible as holy means laughing when Jesus does the bit about the Pharisees and the camel, weeping when Isaac asks his father where the sacrifice has got to, gasping in surprise when Samuel actually shows up to talk to Saul, and so on and so on. the Bible is a weird, funny, surprising, unexpected book. If we can’t recognize some of these little non sequiturs, how can we feel and communicate full force of what the Bible is meant to communicate? The uncreated and undying Son of God was born, lived, and died to make his enemy his bride. To see that, to understand it, and to feel the impact of it—that’s what it means to revere the Bible as holy.

Storybook Reversals

I still think that, for building a story which is all at once profound and hilarious, cogent and incredibly goofy, nobody does it like Terry Pratchett. In his Discworld novel Moving Pictures, a parody of the early film industry, the climax (SPOILER COMING, if you care to read Pratchett) presents a fifty-foot tall woman carrying a gibbering ape up the side of a ‘skyscraper,’ in a development which is entirely organic to the story. Fantastic.

A similar non sequitur occurs in the first (and only worthwhile) Shrek film. It plays on all our expectations for that kind of story: a valiant prince journeys forth with his sidekick, slays the dragon, rescues the princess, breaks the curse, marries her and lives with her happily ever after. But in Shrek, the hero is an ogre, the sidekick marries the dragon, and ‘love’s true form’ ends up being the form of an ogre for the princess. It’s full of that kind of dramatic reversal.

There’s something about the reversal of our expectations in stories which strikes us as hilarious, surprising, shocking, or profound. And it’s not limited to satire or comedy; examples abound in literature—and in Scripture, as it turns out.

At the beginning of the book of Ruth, the author tells us that the following events take place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). Then, after the initial context, we find that this is a story about two widowed women, one of whom is a foreigner, living in Israel. You don’t have to have a degree in literary criticism to know what will happen next. The last few episodes of the book of Judges paint a vivid picture of what happens to women in Israel during this period of time.

So we’re on the edge of our seats, so to speak, when the story gets rolling. And then Ruth goes to glean, and catches the eye of Boaz. Yikes, we think. Is this a wife-stealing story, or a raped-to-death story? Either way, it’s not looking good. But then Boaz treats Ruth kindly, and makes sure his workers do the same. Whew! Scandal avoided. But then, in yet another twist, Ruth’s dirty-minded mother-in-law tells Ruth to go to Boaz alone, late at night, after he has been working hard and drinking. Not the best recipe for sexual purity, but we all know what a girl’s gotta do to get ahead in Israel these days. And then the plot hits yet another switchback, and Boaz doesn’t end up touching Ruth until they’re all legal and everything has been done up according to Levite marriage law, sandal and everything.

If you watch Shrek enough, you may cease to be surprised that Fiona turns into an ogre at the end (Sorry about the spoiler, but it’s been, like, 20 years). But you shouldn’t; the reversal is a key part of the story. So it is in Ruth, and Jonah, and Abraham, and so many other narratives in the Bible. When the disciples get to the tomb and see it lying empty, we should gasp in surprise.

Don’t forget that the gospel is a story—the best story. The “what?!” at the crucifixion and the bigger “WHAT?!” at the resurrection—these are a part of the story too.

Yahweh’s Triumphal Entry

Two of the four gospels mention in their account of the Triumphal Entry that Jesus rode upon a colt “on which no one has ever yet sat” (Mark 11:2; see also Luke 19:29). The colt is a fulfilment of prophecy (Zechariah 9:9), but what’s the significance of a new colt? Perhaps it alludes to Jesus’ divine control over nature, similar to the calming of the storm (Mark 4:35-41). More likely, it calls back to the Old Testament, where only those animals who had never known a yoke were fit for divine service (Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 21:3). In calling for this kind of animal, Jesus is asserting the divinity of his mission, and possibly hinting at his coming atonement for sins– he too was to be a sacrifice without blemish.

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