HOW GOD CHOSE AN OBSCURE, SEVENTY-FIVE-YEAR OLD, IDOLATOR, WHO COULDN’T HAVE CHILDREN, TO BECOME THE FATHER OF A GREAT NATION
ABRAHAM IS CENTRAL TO REDEMPTION HISTORY. Few biblical characters are more important. He was the first Jew. In fact, he is the father of all Believers, both Jew and Gentile. If Abraham is not your father, you are not one of God’s children. Abraham is at the center of God’s story.
Therefore, it should surprise us that God chose Abraham for this office. Yes, Abraham was descended from Noah’s favored son, Seth, and Egypt was descended from Ham, a son under God’s curse. Nevertheless, Abraham was a childless, unknown shepherd from a minor clan in an obscure nation.
The preeminent civilization at the time, the world power, was Egypt. You or I would have chosen a prince of Egypt, or probably even the Pharaoh himself. But in typical fashion, God bypassed the great and mighty. He wasn’t interested in a celebrity. Instead, he chose a seventy-five-year-old idol worshipper.
Think about the insanity of this. God could have picked a young man, full of vitality, able to have children, from a significant family and a prominent city. It is totally upside down. The lesson is clear: God didn’t select Abraham because of his merits. He chose Abraham precisely because he lacked merit. God chose Abraham because he was weak. God expresses his power through human weakness.
Why Abraham was a bad idea
Abraham was a bad idea. As we have noted, he was an old man. There were thousands of twenty-five-year-olds available, brimming with energy and vitality.
Abraham was a bad idea for a second reason. He lacked faith. Ironically, God chose an unbeliever to become the Father of faith. We know Abraham didn’t believe because Joshua wrote that while Abraham’s clan lived in Ur “They served other gods” (24:2). The men in Abraham’s village worshipped the sun, the moon, and other idols. In fact, archeological digs of Ur have uncovered the charred bones of infants offered as human sacrifices. Did Abraham do this? Perhaps
Abraham was a bad idea for a third reason. God chose him to be the father of a great nation, but his wife was barren. In fact, when Abraham was ninety-nine and it had been 24 years since he promised Abraham a son, and Sarah was still barren, God appeared to him and changed his name from Abram to Abraham which means the “father of a great multitude” (Genesis 17:5).
This is God’s pattern. He does the same with all who believe. He chooses us in order to create good works in us. “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
Abraham’s story is one of God making and fulfilling a promise to Abraham that could never come to pass through human effort alone.
Here is how it happened. One day, when Abraham was probably minding his own business, out of the clear blue, God made himself known.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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. 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.” (Genesis 12:1–3).
This paragraph contains two major promises. First, “I will make of you a great nation.” Second, I will bless the world through that nation. Nationhood implies land. So a promise of land follows. It also implies children. You can’t become a great nation without heirs. So a promise of descendants also follows.
God asks Abraham to do two things. First, believe. Despite being a seventy-five-year-old childless male, he must believe that God can and will do this.
Second, he must act on that belief. God asks him to leave his father, and his extended clan, and go to a land that God will show him. God doesn’t tell him where that land is. “He went out not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). He doesn’t even tell him when he will fulfill the promise. Instead, he asks Abraham to place massive trust in God’s great goodness, power, and willingness to bring these promises to pass.
Abraham’s conversion is a prototype of yours and mine. There is no other kind. From Genesis to Revelation this is God’s pattern for every believer. Trust me. Act on that trust. Follow me blindly. I will explain the details later.
Abraham starts well
As so often happens after a dramatic conversion, Abraham started well. He responded with amazing faith, but it meant big-time sacrifice. Remember, this was 2,000 BC. There were no nations or nation states. The family and clan of his father, Terah, were the only social world he had ever known. It was his identity, his meaning, and the source of his security. In addition, roads were just dirt trails through the dusty desert. Water was scarce. While traveling its lack was a constant problem. Nevertheless, God asked Abraham to leave all this, to forsake his father’s house, and go to an unknown land, a three or four-month journey by camel through robber infested lands, located on some as-yet-undisclosed horizon.
Again, Abraham’s age is a crucial fact. He was in the fourth quarter of life. Old men do not like to take big risks. I understand that: I am seventy. Risks are for the young. The elderly want security and an ordered life. They are generally hunkering down for a soft landing before the end of life. But in this case, God asked an old man to make big changes, to take big risks, and act with the energy and purpose of a twenty-five-year-old. Amazingly, Abraham accepted the challenge. He went forth in faith following God.
God Builds Abraham’s faith
Several months passed. He has now made the long camel journey. He has left his father’s house. He has arrived at the Land of Promise, God’s destination. Months of silence must have passed. Then God appeared to him again, this time specifically confirming the implied promise of children. “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7).
After an undisclosed time, a famine struck the Land. In need of food Abraham went down to Egypt. When the Pharaoh saw his wife, Sarah, he was smitten. He wanted her for his harem. Although God had promised to bless those who bless him and curse those that dishonor him, our hero’s faith wavered. He feared Pharaoh more than God. When asked if Sarah was his wife, he answered, “she is my sister”—a half-truth. (Sarah was actually his half-sister). But not the whole truth. Sarah was also his wife.
Abraham’s behavior was especially culpable. Remember, God just promised him a miracle baby. “To your descendants I will give this land.” What if Pharaoh slept with Sarah and she conceived? How would that affect God’s promises?
Meanwhile, Pharaoh, grateful to Abraham for the gift of his “sister,” enriched him with “sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels” (Genesis 12:16).
Like you and me Abraham was weak. His fear of the seen, Pharaoh, was greater than his fear of the unseen, God and his promises. His faith failed. But God is not like Abraham. His promises never fail. Remember, he had promised to bless Abraham, not because of his virtues, but in spite of their absence. So God intervened. He showed Pharaoh that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, and that touching her would be adultery. In fear Pharaoh returned Sarah and sent Abraham back to Canaan.
Nevertheless, despite his cowardice and unbelief, Abraham returned to the Promised Land “very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2).
What had happened? Even though Abraham had failed, God had remained faithful. He had gone before Abraham. He “blessed those who blessed Abraham and cursed those willing to curse Abraham.” He had protected his servant. At this Abraham’s trust and faith took a huge leap forward. God builds our faith in exactly the same way. Our faith grows as we watch God remain faithful even though we are not.
A second event amplified Abraham’s faith even further. Ten years passed, and Sarah had still not conceived. Abraham is now eighty-five. Sarah’s menstrual cycle has long ago ceased. Humanly speaking, conception is impossible. So, Sarah decided to help God. “The Lord has prevented me from having children,” she told her husband. “Go into my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Genesis 16:2). Sarah’s servant was Hagar, an Egyptian, a descendant of Ham. Remember, Gods curse is on Ham and his descendants. Hagar may have been one of the “female servants” given to Abraham by Pharaoh when he was in Egypt (Genesis 12:16).
But Abraham made a big mistake. He ignored God’s curse on Ham and his descendants. He listened to Sarah instead of God. When Abraham was eighty-six, Hagar gave birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Like most older men that have their first child, Abraham must have spoiled Ishmael. He probably loved him extravagantly. He must have assumed that Sarah was right. Ishmael was the promised son. Thirteen years passed. Abraham was now ninety-nine, and Ismael was thirteen.
But, God merely watched and waited.
When Abraham was 99, God broke into his life again. He came to Abraham and told him to circumcise himself and all the males in his household (Genesis 17). Why? Because going forward circumcision would be the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
Then God announced that the promises would not come through thirteen-year-old Ishmael. Instead, within twelve months Sarah will conceive and bear a son. For the first time God attached a date to the promise. Then to emphasize this truth, God changed his name from Abram to Abraham which means “The father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4). In disbelief Abraham fell on his face in laughter, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? (Genesis 17:17).”
Why did God make circumcision the sign of the covenant? Think about the ridiculousness of this. First, it was very painful. There was no anesthesia. Second, there would be infections. There were no antibiotics. Third, God asks Abraham to mutilate the most private, sensitive organ on his body, making a covenant sign that no one would be able to see? Why not a tattoo on the right shoulder, or a special ring in the nose?
Many attempts have been made to explain circumcision, but the best is probably the obvious. Isaac was a miracle baby. One-hundred-year-old couples can’t have children. It’s physically impossible. If Sarah conceives it will be obvious to all that it was a miracle. The mutilation of the organ through which the seed of life will pass into Sarah will constantly remind Abraham, and the Jewish people, that they live not by their natural strength and power, but by the supernatural strength and power of God. God plans to bless the world through a weak people, fathered by a weak man, and this will not happen through natural human strength alone. God will save through weakness. Theologian, Thomas Schreiner sums it up well.
The rite of circumcision… reminded Abraham and his descendants daily that the many nations to descend from him could not be ascribed to his virility but only to the grace of God.
God has tested Abraham, and his faith has failed. It failed with Pharaoh. It failed with Hagar, and now at age 100 it fails again. Both Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:12) laugh in disbelief at the news that they will conceive a son. Nevertheless, God has been faithful to his promises. He has protected Abraham. He has led him, and now he is preparing to give him and Sarah a miracle baby.
Through all of this Abraham’s trust in God has grown. When his faith failed in the affair with Hagar, did God abandon Abraham? No, despite Abraham’s unbelief, God remained true to his promises. So again Abraham has learned that even when he fails, God continues in faithful constancy. He has also learned to fear God because his unbelief has produced painful consequences. It must have ripped his heart out to send Ishmael, the boy he so dearly loved, away into the wilderness from Isaac.
God has also taught Abraham to live by faith not reason. If we won’t believe without a rational explanation from God we will never inherit the faith of Abraham. If we need reasons to obey, God would have told Abraham where he was taking him when they departed from Ur. He would have told him up front that the promised child wouldn’t come for twenty-five years. But God has not told Abraham more than he needed for the next step of faith. He has taught Abraham to live by faith in God’s goodness not his circumstances. Abraham has learned to trust God even when God’s commands seems crazy.
And that brings us to Isaac. About fifteen years after his birth God came to Abraham again.
“God tested Abraham …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 22:1–2).
Here God asks Abraham to do something utterly counter-intuitive—sacrifice the son I promised you as a burnt offering. Remember, the promises can’t come to pass if Isaac dies. For God to keep his promises, Isaac must live and have children.
Now we see the effect of God’s previous testing and discipline. Abraham’s faith and trust has become so complete that he is even willing to sacrifice Isaac. Why? Because in the words of Hebrews, he “believes that God [is] able to raise him from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19). So great has Abraham’s faith become that he knows he can slay Isaac, and God will raise him from the dead rather than break his promises. So, Abraham takes his knife, and Isaac, and heads for the land of Moriah.
What has happened? A seventy-five-year old idolater, without faith, who is unable to have children, from an unknown clan and unimportant village has become a towering edifice of faith. From this point forward Abraham will be known as the “Father Abraham,” the father of faith. This is what it looks like when God expresses his strength through human weakness.
Throughout history God consistently chooses the weak, the indecisive, and the inconsistent. He turns their weakness into strengths, and through those weaknesses, now strengths, God expresses his power. When it is all said and done no one has any doubts about who deserves the credit—God is the hero of the story.
Is Abraham’s experience with God typical of the way he deals with Believers today? Yes! Abraham’s life confirms the truth that the work of sanctification is a work of reduction. By the time we reach Genesis 22 where God asked Abraham to offer up Isaac, Abraham had learned to trust himself little and God much. Why? His weaknesses made him painfully aware of his failures. But his weaknesses also made him joyfully aware of God’s great love and faithfulness. Abraham died exulting in the fact that God was so good that he was willing to love and use Abraham despite the fact that Abraham was not worthy. This is the normal progress of sanctification.
“Abraham’s life confirms the truth that the work of sanctification is a work of reduction.”
God’s work of sanctification exposes the pride of the proud and motivates them to pursue humility. God’s work of sanctification reveals the holes in our faith, making us aware of our growing inadequacy even as we grow in faith. God’s work of sanctification motivates self-confident men and women to transfer their confidence to God. Fearful men become fearless. Self-hating men learn to value themselves as God values them. When God is done with us, we think more highly of God and less highly of our self. This is the pattern. This is where the Holy Spirit always leads God’s children—downward.
Last, this means that it is a good thing to boast in our weaknesses. As we noted in Part 1 of this series, Paul wrote that “he boasted in his weakness” three times. How about us? Do we boast in our weaknesses?
Boasting is never an excuse for our sins and failings. It does not mean giving into them. Rather it means fighting and hating them with all of our strength. However, when we fail, it is the sweet assurance that God is using our weaknesses for his glory and our good. (Romans 8:28). What a blessing to know this. What joy to know that we can actually glory in our weaknesses rather than hate ourselves for them.
God took an obscure, seventy-five-year-old, who couldn’t have children, with weak faith, and made him the father of the greatest nation in history—in fact the Father of Faith. If God was able to do this with Abraham, what will he be able to do with you and me?
Boast in your
 All Christians are Sons of Abraham. Because they are in Christ, and Jesus was a Son of Abraham, God considers everyone who believes the gospel to be a Son of Abraham.
 Dr. Thomas Schreiner. Covenant And God’s Purpose for the World, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017) pg. 48