by William M. Banks, Scotland
The importance of Abraham can be gauged by the number of times he is referred to in our Bible. The name “Abraham” is used no fewer than 250 times in 230 verses in our Authorised Version, of which 160 verses are in the Old Testament, with 176 references, and 70 verses in the New Testament, with a total of 74 references. In addition, there are 73 references to “Abram”, in 50 verses; 48 of these verses occur between Gen.11.26 and 17.5. The other two are in 1Chronicles and Nehemiah. (Throughout this chapter reference will always be to “Abraham” even if “Abram” is in the text). Not surprisingly the vast majority of references to both appellations are in the book of Genesis (193, in 166 verses) with the next largest in the Epistle to the Hebrews, with 10 references, in 10 verses. For comparison, there is a total of 132 references to Isaac, in 123 verses; 377 references to Jacob, in 345 verses; and 250 references to Joseph, in 229 verses.
It is altogether fitting that a book on Divine call to service should begin with Abraham. He is perhaps the first individual in Scripture about whom there can be no doubt of the reality of his call. Equally, there can be no question about the variety of his service. In addition, the Lord Jesus made it abundantly clear that worship is intimately related to service. Worship has priority over service and is a necessary ingredient of it: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve” Matt.4.10. This means that no matter the sphere of service to which we are called it should be preceded by worship; and in its implementation, worship should be the necessary motivating factor. This is the case in all service: ministry, gospel preaching, or indeed any other aspect of assembly witness.
As examples of this necessity, there was a lament in the days of Asa that “for a long season Israel hath been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law” 2Chr.15.3. The teacher should be conscious that he is engaged in priestly activity. The apostle Paul made it clear in Rom.1.9 that he regarded his gospel preaching as a priestly ministry: “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son”. The word for “serve” here is that for ‘religious service’, translated as “worship” in Phil.3.3. Rom.15.16 has the same connotation. The gospel preacher should be conscious that he is engaged in priestly activity. In essence, priestly interest should be at the heart of all service no matter its nature.
All of this priority is beautifully exemplified in the case of Abraham. He is the Old Testament patriarch who erected four altars and about whom is the first reference to worship in the Authorised Version, Gen.22.5: “And Abraham said unto his young men, ‘Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.’” The word here for worship means ‘to prostrate reflexively in homage to royalty or God’. It is fitting, therefore, that the life and ministry of Abraham as a worshipper starts a new section in the Book of Genesis. Indeed, the moral order seen in the life of the patriarchs is most enlightening. Abraham had four altars, Isaac had four wells, Jacob had four pillars and Joseph had four changes of raiment. Worship, seen in the altars, is followed by a picture of the importance of the Word, typified in the wells. The importance of witness, or service, is seen in the pillars, but only issuing from a background of worship regulated by saturation in the Word. The result is surely a walk of consistent character, as seen in the garments. Observe too in passing that we have here in Genesis one book about four men at the beginning of the Old Testament, whereas we have four books about one Man at the beginning of the New Testament! “In all things He might have the preeminence” Col.1.18.
The call of Abraham is referred to in a large number of Scriptures. This highlights the important place the Spirit of God gives to it. It is accompanied by many important lessons for God’s people today. As we will see, it is not sufficient to see a need and feel an ability to meet it. Our sphere of service should be the result of a definite Divine call, no matter how menial we deem that service to be. Prayer, waiting upon God in worship (the altar) with an open Bible (the well) for guidance, will lead to devoted witness (the pillar) on the basis of a walk (the garments), dignified and beautified by a separated life. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, ‘Thy God reigneth!’” Isa.52.7.
The Place and the People from Which He Was Called – Gen.12.1; Acts 7.2,3; Josh.24.3
A comparison of the above Scriptures indicates clearly the place and the people from which God had called Abraham, and also the relative time frames when the call was given. It is clear from Stephen’s address in Acts 7.2,3 that the initial call was given while Abraham was in Ur of the Chaldees: “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, and said unto him, ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee.’” The location is further confirmed in Josh.24.3: “I took your father Abraham from the other side of the flood, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac.”
It is possible that there was an additional call, in Haran, as hinted at in Gen.12.1: “Now the Lord had said unto Abram, ‘Get [an imperative] thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee”. This may refer to the initial call given in Ur, but it is more likely that it refers to a further call, given in Haran. The addition of “from thy father’s house” is interesting, appearing to indicate the need for a complete break from his father’s house. It seems that the initial response to the call of God was partial and further encouragement was necessary.
The sequence in the call goes from the less intimate to the more intimate. He had left his “country” and his “kindred” (this word could be referring to his more distant relatives, or perhaps it means ‘birthplace’) but leaving the hierarchical link with his father (and others in his father’s house) had been incomplete. Fathers had a special place of total respect in those days, especially in the east. In the end, after further encouragement, the obedience was complete: country, kindred and father’s house were all left.
The sacrifice was substantial. The final destination was not immediately revealed. The distance travelled (around five hundred miles) was considerable and the way dangerous, as we learn from the Books of Ezra (8.21-23) and Nehemiah (2.5-9). There was no initial hesitation, even if there was a delay later. Problems were not listed, nor, apparently, anticipated, in spite of the large and wealthy family involved! Striking camp each evening must have been a major achievement night after night, week after week and month after month!
The lesson for us today is very clear. The response of Abraham to the call of God was an act of faith, as we learn from Heb.11.8: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” Faith in this connection has been defined as “heart obedience to the revelation of God”. The call today is through the revelation given in the inspired Word. God expects the same heart obedience to the call.
As we have seen, Abraham’s obedience was not total in the first instance. It is good to know that further revelation was given. God did not give up. Perhaps so far our obedience has been partial. Perhaps God is calling again, knowing the heart strings that bind us to our “father’s house” are strong. Full obedience to Divine revelation is expected by God. The end result may not be revealed immediately: it was “unto a land that I will shew thee”. Abraham had never seen the end result; it was hidden from him till obedience was complete. It has been pointed out that in Heb.11.8 Abraham went out ‘not knowing where’, while in v.17 he obeyed the call of God in relation to Isaac ‘not knowing why’.
In both cases obedience to the Divine call was costly. It is no different today. The path of discipleship calls for similar obedience and sacrifice. Christ has to come before family and self: “If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” Lk.14.26. Abraham had to learn this important lesson, as we have seen. The need for separation is also emphasised by our Lord: “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple” Lk.14.27. “The cross is not some physical infirmity or mental anguish, but is a pathway of reproach, suffering, loneliness, and even death which a person voluntarily chooses for Christ’s sake.”1 The discipleship criteria recorded by Luke contain a further extremely demanding ‘negative’ aspect: “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple” Lk.14.33: the Divine call does not lead to a ‘bed of roses’! The response of Abraham involved all these factors; the call today involves no less.
- 1. MacDonald, William. “Believer’s Bible Commentary”. Thomas Nelson, USA, 1995.
The Promises Accompanying the Call – Gen.12.2,3
These promises form one of the common heptads (groups of seven) of the Bible: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” The repetition of “will” (three times) and the idea of ‘blessing’ (five times) should be noted. God’s promises are assured (“I will”) and bring with them benefits for the recipient (“blessing”). The first three promises (“I will make of thee a great nation … bless thee … make thy name great”) are in the imperfect tense (which, in Hebrew, indicates their abiding nature); the fourth (“thou shalt be a blessing”) is in the imperative (“be thou a blessing” Newberry margin).
The first of these promises, “I will make of thee a great nation”, is of particular significance in the fact that the nation of Israel has been an abiding reality when other mighty nations have come and gone. In fact, the continuing existence of the nation of Israel when the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire and a host of others have disappeared is a testament to the reality of the inspiration of the Scriptures.
The following two promises, “I will bless thee, and make thy name great”, are personal. These promises have been effected in the experience of Abraham. The former was known by Abraham during his service; the latter is in evidence even today, with the nation still revering his name, as it did during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus. The very fact that this book is containing lessons from his call and service is confirmation of the ongoing effectiveness of these two promises and the implementation of the fourth, “thou shalt be a blessing”.
The three final promises that conclude the heptad are relative in nature indicating the importance of right thinking in relation to this great man, and the fact that “all families of the earth [will] be blessed” as a result of the obedience of Abraham. This will be seen and known during the Millennial Kingdom.
The lessons are again clear: obedience to the call of God will bring both personal and relative blessing. We can be assured that the promises for obedience to the call of God will be fully implemented. Surely one of the greatest of these is given in Matt.28.18-20: “‘All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway [‘all the days’ J.N.D.], even unto the end of the world.’ Amen.” The promise of the presence of the all-powerful Christ is assured no matter the geographical location of the service. This service is in making disciples, and teaching them comprehensively. The promise is effective till the consummation of the age.
The Purpose for Which He Was Called
There were several reasons for the call of Abraham. The intention here is to look at two of those reasons that lie on the surface. The first focuses on the Divine covenant in relation to the land while the second indicates the comfort from this assurance.
The Covenant Promising the Land – Neh.9.7,8
The purpose indicated here was that God was going to make a covenant with Abraham in relation to the land to which he was called. “Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham; and foundest his heart faithful before Thee, and madest a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Jebusites, and the Girgashites, to give it, I say, to his seed, and hast performed Thy words; for Thou art righteous” Neh.9.7,8. This covenant has never been abrogated and we can be assured it will be fully implemented. The verses are an appeal to the faithfulness of God in the context of deep confession, because of the seriousness of the sin committed by God’s people in Nehemiah’s day.
In addition, the verses confirm a great future for the nation of Israel. The very fact that the nation is back in the land of Israel, albeit in unbelief, is already an indication of what God has in store for them. Romans chapters 9-11 are a confirmation of this Divine intention, with chapter 9 a reminder of their sovereign election in the past; chapter 10 is a reminder of their rejection in the present because of their disobedience (see the conclusion in v.21) and unbelief; but chapter 11 focusses on their restoration in the future. The fact of having a land is of course essential to this restoration.
The Comfort to be Realised by the Nation – Isa.51.1-3
The Lord is using Abraham as an encouragement to bring comfort to the righteous: “Hearken to Me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him. For the Lord shall comfort Zion: He will comfort all her waste places; and He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody” Isa.51.1-3. Just as Abraham was blessed and increased, so too would those who were suffering persecution for their righteous living.
The Power with Which He Was Called – Acts 7.2-4
In his martyr’s address Stephen very wisely began with a reference to “our father Abraham”. He knew a reference to Abraham would go down well with his hearers; see Jn.8.33,39 for an illustration of the esteem in which Abraham was held by the Jews. Of course, he was not being patronising, as the balance of his message affirms. His objective in referring immediately to “the God of glory” was to emphasise the power behind the Abrahamic call, but at the same time to indicate the power still available to the nation at the time he was speaking: “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, and said unto him, ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee.’ Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell.”
The glory of God to surpass the glory of the Chaldean idols, and the power of God to lead him to the promised land which he was to be shown were still available to the nation. This was their last opportunity to reverse their verdict enacted at Calvary and for the “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” to be implemented, Acts 3.21. The nation was being given a ‘second opportunity’ to accept their Messiah. It was to be the final opportunity. To receive it there must be a recognition of the glory of God and the power of God to implement it.
Indeed, this idea of a “second time” is fundamental to Stephen’s address. It was the case with Joseph’s brethren: “And at the second time Joseph was made known to his brethren” v.13. Similarly, it was at the second time that Moses was accepted as the deliverer. In the first case, at forty years of age, “he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them [just as his Godly mother had taught him]: but they understood not” v.25. However, “this Moses whom they refused, saying, ‘Who made thee a ruler and a judge?’ the same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the angel which appeared to him in the bush” v.35. He was accepted the second time! What about the nation: would a second time be effective in their experience? Alas not; the refusal was final, henceforth the message would go to the Gentiles and Israel would be set aside. They refused the glory and the power.
But we ask the question: why was a revelation of the glory of God necessary in the case of Abraham? This is very interesting. Abraham lived in one of the most advanced and developed parts of the world at that time. Chaldea was saturated with the ‘glory’ of idolatry. No matter where Abraham turned there would be one idol or another. There were gods aplenty calling for his worship. The religious hierarchy were looking for adherents to their cause. How was Abraham going to be weaned away from the powerful atmosphere of pervading satanic activity? There was a balancing power in the life of Abraham. He was already a man of faith as affirmed by Heb.11.8: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” It is not clear if this faith was shared by all members of his family.
Whether this was the case or not, it is clear that a vision of the glory of God would be a powerful lever in extracting him from his homeland. How he came to faith in Jehovah is not detailed for us, but the buttressing of that faith with a dramatic vision which the appearance of the glory of God must have been in his circumstances, was sufficient to call him to a life of supreme sacrifice and to set him on a mission that was to result in blessing for all mankind. It is a dramatic story. Mission based on vision is the Divine pathway for all of God’s servants, as epitomised in the literal visions of Isaiah (chapter 6 of his prophecy), Ezekiel (chapters 1-3 of his prophecy) and many others, not to miss Moses (in this seventh chapter of Acts).
The Controlling Factor behind the Implementation of His Call – Heb.11.8
This factor has been briefly referred to above but this verse deserves consideration in its own right: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” It has been made clear in the earlier part of Hebrews chapter 11 that “without faith it is impossible to please Him [God]” v.6. Abraham was evidently living a life that brought pleasure to God. It is unlikely that the Divine call to service would come to any believer whose life is not pleasing to God. As will become evident in the subsequent movements of Abraham and our consideration of them, this pleasure would be based on worship. It was the case with Abel, Enoch and Noah, referred to earlier in the same chapter. Indeed, this truth is altogether fundamental and leads us nicely to the next consideration in the life of Abraham.
It is no surprise to learn that Abraham was a man of worship. It both preceded and motivated his service. Indeed, the climax of the evidence of his devotion to God is seen as an act of worship. God said to Abraham, “‘Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’ And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, ‘Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you’” Gen.22.2-5. This is perhaps the greatest act of worship by a mortal man recorded in the Scriptures. This chapter records for us, in v.9, the last of Abraham’s four altars (see later), which emphasise for us the necessity of worship before service and equally its necessity in service. It is worth taking a moment to note that this is the case throughout the Scriptures.
The Priority of Worship
The Lord Jesus, during His temptation by Satan in the wilderness, stated this truth unequivocally: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve” Matt.4.10. This truth is seen no matter where we look in our Bible.
In the Service of the Tabernacle
The priests had priority over the Levites. The priests were associated with the altar and sacrifice. The purpose of the Levites was to serve the priests. This is seen, for example, in Num.3.6,7: “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him. And they shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of the congregation, to do the service of the tabernacle.” This idea is repeated several times in the book of Numbers2 and again emphasises for us the priority of worship in service.
- 2. Banks, William M. “Chapter 12 – The Service of the Tabernacle” , in “The Glory of the Tabernacle” . Assembly Testimony Publications, 2021
In the Conflict with the Enemy
When David went forward to meet Goliath he moved with a worshipful spirit. He was conscious of the greatness of the God Whom he represented: “Then said David to the Philistine, ‘Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands’” 1Sam.17.45-47. It is likely that Psalm 8 was written shortly after the great victory over Goliath.3 That Psalm again celebrates the greatness of God’s name in a paean of glorious worship, not once, but twice over: “O Lord our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth!” Ps.8.1,9. Worship is the basis of success in conflict! How different from the world around!
- 3. Banks, William M. “Chapter 12 – Psalm 8” , in “The Glory of the Messianic Psalms” . Assembly Testimony Publications, 2020.
In the Salvation of the Lost
There is a very interesting order indicated in Psalm 132. In v.9 the priests are clothed with righteousness: “Let Thy priests be clothed with righteousness; and let Thy saints shout for joy”; while in v.16 they are clothed with salvation: “I will also clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy.” Note the repetition of the saints shouting for joy; in the second case shouting “aloud for joy”. The lesson is surely clear. Priestly activity undertaken in righteousness will in itself produce joy, but in leading to the salvation of the lost it brings increased joy. There will be further hearts to worship, and other lips to herald salvation.
Is our lack of appreciation of the teaching lying behind this Psalm one of the reasons for our failure to see sinners bowing with “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” Acts 20.21? Perhaps we should examine our commitment to righteous worship and living, and experience once more the “joy” of the results of devoted service issuing from it.
As observed earlier, it is interesting that the apostle Paul recognised this truth in his evangelistic ministry. In Rom.1.9 he says, “God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son”. The word for “serve” is ‘to minister to God, to worship’. His gospel preaching was an act of worship. Equally, he recognised that his converts were a spiritual offering on the altar to God: “that I should be the minister [a worshipper] of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering [‘carrying on as a sacrificial service’ J.N.D.] the gospel of God, that the offering up [a presentation or sacrifice] of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost” Rom.15.16. This surely adds dignity and seriousness to the presentation of the gospel and means that all forms of frivolity and lightness should be totally absent.
In the Implementation of Mission
It has been well said that “mission should issue from vision”. The vision is again of course the epitome of worship and the mission is the ongoing deployment of service. This principle is seen, for example, in both the ministry of Isaiah and Ezekiel. It is much more than seeing a need and feeling an ability to meet it. Perhaps this has been too much the case in the past. The lack of vision leading to worship as the springboard for service leads to disappointment and likely eventually to despair. Even though neither Isaiah nor Ezekiel were promised ongoing success (indeed, in both cases the opposite was often experienced, as we will see), the worshipful vision on which they moved into service was enough to sustain them.
Isa.6.1-4 was the vision of the holiness of God that propelled Isaiah into service: “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory.’ And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.” John leaves us in no doubt as to the subject of Isaiah’s vision, when quoting from Isaiah chapter 6: “These things said Esaias, when he saw His [Christ’s] glory, and spake of Him” Jn.12.41.
We might have thought that this would have led to immediate success. However, the preceding verse to that quoted above from John chapter 12 tells us: “He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them” Jn.12.40. It seemed such a sad outcome, but having seen the vision and recognised his need for Divine help, Isaiah moved in the power of the vision (he said, “Here am I; send me”) in spite of the apparent prospect of failure in his service. There is an important lesson here: service, even issuing from circumstances of vision and worship, is not always going to lead to a positive outcome.
In Ezekiel’s case he had an unsurpassed vision of the glory of God that left him prostrate on the ground: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake” Ezek.1.28. Based on this vision and his reaction to it, Ezekiel was sent into service. Again, he was not promised unmitigated success: “And he said unto me, ‘Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against Me: they and their fathers have transgressed against Me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, ‘Thus saith the Lord God.’ And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them. And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house. And thou shalt speak My words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear: for they are most rebellious’” Ezek.2.3-7. This is surely an encouragement to a faithful discharge of our ministry in spite of the response of the hearers, provided it issues from vision and worship.
In the Service of Royal Priests
Perhaps the most well-known connection between worship and service with the former having priority is in 1Peter chapter 2. In verse 5 of this chapter believers are seen as holy priests “to offer up” while in v.9 they are seen as royal priests to “shew forth”. Thus, before we show forth in service we offer up in worship. The surface lesson is clear; it would be inappropriate, therefore, to be preaching the gospel publicly without contributing publicly in worship.
A closer examination of the two verses is of interest:
- “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house,
- a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices,
- acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” v.5.
- “But ye are ‘A chosen generation, a royal priesthood,
- a holy nation, a peculiar people;’ that ye should shew forth
- the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness
- into His marvellous light” v.9.
The (1) holy priesthood producing the (2) worship is composed of (3) living stones located in a (4) spiritual house and presenting (5) spiritual sacrifices. In a fivefold contrast the (1) royal priesthood undertaking the (2) service is composed of a (3) chosen generation located, by implication, among the (4) nations and people (but distinct from them as being holy and a peculiar [‘for God’s own possession’ R.V.] people) and (5) showing forth the ‘excellencies’ J.N.D., of Him Who called them “out of darkness into His marvellous light”. The contrast is stark; the location of the one being in the assembly while the location of the other is in the world. But while the contrast is stark, the subject is common: spiritual sacrifices are acceptable to God by [dia, ‘through’] Jesus Christ as the subject and instrument of worship, and equally it is He Who is presented in the publishing or celebration of His excellencies.
The Altars of Abraham
In the case of Abraham his four altars are the evidence of his appreciation of the priority of worship. The altar immediately speaks of sacrifice and thanksgiving and at the same time the necessity of having “somewhat also to offer” Heb.8.3. There were four different locations for the altars:
At Sichem (Shechem) – Gen.12.7
Shechem was the first location to which Abraham came after he entered the land of Canaan, to which he had been called. The altar was built in response to the Divine appearance and the promise of a seed and a land. The revelation of God to Abraham must have come as a welcome confirmation of his step of faith. The revelation of his seed occupying the land in perpetuity was in effect a double further revelation. It was a promise of a seed when Sarai was barren and a welcome verification of his long journey to receive the land of his adoption. The site was to become important to later generations, for example Jacob and Joshua, and it was, therefore, altogether fitting that Abraham recognised the goodness and kindness of God in presenting his thanksgiving and worship to Jehovah in his first entrance to Canaan, by building his first altar.
At Bethel – Gen.12.8
It is not long before Abraham builds his second altar. “And he removed thence towards the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel toward the west, and Ai toward the east; and there he built an altar to Jehovah, and called on the name of Jehovah” Gen.12.8, J.N.D. Mountain experiences in the Scriptures are very often associated with spiritual experiences (compare the mountain scenes in Matthew’s Gospel as examples). It is certainly the case here. The proximity of Bethel is an additional indicator of what we are led to anticipate. Being on a mountaintop, with the “house of God” in vision is surely an appropriate location and experience for worship. It is a very poignant lesson for us. Do we approach the meetings of the assembly from a spiritual perspective, with a view to presenting our worship?
There is an additional important factor here in that the altar was associated with his tent. The link is clear and challenging. The homes of those who are called to Divine service (and indeed all of us) should be places of worship, giving the appropriate springboard for effective service. Perhaps this is one of our main failings today. The altar was built to call “on the name of Jehovah”. The “name” associated with Divine Persons
is an indication of their self-disclosure. In particular the name “Jehovah” is linked with covenant stipulation and it is clear that Abraham in
his worship was keeping close to the God Who had revealed His
glory in Ur and to Whom he was now looking for guidance in his devoted service.
This altar was to have further significance in the life of Abraham when he came “up out of Egypt” Gen.13.1. We will refer to this again later. “And he went on his journeys from the south as far as Bethel; as far as the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai; to the place of the altar that he had made there at the first. And there Abram called on the name of Jehovah” Gen.13.3,4, J.N.D. The place of departure must be the place of recovery: note the double reference to “as far as”. Jehovah is unchanging and He sees and hears again the worship of His servant.
At Hebron – Gen.13.18
Abraham’s third altar was erected at Hebron: “Then Abram moved his tents, and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron. And he built there an altar to Jehovah” Gen.13.18, J.N.D. Mamre and Hebron have positive connotations in the meaning of their names. Mamre means ‘vigour’ (to be seen in the victory in battle in chapter 14) and Hebron means ‘fellowship’ (to be seen in the revelation and ongoing fellowship Abraham enjoyed with Jehovah). The adverb “then” is important. This act of worship was preceded by three important features that gave character to the act:
- A recognition of the importance of brotherhood and the concomitant need for unity, 13.8;
- Selfless action in giving Lot the first choice of location, 13.9-13;
- A confirmatory revelation from Jehovah as to the extent of the land borders which Abraham’s seed would enjoy, 13.14-17.
Thus, a recognition of the meaning of brotherhood and the act of self-denial lead to Divine compensation with worship flowing as a result. The lessons for all servants cannot be misunderstood.
At Moriah – Gen.22.9
The mountain of sacrifice, “the place which God had told him of”, was to be the high-water mark in the experience of Abraham. While some demur, it is likely that this is the very spot where our Lord Jesus “through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God” Heb.9.14. It is certainly an excellent picture of the voluntary sacrifice of Christ, the “only begotten Son” Jn.3.16. “The place” assuredly has sacred connections. It was later the location of Solomon’s Temple and where Jehovah appeared to David after his ignoble decision to number the people: “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem in mount Moriah, where the Lord appeared unto David his father, in the place that David had prepared in the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite” 2Chr.3.1.
No fewer than three times in Genesis chapter 22 is Isaac referred to as “thine only son” vv.2,12,16. The connotation is immediately vibrant with meaning to the believer. No fewer than five times over does the apostle John refer to our Lord Jesus as the “only begotten [monogenes]” Jn.1.14,18; 3.16,18; 1Jn.4.9. It is well worthwhile taking time to read Vine’s4 masterly exegesis of this title. The voluntary submission of Isaac together with the beating but obedient heart of Abraham are a beautiful picture of Son and Father at Calvary. It is the epitome of worship for Abraham. It is at the same time an evidence of his absolute faith in the resurrection of Isaac: “And Abraham said unto his young men, ‘Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you’” Gen.22.5; see also Heb.11.19. The altar was saturated in worship: this is the first time that the word is translated as such in our Authorised Version, and surely this is of deep significance!
- 4. Vine, W.E. “Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words” . World Bible Publishers, Iowa, USA, 1991.
General Lessons from the Four Altars
There is a lovely development of spiritual truth in relation to worship in these four altars. The obedient servant moving out in full response to the call of God has a confirmatory revelation from God. This leads to a recognition of the house of God (Bethel) and a need for affiliation to it and all the significance associated with it; see Genesis chapter 28. All further service must have the assembly as its focal point and driving force. Fellowship (Hebron) with God and the Lord’s people is then going to be the sustaining and encompassing experience of the servant in the further development of his exercise. The example of Christ’s offering as an ultimate sacrifice will sustain in days of opposition and difficulty which are certain to arise. In all cases, recourse to worship will be the eternal link which will keep from the distractions of a scene of increasing declension and darkness.
Alas, even in the life of one so faithful and conscious of the Divine call as Abraham was, there are lapses. It is a serious and solemn lesson for all servants, that is, all believers. It is good to know that the departure from the pathway of faith did not last long and was reversed. While this was the case, it had lasting, detrimental effects, as we will see. There are four movements to consider: Abraham “went forth” 12.5, “went down” 12.10, “went up” 13.1, and “went on” 13.3. All of them have associated spiritual connotations. Each will be considered in turn.
“Went forth” Gen.12.5
This was a movement of faith in obedience to the Divine call. His influence was felt for good in the lives of others he took with him. Both his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, together with other “souls” benefited: “And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came” Gen.12.5. The revelation of the Divine presence as a result of the obedient step must have impressed the entourage accompanying Abraham. It is not uncommon in the early flush of awareness of moving in the right direction for others of our kindred to benefit. Sadly, Satan is busy and those moving in the Divine will are the target of his attack.
“Went down” Gen.12.10
The geographical direction mirrored the spiritual declension. There was no direction from the Lord. The response to the famine appears to be far too hasty. There is no evidence of waiting upon the Lord, no direction from heaven, no evidence of considering the reasons behind the famine; simply a spontaneous decision to go down into Egypt. Did Abraham know the implications of such a move; did he know the characteristics of the nation to which he was going? It does not seem likely. Perhaps we should not be too critical. How often have we done the same in circumstances of spiritual famine? The features of Egypt become clear in this closing paragraph of chapter 12:
- No awareness of the presence of the Lord;
- Personal preservation and selfishness are a priority;
- A willingness to use others as a helpless pawn in our armoury;
- Telling lies is undertaken glibly;
- Marital relations are taken lightly, with a distinct possibility of encouraging immorality;
- The ‘unconverted’ having to reprimand the ‘believer’.
Apart from direct Divine intervention the lapse into Egypt would have led to total disaster for Abraham. Let us all learn the seriousness of friendship with the world, no matter what form it takes. While Egypt is usually associated with bondage, in this case Abraham compromised his wife and could have ended with a failed marriage. In Lot’s case he lost his testimony in Sodom, and Elimelech lost his sons in Moab.
“Went up” Gen.13.1
An upward path is always a good one! In this case it is an indication of true repentance. What a contrast: “Abram went down into Egypt” Gen.12.10; “Abram went up out of Egypt” Gen.13.1! The former is easier than the latter! David knew this. The way down was easy: “he saw … [he] sent … and took her … and he lay with her” 2Sam.11.2-4. The way up was painful: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah” Ps.32.3,4. Others have found the same dichotomy. Regrettably, the effect is not only personal. While Abraham brought Lot up with him, the “sojourn” had a permanent effect on his thinking, decision making and subsequent life. We need to tread with care!
“Went on” Gen.13.3
The recovery was complete: “he went on his journeys from the south even to Bethel, unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Hai; unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first: and there Abram called on the name of the Lord” Gen.13.3,4. The point of departure was the point of recovery: “unto the place of the altar”. Worship was restored and spiritual activity followed.
We do well to watch our steps carefully; it is so easy to deviate from the path of obedience and so difficult to return unaffected. Almost inevitably others are drawn into the aberration and, while the deviation might be corrected by the person responsible, permanent damage can be the result for others.
Having been obedient to the Divine call to service it is not surprising that this service was evidenced in a variety of spheres. There are three in particular upon which it will be important to focus. These have abiding value for the people of God today. These are his service as a soldier, an intercessor and a worshipper. There are many more of course.
As a Soldier – Gen.14.1-16
Abraham had been responsible for taking Lot into Egypt. While Abraham seemed to fully recover, the “sojourn” had a permanent effect on Lot. When a problem arose between the “herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle”, Abraham in brotherly humility gave Lot the choice of land, Gen.13.7-9. Lot’s choice, clearly influenced by Egypt, Gen.13.10, led to an administrative post in the wicked Sodom. In the battle for the land of Sodom that followed Lot was taken prisoner by the kings of the North. Abraham felt responsible as a true soldier servant to rescue his nephew, Gen.14.1-16.
The believer today is called as a soldier, with all the ramifications that are involved: “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please Him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” 2Tim.2.3,4. It involves hardness, trouble, separation, submission and definite focus. Service as a soldier is demanding! Commitment is fundamental!
As an Intercessor – Genesis chapters 18-20
These three chapters contain two major intercessions by Abraham, with two corresponding answers. The intercession of chapter 18 on behalf of Sodom is answered in chapter 19, while that of chapter 20 verse 17 is answered in the same verse in spite of the deviation of Abraham from the path of obedience, in lying in relation to Sarah, vv.1-16. Abimelech appears more noble than Abraham and it is God Who informs him that Abraham would intercede on his behalf, v.7. It is an interesting chapter!
The fundamental lesson we want to learn is that those who are called to Divine service need to be intercessors. The lesson is articulated unambiguously by Paul in 1Tim.2.1-8: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority” 1Tim.2.1,2a. The balance of the verses shows clearly that the reason for praying for “all that are in authority” is that it may result in the believer living an appropriate spiritual lifestyle, that gives the servant leverage in proclaiming the gospel, leading to salvation, based on the comprehensive work of Christ as a substitutionary ransom given on behalf of all men, v.6.
As a Worshipper – Gen.22.1ff.
This brings the consideration of the call of Abraham to Divine service full circle. It has been shown that worship was central to Abraham’s service, as it should be with every servant. Genesis chapter 22 is an appropriate climax, mirroring the circumstances of Calvary, with the father offering up his only begotten son and the son in willing submission bound to the altar. That it is the acme of worship we are left in no doubt: “Abraham said unto his young men, ‘Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you’” Gen.22.5. The resurrection of the son was not in doubt, Heb.11.19.
The importance of worship in all our service cannot be overemphasised. The glory of the Divine call to service will have its epitome in worship. Without it our service will be in vain; with worship at its core God’s glory will be the motivating factor. Let us keep this commitment to worship “without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ: which in His times He shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen” 1Tim.6.14-16.