Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Melchizedek, the covenant, and Faithlessness

There are three stories here from Abraham’s life. The first is a glorious story of God allowing Abraham to do great things. Then, there is the covenant that God makes with Abraham, followed by what, faith? Not so much.

The first story is awesome. It’s a story that makes you stand and cheer. Lot left Abraham, went to Sodom, and things don’t work out quite the way he’d hoped, to say the least. A whole army comes and attacks Sodom. This in some ways is typical. Humanity has been attacking each other since the beginning of time. Remember in Samuel when David gets in trouble? At the time that kings go out to war, David stays home. Here, five kings attack four kings (we should probably think of these as heads of independent city states- rather than full blown nations like Egypt), and defeat them. At issue was that for 12 years these four kings had been subject to Chedorlaomer, and when they rebelled, he came with some allies, and crushed them. The rebellious kings got beat, and fled, and the victorious kings came and took the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah (thereby taking what the kings had failed to give-usually subject kings paid a tribute to the king over them). An all too typical story. But notice who’s with the captives. Lot. Abraham hears of this, and goes, and defeats them.         

Notice that Abraham has his own personal army. Abraham is rich. He’s the head of a whole clan, and a force to be reckoned with. He’s got well trained men with him. They go and defeat the armies of 5 kings. Now, we don’t know how big the armies are, but we are supposed to see that God is clearly working. 318 Men don’t beat armies unless God is at work. That it was God’s work is recognized by Melchizedek, and Abram certainly doesn’t disagree. Notice his reaction. He tithes to Melchizedek.            

Now, who is this Melchizedek? He shows up, and disappears into the night, Hebrew extra biblical tradition suggests that this might be Shem, some argue this is a theophany (OT appearance of Christ before the incarnation), some say, just a righteous follower of God. We don’t know. The Shem idea is interesting, and possible, given how long Shem lived. But the bible doesn’t give us this, instead, we’re supposed to see him as a shadowy figure who is recognized for his greatness.            

What we are told is that he is a priest of God most high. He’s a faithful worshiper of God. He’s also the king of Salem (from the Hebrew word Shalom, peace), the King of Peace. This suggests he’s a righteous ruler who is God’s representative. Furthermore, he’s Abrahams spiritual superior. Abraham receives a blessing from him, the act of a superior, and paid a tenth of the spoils, a tithe. Later we see something incredible. In Psalms 110 we find a cryptic statement “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek." (Psalm 110:4)”. David is the wrote of these words as the first Israelite king in Jerusalem, the city Melchizidek ruled. He looks beyond the levitical priesthood, and sees that the leveitical priesthood would be done away with and replaces with a greater priesthood. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is a priest of God in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:7-10), which is a greater priesthood than that of the Levites (Hebrews 7).                 

This brings us to the covenant in chapter 15. What’s going on with this strange scene? Abraham still has no children. None. His heir is a servant. God comes and says, “I am your shield and great reward; your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky”. And look at what we’re told. He believed God. Abraham takes God at his word, and believes, and as Romans tells us, “it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). How is Abraham saved, same way we are. By faith. D.A. Carson. Looking at this, notes that “This doesn’t mean that Abraham earned brownie points for deploying such a righteous faith.  Rather, the idea is that what God demands of his image-bearers, what he has always demanded, is righteousness — but in this sinful race what he accepts, crediting it as righteousness, is faith, faith that acknowledges our dependence upon God and takes God at his word. This faith of Abram is what makes him the “father” of those who believe (Rom. 4; Gal.3).              

Then Abraham asks a question. How will I know? God has him do something strange, at least to us. He tells Abraham to bring “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." He was told to cut them I half (except for the birds). Here, God is enacting a covenant with Abraham, a solemn promise. This action is similar to many Ancient treaties of the day. Two Kings (This is called a Suzeran –high king, Vassal treaty) would make a deal, and then they would walk between the cut up carcasses and the symbolism is “may I be like these dead animals if I break this covenant.” But notice something. God alone goes through the carcasses. God makes the covenant, he alone walks through the animals. If the covenant is broken, God alone will pay the price. In this, we see another hint of what is to come in Christ. God will bring Abraham descendants, natural, and spiritual, he will reconcile the world to himself and bring about a family of faith, spiritual descendants of Abraham. But it will cost God greatly. It will cost him his life.        

Note the promises. Sojourners in land not their own, and then affliction (thanks God). This is slavery in Egypt. But God will work through it all. They shall come out with great possession (which they did). They will come out as a nation.             

Note the reason that he doesn’t give the descendants of Abraham the land right off the top.. The sins of Amorites is not yet complete. Bible Scholar D.A. Carson observes, “God’s sovereign timing so matches his moral sensibilities that by the time the children of Abraham are ready to take over the Promised Land, the inhabitants of that land will have so sunk in degradation that judgment must be meted out” God lets the sins of the Canaanites, the Amorites, the people in the promise land, come to the point that he will use Israel to judge them, while fulfilling His promise to Abraham at the same time.                      

Genesis 16 reminds us that we should not look at the figures of the bible as hero’s to be emulated. Abraham gets a great promise from God. What could come after that? Faithlessness of course. What happens? Abraham and Sarah decide to take things into their hands and help God out. With disastrous results that we are feeling to this day (Ishmael is the father of the Arab peoples). The fight between the Jews and Arabs finds its roots in faithlessness. Rather than trusting God to give them a Son, Sarah comes up with a scheme, gives Abraham her slave Hagar, and tells him to have a child with her servant, “and Abram listened to the voice of Sarai”.               

What happens next? Nothing good. Notice this. Every time polygamy shows up in the bible, especially Genesis, there are disastrous results. There certainly are here. What’s the result of Hagar being used to bear a child (and that’s what it is, she’s used to bear a child for Abraham and Sarah)? “When she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.” Then Sarah gets mad and tears into Abraham, and then Abraham says, do what you want to Hagar. It’s so bad Hagar flees.               

The next part of the story is huge and interesting. The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, and told her "Return to your mistress and submit to her. I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude." Who is the Angel of the Lord? This is a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ, the Angel of the Lord is Christ, again, we’ll talk about this more later. Notice something in this. Hagar is the only woman in the bible that God speaks to by name. Despite the sin, God has a place in his heart for this poor slave, a downtrodden woman, and to her, he speaks words of comfort.

Notice two final things here at the end of the day. The story progressing. God is moving forward, raising up a people of faith. But second, he’s doing it despite the sin and faithlessness of his servants. From day one, the people he calls are faithless, just as we often are, but despite that, he is faithful, a wonderful hint of the covenant love that he has “if we are faithless (not disowning Him… but faithless… sinful), he will remain faithful (2Timothy 2:13).

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