ABRAM IS CREDITED WITH RIGHTEOUSNESS
Genesis 15:1-21, Key verse: 15:6
“Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
Today we read about Abram’s heroic and sacrificial rescue of lot in the battle of the kings, and how he again showed his priority system to give glory to God rather than to get rich. But most importantly, from the following chapter, we learn what made Abram right with God. It was not his impressive deeds, but that he believed the Lord. Today we can learn how we also can gain God’s credit. The message has three parts.
I. Abram and the war of the kings (Ch. 14)
Genesis chapter 14 seems to take a historical tangent, telling us about some conflict between regional kings. But we learn soon enough what it has to do with Abram. It seems the region consisted of many semi-independent city-states. The most important name in all these lists is Kedorlaomer. He was a king from the East who had made 5 other kings, including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, subject to himself. Undoubtedly the five kings had to show their loyalty by sending Kedorlaomer a sum of money every year as tribute, gold and silver and whatever else. This situation went on for twelve years, but in the thirteenth year, it says, they rebelled. Probably, the five kings got together and decided that together they were strong enough that they had no need to keep paying the tribute to Kedorlaomer. When Kedorlaomer realized what had happened, he called together three of his allied kings to punish the five kings for their rebellion. They mounted an extensive campaign, defeating many other kings on the long journey to Canaan. It was turning out to be a very profitable expedition.
Finally, the four kings (including Kedorlaomer) faced the five kings (including the king) of Sodom in the valley of Siddim. There four kings defeated the five. In fact, they defeated them so decisively that some of the men from Sodom and Gomorrah fell into tar pits as they were running away. Then Kedorlaomer, not content to simply restore the previous status quo, seized and carried off all the goods and all the people from Sodom and Gomorrah as plunder. And that’s where the story begins to affect Abram. Lot and all his family and possessions were also carried off into captivity, because, as Chapter 14 verse 12 says, Lot was now living in Sodom.
Verse 13 says that someone who escaped came and reported these events to Abram. What was Abram’s response? Did he say, “Well, that’s what Lot deserved. He took the best of the land for himself and left me without even saying ‘thank you’ and went to live in that sinful place.” No, that’s not what Abram did. Instead, he called out the 318 trained men in his own house, called on his most powerful friends to help him, and went in pursuit of king Kedorlaomer to rescue selfish, unthankful Lot. And he succeeded. He and his allies defeated the king who had defeated five other kings and brought back all the goods and all the people, including Lot.
Wow! Abram could really exercise some military might when he made up his mind to. But the most amazing thing is that he did it not for any personal gain—he had no interest in getting involved in these political conflicts–but he did it to rescue one lost sheep. In this way Abram really has the image of the Good Shepherd. This is what we call unconditional love—love that does not remember how it’s been hurt and love that does not calculate how much it might lose. What an excellent example.
We might think it ironic that all the wealth Lot had tried to get a piece of by moving to Sodom, Abram ended up winning for himself as a result of trying to rescue Lot. So the next thing Abram might think was that this was the way God planned to start to make him a great nation.
But then, on the way back from defeating Kedorlaomer, Abram encountered an unexpected spiritual intervention. Two other rulers came out to meet him: first, the king of Sodom, and second, an unrelated king named Melchizedek, king of Salem, who was also a priest of the Most High God. Where he came from or how he became a priest of the one true God nobody can say. But what’s clear is that these two kings offer Abraham two very different choices about how to respond to his great victory.
Melchizedek brought Abram bread and wine to refresh his tired troops. Then he recited a blessing to Abraham, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” (14:19-20) Interestingly, this blessing did not praise Abram at all. It only says that he is blessed by God and that God was the one who gave his enemies into his hand. If Abram were a proud man, he might even get angry at this blessing, because it gives all the credit to God. But Abram accepted the humbling blessing, and proved he accepted it by giving Melchizedek a tenth of everything. This is the first tithe recorded in the Bible.
Then it was time to talk to the king of Sodom. Sodom gets right down to business: “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.” Of course, Sodom did not really have any chips to bargain with, because it was Abram who now had the right of conquest to everything. But he wanted to keep being king of Sodom, so he offered to let Abram keep the spoils if he would just give back the people. It sounds reasonable, and to be honest it would be a fair repayment to Abram for all his trouble in going to rescue Lot. But Abram refused to take anything at all! He gave up his own share of the spoils. Is he crazy? Why did he do it? It’s because, as he said in verses 22-24, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’” Abram knew that you have to be very careful who you let give you money. Greedy people never, ever part with money without some strings attached. So Abram knew that this was not God’s way to make him a great nation. He couldn’t let a wicked king get any controlling interest in his life, because his life belonged to God.
Here we see Abram is one of a rare breed: someone who would rather listen to a person who humbles him than a person who can make him rich. What a great character quality. And Abram’s refusal to keep any of the spoils of victory proves his purity of intention in going to rescue Lot in the first place. I think the elements of Abram’s character in this chapter give us so much to meditate on, as well as a target to shoot for.
II. Abram’s struggle and credit. (15:1-6)
So, to summarize Chapter 14, we can say that, after winning a physical battle, Abram won an even greater spiritual victory, by overcoming the temptation to love material gain more than God. However, do you know what happens after we win a great victory of faith? We go back to our ordinary-looking life and all its aggravating problems. Perhaps Abram might have begun to have second thoughts about his decision of faith, feeling a sense of loss. “What have I done? Am I stupid?” God understood what was going on in Abram’s heart and took the initiative to come to him and give him his word. Let’s read verse 1. “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’”
The first thing God said to Abram was, “Don’t be afraid.” Why might Abram be afraid? He might be afraid because now that he had shown his power, he could no longer be just an anonymous nomad, avoiding the attention of his neighbors. Now he could never know which of his neighbors might feel threatened by his power and hatch a plot against him. Abram could be feeling very real fear, thinking his life was now on shaky ground. So God came to him and said, “Don’t be afraid.”
Why didn’t Abram have to be afraid? God says, “I am your shield, your very great reward.” God promised the greatest source of protection possible. God didn’t merely say, “I will shield you”; he said, “I am your shield.” Who could imagine that God would make himself someone’s shield? God also made himself the guarantee of a great reward for Abram. Do you like the word “reward”? Of course, everybody likes rewards. My credit card says it offers me great rewards, but so far it just seems to be putting me deeper in debt.
We’ve seen that after God called him to be a pilgrim in the promised land of Canaan, Abram lived a different lifestyle. He did not make decisions that maximized his immediate benefit. In fact, out of his commitment to principle, Abram did things that cost him a lot of potential profit; we can’t deny that in this world, money is both a shield and a reward. But God told Abram that all that was no matter, because God would be his shield and would guarantee his very great reward. So Abram didn’t have to worry about anything; he just had to stick to doing what was right before God. Do you trust God as your shield and very great reward? We can only make the holy decisions God wants us to if we trust God as our true shield and reward. Our true reward can only be God himself, because knowing him is the only thing that can fill the empty space in our heart. David expressed this in Psalm 16. He said, “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.” (Ps 16:5)
When Abram heard this awesome assurance from God, “I am your shield, your very great reward,” he did something he never did before. Do you know what it is? He complained! Abram talked back to God! Up until now, Abram looked so quiet and patient, but now it looks like he finally reached his limit. Look at verses 2 and 3. “But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’”
As great as God’s assurance was, Abram couldn’t accept it; he was too discouraged. His life problem of childlessness had grown bigger and bigger in his own mind until he could no longer see beyond it. Abram said to God, “What can you give me?” He had gotten so fatalistic that he felt even God was limited in what he could do for him. Maybe he thought, “If God had given me children earlier, he could have helped me, but not anymore.” In this long-running issue of his childlessness, Abram had all but given up and decided that he would have to settle for a “second-class blessing”, making his household servant his heir. I guess Abram would even have been happy to make Lot his heir rather than Eliezer of Damascus; but Lot wasn’t interested.
Abram’s reaction here gives us a great insight about how strong the grip of fatalism can grow in our own hearts. Though we might not like to admit it, when we’re really down we do have the attitude that not even God can do something to make things better. In some way, I think it’s good that Abram was finally discouraged enough to talk back to God. In this way, his faith problem could be brought out and healed. It’s good to interact with God honestly, knowing that our only hope is God’s answer.
And God did answer Abram. Look at verse 4. “Then the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.’” There was no limitation in God; in order to make Abram a great nation, God would indeed give him a son from his own body, no matter how old he was. When Abram earnestly struggled with God, God made his promise more clear.
In chapter 13, we saw how God gave Abram some “walking therapy” to help his spiritual discouragement. Now God gives Abram another “therapy session” to help him with his root spiritual problem. His root problem was that he was thinking too small thoughts about God. What was the cure? Let’s read verse 5. “He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” Maybe we can call it “astronomy therapy”. To fix his attitude, Abram needed to come out of his tent, come out of his small, self-pitying thoughts, and realize God’s majesty. What better way could there be than to look at the stars that God created in the night sky?
Do you like to look at the stars? How do you feel when you stand outside at night and put your head back and just stare until your eyes adjust and you start to see all those tiny lights pop into view one by one? In 1996 astronomers pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a very small region of the sky where there are no visible stars, and left the camera shutter open for ten days. Some other astronomers thought this was a waste of valuable telescope time. But the resulting image, known as the Hubble Deep Field photograph, contained over 3000 never-before-seen galaxies. Not stars, galaxies. One galaxy like ours contains 100 billion stars. God told Abram, “count the stars—if you can.” 4000 years later, we still can’t count all the stars, because the more advanced our technology gets and the longer we look, the more we find. God said to Abram, “So shall your offspring be.” The point is not the exact number, but the unlimited power of God to fulfill his promise. God wants us to realize his majesty and the limitlessness of his power as Creator of the Universe. We have to know that God is the God who made 3000 galaxies in just one tiny spot of the sky that nobody ever even bothered to look at. Then we can begin to get over our self-centered thinking and focus on God’s glory. So when you’re stressed out during finals period, don’t take a web-surfing break; take an astronomy break.
What was Abram’s response to God showing him the stars? Let’s read verse 6. “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” It looks like such a small thing, just one little verse. All it says is, “Abram believed the LORD.” After astronomy therapy, it just seemed silly to doubt that such a God would fail to make his promise come true in the best way. So Abram newly accepted God’s promise. He trusted that God would make it come true. His heart said “okay” to God and in one instant he had peace.
This was not a small event in Abram’s life, though it had no visible outward effects at all. The key verse says that on the basis of his faith, God credited Abram with righteousness. What does it mean to have righteousness? “Righteousness” is a very deep word in the Bible. It means much more than just human good behavior. It means having a right relationship with God, being loved and accepted in his sight, and not having any kind of condemnation hanging over us. If you have this, how happy will you be? How confident will you be? This righteousness is the most valuable thing a human being can possess. It’s true freedom.
But how can such righteousness be attained? Realistically, it sounds impossible. Obviously, we are sinners. Our guilty conscience torments us about the things we have done, selfish and filthy things, things that we can’t make any excuse for. Many people are even walking around with the guilt of having permanently damaged or destroyed other’s lives by their impulsive or irresponsible actions. What could the solution to this guilt problem be?
And then people make it worse, trying to solve the guilt of their sin by pretending and putting on a fake-show of being righteous. This is called self-righteousness, and it’s the surest way to block ourselves from receiving righteousness with God. Jesus had the harshest words for people like that. Jesus said such people were like whitewashed tombs—clean and sparkly on the outside, but inside full of rotten and decaying things.
The true answer to the righteousness problem is written right here in the key verse. “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Apostle Paul took this verse to be the very essence of the gospel. The authors of the New Testament teach us to understand the death of Jesus on a cross as being a perfect, sufficient sacrifice to atone for all our sins, and that through Christ, God will grant us forgiveness that releases us from all our guilt and gives us a right relationship with him totally freely. Paul said that God will credit us with righteousness in the same way he did for Abraham.
Our good deeds cannot impress God. There is nothing we can do for God that would make him owe us anything. This key verse is also significant because at this point, Abram’s faith is not accompanied by any outward action. God didn’t credit Abram with righteousness because he assembled an army and waged a victorious campaign to rescue his nephew; God credited him because he believed God. But Paul wrote in Romans 4:4-5, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” Therefore, all we have to do is confess that we are inexcusable sinners and accept a right relationship with God as a free gift in Christ Jesus.
Then what? Does it mean that after that we can goof off and sin as much as we want to, because it’s all forgiven? No way. This great gift of righteousness puts us under obligation to put the gift to work, to do everything in our power to become holy and a source of blessing to others and abound more and more in good works. But we do it not as being threatened, or as trying to justify ourselves or impress others, but as seeking to become more and more like God, as people who have been given a totally new power source for being holy—namely, God’s unconditional, forgiving love. We can stop seeing God as the guy who is out to get us, and start to understand that he is totally committed to us in love, to help us grow and be made new in his image.
As a result of being credited with righteousness, what changed in Abram’s life? Outwardly, nothing. He still had no son. But the inner change was very great. Receiving the credit of righteousness from God, Abram could stand up tall as a justified human being. With a right relationship with God, fear and the sense of loss disappeared from his heart. He could go forward where before he was stuck.
Are you stuck? Maybe the problem is a lack of understanding God’s gift of righteousness.
It might not be easy for us to see that God is offering us a totally clear relationship with him, and that he just wants us to say, “okay.” But that’s the only starting point there is. And if we do that, we are a new creation; we can stand with our heads held high in the gift of righteousness in Jesus. Let’s read verse 6 again. “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
III. God reveals his plan (7-21)
Look at verse 7. “He also said to him, ‘I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.’” After helping Abram’s faith problem by having him look up at the stars, God now has him look around at his mission field again. After helping heal Abram’s bitterness, God now wants him to go beyond himself, go beyond the mere fact that he would have a son, and look to the larger ways God would use him as a blessing in the future, beyond his earthly life. He should remember the real reason he was in this land of Canaan. God said, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
At this statement, Abram once again engages God with a question. Look at verse 8. “But Abram said, ‘Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?’” Here, Abram is not expressing unbelief in God’s promise, but is seeking more assurance in it. When Abram despaired of having an heir, he had not been interested in the promised inheritance of land. But now his desire for God’s promise is growing and he wants to know more about it.
Again, God rewarded Abram’s spiritual desire. He had Abram prepare a ritual similar to what was used at that time to seal an alliance between kings. It was a covenant ceremony. It means that God wanted to conduct some serious business with Abram – to “cut a deal”, so to speak. It reminds us of the covenant ceremony Jesus gave his disciples the night before he died.
After setting up everything, cutting all those animals in half, Abram had to chase away the vultures so they wouldn’t come and eat up the sacrifice. Then, “As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” In a vision, God would now reveal the future to Abram, the secret of how he would make his descendants into a great nation. The Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” (13-14)
God would not give Canaan to Abram’s descendants in an ordinary way. He would not do it by making Abram’s descendants grow progressively more and more powerful until they could take over the nation in their own strength. Quite the opposite: he would humble and crush them under the yoke of slavery, so they would know their own helplessness; and then God would reveal his glory through mighty works of deliverance that they could never forget. In this way, God would build up a nation not based on human achievement, but a nation of faith.
When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, God sent a smoking firepot with a blazing torch that passed between the sacrificial pieces. It was like God’s signature of the covenant. How amazing that Almighty God who created the universe would come to one person and even reveal his plans to him! This is how close God wants to be with his people, like personal friends with whom he shares his heart. Psalm 25:14 says, “The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”
God wants to make such a relationship with us today in Jesus, a personal covenant relationship with him in which he himself is our shield and reward. Thankfully, chopping animals in half is no longer necessary, because Jesus’ blood of the covenant has already been shed for us. So let’s talk to God like Abram did, and listen to his words, seeking greater assurance in his promises. Let’s look up at the stars, and then look around at our mission field with eyes of faith.
May God bless you with his righteousness credited in your heart and to be the friend of God like Abram in this generation.