As the new year dawns, many of us think about renewing and enhancing commitments to things that matter to us. I hope that this causes Christians to reconsider what it means to be called to Christ!
This post is the first of three that explore “calling” in the life of the first person in the Bible whom God calls to his service, Abraham. Of course, there is much more to say about Abraham that just his calling! But since Abraham’s story begins with a call, it’s appropriate for this blog to begin there as well.
While the Bible begins with Genesis 1, it’s helpful to think of the first eleven chapters of Genesis as an introduction. These chapters deal with issues pertinent to all human beings: whether or not we choose to follow God, we are all descendants of Adam and Noah. This means Genesis 12 is the real beginning of the Bible. Genesis 1–11 is an important introduction, but the story of the particular people of the Old Testament begins when God calls Abraham, and the story of Christianity is the story of a line of individuals and groups specifically called by God to testify and minister to a lost world.
So it’s fair to think of Abraham as the first Christian. Of course, Genesis does not suggest that Abraham knew anything about Jesus Christ or that he prayed to receive Jesus as his personal savior! But just as each of us becomes a Christian only after God reaches out first, Abraham has a relationship with God only because God first speaks to him.
God’s call to Abram (his name in Genesis 12–16) in Gen 12:1–3 therefore is like his call to us today: just as God joins Abram in a region filled with people who do not follow God, so God joins us in a world in which Bible-believing Christians are a minority.
The key word of 12:1–3 is “bless:” God promises to bless Abram and to bless those who bless Abram. Furthermore, God wants Abram and his descendants to bless others. Much of the story of the rest of Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, is taken up with God blessing his people and God’s people blessing those who are strangers to God.
One word that does not appear in these verses and does not appear in the account of Abram in Genesis 12–25 is the word “faith” (except for one instance in Gen 15:6). While Romans 4, Galatians 3:6–18, and Hebrews 11:8–19 champion Abram as a model of faith, Genesis gives a more nuanced picture of Abram. So when we read Genesis, we must not make Abram into something other than what Genesis claims. When we read God’s Word, we should never insert ideas.
Not only does Genesis neglect to mention Abram’s faith, it often describes occasions in which Abram seriously lacks faith. One example is Gen 12:11–16. Abram does not believe that God will protect him, and so essentially “pimps” his wife (sadly, there is no better way to describe it!) in order to get along. Overall, Abram is a hero, in this chapter and in others. But his faith repeatedly falls short.
Instead of faith, in Genesis Abram does give us a very strong model of the attribute I named at the start of this post: calling. God calls Abram in 12:1–3, and from that point Abram follows this call. His faith is not always great, and sometimes he does the wrong thing. But Abram consistently recognizes that his calling makes him different from those around him.
Abram’s call is developed throughout his story in Genesis. In Genesis 1, however, the call begins with a location. Upon hearing God’s instructions, Abram gathers his family and travels to the land revealed by God, Canaan. He enters the land (whose name eventually becomes “Israel”) through its northern border, passing by lake Huleh (on this map lake Huleh is just below “Dan”). He then travels to two cities in the heart of the northern part of Canaan, Shechem and Bethel. These are not random stops! Both cities become the sites for both good and bad moments in the history of Israel.
Shechem becomes the site of Israel’s covenant renewal in Joshua 24, and the site at which the northern kingdom of Israel splits from the southern Kingdom in 1 Kgs 12:1–19. Bethel, the second-most mentioned city in the entire Bible (after Jerusalem!), is even more important. Here Abram’s grandson Jacob first meets God (Gen 28:11–19), and the first ruler of the rebellious Northern Kingdom sets up an idol to draw people away from God (1 Kgs 12:26–29).
Abram of course does not know what will happen to his descendants in the future. But he senses that Shechem and Bethel will be important. (Archaeologists confirm that many generations settled on these sites because of their geography and access to water and farmable land.) So Abram essentially does what we might call today a “prayer walk,” going through the entire land, north to south, stopping to consecrate key locations. He cannot predict what will happen in his own lifetime, much less what will happen in his descendants’ future. But he knows that God has called him to a specific location, so he takes responsibility in his own time for what will happen.
Like Abram, we live and work in places to which God has called us. Most churches today have a sense of the neighborhood in which God wants them to minister; most of us have an idea of the boundaries of our neighborhoods. As God wanted to work through Abram to bless people around him, God wants to work through Christians to bless people around us. This call can be tricky; in the 21st century many of us don’t get to meet our neighbors much. But we still have that calling.
Let’s encourage each other to be serious about God’s call to bless our neighbors. Where are the borders to your neighborhood? What are the key spots within, where important things might happen? Go to those places and bless them with a prayer. Our thoughts and blessings may prove to be important in our neighborhoods’ futures.