THOSE STAGGERING PROMISES
BY: JAN A. ANTONSSON – SEPTEMBER 2, 2001
A devotional for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO
“Not one of all the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed;
all came to pass.“ (Joshua 21:45, RSV)
“Standing on the Promises” is a grand old hymn, which we love to sing. Sometimes, we stand on them; sometimes we hang on for dear life, like a drowning man clings to a board in a swift current. Other times, we stagger under the weight of them, when we are assailed by doubt and fear and unbelief. We’ve talked about Abraham a lot in our times together, and I want to begin today with a statement the Apostle Paul made about him. He reported, “He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom. 4:20, KJV). If you didn’t know anything at all about the Patriarch’s life, this might be a statement to make you feel bad about your own doubts and lack of faith at times, but the bible tells us that in his flesh, Abraham did stagger at the promise. He did doubt. If he had not, he and Sarah would not have conspired to produce a child through Hagar, Sarah’s maid (Gen. 16:3-4,15-16). Ishmael was the child born of that union, and all Israel has suffered from the slings and arrows of this outrageous progeny ever since. In case there could be anyone who does not know this, the Palestinians and most of the Arab world are descendants of Ishmael. In spite of that, Paul makes this glowing statement about the Father of Faith, after letting us know that “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless” (Rom. 4:13-14, NIV). Faith is the basis on which God blessed Abraham, and all of the rest of us in the process, and is itself a GIFT of God (Eph. 2:8).
Paul continues, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring, not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’ He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:16-17, NIV). Hallelujah! Did you hear that? “God calls the things that are not as though they were!” In other words, those promises that are GUARANTEED to Abraham’s offspring come by faith, not by law, not by the works of our hands, not by our DOING the “Thou shalts” and NOT doing the “Thou shalt nots!” “But faith in what?” You ask. Faith in the promises of God, who cannot lie, made to Abraham, and to us as his heirs (Gal. 3:29). The Hebrew writer says it this way: “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13, RSV). We know that this promise, upon which we take our stand was part of the Gospel that God preached to Abraham. “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and “announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: All nations will be blessed through you” (Gal. 3:8, NIV). As we’ve noted before, this promise to Abraham is the basis on which God has brought the Gentiles in to the inheritance and included us in the covenants of promise.
And yet, if we read the scriptural record, we see that Abraham did have some problems believing God, just like all of us do at times. It is important to know that; otherwise, we may think that God chose to bless Him because he was a superior human being. Many people suffer from feelings of, “Oh what a worm am I. I’m such a rotten puke that God would never bless me.” Yet, we see that Abraham was human just like the rest of us. He doubted to the point of attempting to help God out with the birth of Ishmael, and still, Paul writes, “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead, since he was about a hundred years old, and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised. This is why it was CREDITED to him as righteousness. The words it was credited to him were written not for him alone, but also for US, to whom GOD will CREDIT righteousness, for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:19-25, NIV). This passage takes us a long, long way toward standing on the promises, for it says that God CREDITS us with righteousness when we believe in Him!
To understand what that means, let’s go back to Paul’s statement that God “gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17). I’ve been standing up here week after week telling you about some of the awesome promises of God, such as the one found in Eph. 2:6, that He has “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6, RSV), and this one, among my favorites, “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Col. 1:22, NIV). And this one, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2, KJV). And this one, which causes so many to stumble, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (I Jn. 3:9, NIV). Isn’t this an odd thing for John to say in light of the fact that he said in Chapter one, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”? (I Jn. 1:8, KJV). Is he talking out of both sides of his mouth here? In the first chapter, he says that if we say we don’t sin, we’re lying, and then in the third chapter, He makes the outrageous statement that “No one born of God commits sin” (I Jn. 3:9, RSV). Which is accurate? That we do sin, or we don’t sin? Both are, actually, depending on where you are standing to view the situation.
Let’s go back to Abraham. According to the book of Genesis, he sinned several times, like when he didn’t trust God to protect him and lied about Sarah, saying she was his sister. As a result, king Abimelech took her into his harem and God had to step in and rescue her from her husband’s lie (Gen. 20:2-7). Abraham’s conspiracy with Sarah, to produce a child through Hagar also shows unbelief, and yet, and yet, the Apostle Paul insists that, “He did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.” This is not a contradiction. It is an exercise in trusting God to show you the truth as He sees it from eternity.
This illustration may help. Have you ever been to a really big place like New York City? When you are walking around on the sidewalk surrounded by people, you can see their faces, smell their after shave lotion, and often read their feelings by the expressions on their faces. You might conclude that there is nothing to New York City except too many people jostling each other on the sidewalks. However, if you look down at the street from the top of a sky scraper, all the people look like ants moving around. You have no idea what they smell like or look like either. And when you look at the city from an airplane, you realize that this seemingly endless jungle of concrete has the ocean on one side, and is surrounded by a lot of farming land in the other directions. What you see at any given time depends on your vantage point.
I think what many people do when approaching the scripture is, they judge the validity of it by their own lives, instead of the other way round. If they don’t see the truth of a statement in their life, they tend to say, “That couldn’t be right.” For example, Fundamentalists cannot believe John’s statement, “He who is born of God does not commit sin.” “What? Are you crazy?” They scream. “I sin every day. You don’t know me very well if you think that I am holy, blameless and irreproachable!” And yet, God, who calls the things that are not as though they were, has called us “holy, blameless, irreproachable,” and yes, “freed from sin” (Rom. 6:7). This is what justification by faith is all about. God, who declares the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), who knew how it began and how it would end, did not hold Abraham’s lapses in faith against him, but rather CREDITED him with righteousness, and Paul says that it was not just for him, but for us as well. Through faith in Christ, we are also CREDITED as righteous, as holy, blameless, irreproachable, and without sin. I mentioned looking at the people on the sidewalk from the top of a sky scraper. God looks at us from His vantage point of seeing the end from the beginning. The Spirit has taught me how to do that with my own life. I call it “being caught up to the throne,” based on the beautiful imagery in Rev. 12:5. After the woman gave birth to a son, it says, “And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.” This was to protect Him from the dragon who was planning to kill Him. This same dragon, the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10), is still threatening to maim, cripple, and kill God’s children with his viscous lies. Who gets the glory when your sins are thrown up to you over and over? Who is the winner when you are beaten down with shame and guilt and see yourself as a miserable sinner, rather than a child of the King? The devil is the only one who wins when you are downtrodden, for he is the promoter of sin, and in fact, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I Jn. 3:8). Do you think Christ failed in His mission to destroy the devil’s work? Do you think he has more power than God? Neither do I.
Jesus came among people who were bound by the law, hopelessly enmeshed in the “Thou shalts” and the “Thou shalt nots.” He made several statements to them that are terrifying to us if we don’t understand the context in which He said them. A reader from Canada wrote us this week with a question about one of these passages. It’s the scary one in Lk. 13:22-30, which begins like this: “Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to…Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (Lk. 13:23-24,30, NIV). There are those who will say, “See, this proves that not many are going to heaven when they die.” That is not what the passage teaches at all. We know that, because last week, we read the verse in II Pet. 3:9, which says that “God is not willing that ANY should perish, but that ALL should come to repentance” and also the one in Lk. 3:6, which says, “and ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God”” (Luke 3:6, RSV). Which is it, few or all will be saved?
It helps to understand the seeming conflict here, by remembering that Jesus was talking to people before the cross, meaning those who were still seeking justification by law. Paul said about that, “Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:20). People trying to attain right standing with God by the law are in hell right here and now, for no one except Jesus could keep the law perfectly. Trying to do it is impossible. And by the way, many people are deceived into thinking they are living by grace because they don’t offer animal sacrifices or do many of the other things the law required. The law was a symbol of working your way to heaven, of earning your righteousness. Therefore, anytime you think that you are required to do something, anything, to persuade God to justify you, you are living by law, not by grace. Paul said of the Jews, “but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone” (Christ), (Rom. 9:31-32, NIV). And again, in Chapter 10, he said, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3, RSV). This is equally true of many Christian people today.
Jesus came to seek and save the lost, but the righteous folks, the Scribes and Pharisees did not think they were lost. They thought they were at the head of the line when it came to getting through the door marked, “Entrance to the kingdom.” This is why He told them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (Matt. 21:31-32, NIV). Likewise, I tell you truly that when the kingdom of God is manifested in His sons, there are going to be religious leaders today, who will be going in dead last, AFTER the sinners who have repented of their own works go in.
“So,” you ask, “If that’s the case, why don’t we all beat our breasts and cry about what sinners we are?” Because, my friends, God has imputed you, has credited you with righteousness, not because of the works you have done, or the sins you have NOT committed, but because of His promise to Abraham and the atoning blood of Christ. He has looked at your life and mine, and instead of seeing the warts and zits, the flaws, the sins, and smell of the pigpen which still clings to some, He has said to us in Christ, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee” (Ps. 2:7; Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5, 5:5). God who calls the things that are not as though they were, has called us and chosen us, “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began” (Tit. 1:2, KJV). How can I be sure? Because of verses like this one, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Num. 23:19, NIV).
Because of Christ, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19, NIV). When the devil is throwing our sins up to us, or the world is just too much with us, it helps to remember that “no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God” (II Cor. 1:20, NIV). If anything about my salvation depends on me, I’m a goner, but thank God, it does not. God has taken care of everything. IF you find yourself staggering at the promises of God, rather than standing on them, ask Him to catch you up to His throne, to see things the way He does, for He knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10). From the vantage point of His throne, you begin to see that He, who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (Jn. 3:16-17), really does work ALL THINGS after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11). In His hands, you are safe, secure, loved, redeemed and glorified.
THOSE STAGGERING PROMISES [Jan A. Antonsson] 9-2-01 1