Reflections on Abraham

Abraham and Melchizedek in the Loggia di Raffaello in Vatican City.

What is a father?

Genesis presents Abraham as being the father of many nations.

The whole Bible presents the Israelites as the ‘sons of Abraham’ on multiple occasions.

The New Testament, in particular, presents anybody with appropriate faith in God (whatever that means…but usually faith in Christ) as a child of Abraham.

This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that the father in the Bible is a figure for the accumulated wisdom of the past in a way that is indicative of a divine voice:[1]

See: Proverbs 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1,20; 6:1,3,20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15,19,26; 24:13,21; 27:11; 31:2.

Why does this matter? Abraham’s story in the Bible could be read as a representation of the ideal life of goodness in a post-catastrophic world. Or in question and answer format:

Q: In a world where evil, disaster, and death are a given, what does it mean to seek the good God has for us in the world?

A: Look at Abraham.

The New Testament does not shy away from this answer, despite having Jesus as an example. Jesus, in John 8 points to the works of Abraham. Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 points to the faith of Abraham. Hebrews is largely about Abraham’s patient faith in God. And James 2 points directly at the good works of Abraham as exemplary even for those after the resurrection of Christ.

Below are my reflections on some of the passages that indicate that Genesis means for us to see Abraham as an example of the good life:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In the passage above, we see that there is an implied condition. Abraham must go to be made into a great nation. That Genesis presents the promise as fulfilled shows that we’re meant to see Abraham as a man who kept a covenant with God. Incidentally, he also took the offer out of self-interest. I’ve written about this before.

Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, (4) “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Here, God’s covenant is made more explicit. It’s called a covenant and in it Abraham is promised to be a father of nations. But what is the condition, “walk before me and be blameless.” The reader is to understand that Abraham actually did do this. God promises to make Abraham very fruitful here, which hearkens back to Noah and Adam as the first man and the second first man. While I don’t quote it, the covenant above includes circumcision, which appears to be a civilizational curtailing of sexual obsession. “You’ll be fruitful but there is a limit to that.” I suspect that circumcision goes back to Genesis 2:22-24 to indicate that sexuality is a blessing and a limitation. Abraham is to be the father of many but that understanding is that his sexuality and those of his children be limited by the wound and healing power of marriage.

Genesis 24:1

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

And this passage shows that by the end of it all, Abraham had been blessed by God in all things. He kept the covenant as best a man can in the circumstances (fallen nature, a barbaric world, and a pagan worldview). And so the indication is that if a reader/listener to Genesis wants to experience the blessing offered to humanity in Genesis 1:26-31, being like Abraham is a stable method of doing so.

This is the affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, of prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

Footnote

[1] Obviously, fathers can also be wrong which is why the Bible commends listening more than tradition, like Scripture and reason to know the truth.

Seek first the Kingdom of God…how?

A lot of Christian advice boils down to platitudes with neither moral nor practical content. Sadly, our tendency to speak in airy nothings to one another as a time saving mechanism as stripped many of Jesus’ central ideals of meaning and practical content. An example is, “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” People will rattle off this advice in a well-meaning fashion in order to overcome the difficulties of telling other Christians, “You’ve gotta get out of debt, apologize to your spouse, discipline your kids, or organize your life.” What does this command mean?

Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd of potential disciples listening that the trappings of the good life, clothes and food, are not the keys to happiness (remember how Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount offering the blessed or happy life to those who hear). Instead Jesus says to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its (his) righteousness and these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

But what does this mean? Is it a mystical promise that God will do miracles to see to the provision of disciples who literally never seek food, clothing, or money?

I think not.

To understand this commandment, we need to determine what the phrase, “kingdom of God” means.

In my mind, Scot McKnight’s observations are the most enlightening:

Kingdom is-almost always, with varying degrees of emphasis- a complex of king, rule, people, land, and law. Church is also a complex: a king (Christ), a rule (Christ rules over the body of Christ), a people (the church), a land (expanding Israel into the diaspora), and a law (the law of Christ, life in the Spirit) …Slight differences aside, the evidence I have presented in this book leads me to the conclusion that we should see them as synonyms.”[1]

Kingdom of God, in the New Testament is referring to the church under the authority of God.

What does it mean to “seek the kingdom of God”?

This has larger implications, but for now, we’re answering this question:

What does seek first the kingdom of God and its (his) righteousness mean?

If McKnight is right,[2] then seeking the kingdom and righteousness takes on a clearer meaning.

To seek the kingdom of God is to seek:

  1. The well-being of the church family
  2. To use the proper means to spread the word of the kingdom (see the parable of the Sower)
  3. To pray to our heavenly Father (see Matthew 6:9-13)
  4. To be a part of the kingdom’s work of worship (See Hebrews 10:24-25, this is one of the most neglected passages in modern Christendom)

What does it mean to “seek the righteousness of the kingdom of God”?

To seek the righteousness of God (of God’s kingdom) requires a little more context to fully understand[3], but even without the extra explanation seeking the righteousness of which Jesus speaks means:

  1. Seek the character traits about which he had been teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20)
  2. Be willing to do deeds of righteousness solely because they are right and to please God (Matthew 6:1-18)
  3. Extend kindness to those outside the kingdom and even those who are opposed to it (Matthew 5:41-47)
  4. Be like God (Matthew 5:48)
  5. Learn to treat others as you wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12)
  6. Base your character, as far as you can and as you understand it, on the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 7:13-28).

What does it mean to seek “kingdom” and “righteousness” first?

The word first probably can be taken metaphorically: seek them as the main priority:

  1. Try to make the church successful, not merely yourself. The financial principle for success known as “pay yourself first” should be “pay the church first” or “pay the Lord first.” In Scripture, this might mean anything from showing hospitality, to feeding the poor, and paying pastors.
  2. When a choice comes between doing the right thing and gaining some other good, choose to be righteous rather than receive good.  [4]
  3. This might be too literal, but start your day off with prayer.
  4. Jesus may also couple kingdom with righteousness here to remind us that the kingdom should only be pursued “righteously.” The ends don’t justify evil means in God’s kingdom.[5]
  5. It means to seek the other things, “not as the gentiles do,” in other words seek clothes, but not obsessively. Seek money, but like Proverbs says, “know when to desist” (Proverbs 23:4). Get property, but use it to bless others (see Proverbs 31).

What does “all these things will be added to you” mean?

In the ancient world, there were competing theories of what caused true human happiness or “the good life.”

For instance, Aristotle thought that we needed good of the body, external goods, and goods of the soul to have true happiness. The Old Testament has a similar picture in that the good life consists in health, family, honor, land, righteousness, and relatedness to God.[6]

The Stoics, on the other hand, thought that the good life/happiness consisted solely in having virtuous character.

Jesus appears to agree with the Old Testament version of the good life here because he uses the bodily and material blessings as motivation for putting righteousness and the kingdom first. Life is more than food and clothes, but it isn’t less than food and clothes.

While one can have true happiness without possessions, health, and so-on, Jesus acknowledges that these things are often necessary for life and important for happiness. Thus, he shows that one can have them without making them your main priority in life.[7] Elsewhere, Jesus makes this claim: “And all who leave houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). In Mark’s gospel, two things are added: “persecutions” and “in this life and the life to come” (Mark 10:28-29).

The point seems to be that loyalty to the kingdom of God and participation in the church (a group of people who are trying to care for one another the way Jesus loves us) even when things get hard, will lead to being taken care of. There’s not some mystical hope for magic provisions here (though the Lord can do that). There’s also not a woefully disregarded or infinitely deferred promise to make people happy. Instead, Jesus is saying that the fact of the matter is that kingdom people will take care of each other and virtue often leads to provision, and those facts are part of what makes the gospel good news.

Conclusion

Seeking first the kingdom and righteousness is not just “woo-woo” speech or meaningless Christianese for “being spiritual.”

It is a practical command that has real world application and is meant to be put into practice in our relationship to the church family of which we are a part and to the sort of habits and character traits we acquire for ourselves.

Also, the command is related directly to the human pursuit of happiness by dislodging external and bodily goods from the center of happiness while still giving them due place in the taxonomy of goods that make us happy.

References

[1] Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, 2014, 205-206

[2] He is right and if you request it I’ll catalog his evidence and add some of my own.

[3] Virtues like justice/righteousness in the ancient world were understood to be in relationship to one’s citizenship. Jesus means, “The righteousness appropriate or proper” for a citizen of God’s kingdom. It’s not just “universal righteousness,” but righteousness that can only make sense in the context of living in the kingdom of God now.

[4] Don’t buy into the lie that doing the right thing always has a negative result. That is a whiny mindset that will give you a defeatist attitude and it simply isn’t always true. Goodness is not always a tragic sacrifice.

[5] There are exceptions to this in Scripture, wherein the Lord will use evil people to accomplish good, but when the Bible tells us to imitate God is always about his mercy, holiness, or love. It is never with respect to God’s manipulation of specific historical events.

[6] Perhaps the best book on the nature of happiness in the Bible is R. N Whybray, The Good Life in the Old Testament (London: T & T Clark, 2002). Every chapter is filled with sound interpretive wisdom.

[7] Observe that making food and clothes one’s main priority can jeopardize one’s eternal happiness. The value tradeoff makes no sense.