Abraham (2): Believing God’s Promise

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Hebrews 11:11-12

INTRODUCTION: This passage is the second of three sections in Hebrews 11 dealing with Abraham and his faith. We spent the last two weeks looking at the first section in verses 8-10 which focused on Abraham’s faith in following God’s leading.

This second section focuses on a different aspect of Abraham’s faith. Abraham also demonstrated his faith by believing God’s promise. Abraham believed God’s promise that God would make Abraham into a great nation, and that he would give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s offspring. (Read Hebrews 11:11-12 and pray.)

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There are probably few things as disheartening as when someone makes a promise to you and then breaks it. We know intuitively that when someone makes a promise, they ought to keep their word. Why even make a promise if you’re not going to follow through?

Some people mean well when they make a promise, but they do not always have the character or integrity to stand by their word in the long run. Others make their promises lightly, never intending to fulfill them unless it becomes convenient or advantageous for them to do so. We have all had someone break a promise to us at one time or another, and we have all broken some promises of our own. Broken promises seem to be part and parcel of our broken world.

Unfortunately, broken promises can have a negative effect on our faith. When someone breaks their promise to us, we are disappointed and begin to lose trust. If we get disappointed enough in this area, we can begin to lose faith altogether.

Some people even lose faith in God. They forget that when it comes to keeping promises, God is absolutely faithful. The Bible says: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does [God] speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19) Rest assured; God is the ultimate promise keeper, and he has a perfect record in the promise keeping department.

And although we may know this and truly believe it in our hearts, we can still experience a crisis of faith when what we see before us in the world does not seem to line up with God’s promises for us in his word. And that is when we need to remember that faith believes even without seeing: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of realities we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Abraham experienced a similar crisis of faith. What he could see with his eyes did not seem to line up with what God had promised him. Yet, Abraham chose to believe God’s promise, even when he could not see how the promise could possibly be fulfilled. Abraham believed God against all the odds, and God worked through Abraham’s faith to bring blessing to him and through him to others.

I. Faith believes God’s promises against all odds (11)

   A. Nothing is impossible for God
      – Genesis 12:2,7, 15:5-6

Faith believes God’s promises against all odds. Nothing is impossible for God.

When God first spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12, God promised him two things. God said: “I will make you into a great nation,” and God also told him: “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:2,7) In Genesis 15 God reaffirmed his promise. God took Abraham outside and told him: “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5) Genesis 15:6 tells us that “Abram believed the LORD, and God credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

Now, these were wonderful promises God gave to Abraham and his offspring, but there was one big problem. Abraham did not have any offspring. How could God make him into a great nation if he did not have any children? How could his offspring inherit the land when they did not even exist? What Abraham could see did not line up with God’s promise. For God’s promise to be fulfilled, Abraham would first have to have children, at least one. And seeing that inheritance rights went through the males in the family line, that child would also have to be a son.

Hebrews 11:11 tells us “by faith Abraham … was enabled to become a father,” speaking of the birth of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Abraham did not become the father of Isaac by his own strength or natural capacity but simply by believing God’s promise concerning a future son. The birth of Isaac was a result of Abraham’s faith rather than his own strength, cleverness, or ability. It is a good reminder to us that we can accomplish much more for God by faith in him and his promises than we ever can by relying on our own strength and resources.

Abraham had to exercise faith because two major obstacles stood in the way of him receiving God’s promise. We find both of them here in verse 11.

      1) Abraham was past age
         – Genesis 17:16-21

The first obstacle was the fact that Abraham “was past age.” It’s a phrase that means being “past the season of life” for a particular activity. Sometimes when I exercise too hard, I wake up the next morning and wonder, “Am I past age for all this stuff?” Then I hobble around the house saying, “No, I never felt better in my life!” Well, Abraham wasn’t past age for exercise. (Maybe he was that, too!) Abraham was past age for becoming a parent. Abraham had passed the season of life for producing a child, and yet in order for God’s promise to be fulfilled, Abraham had to have a son.

Abraham was already seventy-five years old when God first spoke to him in Genesis 12. Now, seventy-five years is pretty old for a man to father a child, even in those days, but it was not impossible. In fact, eleven years later, at the age of eighty-six, Abraham would father a son named Ishmael. Remarkable, but still within the realms of human possibility.

Ishmael, however, was born, not of Abraham’s wife Sarah, but of Sarah’s maidservant Hagar. And God made it clear that Ishmael was not the son of promise. God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled through a son born to him through Sarah. And so, as the years went by, and Abraham got older, and Sarah got older, the promise required more and more faith to believe.

In Genesis 17 we read that God appeared to Abraham again. This time Abraham was ninety-nine years old and Sarah was eighty-nine. God appeared to Abraham, gave him the covenant of circumcision, and told him: “I will bless [your wife Sarah] and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Genesis 17:16)

This promise was so staggering that even Abraham, the father of faith, had trouble believing it. Genesis 17 tells us that: “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’” It seemed almost too much to believe. “And [then] Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing [instead]!’” (Genesis 17:17-18)

Abraham was definitely “past age” now, and he knew it. And so, in a temporary moment of doubting, he asks God to switch the promise to Ishmael. Why Ishmael? Well, because Ishmael was already born. Ishmael was a living, breathing thirteen-year old boy who had already come from Abraham’s own body. Abraham could “see” Ishmael with his own eyes. He could not see a son being born to him at a hundred years old. Believing in Ishmael did not require the same type of faith as believing in the future promise of a son.

However, God refuses Abraham’s request to switch the promise. He tells Abraham: “Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac.” (Genesis 17:19) And then God even gives him a time frame, something he had not done before. God says: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” (Genesis 17:21)

And so, here is Abraham at ninety-nine years old with the renewed promise of a son sometime within the next year. And Abraham believed God. That takes faith. That was the first obstacle that stood in the way of Abraham receiving God’s promise. Abraham was past age.

      2) Sarah was barren
         – Romans 4:18-21

But Hebrews 11 tells us that there was a second obstacle that stood in the way of Abraham receiving God’s promise. Not only was Abraham past age for having a son, “Sarah herself was barren.” (Hebrews 11:11) This was the reason Abraham and Sarah did not have any children to begin with. Even when Abraham was younger, and Sarah was in the prime of her life, they had been unable to conceive because Sarah was barren. This was an even more serious obstacle than the first. In other words, Abraham’s age only compounded an already impossible situation. Sarah was physically unable to have children.

Of course, this means that Abraham had displayed remarkable faith in believing God’s promise even way back when he was only seventy-five. He knew then Sarah was barren, and yet Abraham still believed God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations. He still believed that God would give the land of Canaan to his offspring.

But now that Abraham was almost a hundred years old and Sarah almost ninety, the promise seemed totally out of reach. A hundred-year-old man and his ninety-year-old barren wife were not about to produce a son together. Humanly speaking, this was just not possible.

Yet Abraham believed God’s promise, and that very day he circumcised himself, and he circumcised Ishmael and every male in his household just as God told him. Abraham believed God’s promise even though he and Sarah were both past age to have children and Sarah herself was barren. And God honored Abraham’s faith by miraculously enabling Abraham and Sarah to give birth to Isaac, the son of promise.

Faith believes God against all odds because nothing is impossible for God. Romans 4 in the New Testament describes Abraham’s faith this way: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ 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.” (Romans 4:18-21)

      3) God sometimes “stacks the odds”
         – Judges 7:1-12; John 11:1-11

When it comes to God’s promises, don’t worry about the odds, humanly speaking, because the odds mean nothing when God is in the picture. In fact, there are times when God even seems to stack the odds against his promise on purpose.

Think about Gideon in the Old Testament. When Gideon brought thirty-two thousand men into battle, the odds were already stacked against him. The book of Judges tells us that “The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts.” (Judges 7:12) Thirty-two thousand men were no match for such a vast army. But God stacked the odds even further, whittling Gideon’s army down to a mere three hundred men. Why? God himself gives us the reason in Judges 7:2: “In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her.” (Judges 7:2)

Or how about Lazarus in the New Testament? When Jesus received word that his friend Lazarus was sick and dying, Jesus intentionally delayed going so that Lazarus would be four days in the grave by the time he got there with his disciples. Why? So that there would be no question that Lazarus had truly died when Jesus raised him from the grave. Jesus stacked the odds against a simple healing in order to perform the greater miracle of a resurrection. (John 11:1-11)

Why does God sometimes stack the odds against us? In order to bring himself the glory that he rightly deserves. God is always working on our behalf, but we don’t always see it. We don’t always recognize it. And so, God stacks the odds against us in such a way that we may see more clearly his hand of deliverance. Nothing is impossible for God.

   B. God is always faithful to keep his promises
      – Romans 8:32

There is another reason Abraham was able to exercise such remarkable faith against such impossible odds. He knew that God is always faithful to keep his promises. Look at Hebrews 11:11 once again. “By faith Abraham was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” (Hebrews 11:11) Abraham believed God’s promise because he knew God’s character. He trusted God’s promise because he trusted God.

As you go through life you quickly learn that you can trust some people more than others. There are those people whom you trust completely when they make you a promise because they have proved themselves faithful time and again. And then there are those who are so completely unreliable that you would fall over in a dead faint if they actually came through and kept a promise for once in their life. It all comes down to the person’s character and integrity.

God’s character is one of absolute faithfulness. Abraham believed God because “he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” (Hebrews 11:11) You can always trust God to keep his promises.

Charles Spurgeon, a preacher in England back in the late 1800’s, had this great insight. “If God had meant to run back from any promise, he would surely have run back from the promise to give his only begotten Son; but having fulfilled that, what promise is there he will ever break?”

It’s a similar thought to Romans 8:32 where we read: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) If God kept the hardest promise of all, that of sending his own Son into the world as a sacrifice for sin, will he not also keep all of his other promises?

God will always keep his promises because that is his character. Faith believes God against all odds, because nothing is impossible for God, and God is always faithful to keep his promises.

II. God works through your faith in his promises to bring great blessing (12)

And when you choose to believe God against the odds, God works through your faith in his promises to bring great blessing. God will bring great blessing to you, and God will bring great blessing to others through you.

   A. God will bring great blessing to you
      – Genesis 15:1-3

First, God will bring great blessing to you. Always remember that God’s promises in Scripture are given for you and your benefit. Jeremiah Burroughs, a great Puritan author, wrote this: “Every time a godly [person] reads the Scriptures … and there meets with a promise, he ought to lay his hand upon it and say, ‘This is part of my inheritance, it is mine, and I am to lie upon it.’”

God wants you to go to the promises in his word to find the comfort, strength, and assurance you need in life. And through your faith in his promises God will bring you great blessing. God worked through Abraham’s faith to bring great blessing to Abraham. By faith Abraham was enabled to become a father. This was a wonderful blessing for him.

Abraham had one great sorrow in life: his beloved wife Sarah was unable to bear him any children. Infertility can be an excruciatingly difficult and painful thing for any couple to face. Abraham and Sarah lived in a culture which viewed the barren womb as a curse, and so they would also have suffered great public humiliation along with their own personal sense of failure and loss.

Abraham’s sorrow over Sarah’s infertility was so great that when God appeared to Abraham in a vision and told him: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward,” Abraham responded by saying: “O Sovereign LORD, what can you [possibly] give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? . . . You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)

Can’t you just hear the disappointment, the sorrow, the frustration in Abraham’s words? Ironically, Abram’s name meant “father of many,” and here he was, the “father of none,” “the father of no children,” so that a servant in his household would inherit the family estate instead of a son. But Abram believed God’s promise, and God worked through his faith to bring him great blessing. God enabled Abraham to become the father of Isaac.

   B. God will bring great blessing to others through you
      – Genesis 15:5; Galatians 3:6-9

When you put your faith in God’s promises, God will not only bring great blessing to you; God will also bring great blessing to others through you. God had told Abraham, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them . . . So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5) And God fulfilled that promise. We read in Hebrews 11:12: “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” (Hebrews 11:12)

One man’s faith brought blessing to many. “One man, and he as good as dead.” Don’t you just love that? But it’s true. When it came to having children, Abraham was as good as dead. A hundred-year-old man and his ninety-year-old barren wife had about as much chance, humanly speaking, of producing a child as did a dead man. But by faith in God’s promises, the father of none became the father of many. In fact, he became the father of nations, indeed the father of all who believe.

The word translated “numerous” here in verse 12 means “a great number, a multitude.” I like the word “countless” in this verse, too. In the original language it literally means, “no math.” Some of you students out there who do not like math, all of a sudden you probably like this word “countless” too. No math – wouldn’t that be nice! The sand on the seashore is “countless.” There is “no math” that can count it all.

God promised Abraham countless descendants. There was no math that could count them all. God fulfilled that promise first through the birth of Isaac, and then through Jacob and the nation of Israel. God fulfilled the promise further through the coming of Jesus as the Messiah for Israel and as the Savior for all. And God continues to fulfill the promise today through the many people, both Jew and Gentile, who come to Christ for salvation.

Galatians 3 in the New Testament puts it this way: “Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of 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.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:6-9)

God worked through Abraham’s faith to bring great blessing to countless people through salvation in Jesus Christ. God will work through your faith in his promises to bring great blessing to other people also.

The vast array of stars served as a visual reminder to Abraham of God’s promise. Every night Abraham could look up into the diamond-studded sky and claim God’s promise by faith. Does your heart beat for Jesus and his kingdom? Do you long to see multitudes of people come to know Christ as Savior? Then look up at the stars in the sky at night and by faith continue to claim this promise. Because remember, God continues to fulfill his promise to Abraham even today. Allow God to bring great blessing to others through you as you put your faith in Christ.

CONCLUSION: Faith in God means believing God’s promise. Faith believes God’s promises against all odds, because nothing is impossible for God, and God is always faithful to keep his promises. God works through your faith in his promises to bring great blessing to you and great blessing to others through you. To doubt God’s promise is to doubt God’s power or to doubt God’s character. And to doubt God’s promise is to forfeit God’s blessing for yourself and for others.

“By faith Abraham, was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” (Hebrews 11:11-12) Believe God’s promise, and know God’s great blessing in your life.

© Ray Fowler

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