Has the Spirit come by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith? Begun by the Spirit, are you now perfected by the works of the flesh? The antithesis here is not “the Law is bad or makes me feel bad” versus “the Gospel is good.” Paul himself rejects such a notion elsewhere (Romans 7:7 ff.). The works of the law which Paul rejects is a focus on one’s own performance of the Law, which, not incidentally, excludes God from the picture. To begin in the Spirit and end in the flesh is to begin with God and end in the self, something which even Abraham did not do.

Justification comes by faith, and Paul reminds the Galatians that God Himself preached the Gospel to Abraham, long before Sinai. “In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:3). Even in the particular blessing of Abraham, the Lord has a greater purpose in mind. Israel, through Abraham, will be the means of blessing the whole earth. Israel is the vehicle of a greater blessing, and the peculiar holiness of Israel serves as a witness to that end.

This is what Israel failed to understand. Israel is called to be holy so that all the nations would come to know the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-5, 1 Kings 4:20-24, Psalm 72:8-11, among others). Yet Israel had perverted her witness to the world into something else entirely. Faith was no longer needed, because they regarded their own separation from the world as their righteousness. Without faith, such separation could only produce hypocrisy and wickedness. “To the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips’” (Psalm 50:16; also Jeremiah 7:4, Amos 8:4-6, etc.)?

But the righteous shall live by faith. These words of Habakkuk show that the promise made to Abraham has not been set aside. Mamre has not given way to Sinai. Faith is not perfected by the flesh. The promise made to Abraham finds its end in Jesus, through Whom the blessing of Abraham comes also to the whole earth. The Gospel preached to Abraham does not end in Israel, as if the uniqueness of Israel was the whole point. The Gospel goes out to all by faith.

Paul uses a couple of examples to drive his point home here. No one changes human covenants after they have been ratified. If no one tampers with human ones, how much less ought we to tamper with divine ones, especially the one ratified in Genesis 15? More than this, Paul points to the text of Genesis 12 directly, noting that the offspring of Abraham is singular, which can only mean Christ. Were this single word plural, the argument of his opponents might have some weight. Then the inheritance of the physical land, the peculiarity of Israel, might very well be the whole point. But it is not plural, but singular. The scope of the promise made to Abraham is worldwide. The promised inheritance depends on faith and faith alone.

But the Law given at Sinai was put in place because of “transgressions” and also as a “guardian.” Israel broke the covenant when she broke faith with the Lord, setting up the golden calf. The Lord departed from the camp, separating Himself from Israel (Exodus 32-33). Following the intercession of Moses, the Lord remakes the covenant with Israel, but now the veil of Moses covers his face. The transgression of Israel required that veil, because the external letter brought with it the curse (2 Corinthians 3:4-11; Deuteronomy 28-29). But in Jesus Christ, the veil is taken away, because He is the promised offspring. Moses, the intermediary, served to put this into place, but now the promise by faith puts an end to all intermediaries.  Delighting in the Law of the Lord (Psalm 1), the Christian inherits the promise of Abraham through the inward working of the Spirit.

Jacob is in a difficult spot. Since the beginning of his section in Genesis 25:19, Jacob has strove with his brother to obtain what belonged to Esau. In the previous chapter, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, steals the blessing from his father Isaac (Genesis 27). When Esau learned what happened, he cries out: “Is he not rightly named Jacob [that is, Deceiver or Grabber]? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Genesis 27:36). Esau unsurprisingly wants to kill his brother because of what he has done. His parents therefore both tell Jacob to flee to Rebekah’s brother Laban to the north in Haran (Genesis 27:41-28:5).

Beersheba, the place where Abraham made an oath with Abimelech regarding the well (Genesis 21:25-34), is in the south (which is why the expression “from Dan to Beersheba” in passages like Judges 20:1 or 1 Kings 4:25 means basically “from north to south” or “from top to bottom”). Haran is in the far north, beyond the river Euphrates. Abraham had settled there with his father Terah before receiving the call to go to Canaan (Genesis 11:31). Since Terah died in Haran, some of Abraham’s kinsmen still lived there, which is why Jacob is told to go there. He flees along a major road northward, hoping to make good time.

Jacob is obviously travelling alone and with great haste, since he stops at a “certain place” and uses a rock for a pillow (Genesis 28:11). As he is sleeping, the Lord sends a great vision in a dream. Such dreams occur throughout the Scriptures, such as with his son Joseph (Genesis 37), Pharaoh (Genesis 41), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2), and Joseph the husband of Mary (Matthew 1:20). God uses these dreams, therefore, as a special means of revelation, both to believer and unbeliever alike, and often at critical moments in salvation history.

In this vision, Jacob sees a “ladder.” This word, however, only occurs here in the Old Testament. The Septuagint renders it with a word which primarily means “ladder,” which is perhaps why this is the most common translation. The word, however, is related to other words, like “siege mound” in 2 Samuel 20:15 or “highway” in Numbers 20:19. Therefore, the basic sense is something like an inclined ramp, which by no means excludes steps or even rungs. However, the raised incline is the key, since it begins on the earth and extends into heaven.

Jesus identifies Himself as this ladder or ramp in John 1:51, where He calls Nathanael and proclaims His own divinity. Because the Lord gives the promise which He made to Abraham (Genesis 13:14-16) and to Isaac (Genesis 26:1-5) now to Jacob, Christ seems to say that He too is the conduit of such blessings to His people. “For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Since Jacob calls that place “the house of God” and the “gate of heaven,” it points toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who is the Son of God (John 14:6)! Further, Christ is also proclaiming both His own divinity, since He is a part of this vision to Jacob, and that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who made this promise to His people so long ago that night.

The Lord also consoles Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). Jacob doubtlessly was afraid of Esau his brother, and a red-eyed flight northwards to escape being murdered also made him wonder about his future. But the Lord was with Jacob even in the midst of this exile or sojourning, so that he would become Israel and the father of the Lord’s people. The Lord will not break His promises, even when it seems like they are so far from being able to be fulfilled.

Jacob awakes and makes a curious statement: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). On the one hand, Jacob like his fathers is a stranger and a wanderer in a land which did not belong to him, even though it was promised to his offspring. Jacob in his terror may have thought that he was being driven away from the Lord as well, since his relatives were not necessarily God-fearing (Laban his uncle, for example, was an obvious idolator in Genesis 31:19). On the other hand, since he saw “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) even more so than we (Matthew 13:17; Hebrews 11:13), it may be that he thought that the Lord remained behind him as he fled to the north. Imagine his surprise, then, to discover what his offspring David says in Psalm 139:7-8: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Jacob in the morning sets up the stone and unsurprisingly calls the place Bethel, literally “house of God” (Genesis 28:19). It would not become a city for many years, but it would play an important role in the history of Israel. Bethel sits on the road north of Jerusalem, but when the kingdom divided, it became a part of the Northern Kingdom. Being so close to the border between the kingdoms, it was essentially the southern point in the same way Beersheba was for the whole kingdom. Jeroboam, therefore, set up one of his golden calves at Bethel (1 Kings 12:29). The place where God had appeared to Jacob therefore became a sin and a snare to Israel. Physical locations where the Lord performs His miracles, however important they may be for salvation history, too often serve as a snare to faith in the same way. “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred” (Matthew 23:17)? But Elijah and Elisha set up one of their schools in Bethel and the true worship of God continued even in the midst of idolatry (2 Kings 2:2-3).

Part 3.2 of this series.

Biblical piety prays without ceasing.

Prayer is not dependent upon anything within the Christian to be heard. It is not a movement of the will, an emotional state of closeness or majesty, or a question of intensity. Too many imagine prayer to be something entirely of their own making, as if the Christian sits down and speaks to God unprompted. But “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). We would not pray if God Himself did not move our hearts to pray. It is by the Holy Spirit that we cry “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).

Prayer is therefore a response to what God has first done. Apart from faith, there can be no prayer, and apart from God, there can be no faith. Yet though we could not pray apart from God, prayer is directed toward God. As Paul says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Prayer is therefore the Christian’s work. It has God’s clear command, for Jesus tells us “when you pray,” not “if you pray” in Matthew 6:5. But it also has God’s clear promise, for “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).

But prayer at bottom is not a matter of words. The Gentiles think they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7). Hannah, however, prayed without uttering a word (1 Samuel 1:13). Abraham’s servant prayed in his heart for guidance to Rebekah (Genesis 24:45). As noted above, the Holy Spirit Himself utters wordless groans on our behalf. We should not regard prayer as finding the right words.

Rather, prayer is at bottom a recognition of the power of God. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). A prayer of thanksgiving glorifies God for His mighty deeds. “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works” (Psalm 105:1-2)! A prayer for forgiveness recognizes that the Lord is merciful and abounding in steadfast love. “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’” (Luke 18:13)! A prayer which makes requests of God confesses that all things come from His hand. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11)! A prayer of intercession recalls the promises and the mercies of God, even in the face of His wrath.

Therefore, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17; see also Luke 18:1). Prayer is not limited to particular circumstances, because we are completely dependent upon God for all things at all times. As Paul says, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Timothy 2:8). Limiting prayer only to specific times or specific forms runs the great risk of treating it as a chore. This does not mean that specific times or specific prayers are evil. Such things are highly helpful for a living piety. It is when we regard prayer as a list of words that need to be rattled off before bed or at a prayer service that we act like Gentiles. We are approaching the Creator of all things, who delights to hear our prayers. Who would not want to come, knowing that God Himself promises to hear us?

We will discuss practical questions, including difficulties in prayer, in the next installment. But let us not forget that God calls us to this holy work through His Holy Spirit. If nothing else, remember that our Father delights to hear the prayers of His children, and knowing that it pleases Him is in itself reason enough. “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2), knowing that God will not fail to hear.

Genesis 15 comes fairly early in the major section of the “generations of Terah” (Genesis 11:27-25:11).  The Lord has already sent Abram (not yet Abraham) to Canaan in chapter 12.  After a brief sojourn in Egypt, Abraham rescues Lot from being a prisoner of war in Genesis 14.  Abram is then blessed by Melchizedek.

The phrase “after these things” refers then to these previous events.  Abram has left Ur in faith, not knowing exactly where the Lord is leading him (Genesis 12:1).  The Lord has promised Canaan to his offspring, and Abram builds an altar in an act of worship (Genesis 13:14-18).  The Lord has even given him victory over kings with a relatively small band of 318 men (Genesis 14:13-16).  Abram has every reason to continue trusting the Lord who has led him this far.

Yet the Lord comes to comfort Abram in one continuing problem:  he has no son.  God has promised him numberless offspring, yet he remains without a child.  As Paul says in Romans 4:18-22 and Hebrews 11:12, humanly speaking Abram’s body was “as good as dead,” since he was well beyond the human capacity for fathering a son.  Abram then hears the Word of the Lord and believes the one who has made this promise.

A few specific notes are in order.  First, “the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.”  The word vision here is derived from a word meaning “to see,” and also occurs in Numbers 24:4 and 24:16, where it refers to Balaam, and Ezekiel 13:7, where it refers to the “false visions” of the false prophets.  Abram therefore receives the revelation visually in some way.  Inspiration, generally speaking, does not occur always in the same way.  Other prophets also received direct visual revelations, such as Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:11-12), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-7), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1), and so on.  Abram himself will fall into a “deep sleep” later in Genesis 15, which in itself indicates some sort of prophetic fit (especially since the corresponding darkness is described as “dreadful and great”).

Second, the Lord directs Abram to look at the stars as a way of showing to him that He is faithful in His promise of a son.  The created stars serve as a sign and a confirmation of the promise.  If Abram were to be able to number them, he could also number the offspring of this promise.   As mentioned earlier, Paul cites this expression directly in Romans 4:18, but it is alluded to throughout the Old Testament in Genesis 22:17; 26:4; Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 1:10; 10:22; and 1 Chronicles 27:23.  This also explains David’s sin in 2 Samuel 24 when he takes the census, because attempting to count Israel (apart from an express command to do so) is tantamount to wondering whether the Lord will keep His promises.

Finally, “Abram believed the Lord, and He counted to him as righteousness.”  Paul uses this verse to prove in Romans 4 that Abraham was not justified by his works, but by his faith.  Therefore, the Gentiles also, who are not the sons of Abraham according to the flesh, are still sons according to the promise.  Paul makes the same point in Galatians 3:5-6:  we are not justified by the works of the Law.  These passages also clarify any ambiguity with the pronouns which might seem to exist in Genesis 15:6.

James also makes reference to this verse in James 2:14-26.  His overarching point is that faith cannot exist without good works.  It is not enough to say “I am a Christian,” if one then turns and acts in an unchristian way.  Abraham therefore demonstrates his living faith through his willingness even to offer up his own son Isaac, the son of the promise upon the altar.  In this way, Genesis 15:6 is fulfilled, because the faith which believes the promise of God is the same faith which then expresses itself in an unshakable trust that “God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:19).