Fill the Earth 3: Mission Resumed

Fill the Earth 1-page-001After humanity’s mission is frustrated because of sin throughout Gen 3-11, culminating in their rejection of the creation mandate at the Tower of Babel, God confuses their language and disperses them across the face of the earth, thereby creating the nations. God then resumes His mission by calling one man–Abram–and promising to bless the scattered nations of the world through him.

The Call of Abram1

Gen 12.1-4 discourse-page-001

In these verses we see several important things.

First, this call is structured around two imperatives: “Go” and “be a blessing.”  Logically, the second imperative is contingent upon the first. That is, in order for Abram to “be a blessing,” he must first “go.” This is why the ESV renders the last part of v. 2 as a result clause: “so that you will be a blessing.” And interestingly, these two imperatives can be viewed as the inverse of the decline of humanity in Gen 4-11 that we saw last time. To “go” is the opposite of centralizing, and to “be a blessing” (with its connotations of fruitfulness and vitality) is the opposite of murder.

Second, we see a narrowing and a broadening throughout these verses. That which Abram must give up by going is increasingly narrowed (“country” = nation, “kindred” = extended family, “father’s house” = immediate family), while the recipients of the blessing that results from his going increasingly broaden (Abram himself [“I will bless you”], those who bless Abram [“I will bless those who bless you”], and finally “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”).

For us, this should lead us to ask, “What might I need to give up in order to help spread the promised blessing of Abram to the nations, which is now fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus (Gal 3:8)?”

Third, this call of Abram contrasts with the Babel account. In ch. 11, the “whole earth” is in focus as humanity rebels against God (vv. 1, 4, 8, 9 [2x]), which contrasts with the worldwide focus of Abram’s call to bless “all the families of the earth (12:3). While the Babel builders are concerned to “make a name for themselves” and refuse to go to the ends of the earth (11:4), God tells Abram that if he will “go,” He will “make his name great” (12:2).

And lastly, God’s call of Abram is portrayed as His gracious response to the sin and rebellion of Babel. There is a repeated pattern in the Primeval History of sin-judgment-grace.

Adam & Eve sin by eating the fruit. God judges them by casting them out of the Garden. Grace is shown by promising a Redeemer who will crush the serpent’s head (3:15).

Cain sins by murdering Abel. God judges him by sentencing him to wander the earth. Grace is shown by the mark placed on Cain to protect him from blood vengeance.

In Noah’s time the whole earth is full of the sin of violence. God judges them by sending the flood. Grace is shown as Noah and his family are saved in the ark (6:8).

The Babel builders sin by centralizing rather than spreading. God judges them by confusing and dispersing them. Grace is shown as God calls Abram and promises to bless the nations through him.

Fourth, it’s important to see that Abram obeyed God’s call (v. 4). Discussions of Abram’s call often conclude at v. 3, but as the next section will show, Abram’s obedient response is critical for God’s promise to bless the nations.

The Role of Obedience in the Call

Repetitions of the promise to Abram emphasize his obedience. In the following three repetitions of the Abrahamic promise (that “all nations on earth will be blessed through him”), emphasis is placed on Abram’s obedience as the reason the nations will be blessed.

  1. Gen 18:18-19: “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
  2. Gen 22:16-18: The angel of the Lord says, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and surely cause your seed to multiply like the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
  3. Gen 26:4-5: The Lord speaking to Isaac: “I will cause your seed to multiply like the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.”

However, human effort is not the ultimate cause of God’s mission succeeding. We know from Paul that it was Abram’s faith that was the operative element in these passages.

“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” (Gal 3:8-9).

Yet Scripture does emphasize that Abram’s faith was reflected in his obedience, and this is how God chooses to accomplish His mission. James focuses on this when reflecting on Abraham’s life:

“You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did” (Jas 2:20-22).

Here James recalls the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22), which is one of the places we looked at above that reiterates God’s promise of blessing to the nations. So while we should never rely on our obedience for salvation, we must recognize that God chooses to work through our obedience in accomplishing His redemptive mission in the world.

The Call of Abram and the Creation Mission

Other passages in the patriarchal narratives show that this covenantal calling of Abram and his offspring to bless the nations is a reassertion of the creation mission (“Be fruitful and multiply”).

Two of these passages we’ve seen already:

  1. Gen 22:16-18: The angel of the Lord says, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and surely cause your seed to multiply like the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
  2. Gen 26:4-5: The Lord speaking to Isaac: “I will cause your seed to multiply like the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.

Other passages include:

  1. Gen 17:1-6: “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,that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 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. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.”
  2. Gen 28:3-4: Isaac to Jacob: “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and cause you to multiply until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.”

Notice in these various examples that now, instead of being phrased as an imperative (“Be fruitful and multiply”), it is said that God will make them fruitful and cause them to multiply. That is, God will actively enable His chosen people to carry out the creation mission. Their responsibility, modeled by Abram, was to have faith in God’s word and reflect such faith by their obedience.

God is going to bless Abram’s line and make them fruitful and multiply them so that they can extend His blessing to the nations. By bringing blessing and knowledge of God to the nations scattered over the earth, Abram’s descendents would “fill the earth” with redeemed and restored images of God.

1  This discourse structure is adapted from Wright, The Mission of God, 200, and my following discussion leans heavily on Wright’s insights found on pp. 201-208.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Fill the Earth, Theology of Missions. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fill the Earth 3: Mission Resumed

  1. Pingback: Fill the Earth 4: Mission Organized | Newkirks in Japan

  2. Pingback: Fill the Earth 6: Mission Redeemed | Newkirks in Japan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s