Post Series on Genesis 12:1-9:
- The Missionary Calling of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3)
- The Missionary Obedience of Abraham (Genesis 12:4-6)
- The Missionary Witness of Abraham (Genesis 12:7-9)
In Genesis 12:1-3, YHWH issued a missionary calling to Abraham. In Genesis 12:4-6, Abraham obeyed that missionary calling by going, bringing along a core group of YHWH disciples, and settling in the middle of the idolatrous Canaanites.
In Genesis 12:7-9, we read about the missionary witness of Abraham in the eyes of a watching, pagan world:
7Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD. 9And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb. (Gen. 12:7-9)
Now, I quoted extensively from my former seminary professor Allen Ross in the last post, and I will do it again here. I grew to understand this passage deeply under Dr. Ross, and I’m thankful for his careful study. As a brief plug for his book, he has written a fantastic commentary on Genesis that I would encourage you to buy called Creation and Blessing.
The Missionary Witness of Abraham in Sacrifice
Allen Ross explains the important significance of the two altars mentioned in this passage:
The second evidence of a living faith is true worship. Twice in this short passage we are told that Abram built an altar to the LORD. It need say no more. That tells us that he made a sacrifice to worship God. Everyone knew what altars and sacrifices meant; to make one to Yahweh set him apart. (“The Evidence of Saving Faith“)
All worshipers offered sacrifices to their gods, so the fact that Abram was making sacrifices would not have raised any Canaanite eyebrows. What was distinct was (1) the way in which Abram made sacrifices (and, significantly, the way he didn’t make sacrifices), and (2) the fact that Abram was offering sacrifices only to one God, and, to a God that the Canaanites did not worship: YHWH.
In Abram’s sacrificial worship, he was announcing several distinctive characteristics about this God named YHWH. First, he was announcing that this God YHWH was a holy God. To atone for sin, YHWH demanded life in exchange for the life of the worshiper. The sacrificial animal died so that the worshiper could live.
Second, Abram was announcing that this holy God had a deep respect for human life. We read through the rest of the history of the Old Testament that the Canaanites often used male and female prostitutes in their worship practices, as well as offering human beings as sacrifices on their altars. Abram did nothing of the sort in the worship of YHWH, because while YHWH is not like the gods of the Canaanites.
Third, Abram was announcing that YHWH is One. The Canaanites worshiped a pantheon of gods, diligent to offer all the right sacrifices at the right times to the right gods. Abram, however, worshiped one God, and insisted that YHWH was above all other gods, with no other gods above or beside him.
Because Abram’s worship was distinctive, Abram’s witness was powerful. His sacrificial practices boldly proclaimed the truth of YHWH in the midst of pagan, Canaanite idol worshipers.
The Missionary Witness of Abraham in Word
But how did the Canaanites understand the significance of Abram’s distinctive worship? Did they send spies to observe him from behind the oak of Moreh?
In fact, the text tells us that Abram also had a teaching and preaching ministry. Again from Dr. Ross:
We are told that at the altar Abram “called upon the name of the LORD.” I should like to rephrase this to catch what is actually going on: “And Abram made proclamation of Yahweh by name.” The usage of the clause indicates that this is the meaning, especially the usage in Exodus 34:5ff., where the LORD is the subject, proclaiming “The name of the LORD”: and what follows in His speech is a list of divine attributes–that is the “name” of the LORD.
Luther translated this line, “And Abram preached” in the name of the LORD. He is not too far off. When Abram made the sacrifice on the altar, he would stand there and proclaim who the LORD is and what He is like–that He is alive, He spoke, He calls people to follow Him, He is gracious and beneficent, offering blessing and fame, He is faithful to His own, but He will judge those who refuse the divine blessing. And of course this message would grow the longer Abram would walk with God.
Here was no simple talk, no message with weakened contents, no pagan musings. This was solid doctrinal discourse from divine revelation and personal experience. It would go with the sacrifice, so it spoke of commitment by faith. Thus, we have from the beginning the two parts of worship–the ministry of the sacrifice and the ministry of the Word. They belong together; the one explains the ritual, and the ritual gives life to the Word. (“The Evidence of Saving Faith“)
As he was going, wherever he went, he built altars and proclaimed the name of YHWH. The phrase could mean that Abram “called upon the name of the LORD,” as many translations (including the ESV, which I am quoting from here) put it; however, as Dr. Ross points out, this exact Hebrew phrase is used to describe YHWH’s proclaiming his own name to Moses in Exodus 34. Clearly, YHWH is not calling upon his name, but calling forth his name to someone else.
The same thing is happening in Abram’s ministry here. He worships YHWH according to YHWH’s commandment, and then from that sacrifice, he preaches and teaches the name of YHWH (who he is, what he is like, what he wants, etc.) to the watching Canaanites. The missionary witness of Abraham involves both sacrifice and word ministry.
The Missionary Witness of the Church
The Church of Jesus Christ is called to the same role of missionary witness in the wider world. Whether we are sent to the far corners of Africa, or whether we worship in a local congregation in Lincoln, Nebraska, we are engaging in missionary witness of sacrifice and word to a watching world.
The difference, though, is that Jesus Christ has already offered himself up once and for all as a final, perfect, complete sacrifice. Through the blood of Jesus Christ, we see the clearest insight into the holiness of God: YHWH is so holy that he would execute his only Son rather than allow sin to continue. We see God’s utmost value for human life when he offers up his own Son rather than demanding that we die for our own sins. And, we see the unity of God, as the Father sends his Son, who willingly undertakes and accomplishes the work of redemption by the cross, so that the work is applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit.
The single most powerful missionary activity of the Church is our worship. We do not seek to overthrow governments or to create popular television shows or to hobnob with the powerful or to amass the most cash. We leave behind all the fame, glory, honor, and riches of this world and instead we simply worship God, proclaiming the good news of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to sinners who desperately need salvation.
The missionary witness of Abraham and the missionary witness of the Church are the same: we worship God in Spirit and in truth. The only difference is that Abraham looked forward to what he never saw fully with his own eyes, while we worship what we know: Jesus Christ and him crucified.