We want to continue with the matter which the Lord has brought to us: The Cross and the Way of Life. We have been seeing the working of the principle of the Cross in the case of men who stand out in the early history of the race - Abel and Noah. In this chapter we are going to pass to Abraham, and if you are not familiar with those parts, I would suggest you read Genesis chapters 17 and 22.
But before we come to speak of this matter in connection with Abraham, let me say this which I think may be helpful. We can only rightly and adequately appraise and understand the value and meaning of the lives of these men in the Bible as we recognize the particular purpose which characterized those lives.
Every one of them was connected with something quite specific or something quite specific was connected with them, and until we can put our finger upon that thing which accounted for them and explained them, we cannot really understand all their experiences or the ways in which God dealt with them. That is, while a particular law applied in the case of these men, it is also a general principle in life. In order to understand our lives under the hand of God, we have to see what it is that relates to our lives in the mind of God.
We have spoken of Abel, and the particular thing that comes to us through Abel is that he established the principle in fulness and finality that the Cross is the way of life. And in the first one all is summed up and so Abel, by the death of the lamb and then by his own death because of the lamb - for he was slain, was murdered - because of his lamb he established the law that the Cross is the way of life.
Passing on to Noah, the same thing in principle is there but in Noah's case we see that the principle which was established in the one man, Abel, now is manifested in a universal way. The whole world, rejecting the principle of the Cross, found no way through with God. They found a closed door but Noah and seven others, because they accepted that principle, found the way through and Noah's specific function was to set forth the universality of this principle. It is not only one man now, it is the whole world over against the comparative few who find a way through by the Cross. So Noah becomes the testimony in a corporate form, while Abel was the testimony in an individual and personal form.
Abraham - God's New Race Beginning
Now, when we come to Abraham, moving on in the counsels of God, we come to God's new race beginning. There are two titles given to Abraham with specific and peculiar meaning. Those titles are 'father' and 'friend'. He was the father of the Hebrew race, but he was not only the father of the Hebrew nation, for Paul says "the father of all them that believe" (Rom. 4:11) and again, "the father of many nations". And that was written to Romans, so Abraham steps clean out of the confines of the Hebrew race and, as Paul says, is "the father of all nations who believe". And we know that the one outstanding characteristic of Abraham was faith. He is called "the father of the faithful", that is, the people of faith, "all them that believe".
Faith, therefore, is generic; the characteristic of a genesis, that is, of a class of people. It is a power which creates a kind of people, that makes a race, a nation. Faith is a mighty propagating thing, and that was the particular characteristic of Abraham's fatherhood or paternity - faith. What a tremendous thing faith is. "I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is upon the seashore" (Gen. 22:17). What propagating power there is in faith! Now this particular characteristic of his fatherhood is the principle of all that follows. It is not just saying something which does not sound particularly enlightening or interesting, but it is the principle of everything, and so we proceed to look at this man Abraham.
Abraham's Call and Separation
Firstly, his call and his separation, "The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said unto him, Get thee out of thy land, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall show thee" (Acts 7:2-3). This was his call and his separation, which implied the rejection of Chaldea and the Chaldeans. God had no open way for them. Of course that would be understood if we had time to speak of the conditions in Chaldea, for they were exceedingly evil. Idolatry was rampant; iniquity was terrible. "Get thee out", which meant that for the Chaldean and Chaldea, there was a closed door with God, and Abraham being brought out, separated and called forth, meant that God's open way lay in that direction.
God's Covenant with Abraham
The next movement that we want to note in the course of things is that to which we come in Genesis 17: the covenant made with Abraham, and the sign of the covenant - being circumcised. Now, note the covenant that God made with Abraham then. As you can see if you look, it is related to perpetuity and increase; a going on, a clear, free, full way of going on - the way of life and increase. That was the covenant, "Thy seed after thee shall..." and so on. The covenant had to do with life or perpetuity and with increase, life and enlargement. But this life and this enlargement would be through and on the basis of, first of all the acceptance of the great fact that the door was closed to all that was other, death had taken place, and therefore it could only possibly be on the other side of that door. And that door proved to be the door of the Cross.
The life, the perpetuity, the continuation and the increase, lay through the Cross. And that is the meaning, as we know so well, of circumcision. In the New Testament you know quite well that circumcision is related by the apostle Paul to the Cross of the Lord Jesus. You have it definitely stated in Col. 2:11 where the Cross of the Lord Jesus is definitely in view and it is said to have been the circumcision of Christ. And Paul calls it the putting away of the whole body of the flesh. It is related to the Cross. So take that right back from Col. 2:11 to Genesis 17, and you see exactly the basis upon which the continuance, the perpetuity, the increase rests. The circumcision there implicitly represents the Cross - the end of something, and the beginning of something else. Death - a closed door to something. Life - the open door to something altogether different: God's new race beginning with Abraham.
Inward and Spiritual Circumcision
But in the New Testament circumcision is regarded as spiritual and inward. Paul said it quite emphatically, "Neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh... circumcision is that of the heart" (Rom. 2:28-29). "We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God" (Phil. 3:3). It is a spiritual thing, an inward thing; it is of the heart. And it simply means that in the Cross of the Lord Jesus, the natural life and the reasoning of the natural life, or the self-life - the willing of the self-life, the desiring of the self-life - has been cut off by the Cross. Every expression and aspect of the self-life has been cut through by the Cross and is put in the place where the door is shut. There is no open door to any expression of the natural life. The Cross says, 'The door is closed; death rests upon that'. That is spiritual circumcision.
Stephen, in that matchless discourse of his which resulted in his murder, cried at one point to those who were persecuting and about to stone him, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart" (Acts 7:51). What did he mean by "uncircumcised in heart and ears"? He just meant this, that they were only willing and minded to have what they wanted and nothing more. Prejudice is a certain mark of an uncircumcised heart. Bigotry is the same, and anything that you can find that made up the situation which brought Stephen to his death is a mark of an uncircumcised heart. That is the thought. Still there is the reasoning and the arguing of the Self, of the natural life. There is still the desiring and the feeling of the Self obtruding itself. The Cross, spiritual circumcision, says "No!" to it all.
Now, you see that is the position to which Abraham came as recorded in Genesis 17 when God made the covenant and then gave circumcision as the sign of the covenant.
A Supreme Test
Now you pass to chapter 22, and you find Abraham's supreme test of that whole situation. "Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him..." Now, in that covenant sign, Abraham had taken the position that everything was to be through death to Self, and all the aspects of Self. That was in the covenant, and that was the significance of the sign: death to all the motions and activities and energies of the natural or self-life. He had become a party to that covenant, for a covenant must always have two parties. God was one, and Abraham was the other, and he had accepted it, and it has become very practical.
Now then, the test of Abraham arose, and Isaac was the test of that position which he had taken. It was this: God had instituted a covenant, and the covenant was that his seed should be as the sand and as the stars. God would multiply his seed exceedingly. He should be the father of many nations, and kings should come from him. These are the terms of the covenant. Abraham had said, 'All right, Lord, I am with You for that', and the Lord said, 'Very well, but that can never be along the lines of your natural resources, your own energies, your own abilities, your own intelligence. That has got to come only through death and resurrection.' Abraham said, 'Very well, Lord, I am with you in this, I agree to that, I accept it, and I perform the sign of the covenant as my declaration that that is the position.'
Oh, I do wish that there you would put into parenthesis that other New Testament symbol that goes with circumcision - baptism, because the two things go together in the New Testament. Baptism is the Christian's way of doing what the Hebrew did in circumcision, saying, 'I die to myself, I die to the natural life. I cut that all off in the Cross of Christ. I declare by baptism, just as Abraham did by circumcision, that I accept this: that the future is out from God, and not out from myself. There is no prospect of any kind so far as I naturally am concerned. It is only through the Cross in resurrection that there is any way at all, any life at all.' Abraham took that position in a very practical way and became party to it.
Now then, Isaac has come in by a miracle which Abraham had no reason whatever to expect to be repeated. God had bound everything up with Isaac, not with any further seed of Abraham, but with Isaac. At that point Isaac lives as the embodiment of God's covenant. Isaac dies, and what happens? What a test! Now then, between God and Abraham stands Isaac. And Isaac says "God and everything because of His covenant"; or, "no God and nothing". It is God and everything, or it is nothing. You see, the promise of this multiplying of his seed had already been given several times, but the fulfilment of it only came through Isaac being offered up, for, immediately Abraham had obeyed, then the Lord appeared to him again and ratified the covenant, "Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son... in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens."
Now we must draw some very practical lessons and values from this. Firstly, nothing is truly established until it has been yielded up and has received the brand of the Cross upon it. Have you got that? Even though that may have been given to you from God, there is still always the danger of something in ourselves impinging upon something that God has given us. We insinuate ourselves into it, and make it ours somehow. This Self! This flesh! Oh, yes, God gives us a ministry and then we get hold of it and become jealous about our ministry and afraid of other people getting in our way and taking our ministry away from us; interfering with our ministry, you see. The flesh comes up in that way and in so many other directions and connections. God does something, and then we come into it. We get into the picture.
Somehow or other this flesh cannot keep itself out of even the things that God does by a miracle. We turn them to the glorification or the gratification of this flesh of ours, and even a thing which God may give - and you are thinking perhaps of different things which God may give - will never be established and confirmed until it has been yielded up and knows the mark of death to ourselves and that is only alive for and unto God, and we are only alive for and unto God in that connection, whatever it may be. The Cross is the way of life in everything and immediately the Cross is nullified by this thing upon which the Cross says, "No, no!" Immediately anything of that comes up again, we counter the life of that thing, we strangle its life, we limit its life.
We not only arrest the progress, but we bring into smallness God's intention of multiplication. Why cannot God increase? Why is it that in the first few years of the church's history there was such a going on and on and on in life, ever and on in life, and growing, growing, growing? Just think of all that happened in the short life of Paul alone; the churches over the whole then-known world in one short life - and nearly two thousand years since, and the world is not yet touched with the gospel. The contrast is terrible, but why? Why? And the answer is clearly and definitely this: that somehow or other man has come into this business of God and turned it to himself. The Cross has not been kept in its place to give God a clear, full, free way.
It is a lesson that you and I have to learn very deeply in our own lives, that nothing is given increase except on the ground that it is deeply marked by the Cross as to our own flesh and natural life. Everything has to carry with it the sign of, on the one hand, death to the principle of Self, and on the other hand, Life in the realm where it is only of God and all of the Lord. That is in each individual Christian life for life and increase; that a local assembly has got to be marked in this way; it has to be a crucified (and thoroughly crucified) company of the Lord's people so far as any personal ambitions and interests are concerned. It is just like that. This is the way of Christ so clearly in His own case: the way of the Cross.
Abraham the Friend of God
Now I come to that second title - friend. Abraham was the only man in the Old Testament called the friend of God. James says Abraham was called the friend of God. The Lord Himself, speaking through the lips of the prophet Isaiah, used this phrase - "Abraham my friend" (Isa. 41:8). Jehoshaphat in a day of pressure and need, appealing to the Lord, appealed to Him on this basis, "for the sake of Abraham thy friend" (2 Chron. 20:7). It is said about Moses that the Lord spoke to him face to face as a man speaking to his friend. That does not upset what I have just said because the Hebrew word is an entirely different one. The word the Lord used about Moses and the Lord speaking to him face to face as a man speaks with his friend is the word which just means his neighbour or his companion. Another word is used here of Abraham which is altogether different, which means 'loved one'. You may talk to your neighbour quite a lot, say a lot of things to your neighbour, but you will not say to him things that you will say to your loved one. So Abraham stands unique in this title - the friend of God.
Do you see why he was the friend of God? Do you see the basis of that exclusive title - God's friend? Because of the utter abnegation of the self-life demonstrated and proved in his offering of Isaac. Abraham knew what that meant, "If Isaac goes, everything goes. But God is God and He has made a covenant, and I can afford to offer Isaac. In some way, God will bring Isaac back again." Paul said Abraham believed God who gives life to the dead (Rom. 4:17). And when you get through where you can so utterly let go to God because you believe so utterly in God that no matter how much you let go, there will be no loss in the long run where God is concerned; you are not going to lose anything or be limited by letting go to God utterly and absolutely. If we can come to that position with God and God seems to be striking at that in which everything is contained and with which everything is bound up, and say, 'All right Lord, You are the covenant God; You have covenanted concerning this. I do not know how You are going to do it or what You will do, but I am going on with You'. That is the basis of this friendship.
Now you see how it points to the Cross of the Lord Jesus. "What is man, that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands: thou didst put all things in subjection under his feet" (Heb. 2:6-8). "Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands" (Psa. 8:6). The Son of Man is Jesus Christ, as the context shows. He is made to have dominion over all things, made to have all things put under His feet, made the Heir of all things before times eternal. So says the Scripture. Very well, go to the Cross and die! He offered Himself, He laid down His life, and in so doing everything of God's covenant was put on the Cross, but He believed God. Beyond the Cross His seed was as the sand of the desert, as the stars of heaven - all through the Cross. You see the principle. It is a very, very impressive principle.
So then, Abel establishes the principle once and for all. Noah shows how absolutely universal that principle is. Abraham shows that in relation to God's great purpose of having a great multitude which no man can number out of every tribe and kindred and tongue, God's great purpose to take out of the nations a people for the Name of His Son is by way of the Cross, by way of the closed door to the flesh.
We who are so concerned with the matter of evangelisation, the salvation of the multitudes, the increase of God, the life of men, may we not be standing in the way of it all by bringing so much of our flesh in? Just frustrating it all because we come into the picture? It will be a crucified church that lives and grows, and no other. It will be crucified men and women who live before God and who multiply. It will be a crucified ministry that brings Life and increase.
You hear Abraham: in the time of trial and testing, the incident in the interval with Hagar and Ishmael had taken place, when Abraham had tried to do this in his own energy, tried to bring it about, and had met a closed door with God. And he knew it, and cried, "O that Ishmael might live before thee!" (Gen. 17:18). 'Ishmael does not live. I have produced Ishmael by my own energy, by my own wit, by my own effort to fulfil divine purposes. I have brought Ishmael into being, but he is dead, he does not live! God has not accepted him.' "O that Ishmael might live before thee!" No! No Ishmaels live with God, that is the fruit of the flesh, the work of the flesh. Only Isaac lives with God, and Isaac bears favour. That is the mark of the Cross in Abraham's life.