Abraham: The First Missionary
It’s no coincidence that three of the world’s major faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are sometimes called the “Abrahamic faiths.” That’s because all three, in one way or another, trace their roots back to this great man of God.
Though Abraham is admired as the defining example of faithfulness, this week’s lesson will examine this faithfulness from a different angle. That is, we want to view him as a missionary, as someone called by the Lord to go to another land and witness to the people about the true God, the Creator and Redeemer.
God gave Abraham, and his family after him (see Gal. 3:29), a threefold purpose: (1) to be recipients and guardians of the divine truth of God’s kingdom that had been lost in the earlier history of humankind; (2) to be the channel through which the Redeemer would enter history; and (3) to be, as God’s faithful servants, a light to the nations, a light to those who needed to know the Lord.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, July 11.
Abram—whose name meant “the father is exalted” and whose name was changed to Abraham, “the father of multitudes”—grew up in Ur, in what is now Iraq. God called him to separate himself from his familiar social and spiritual context and migrate to an unfamiliar country, where God conducted a 100-year spiritual makeover, turning him into the “father of the faithful.” In the midst of personal and family struggles, Abraham became a prototype missionary to several people groups and a respected leader who witnessed to his faith in God.
The patriarch was called to leave his past behind him, to step out in faith, to believe what seemed unbelievable, to do what God had called him to do. And as a result of his faithfulness, all the nations of the world would be blessed.
Many of us are tested, as was Abraham. Of course, we might not hear the voice of God speaking directly to us, but He calls us by the teachings of His Word and the events of His providence. We may be required to abandon a career that promises wealth and honor; we might have to leave congenial and profitable associations and separate from family; indeed, we might have to enter upon what appears only to be a path of self-denial, hardship, and sacrifice. But if called, how can we refuse?
Lot was a relative of Abraham and accompanied him on some of his travels. His choice of the well-watered Jordan valley brought him into the company of the wicked men in Sodom (Gen. 13:1–13). He was then rescued first by Abraham (Gen. 14:11–16) and later by two angels (Genesis 19).
When Abraham heard that his relative, Lot, was in trouble, he decided to help him. In rescuing Lot, Abraham headed a military force of more than three hundred men of his own household. Numerous kings were involved in the battle for Sodom, and Abraham came out the victor.
To the kings he conquered, Abraham revealed the power of God. Even during this rescue mission, the “father of the faithful” did not lose his divine call to be a blessing to the nations.
“The worshiper of Jehovah had not only rendered a great service to the country, but had proved himself a man of valor. It was seen that righteousness is not cowardice, and that Abraham’s religion made him courageous in maintaining the right and defending the oppressed. His heroic act gave him a widespread influence among the surrounding tribes. On his return, the king of Sodom came out with his retinue to honor the conqueror. He bade him take the goods, begging only that the prisoners should be restored. By the usage of war, the spoils belonged to the conquerors; but Abraham had undertaken this expedition with no purpose of gain, and he refused to take advantage of the unfortunate, only stipulating that his confederates should receive the portion to which they were entitled.”—Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 135.
Though hardly perfect, Abraham was a man of God, and time and again in the Bible, even in the New Testament, he is used as an example of faithfulness and of what it means to be saved by faith (see Gen. 15:6, Gal. 3:6).
The Lord wanted to use Abraham, but the first thing He had to do was get him to leave his past behind. The lesson there should be obvious to any of us, especially those of us who have pasts not in harmony with the will and law of God, which actually includes us all.
Amazing, too, was the fact that though Abraham left, “he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8, NIV). Though most missionaries know where they are going, at least in a geographical sense, in another sense when we take a giant leap of faith and give our hearts totally to God, we really don’t know (at least in the short run) where we will wind up (though in the long run, we have absolute assurance). If we did know, it wouldn’t require that much faith; hence, not knowing is prerequisite for truly being able to live by faith.
Another crucial point here is that Abraham was looking to “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (vs. 10, NIV). Abraham kept the big picture in mind; he knew that whatever he faced here, whatever toils and struggles, it would all be worth it in the end.
He knew, too, that he wasn’t just a stranger in “the promised land” but that he was one of many “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (vs. 13, NKJV). This world, and our lives in it, as precious as they appear to us now (it’s all we have now), are not the whole story, not by a long shot.
And, of course, the greatest example of faith in the Old Testament was what Abraham was willing to do to his son on Mount Moriah at the command of God.
A study of Abraham’s life reveals that his faith included difficult struggles against doubt and disbelief in God’s power. Abraham’s ancestors were idolaters (Josh. 24:2), and perhaps this background explains why he did not always have full confidence in God’s power. Twice he showed cowardice and told Sarah to tell only a half-truth (Gen. 12:11–13, 20:2). He laughed (Gen. 17:17) when he was told that he would have a son with Sarah. Despite his faults, Abraham was still used by the Lord because Abraham wanted to be used by Him; and thus, the Lord was able to mold His character.
One means God used to shape Abraham into a reformer and missionary was his many wanderings. Traveling is an education in itself. It opens a person to new ideas and the possibilities of change. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem were an important and required part of Israelite worship. The changes the pilgrims experienced when they had to walk distances, sleep in other places, eat different food, encounter another climate, and meet other people enhanced their faith by their vulnerability. Their worship, with its sacrifices and offerings, sacred dances, and reciting of psalms, helped God’s people to confirm their identity and traditions.
In his travels from his birthplace in Ur to his burial site in Hebron, Abraham visited at least 15 different geographical areas. Most of the important reforming and missionary episodes in his life are connected with his journeys.
“God called Abraham to be a teacher of His word, He chose him to be the father of a great nation, because He saw that Abraham would instruct his children and his household in the principles of God’s law. And that which gave power to Abraham’s teaching was the influence of his own life. His great household consisted of more than a thousand souls, many of them heads of families, and not a few but newly converted from heathenism.”—Ellen G. White, Education, p. 187.
Missionary activities will be more successful when they are backed by a family life that is in harmony with the designs of God. Bible history and church history tell us that most early Christian churches were house- and family-based. One of the reasons Abraham was chosen was that God saw his ability to direct his children and his household in the way of the Lord. God’s purpose in the family equals His purpose in missions; namely, “to do what is right and just” (Prov. 21:3, NIV).
Of course, in the Bible we can also find examples of godly men whose families didn’t follow the way of the Lord. Nevertheless, the point of the texts for today is clear: Abraham’s faith and example were strong enough that those of his household learned to “keep the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:19).
Further Study: “God called Abraham, and prospered and honored him; and the patriarch’s fidelity was a light to the people in all the countries of his sojourn. Abraham did not shut himself away from the people around him. He maintained friendly relations with the kings of the surrounding nations, by some of whom he was treated with great respect; and his integrity and unselfishness, his valor and benevolence, were representing the character of God. In Mesopotamia, in Canaan, in Egypt, and even to the inhabitants of Sodom, the God of heaven was revealed through His representative.”—Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 368.