By Michael Dewey, Head of School
We live in a world where promises have come to mean very little. A noted humorist once compared promises to babies: they are both easy to make and hard to deliver. A 2014 Rasmussen poll indicated that only 4 percent of Americans believe that politicians will keep their campaign promises. Four percent! This is what we have come to expect, or rather tolerate in our leaders. Breaking promises has become the status quo.
If we are being completely honest, we have all broken promises that we have made to others. And we’ve all been hurt by others who have broken promises made to us. Whether those were small and insignificant promises, or ones that left deep wounds, the cumulative effect is an erosion of our ability to fully trust others, and ultimately our ability to fully trust God.
It is that last part that concerns me the most as a Christian educator. Believers understand better than any that we live in a broken world where people continually fall short when it comes to keeping promises. However, we should never accept this as okay, or allow it to affect our trust in God’s ability to keep His promises. While we are not perfect promise keepers, God is. He is the only one we can trust to always keep His promises.
But it’s one thing to know this and quite another to completely trust God. As educators and parents, we need to help our children go beyond the mere intellectual assent that God is the perfect promise keeper, to having absolute confidence that God never breaks His word. I am convinced that if we can get them to that point, it will not only radically change their relationship with God, but in turn change how they relate to others and the world around them.
To do this, we must point them to Scripture. Hebrews is one of the few books in the Bible whose author remains nameless. But we do know that Hebrews is a letter written to a group of Christians who were already beginning to encounter serious challenges to their faith and were facing dark days ahead. It is a letter to a church in need of encouragement.
Hebrews is a late letter, one of the last written in the New Testament, around AD 67. The Roman Emperor Nero has begun martyring Christians in Rome, and both the apostles Peter and Paul had likely already been executed for their faith.
We can tell from the themes the author uses that the church was comprised of mostly Jewish converts to the faith. So, in addition to Roman persecution, these believers were branded as apostates by the Jewish community and were being pressured to return to the faith of the Old Testament.
On top of it all, Jesus had yet to return. I think it’s hard for us to grasp how hopeless these believers were beginning to feel. When Jesus left, He promised to return, and they were expecting that to happen soon. Was He not coming back? Had He changed his mind? Was He going to keep His promise?
They needed to be reassured that God never breaks His promises. More importantly, they needed to know it is impossible for God to break His promises. And to make this point, the author of Hebrews holds up Abraham as an example of someone who “through faith and patience inherited the promises” (Heb. 6:12).
Here we see the author of Hebrews clearly setting out the goal for us as Christians: we must have complete confidence in the promises of God. Just as Abraham showed patient faith in the promise of God, we too need to hold fast to God’s promises.
Back when I was in college and Michael Jordan played basketball (making my life miserable as a Knicks fan), the catch phrase was, “Be like Mike.” In a similar fashion, the author of Hebrews is saying, “Be like Abraham.” And he is pointing back specifically to the great test of faith that Abraham experienced in Genesis 22.
God had initially promised Abraham a son in Genesis 15 when He told him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Abraham was 75 years old at the time of the promise, with his wife Sarah thought to be barren. You may recall her laughing at the idea that she would get pregnant. But still, God made a promise. Fast forward 15 years later, and Abraham and his wife were still childless. Again, God renewed His promise.
It wasn’t until Abraham turned 100, 25 years after God’s initial promise, that the couple finally gave birth to their only child, Isaac. God was faithful.
But then the unthinkable happened in Genesis 22 when God asked Abraham to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. There is no question that this passage is one of the most challenging in Scripture, and theologians have wrestled with it for millennia, asking, “Why would God make such a horrendous request?” I think we can better understand this passage by instead asking, “Why would God take away the very thing he had promised Abraham – a child?”
By framing the question this way, we see that the focus of this passage is on the faithfulness of God in keeping His promise. God not only didn’t allow Abraham’s son to die, but we can also clearly see that he had no intention of allowing Isaac to be put to death. We can also see in this chapter that Abraham himself went up to the mountaintop fully believing that his son would not die. God was testing Abraham’s faith in the promise He gave him. And in his darkest moment, when his faith was tested in the most trying of ways, Abraham demonstrated unwavering confidence in the promise of God.
The Hebrew Christians were likewise seeing their faith severely tested. It was a dark period for them. Many people actually believe that this epistle was written to the Church in Rome which means these Hebrew Christians would have likely witnessed their family and friends strapped to poles and set on fire for believing in Christ. This is what Nero did to Christians. Imagine seeing or hearing about that!
We all go through difficult times when it is hard to trust in God and believe in His promises. As difficult as Genesis 22 is, I believe it stands as a testimony that in your greatest time of testing, in your greatest time of need, God will never abandon you or break His promise to you. That’s what the author of Hebrews is telling these believers: “I know you are having doubts. I know you are struggling to believe. I know you are suffering. But have faith. Be patient. Be like Abraham.”
Our children may never endure the same level of persecution that the church in Hebrews was facing. But we can be sure that their faith in God and His promises is already being challenged. This generation is facing far more pressure to abandon faith in God than I ever faced as a young man. And it will only get worse. There will be times when they feel pushed to their limits, experiencing pressure on all sides telling them to give in, to question God, to compromise or abandon their faith. Will they be able to endure, standing firmly upon the promises of God? Yes!
As a perfect promise keeper, God does not abandon His own. He is right there with them, speaking to them through Scripture, telling them to be patient, to keep trusting, to focus on His promises, and to be like Abraham.
The author of Hebrews offers more than just words of encouragement and admonition. He also provides his readers with an invaluable theological lesson: only when we ground our confidence in a proper understanding of God’s nature, can we move beyond the mere intellectual assent that God is the perfect promise keeper, to absolute confidence that God never breaks His word.
We will explore this further in the next post: The Perfect Promise Keeper (Part 2).