Following God’s Call (Genesis 12:4-9)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles this morning to the book of Genesis. In our sermon today we will cover Genesis 12:4-9. If you do not have a Bible with you this morning, or if you’d like to follow along in the translation I will be preaching from, please make use of one of the pew Bibles where you can find this passage located on page 9.

Last Sunday, we returned to our study in the book of Genesis after taking a year-long hiatus to study 1 Peter. In our sermon from last week, we spent our time reviewing everything we had discussed in our previous study of this book. Beginning in Genesis 1, we worked all the way through Genesis 11 and even touched briefly on the first three verses from Genesis 12—which is where we ended our study in Genesis a year ago.

Now, in these opening verses from Genesis 12, we have some of the most important verses in the entire Bible. I say this because in these verses God begins to focus on a particular family—a family he promises to use to bless all the families on the earth. And, as we saw last week, this family God chose to bless so that they could, in turn, be a blessing to others, was the family of Abraham—the family from whom the nation of Israel come, and the family from whom our Savior, Jesus Christ would eventually come. Yes, in the opening three verses from Genesis 12, we learn about God’s call of Abraham, God’s promises to Abraham, and God’s purpose for calling Abraham in the first place. And in these verses, we learn that God’s promises to Abraham were to make him into a great nation and to make his name great, and his purposes for Abraham and his family are to bless people from all over the world by first blessing them. I covered all of this in detail a year ago, so I won’t go into it all again this morning.

But Genesis 12:1-3 are super important because in these verses God is calling Abraham out and setting him apart to change the world. This is important not just for the Jewish people, but for Christians as well. There is a reason we refer to him as “Father Abraham.” We refer to him that way because he is the father of our faith as well. Yes, as we heard in our Scripture passage from Romans 4 earlier this morning, Abraham is the father of everyone who shares in the faith he first demonstrated in this chapter and in all the chapters that follow. Because of his faith, God has made him the “the father of many nations” (Romans 4:18 ESV). And we are part of that family through our faith in Jesus Christ.

So, if Abraham is our father in the faith, and if Genesis 12:1-3 tell us about God’s call upon Abraham’s life, then our passage for this morning, Genesis 12:4-9 begin to show us what it looked like for Abraham to follow God when he called. And what we are going to see in this passage, is that following God when he calls is more than just making a one-time commitment to him and then going about your life however you please from that point forward. Yes, what we are going to see today, is that when God calls—and when we follow—that means being obedient to his Word, trusting in his promises, and worshiping him as Lord. All of these things were true for Abraham when he chose to follow God, and all of these things ought to be true of us when we chose to follow God today. And, if these things are not present in our lives—if we are not obeying God’s Word, trusting in God’s promises, and worshipping him regularly—then no matter what we claim, there is a very good chance we are not truly and faithfully following God. And if we are not truly and faithfully following God, which we do by following his Son, Jesus Christ, then we cannot claim to share in the faith of Abraham that will ultimately save us from God’s judgment when Jesus returns. So this is a very important portion of Scripture for us, and I hope the Holy Spirit will work in each of us this morning to help us pay careful attention to what God is teaching us here. If you haven’t done so I already, I encourage you once again to open your Bibles to Genesis 12 and follow along as I begin to read from verses 4-9.

After reading in Genesis 12:1 about how God told Abram to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” we read here beginning in verse 4:

4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.

Obeying God’s Word (vv. 4–5a)

So, the first thing we learn in this passage about what it means to follow God when he calls is that following God begins with obeying his Word. In verse 1 from this chapter, God told Abram to gather his belongings and to depart from his home for a place that God would later show him. There were no more details than that. There was a lot of uncertainty. And for any of you who have followed God for a while, you know that this is often what it is like. We often don’t know where God is leading; we only know that he wants us to follow. And in those moments, we have to choose, like Abram, whether or not we will obey him.

Well, in verse 4, we are told that “Abram went, as the LORD had told him.” And then in verse 5, we are told that “Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.” And what this means, is that Abram was obedient to God’s Word. That is the first thing this passage tells us about what it means to follow God when he calls. It all begins by obeying his Word.

Now, I can’t help but notice the similarities between God’s call to Abraham and to Jesus’s initial call to his disciples when I read this passage. In the gospel stories you have these guys who were just going about their lives as fishermen in their family business, and along comes this other fellow they sort of know, and he tells them to “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And, just like Abraham, they had to leave their family and everything they knew if they were going to be obedient to Jesus. And just like Abraham, they did. They didn’t know exactly where he was going to lead, but they began following him by being obedient to his Word when he said, “Come, follow me.”

And brothers and sisters, the call of Jesus upon our lives is no different. When he called, and we chose to follow him, we relinquished control of everything we own; we even relinquished control over our very own lives. That is what it means for him to be our Lord. It means that we are his servants and he is our master, and although he is no longer here with us in person, we have his Word that we must obey, and we have his Spirit who will help us obey.

And if we are not obeying Jesus’s Word, which is found in the Bible, then we cannot claim to be following him. Following Jesus is about more than just making a one-time profession of faith. Following Jesus means learning from him and obeying him. It doesn’t mean we will do it perfectly, none of his original disciples did, but it does mean that we are serious about doing so.

So, before we move on to the next point, let me ask you, “Would you say that you are serious about following Jesus, and does the way you respond to his Word give evidence of that?” Now obviously, obedience to his Word begins with reading his Word. So if you are not doing that on a regular basis, that is where you need to begin. But beyond that, it means taking the Bible seriously and doing what it says. In the book of James, we are told that “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26 ESV) and that we must be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22 ESV).

In Abraham’s case, he heard the Word of God to him, and he obeyed. And in that regard, he is a good example for us. In that regard, he is indeed our father in the faith. It would not have been easy for him to leave his homeland, and to leave his father, and probably many friends as well. But sometimes being obedient to God requires us to do those very sorts of things. And sometimes people will think you are crazy when you do. But obedience to God sometimes leads us to do things that a crazy in the eyes of others, that is just part of what it means to follow Jesus.

Trusting God’s Promises (vv. 5b–7)

So, the first thing we learn in this passage about what it means to follow God when he calls is that following God begins with obeying his Word. That is what Abraham did when God called. And that is what we must do as well. But, at the end of verse 5 and into verses 6 and 7, we learn something else about what it means to follow God when he calls. We learn that following God when he calls also means trusting in his promises. Pick up reading with me at the end of verse 5. It says,

5 When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then 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. (Genesis 12:5–7 ESV)

So after a long journey from his home in Haran, one that would have been difficult and dangerous—not entirely different from some of our own journeys in the faith—Abram and his family arrive in the land of Canaan. And in verse 6 we are told that he passed through the land, stopping at a place called Shechem. But then, in verse 7, an amazing thing happens. In this verse, we are told that “the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” Now, this is amazing for at least three reasons.

First, it is amazing because the LORD himself appeared to Abram and spoke to him—audibly. Now, tell the truth. Isn’t this exactly how we want God to speak to us? How many times have you just wanted God to come down and tell you exactly what to do? How many times have you wanted God to appear to you and speak to you as he spoke to Abram here? Well, I know we are all guilty of it. I know that I have been. But, do you know what that sort of thing reveals about us? Well, it only shows that we do not have the right view of our Bibles. It shows that we really do not believe that we can read them and hear God speaking. And, it shows that we are not satisfied with the way God has told us about himself, and that want something else—something more.

Friends, in Hebrews 1:1-2 we are told that “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2 ESV). Yes, friends, Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us, and Jesus told us in Luke 24 that all the Scriptures, from the beginning of the Old Testament to the final things written in the New Testament, tell us about him. In other words, God has given us his Word in written form to tell us about himself, and to tell us about his plan of salvation through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. And if we want more than that, we should not expect to get it. I am not saying that God cannot and does not speak to people audibly any longer. But, the need for him to do that today is greatly diminished because we have his written Word. He has spoken in the pages of the Bible, and he has told us everything we need to know about him and his work in this world. And to demand something more is inappropriate for us.

Remember, Abram didn’t have the Bible. If God was going to speak to him, he was going to have to literally speak to him. But, we have God’s Word and we have God’s Spirit and we can open our Bibles and hear from God whenever and wherever. And in that sense, we are so much more fortunate than Abraham ever was. Abraham was the one who had no control over when and where he would hear from God, not us. We can pick up our Bibles and hear from him at any time. And so, when you read your Bibles, and God speaks to you there, I want you to be just as amazed as Abraham must have been when God spoke audibly to him.

But, returning to what I was saying, in verse 7, we are told that “the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” And this is amazing for at least three reasons. First, as we have just said, it is amazing because God appeared to Abram and spoke to him. But, it is also amazing because Abram had no offspring, and in the previous chapter (11:30) we were told that Abram’s wife, “Sarai was barren; she had no child.” In other words, for God to keep his promise to Abram, a promise to give this land to Abram’s offspring, God was going to have to give Abram children and grandchildren, and he was going to have to do it through a barren woman.

But there was another amazing thing about this promise God made to give Abram this particular piece of land upon which he was standing. The other thing that made this promise amazing is that while Sarai’s womb was barren, the land of Canaan was not. It was full of people who weren’t just going to hand the title to their land over to this foreigner. No, for Abram to take possession of this land, God would have to remove the Canaanites. Abram certainly couldn’t do it. God would have to do that. And, ultimately, hundreds of years later, that is exactly what God does.

So, for Abram, part of following God’s call upon his life, was believing that God was going to keep these promises. The Apostle Paul talks about this, once again, in our Scripture reading from earlier today. In Romans 4:20-22, Paul says,

20 No unbelief made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:20–22 ESV)

So Abraham believed God’s promises about God giving him offspring and a land. And through his belief in those promises, he was counted as righteous in God’s eyes. Yes, according to Romans 4, Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness.

Friends, it is a mistake to believe, as people often to say, that people in the Old Testament were saved by keeping the law, but we are saved today through faith in Jesus. First of all, God had not given the law when Abraham believed God’s promises, and God counted it to him as righteousness. And second, Paul tells us clearly in Romans 4, that Abraham was saved because he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Yes, Abraham was saved, just as we are, by faith in God’s promises. Yes, according to Romans 4, we too are saved by believing “in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.” In other words, it has always been faith in God and his promises that saves anyone. And salvation would not be possible at all if it were not for Jesus and his death on the cross. God has made us these promises and many more in the Bible. And we are saved when we trust in those promises to accomplish what God says they will—namely forgiveness from our sins and eternal life in his heavenly kingdom.

Now, as we continue to study Genesis, we will see that Abram really did believe God’s promises about these things. Sometimes he got a little confused, and it caused him problems here and there, but as Paul tells us in Romans 4, “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God.”

But for now, it is clear enough from verse 7, that Abram built an altar to God as a demonstration of his belief that God was going to keep these promises to him and his offspring. Yes, Abraham stopped and built the altar right then and there. That is what Genesis 12:7 tells us. He built an altar in Shechem because he believed God and wanted to worship him—which brings me to my last point for today.

Worshipping God Regularly (vv. 8-9)

Yes, in addition to obeying God’s Word and trusting in God’s promises, following God’s call for Abram also meant worshipping God regularly. We have already seen at the end of verse 7 how Abram “built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.” Well, notice in verse 8, that after moving on, he does it again. Verses 8 and 9 say,

8 From 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. 9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb. (Genesis 12:8–9 ESV)

So after moving on from the place where he had received this promise from God about giving the land of Canaan to his offspring, Abram comes to rest for a while in the hill country to the east of Bethel. And once again, we are told that “there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD.” Now, what is the purpose of an altar? Well, the purpose of an altar is, obviously, to worship God through sacrifice. And, to call upon the name of the LORD is just a “technical term for worship.”1 This is not just talking about prayer, but about worship, which is exactly why Abram built an altar. He built an altar to worship God in this land that God had promised to his descendants.

Now, we don’t sacrifice animals on altars any more. That is not how we worship God today. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t worship him by and through a sacrifice. It’s just that the sacrifice we lay down before God is the one-time sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We no longer need an altar; we no longer need a goat or a bull because Jesus our great high priest has given himself as our once and for all sacrifice, not on an altar but on the cross.

At the same time, however, that doesn’t mean that we no longer have any obligation to make sacrifices and offerings of some sort to God. Listen to what the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 13:15. He says, “Through [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15 ESV). So many churchgoers today view church as a place where they simply come to receive. They see it as a place where come each week to get something from God. Many will say that church is where they come to get their weekly fill-up or something like that. But, we must remember that when we gather for worship, we are not primarily coming to get something from God, but we are coming to offer a sacrifice of praise and worship to God. Worship, friends, is not about us and what we get out of it. Worship is about publicly praising God for who he is and what he has done. That’s what worship services are about. They are about us offering sacrifices of praise with our lips. We do that through singing. We do it through praying. We do it as we respond to God after the sermon each week. And this is why we ought to be coming to worship every Sunday—not for what we can get out of it.

Abram was grateful for the promises God had made to him. He was grateful for the ways that God had already blessed him. And, as people who have been saved by the blood of Jesus, we have just as much to be grateful for, and God is just as worthy of our praise as he was of Abram’s. In John 8:56, Jesus said that “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day,” but what Abraham only saw dimly in his life, we have seen with much greater clarity because Jesus has come. And we now know, from Romans 10:13, that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Yes, as one commentator explains, “In the fullness of time, the world would see the true and ultimate son of Abraham enter human history, bringing decisive clarity to what it means to call on the name of the Lord—namely, to repent and turn in faith to Jesus Christ. For he bore the ultimate punishment in our place by being sacrificed not on an altar but on a cross.”2

And friends, that is why we are gathered to worship God this morning. We are gathered to worship him because, through the death and resurrection of his Son, God has saved us from the penalty of our sin. Where the wages of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). Yes, because of Jesus, there are no more altars to build, and there are no more animals who need to die. Jesus, my friends, has paid the price once and for all. And for that, God is deserving of our worship. And we ought not show up to these services each week with the intent of getting something more; he has already given us his Son. What more could he give?

Conclusion

Friends, if we are not obeying God’s Word, if we are not trusting in God’s promises, and if we are not regularly worshipping him as Lord, then we might be doing some Christian-looking things, but we are not following God in the way Abraham, the father of our faith, followed him. Abraham took seriously the things that God said to him—so seriously that he was willing to leave behind the comforts and conveniences of home for a whole lot of unknown. Yes, Abraham believed God’s promises and demonstrated his belief in those promises by following God even when the path ahead of him was not always clear. And Abraham worshipped God in response to God’s greatness and for all the things God had done for him.

Brothers and sisters, we have God’s Word, and he speaks to us in his Word just as clearly and authoritatively as he spoke to Abraham, audibly and personally, thousands of years ago. He has called each and every one of us into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and all his promises and blessings for Abraham, have become promises and blessings for us as well. Yes, through Jesus, we have entered into God’s family, and we have become children of Abraham who is the father of our faith. You see, there is a reason we all sung that “Father Abraham” song in Vacation Bible School as kids.

So, let me close by asking you, are you obeying God’s Word like your spiritual father Abraham did? Are you trusting God’s promises like your spiritual father Abraham did? Are you worshipping God regularly like your spiritual father Abraham did? Obedience to God’s Word, trust in his promises, and regular worship for his greatness and grace are all a part of what it means to follow God when he calls. So are you truly following him today? Have you placed your faith in Jesus, turned your back on the things of this world, and embarked on a journey to the home that God has promised to you? If not, what is keeping you from doing that today? You have his Word. His call upon your life is clear. And he is calling you to fully submit yourself to him today.

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  1. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 378. ↩︎
  2. Bryan Chapell, eds. Gospel Transformation Study Bible Notes. Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), paragraph 413. ↩︎