The Bible is a collection of books which contains a lot of weird, uncomfortable and dark stories, especially but not exclusively in the first section of the Bible known as the Old Testament. Even mature Christians find these stories difficult to understand or explain, especially when we’re asked about them by people who are sceptical of the Christian faith because they find the Bible either ridiculous or deeply disturbing at times. How do we explain the perceived contrast between God’s actions towards humankind in the Old Testament and Jesus’ actions in the New Testament? What are we to make of these awkward stories?
What if I suggested to you today that from the very beginning of the Bible, you could find and follow a common theme that runs through all of the Old Testament and right through the New, tying the two parts together and pointing us to Jesus?
In this series we’re going to follow that theme as it makes its way through some awkward places in the very first book of the Bible. Our goal is finding God’s mercy where we least expect it and following this Crimson Thread all the way to the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter.
When I was a kid, I went to church and as I listened to what the adults were talking about, I came to a conclusion that being a Christian was all about being good enough to impress God and thereby avoid hell. That’s not true but that was my understanding at the time and it scared the life out of me. I distinctly remember wondering how good I would need to be and how much faith I would need to have to get to heaven and avoid hell.
Maybe you can relate. Whether you’re still exploring faith or you’ve been a follower of Jesus for a while, you may still wrestle with doubts or feel unworthy of God’s mercy. I want to share how I broke free from my fears of God’s judgment as I began to understand what God has repeatedly said from the beginning about his mercy.
We begin with a story in the first book of the Bible which can be found here in Genesis chapter 15
Having recently rescued his nephew Lot who had been taken prisoner by the armies of four kings, Abram was feeling afraid of retribution. As he faced the possibility of death, he was concerned about who would inherit his estate if he was killed. So God tells him he need not live in fear since God is his protector and reward. This is the part of the story where we can understand what’s going on fairly easily. God reaffirms his previous commitment to Abram and to his promise to give him, not just an heir to his estate, but descendants as numerous as the stars. It’s not obvious yet how God will do that since Abram and his wife are already old at this point, way past the normal age of childbirth. In fact, many would say that fulfilling this promise would be impossible. Yet the author of Genesis says, “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.”
Righteousness is not a word we use much these days. It means a state of being on the correct side of justice, innocent of any wrongdoing and in right standing relationships with God and others. Remember how I told you about my childhood question of how good you have to be to please God? Well the answer is that you have to be considered as righteous by God. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t consider myself to righteous according to this definition. If that’s what’s required of me, I’m in big trouble. But what if, in his mercy, God promised to pay all my debts for me and all I had to do was trust him at his word?
That’s the extraordinary claim of the author of Genesis- that by faith Abram was credited with the righteousness he lacked, that righteousness was given to him like a deposit placed into his account by God. The truly extraordinary thing is that God does this for Abram, not as a reward for his actions but because Abram trusted him! It was Abram’s belief that God could and would do what he had promised because God is merciful, God is able and God is faithful! This is a story about placing our faith in the mercy, the power and the promises of God instead of in ourselves! But how much faith in God does a person have to have in order to be credited with righteousness?
Having just believed God when he said he would give him descendants, Abram suddenly seems to waver in his faith when God also promises to give him the land around him. How could it be true that God would do all of this for little old Abram? Maybe you’ve felt like that before- like God extending such mercy to someone like you just seems too good to be true. This is the point in the story where we can quite easily get the wrong end of the stick regarding what’s going on here. As you will soon see, having faith doesn’t mean you never have questions or even some doubt. Abram asked how he could know for sure that God’s promise to bless him with land was going to come to pass. He believed in the goodness of God but still struggled to understand how this mercy was possible. So God makes a covenant with him. It’s the same kind of covenant that two Middle-Eastern businessmen might have made together when entering into a partnership. It involved animal sacrifice meant to symbolise that both parties promised to keep their word or face death at the hand of the other. Abram is terrified of this covenant with God because he fears he will not be able to keep his end and will face God’s judgement. Yet, something extraordinary happens- God lets him off the hook and passes alone through the pool of blood as a symbol of his intention to show him mercy, pay for Abram’s sins and count him as righteous!
Real faith is believing God’s mercy is so great and his faithfulness so absolute, he’s even able to forgive us when our faith fails! It’s not the amount of faith we have but who we place our faith in that makes all the difference. This story is a picture of the New Covenant that God makes with his people, paid for in his own blood in Jesus. This strange Old Testament tale with darkness and fear and animal sacrifice is actually meant to reveal the crimson thread of God’s mercy that leads us from God’s faithful mercy to Abram all the way to his faithful mercy to us through Jesus.
Questions for reflection and small group discussion:
How good do you think you have to be in order to please God?
What is faith? Believing in something or believing in someone or yourself?
Can you remember and tell others of a time when you felt like you were not good enough for God to love you or didn’t have enough faith to call yourself a Christian?
What promises do you think God makes to everyone who has faith in Jesus?
How might we easily fall into the trap of thinking that God’s love and mercy depend on our character rather than on his?
God made a covenant to not only fulfil his promises to Abram but to forgive his sins and pay the full penalty for any breaches in their covenant together. That’s what Jesus did for us too. How do you think Christians should live in response to this new covenant so that others who may betray our trust can see in our response, a picture of how God shows mercy?
- What NextSteps might you take in order to grow in your understanding and practice of mercy?