Live for the Unseen City

My grandfather died two weeks ago at the age of 92. I had the privilege of doing his eulogy, which meant pausing to ponder his life as a whole, and telling his story, so to speak, of what his life stood for.


He was an admirably humble man. Perhaps that was partly the product of serving with a decorated U.S. infantry unit in France and Germany in WWII. He received two bronze stars for individual acts of valor. He was a real hero, but didn’t carry himself like one, or talk about it that way. Rather, he was unusual in his ability to listen and to serve, and he was a man who loved Jesus, and at age 92 was ready to meet his Lord. At his funeral, we celebrated a full life.


My task in that eulogy was paying tribute to Granddaddy, and summing up his life, in just a matter of minutes. And yet he’d only been dead three days. Is that really enough time to assess the impact of someone’s life?


I ask because of Abraham. How much of his legacy — living by God’s promises instead of human appearances — would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to access at the time of his death? What he lived his whole life for was not his when he died. As we saw last week, God promised to make him a great nation and bless him and make his name great, and in him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:2–3) — all promises not for Abraham’s life, but after. Hebrews 11:9–10 says,


By faith [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was *looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God*.


He lived a nomad’s life in tents as he looked to an unseen city designed and built by God, a city he never saw in his lifetime. But he did see by faith. He lived by divine promises instead of human appearances, and not just for a season but for a lifetime. He lived by faith, not sight, and then died in faith, not sight. It didn’t make for a riveting eulogy, but it did make for a world-changing legacy.

Learning to Fly

This morning we turn to Genesis 13 and our second message in this series on Abraham. As we saw last week, God called Abram (his name won’t be Abraham until chapter 17) almost out of the blue, and out of sheer unbelief, to leave his homeland for a new place where God would bless him. As we will see, Abram will have his ups and downs. He doesn’t go from moon-worshiper to mature believer overnight. He didn’t have Christian parents or a solid Christian community. He didn’t even have a Bible. He had a promise from God (Genesis 12:1–3) — just a simple one, not a whole Book of them like we have today — and that’s all he had to go on at first. How easy it is for us today to take for granted all that God has given us for walking in faith in his word, and his Spirit, and his church.


We shouldn’t be surprised that Abram had some hard falls as he was learning to fly. He has his remarkable moments of faith, yes, as we’ve seen in Genesis 12:4 (“Abram went, as the Lord had told him”) and as we will see climactically in Genesis 22, and even as we see here in Genesis 13 in his treatment of his nephew, Lot. Rightly does the New Testament celebrate Abraham as a “man of faith” (Galatians 3:9; also Hebrews 11:8, 17), even with his gaffs and guffaws.


So as we track with the life of Abraham in the coming weeks, we will get to see what it looks like for a pagan to learn to live by faith in the true God. How do you learn to walk by faith? Abraham will be tested again and again. Will he live by faith in God’s promises or by sight in human appearances? Will he try to seize life for himself, or will he submit to God and receive God’s blessing in God’s way at God’s timing?


In chapter 13, Abraham returns from Egypt to Canaan, the land God has promised his descendants. (We’ll come back to this episode from Genesis 12:10–20 and the sister-wife deception later in this series.) From all I can tell, Abram has failed the first test in the latter part of chapter 12. He is expelled from Egypt, and in chapter 13 he returns humbled to the land of promise, and to the place he worshiped God before (12:7), and rededicates himself in verse 4 (“there Abram called upon the name of the Lord”) hoping to rekindle his original fires of faith.

Tension with Lot

Now Abram encounters another trial in Genesis 13. This will be the pattern of his life: obstacle, then advance. Famine tests him in chapter 12; now tension with extended family in chapter 13.


Abram’s herds and those of his nephew have become so large (by God’s blessing) that “the land could not support them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock” (13:6–7). Here’s the test: Will Abram live in light of God’s promise, or will he scheme, deceive, or attempt to secure it for himself in some way? Will he walk by faith, trusting in God’s promise, or will he walk by sight, leaning on his own understanding and resources? Will he live for the unseen city, or just for what he can see?


Let’s look at three lessons here in Genesis 13 about what it means to live for the unseen city by faith in God’s promises.

1. Living by God’s promises makes us open handed with others (vv. 8–9)

Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.”


Isn’t it amazing that Abram gives Lot the choice? Abram is older, and he is the one with God’s promise, and yet he defers to Lot. With an open hand, and confidence in the promises of God, he generously lets Lot choose. “If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left” (13:9). “Take the right” is in reference to the south; “the left” is north. Which means he is essentially offering Lot a portion of the land God has promised him. If Lot choses the north, Abram will take the south. If Lot chooses the south Abram will take the north. This is remarkable generosity.


So, then, what’s the difference between Abram being open-handed here and him taking things into his own hands at other times? He’s walking by faith in God’s promises — and I mean that specifically.


It’s not insignificant that verse 4 says he returned “to the place where he had made an altar at the first.” That goes back to Genesis 12:7. Look there:


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 12:7)


That’s the same altar he returns to in 13:4, which means he is recalling the promise “To your offspring I will give this land.” With God’s promises freshly ringing in his ears, he believes the promise, and lives it out by being open-handed with his nephew.

Trust Specific Promises

It’s one thing to give lip-service to living by faith, but it’s quite another thing to then live as though we have to make everything happen ourselves. And it’s a particularly acute danger in our day, when our society increasingly rejects, or just neglects, any world beyond what is seen. And apart from the tides of society, we have our own sinful nature that does not incline us to faith and patience and waiting on God to work, but inclines us to grasp, and seize, and put ourselves forward, make it happen for ourselves, not wait for someone else to invite us into the action. Like Jesus said in Luke 14:10, “Sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored.” Do you leave the host any room to move you up? Our instinct is to try to seize the life we want rather than submit to the life God gives.


Granted, there are times we must take action, and surely the temptation of some is toward inaction rather than overreaching, but that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of us, if not all of us, need a regular call to look beyond just the visual world and our own actions, to the unseen and what God can do. How? Through trusting specific promises from God. There is so much more power in trusting specific promises instead of just general truths.


So living by faith in God’s specific promises makes us open handed, rather than self-asserting. It frees us from trying to seize what we want on our own, and frees us to submit to God and his good timing.

2. Living by God’s promises means we see more than appearances. (vv. 10–13)

And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) 11 So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. 12 Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. 13 Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.


While Abram looks, by faith, to the unseen divine promises, Lot lifts up his human eyes and sees how good the Jordan Valley looks (13:10). But beware appearances. The narrator inserts this ominous parenthesis in verse 10: “This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.”


The Jordan Valley may look good on the outside, but it is desperately sick inside. Like the fruit in the Garden, it may be a delight to the eyes, like Eden itself from afar, but its people are “wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (13:13). (In the whole Bible, the phrase “great sinners,” as compared to just “sinners,” appears only here; chapters 18–19 will explain more.)


It is only a matter of time until God’s judgement will fall, and what looked so good to Lot on the surface will become a wasteland. As John Calvin wrote, “Lot, when he fancied he was living in paradise, was nearly plunged into the depths of hell.”


An interesting detail here is that Lot looks with his physical eyes, and despite Abram’s generous terms, he chooses his own path. Abram offered north or south; Lot chooses east.


When the eastern boundary of Canaan is identified, it is typically the Jordan River (see esp. Num. 34:1–12). Thus it becomes clear that by moving to the vicinity of the cities of the plain, Lot has gone outside the land of Canaan, leaving it entirely to Abram. It is also important to notice the recurrence of “toward the east” in verse 11. Every movement away from God thus far in Genesis has been designated as toward the east (3:24; 4:16; 11:2). (John Walton, *Genesis*, 415)


In other words, “Lot is not driven from the land but gives it up freely” (Walton, 424). God did not call Abram to clear Lot out of the way, but to live by faith. To be open handed, to extend generosity, to give God room to work (like Luke 14:10), and to watch as Lot makes the natural choice while Abram lives supernaturally (by faith) in what God has promised him.


Natural people live by appearances, and no more. In one sense it’s foolish — because it does not take God into account — but in another sense, we should expect it. What else do they have to live by? We should pity them more than disdain them.


But again, it’s easy for us to say, and increasingly difficult to live today. When everyone around you is living by appearances, the pressure is extraordinary. Which is one reason, among many, that we need each other as the church, to be an alternate city. We need to remind each other, and model for each other, what it means to relentlessly take God into account in our decision-making, and what it means to call on him in prayer, and trust specific promises in God’s word, and to wait on his timing, and provision, instead of always acting to seize on our own what we want.

3. Living by God’s promises we find they get even better as we live them. (vv. 14­–18) 

The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord. 


After Lot has departed, God then speaks to Abram and extends his promises of land and descendants. They are now much fuller. Originally, God promised to give Abram’s offspring the land of Canaan. Now he promises, “All the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring *forever*” (13:15).


And formerly, God promised to make Abram “a great nation.” Now he amplifies the promise, “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted” (13:16). God rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). His promises only get better as we walk by them.


One last thing: look again at the final verse, 18. Abram builds another altar, as he did in 12:7, and he settles by “the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron,” which is a taste of the fulfillment of the promise to come, not mainly in Abram’s life, but long after he is dead.


Just as Lot comes to Sodom, a harbinger of what’s to come, Abram now comes to Hebron, where one day he would own his first land in Canaan, bury his wife, and one day him, Isaac, Jacob would be buried. By faith, in hope of the resurrection, Abraham buried his wife in the promised land. Later that same area would be the place of the anointing of Israel’s kings, including Israel’s great king, named David (who, interesting enough, did not measure up by human appearances like Saul, but God looked upon what was unseen, the heart, 1 Samuel 16:7). God would make this very place instrumental in fulfilling his promises to Abram.


We could, of course, move to the pinnacle of the Bible through kind David, but there’s another route I want us to take in this passage as we come to the Table.

Call God by Name

Verse 4 says that Abram “called upon the name of the Lord.” The name. In other words, this is no mere generic plea for divine aid. This is not groping for God as a distant deity. God has revealed himself to Abram, and made promises to him, and Abram knows God’s personal name, Yahweh, and calls on him by name (represented in our English translations by Lᴏʀᴅ with the small caps).


To call upon *the name of the Lord* is to pray to Yahweh as one who knows him and enjoys covenant relationship with him.


And now we live in the age of the church, and Yahweh himself has come to earth in the person of Christ. Now, as we call upon the very God of the universe *by name*, we have at least two names that are even more important, and even more intimate, than the name Abram knew.


The first is *Father*. Romans 8:15: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Galatians 4:6: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Many people know me on a first-name basis, but only my children call me *Daddy*. It’s one thing to know God’s personal name is Yahweh; it’s even more precious to be able to call him *Father*.


A second name also eclipses Yahweh in the New Testament as he reveals himself to us climactically in his Son (John 1:14; Hebrews 1:1–2). When the apostle Paul writes “to the church of God that is in Corinth,” he addresses “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place *call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ*” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Since the coming of Christ, to call upon God *by name* has meant to know him in and through Jesus. God’s old-covenant people were those who called upon the name of Yahweh. His new-covenant people are those who call upon the name of Jesus. Which is what we do each week at the Table.