Six thousand years after he lived, Abraham remains a great model for our 21st century Christianity, particularly in evangelistic leadership. Consider his cultural context and accomplishments: he lives and successfully ministers in a pagan culture. He superbly navigates the tension between culture and the gospel. Second, He convenes the first ever evangelistic festival, a proclamation evangelism event where Yahweh is distinctly pronounced as the only God to the nations. Third, his travels and wanderings are reminiscent of today’s globalized culture. His inner and theological response to changing geographical localities says something to the wandering culture of our times.
His call in Genesis 12 is described by many scholars as the key anchoring and innovative moment in God’s dealing with lost humanity. God says to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed,” (Gen. 12:1-3).
Prior to this moment, humanity are caught in a downward spiraling web of rebellion. Creation is followed by un-recreation through the Nahoic flood that climaxes in God’s judgment against the rebellious people of the world. The earth takes one giant step backward in the creation process as the waters return the world to a state of formlessness and desolation. Noah and his family are the remnant that provides a link with the old order. God’s mercy, however, is felt through the recreation, the language of the Naohic covenant (Gen. 9:1-7) strongly echoing the language of Genesis 1-2. Noah is in effect a restart.
Shortly, however, we encounter the building of the Tower of Babel as once again humanity, in full-blown rebellion, seeks to make a name for itself apart from God. It acts in total contravention of the divine command to multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 11:1-8). Rather than follow God’s directive and be God-dependant, it sets itself up to be self-directing and self-dependant. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Against this backdrop of complete moral darkness and relational deterioration, God engages Abraham in a redemptive call and promise. The call anticipates the blessing of all the families of the earth. It is clearly intended to provide a break from the foregoing vicious cycle.
Unlike his contemporaries, Abraham is being called to be culturally transformed and to look at reality through a different set of lenses. He is being called upon to embrace etic living facilitated by divine experience and intimacy. Upon his transformation, he would be reintroduced to the same nations as change agent and source of divine blessing. By walking with Yahweh, Abraham learns from God and understands God’s ways of operating. The power of transformation does not lie innately in Abraham as an individual, it lies in Abraham’s God. To transform His cultural context, Abraham must learn from God through an intimate personal walk.
Note that Abraham is not being called to completely abandon his people and culture. Rather, he is being called to embrace God first. Implied in the call to “go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you” is a clear invitation for Abraham to go to God and follow Him to the place where He is headed. It is a call to embrace God’s plans which He has devised for Abraham and for the nations including the one Abraham is being called out of.
In other words, God is inviting Abraham to divine relationship and continuous companionship away from the corrupting culture that surrounds him. In his obedience, Abraham becomes a junior partner with God on a mission. God knows the destination and the onus is Abraham’s to follow Him. Through his walk with God, he becomes an etic entity
The end purpose for this call to etic living is described as “the becoming” a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). Rather than totally abandon his corresponding emic knowledge of human culture, Abraham’s ultimate task is the reorientation of that culture to divine revelation which he gains as he journeys with Yahweh. He in effect is being called to become a prophet and evangelist who lives out certain theological truths gleaned from companionship with Yahweh amidst anthropological realities of sin and separation from God. The end result is spiritual, social, and societal transformation (Gen. 20:1-7).
Abraham’s departure is three-pronged: spiritual, emotional, and geographical. Roped in with God, the outcome is a transformed man whose values and judgments are different from those of the surrounding human cultures. Given the idolatry of the surrounding cultures Abraham’s achievements are remarkable. He makes a resounding statement of loyalty to Yahweh as the only true God by building altars to Yahweh in the new land of his sojourn (12:7-8). He clearly draws the line in the sand wherever he goes. His family may be the only worshippers at that altar, but Yahweh is explicitly worshipped by name and in a public way.
Abraham’s ethical and values transformation is equally explicit as demonstrated in the way that he handles the plunder from Sodom (Genesis 14). After miraculously defeating and rescuing some of his more powerful neighbors from an alliance of marauding nations, he refuses to accept the windfall of reward from the king of Sodom. If he had accepted the largess, he knew that from that point, he and his family would always have been viewed as living under the patronage of that city. Instead he chooses to keep himself positioned before the nations as one specifically blessed by God. With the nations watching, Abraham resolutely names God as the one who will reward and bless him (Genesis 14:22-24).
In the naming of Yahweh as “the LORD God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth” in the presence of the nations, Abraham effectively dismisses the other gods worshiped by these nations as illegitimate. His bold naming is substantiated by the tithe of goods from these nations to Yahweh, a recognized formal act of worship. He assembles a tithe from Sodom as well as the other nations and with Melchizedek presiding as priest, offers them to Yahweh. It is clearly an evangelistic moment of inviting the nations to the worship of Yahweh as the greatest blessing. The climax to the evangelistic moment is God Himself being blessed in praise by the multi-national gathering as Melchizedek declares, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Some lessons for our 21st Century Community
As the anchoring patriarch to God’s redemptive engagement with the world, Abraham provides great insight into missional leadership. First, it has to be dependent upon God. Abraham’s call was anchored in the very fact that he was being conscripted into God’s mission that was already in progress. He was not on an independent mission nor was he undertaking it alone. Yahweh would “show” him the land. This parallels Jesus’ promise to His disciples in Matthew 28:20 when He says, “And lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” implying His participation with them in the task He is calling them to. Many an evangelist would greatly benefit today from this great example of dependence upon God in our strategic planning.
Second, Abraham’s missional success is based on his pronounced loyalty to Yahweh. He built an altar to God upon entry into the new territory clearly setting himself and his household apart as a counter-cultural community of Yahwists. 21st century evangelism calls for open and pronounced loyalty to Jesus Christ. We risk the world around us branding us as out of touch with popular reality. But both biblical and sociological history bear witness to the fact that Christianity grows and advances only as its apartness is pronounced in a pagan surrounding and not the other way around.
Thirdly, Abraham seizes upon natural opportunities to proclaim Yahweh as the only true God. He embraces those opportunities without mitigation or apology as he does before the king of Sodom (Gen.14:22-24). Of course Abraham is not a blazing evangelist in the present day understanding. He none the less seizes on the natural opportunities to talk about His God. Like Abraham, today’s evangelist’s commitments is to go to places where the doors for the gospel of Jesus Christ are opened while not shying away from knocking on doors that are still closed.
Third, Abraham’s Melchizedek moment serves as the first instance where we see different nations gathered together in worship of Yahweh. In today’s language we may call it the first all-nations evangelistic festival. From a prophetic standpoint, it foreshadows Rev. 7:9-10 when peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation will gather before the throne and declare that salvation belongs to our God and unto the Lamb.
There is a caveat to be gleaned from this Abrahamic moment for our highly globalized and interconnected world. Evangelistic engagement should embody a multi-national and multi-generational thrust. Thus, in the present and in the anticipated future, peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation may sing of the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Sammy Wanyonyi is a World Evangelist, President and Lead Communicator for SHINE Ministries, Minneapolis, MN. You can follow him on twitter @sammywanyonyi, or on Facebook, Dr. Sammy Wanyonyi. You may learn more about SHINE @ www.shineintheworld.org