This year marks yet another election year. While not a presidential election, over the next few months we will be hearing a great number of campaign promises from all kinds of candidates. We will hear promises about taxes, health care, government spending, and a whole variety of things. However, while the promises may be grand and great sounding, I suspect there will be little substance as to how these promises will become reality. There will be great visions but few specific plans as to how things will be implemented.
In the Covenant of Grace, which we are studying, God makes some tremendously great promises to His people. He has already promised that He would defeat sin and will show mercy to the sinful earth. But these things are not just wonderful sounding promises from God. Now, God will reveal just how He will bring about these promises to His people. In Genesis 17, we begin to see how God will specifically bring about salvation for His people. Let’s read Genesis 17.
Remember that a covenant is an agreement between God and his people which contains blessings and obligations. I think it is helpful to understand a biblical covenant in the terms of an ancient world covenant. There were many such kinds of covenants in the ancient world. These covenants were agreements between one who has all the power and those who do not. One person would be the primary landowner in the region. He would offer to protect the people around his estate from any invading armies. They in turn would have to agree to be loyal to him and share in the bounty of the land with him. The agreement would be initiated by the landowner and it would be up to the peasant to decide if he would agree with it or not. This background of the covenant helps us to understand the covenant between God and man.
It is this kind of agreement that is reflected here in Genesis 17:1 – “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” God identifies Himself as “God Almighty,” or literally, “El-Shadai.” This title means “God is all-powerful.” God is the Master who controls all things and who can do all things. Abraham is a good picture of the peasant in the relationship. Abraham recognizes immediately that God is infinitely greater than he is so he falls down on his face before God. And since Abraham is very old at this point, age 99, he is the epitome of weakness and human frailty. At this point, God, as the great ruler and Lord, initiates the covenant. God offers to do great things for Abraham. And then Abraham must respond to God in that he is to walk before God and be blameless.
But before we look at the promises and the required response, let’s make sure that we have the proper image of God in our minds. God is certainly a loving and compassionate God. God is a constant friend and companion who cares for us in every way. But let’s not lose sight of an equally important part of God. God, who does deeply love us, is also an awesome and great God.
Think in terms of the electrical power lines we see in various parts of our community. When we have had ice storms, we have learned just how important those lines are. Those lines carry the power necessary for us to keep our food safe and help us live. However, just because they good things doesn’t mean that they are safe. If you were to climb the tower and touch the line, you would be killed. While the lines are good and important, they are very powerful and we must respect the power of those lines. We must not forget that God is infinitely greater than we are and we must honor him.
God promises to do three things for Abraham. In verses 4-6, God says that He will make Abram the father of many nations. God will bless Abram with many, many descendants. He will have so many descendants that God will now change his name from “Abram” to “Abraham,” which means “father of a great multitude.” From Abraham’s offspring will come the people of God and ultimately the Son of God who will bring God’s people back to God.
Second, verse 7 gives essence of the covenant: God promises that He will be a God to Abraham and all his children forever. God gives Himself in His fullness to the people. God is the Master and Lord in this covenant, but God is also a very near and personal, loving Lord who loves the people under His care. This is the Immanuel principle; God will be with them. We know how powerfully this was fulfilled when Jesus was born and lived among us. At this point already, God would be with them and walk with them.
Finally, in verse 8, God says that he will give them a land; the land of Canaan. God will give them a land where they can rest, be secure and prosper.
God’s promises to us today reflect the promises made to Abraham. God has blessed Abraham with many descendants and that includes us. As part of Abraham’s family, we can receive the blessings from God that he made to Abraham. To believe in Jesus is to become a child of Abraham and to receive the blessings that were promised to him. And in that way, God will walk with us and be with us as well as he was with Abraham.
God has given us a special place, a place where we can find security. Abraham was promised a land, the land of Canaan where the people could live and thrive. The promise to us is not a literal land, but eternal one: the new heaven and new earth. We have the promise of a place of eternal rest after Jesus returns and takes us there. Now remember from when we looked at Genesis 1 and the Covenant of Works that the new heaven and new earth will not just be floating on a cloud, doing nothing for eternity. It will be like God intended us to be in the beginning. We will walk with God and work in ways that we will enjoy and be fulfilling to us. And we will have eternal rest living forever in the presence of God himself. Through Christ we are now part of Abraham’s offspring and we enjoy the blessings of life with God.
In response to God’s offer, what must Abraham do? Verse 1 says that Abraham must keep the covenant, by “walking before God” and being “blameless.” Abraham and his descendants must try to live obediently. And they are to live their lives knowing that they are living daily in the presence of God. Secondly in verses 9-11, Abraham must accept circumcision as the sign of the covenant. “Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.” Every time the rite of circumcision would be done, it would remind the people of both what God had promised and also of what their responsibilities were under the covenant.
Let’s pause for a moment to think about the function of a covenant sign. Why did God give a sign? First, it gave them an ethnic or national identity. Reformed Seminary professor Derek Thomas says, “The sign provides an outward step into an internal community.” However, the sign didn’t initiate them into the community but it is a sign that there were already a part of that community; it was an outside formal sign that they were already part of the family. The sign did not make the child a member of the community but confirmed their membership.
Now what about the sign of circumcision in particular? Circumcision is not a sign of entrance into manhood, but a confirmation that they were members of the covenant community. This initiation into manhood is true in other cultures, but that is not the meaning here. Verse 12 makes it clear that it is not only a sign of Jewish ethnicity. All are to be circumcised if they are under the authority of the head of the house. Circumcision is a sign that reminds and confirms to them the promises that God has made. And it is a sign that is made in blood to remind us that blood must be shed in order to be in relationship with God.
As we proceed through this study we will see how God introduces themes that will all build on each other and eventually point to Jesus. In this covenant with Abraham, the introduction of blood is significant. That is seen even more vividly in Genesis 15:10 and 17 where animals were killed and cut in half and God walked between the pieces saying that God would be faithful to his promises. In fact, when God makes a covenant with Abraham, the word “make” is the same word as “cut” as used to describe circumcision.
God is saying in the sign of the covenant that blood must be shed in order for the covenant to be established. Think of Jesus’ words in the Last Supper that the wine is the blood of the new covenant. In the new covenant, Jesus blood must be shed in order for us to be with God.
How are we to live in this covenant? What are our covenant obligations? We too must live consciously in the sight and presence of our great God. Our God is not just someone that we meet on Sundays. God is always present with us watching over us, even when it seems he is far away.
When I was a boy, our family often went camping in the High Sierras in California. Traveling along the eastern slopes of those 10-to 14-thousand-foot peaks involved several steep grades and dry, desert-like heat. Steaming radiators and canvas water bags slung over car bumpers were standard equipment. One mountain grade I will never forget. It had a funny name: the “O Grade.” I asked my father, ‘Why is it called that way? Is the next grade after it the “P” grade?’ Mom and Dad simply smiled and said, “Just wait. You'll see.” “Up and up we would climb on the twisting switchback road through scrub pine and sage. And then -- when it seemed we would never get to the top of the ridge -- we did! Spontaneously I cried out, ‘Oh!’ There in front of us, beyond a diamond-studded lake and framed with quaking aspen, was the jagged, snowy Sierra Crest ... higher, more massive, more beautiful, more alive with color than I had dreamed.”
God is awesome and majestic and still always nearer than we can imagine. When God makes His covenant with His people, He wants them to know that He as holy God is right there with us, and we are to be walking with Him closely.
And we too are to be blameless as we walk with him. Now we are going to sin; there’s no question about that. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow hide our actions from God. We may be able to hide it from others, but we cannot hide our sins from God. No matter what we do, where we do it, God is there watching, right there with us. Let’s realize this, confess our sins when we fall and then strive harder than ever to live in obedience as we walk with God in our lives.
How does Abraham respond to this unbelievable news? In verse 17, we read that outwardly he falls on his face in submission, but inwardly he laughs. Inside he wonders at how two old people, as good as dead, could start a whole family that would lead to nations of people. It sounds great, but it’s too good to be true and he laughs. In verse 19, God reassures him that the special child will come from Sara. God will keep his promise and Sarah will have a son. And the child’s name will be Isaac, which means “laughter.” There will be “laughter,” but the laughter will not be skepticism, but real joy. God will indeed do this without any doubt.
And then Abraham responds by obediently doing what God had said. Verse 23 says, “On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him.” He confirms and seals his end by circumcising his whole household. Although Abraham cannot see the promise, he believes and obeys God.
How do we respond to God’s outrageous promises to us? This covenant reflects God’s ongoing and deliberate plan to save mankind from death forever so that God could continue to be God with us. God here is choosing a line of descendants through whom He can prepare the way for Jesus Christ to come and crush the serpent’s head. God’s promise to us is to save all who believe in Jesus Christ and accept His shed blood and death as payment for their sin.
What we must do is simply believe it as being true for us. We must not cling to any false notions that we may go to heaven by some work of our own. There’s a comic strip called Non-Sequitur, drawn and written by Wiley Miller. Its strip for April 1, 2006, featured Danae, a young girl who is a reoccurring character in Non-Sequitur and Lucy, a talking pygmy Clydesdale horse.
Danae is sitting at a table she had set up. A sign on the front of the table says, “First Church of Danae, Recruiting Station.” Another sign, propped up on the table, said, “Ask about our heavenly guarantee.” Lucy asks, “Wow ... your religion comes with a guarantee?” Danae responds: “Yep. For the $100 membership fee, you get this special certificate for automatic entry into heaven, no matter what you’ve done, or your money back.” Lucy reads the guarantee and asks: “What if I don’t have $100?” Danae responds: “Well ... There’s the lifetime sweat- equity plan, but it’s not as holy as cash.”
There is no “sweat-equity plan” for obtaining redemption. God gives it to us when we respond to God’s promises in faith. We must try to do what Abraham did and simply trust and obey. God’s offer is there to save us, both now and forever. Will we believe it, accept and obey, or laugh inside and try it ourselves?