Covenant Confirmed, Clarified, And Commenced

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Manage episode 270261617 series 1051957
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Genesis 17:1-14 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

INTRODUCTION

13 years passed between the end of chapter 16 and the beginning of 17. Think about that. Abram and Sarai were already antsy about the promise in chapter 16. Chapter 17 opens 13 years later and still nothing. How many of us have struggled to wait 13 months? 13 days? 13 hours? 13 minutes? 13 seconds?! It must have seemed to them that God had forgotten them or, worse yet, that He had played a cruel trick on them. The text doesn’t say that God was silent for 13 years, but it doesn’t say He wasn’t either. Could it be that He really left them without a word in their longing for that long? We don’t know for sure.

What we do know for sure, however, is that when Abram was 99 years old God appeared to him again, identified Himself in no uncertain terms, and commanded Abram to trust wholly in Him. We also know that God did so to reaffirm the covenant He’d made with Abram and (finally?) begin to usher it in.

The main points of this text/sermon are (once again) that God is King, His commands are always good, His promises are always sure, and consequently patiently living in light of these things is the only thing that makes sense. The main prayer, then, is that God would grant us the grace to acknowledge Him as king, delight in and obey His commands, and trust in His promises and timing.

REAFFIRMING THE COVENANT AND ITS BLESSINGS (1-8)

Genesis 17 is fairly neatly divided into four parts. We’ll consider the first two parts this week and the second two next week. The first part, 1-8, describes God’s reaffirmation of His covenant with Abram and its blessings. The second part, 9-14, describes the new sign of the covenant. 15- 21, the third part, gives a few new specifics of the covenant, and the final part, 22-27, reports on Abram’s (then Abraham’s) faithful response to all of this. Almost all of this is communicated through a direct revelation from God. That is, the vast majority of chapter 17 records the very words of God spoken directly to Abram.

With that, consider with me the first part of this text, God’s reappearance in order to reaffirm His covenant and its blessings.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram …

In 12:1 (and 7), when Abram was 75 years old, God spoke to him for the first time and promised him great things; children and land beyond measure. Then, sometime later, in 13:14 the LORD spoke to Abram and again promised these great things. In each of these first exchanges the text only says that God spoke to Abram. In 15:1 (and 12) though, it says that God appeared to Abram in order to reiterate His promise of a “very great” reward and seal it with a unilateral covenant oath. And now in chapter 17, for the fourth time (or fifth depending on how you count) God communicated directly with Abram—now 99 years old—once again; 24 years after His first appearance and 13 years after God’s last interaction with Abram’s clan.

What would happen this time? Would He appear or simply speak? Would He speak directly to Abram or go through a mediator? Would He reiterate something old, or communicate something new? More importantly, was now the time for the covenant fulfillment, or was that still yet to come?

“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

As you can see, in this encounter God restated several covenant promises He’d already made to Abram. In addition, though, we find a few more. As He’d already promised, God would have fellowship with Abram through a covenant, the covenant blessings included much fruitfulness, many descendents, multiple nations, and much land (Canaan), the covenant would be for Abram and his offspring forever, and the heart of the covenant (and the covenant blessing) was that God would be Abram’s God and the God of his offspring. Again, as amazing as all of this is, God had already communicated it to Abram more than once.

God’s new name (1). But, as you can also see, there are several new features of the covenant promises mentioned in this passage as well. First, we see something new about the God of the covenant. We’ve already seen that He is God (Elohim 1:1), LORD (Yahweh ), LORD GOD (sovereign lord, Adonai, 15:2), and God Who Sees (El Roi, 16:13). Here, however, God introduces Himself with a new name. It is God Almighty, El Shaddai.

As you probably know, this was no mere name; it was a description of the very nature of God. Unlike us, who tend to name our kids based merely on liking the sound of a name, in the bible people’s names were often descriptions of who they were (or who their parents wanted them to become). Thus, when God gives Himself a name, it’s an indication of who He is. What an awesome thing it is, then, that it was the almighty God who would be in covenant with Abram. Who could possibly promise more and be more certain to deliver on their promise than the God of all might (of all power)?! God was so kind to continue to reveal more and more of Himself to Abram in order to assure Abram of His ability to keep His word to bless beyond imagination.

Second, we see that there’s some type of condition on the covenant (1-2). At the first direct mention of the covenant, it was entirely unilateral. God alone was responsible to fulfill its terms. He alone passed through the animals (15:17). Here, though, we see that Abram does indeed play some role. God commanded him to walk before God and be blameless…”that I may make my covenant between me and you…”. To truly experience the covenant blessing, we’re told in 17:1-2, Abram must walk before God and be blameless. To walk before God was to accept God as Shepherd/Father and to willingly live under His observation, leadership, protection, and care; to willingly live entirely within the sight and oversight of God. Again, we are meant to picture a sheep walking before an ever-attentive shepherd or a child walking in front of his watchful father; everything in full view and under full authority. And to be blameless describes the nature of the live lived in front of God: pure, perfect. Blamelessness went beyond mere actions, down to the heart. We won’t find out until a bit later exactly how this works, but here we see that there’s some connection between Abram’s actions and heart and his ability to experience the covenant blessings.

Third, Abram received a new covenant name (5): Abraham. Among the new covenant revelations in this passage are the new name of God and the new name of Abram. Abram (blessed father, referring to his father, Terah) would now become Abraham (blessed father of a multitude, referring to Abram himself). This was meant to signify God’s authority over Abraham (remember from Creation that the one with the power to name is the one with authority over). And it was to signify that the fulfillment of the covenant was imminent. Notice carefully the change in tense from v.4 (“you shall be the father of a multitude of nations”) to v.5 (“I have made you the father of a multitude of nations”). Abraham didn’t have a single child yet, but God spoke as if he already had countless offspring. Grace, this is not always how the bible talks, but it is always how God’s promises work. For God to promise something is the same as it already being done. May we find deep rest in that as we consider the promises of God in Christ.

Perhaps the march toward covenant fulfillment feels slow to us, and it must have certainly felt slow for Abram, but the new name that God gave to Abram reminds us that God is always working out His purposes and He is always doing so in His good timing.

Finally, fourth, not only would Abraham have many descendents and not only would they have a great land, but in addition Abraham’s line would include royalty, kings (6). In this passage the LORD God Almighty promised Abraham that, “kings shall come from you.” God was not messing around. His blessing would be both unparalleled and unparallelable.

I’d like to invite you to take just one minute to consider all that Abraham had just heard; all that he’d just been promised and repromised. And then I’d like to invite you to take just one more minute to consider Abraham’s response. God had just described to Abraham blessing upon blessing upon blessing, all of which were as good as done. What stands out to you the most? The countless children? The royalty of the children? The overflowing land? The everlasting nature of the promises? The nature of God that would be his God? The righteousness God had given him? Take a moment to try to get your mind around all that lay before Abraham.

And now, take one more minute to consider Abraham’s response to all of this. It’s in v.3. Take a look. What did he do? In response to all of this Abraham fell on his face before God. Abraham had heard most of this before and yet he was freshly moved to overwhelming humility, reverence, and worship before God. Does that seem appropriate to you? Can you imagine yourself doing the same thing in his shoes?

Here’s the thing…Grace, in Christ, God has promised blessing upon blessing upon blessing to you. More than Abraham, indeed more than you can fathom, God has promised to bless you as a participant, by grace through faith, in the New Covenant. What’s your response? Whether you’re hearing this for the first time or, as was the case with Abraham here, for the ___ time, your response ought to be the same: overwhelming humility, reverence, and worship. When is the last time you encountered God in such a way that made you feel like falling on your face before Him was the appropriate thing to do? To know God is to know that feeling. Seek Him, the LORD God Almighty, in that way.

NEW COVENANT SIGN GIVEN (9-14)

All of that leads to the next section of the text and sermon. In these next few verses God revealed the sign of the covenant. Just as His covenant with Noah had a sign (the rainbow), so too would His covenant with Abraham.

9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

To close this sermon, I want to point out to you a small handful of soul-strengthening aspects of this covenant sign.

The sign made sense. On the surface this probably seems like an awfully strange sign of anything. My buddies and I had a secret handshake to identify our “club”. This is definitely next level. The rainbow mostly makes sense, but this?! We might wonder how in the world God settled on this as the sign of the covenant.

In reality, however, it makes a great deal of sense. The covenant promise was tied to bearing children and so its location on the body makes sense. The covenant was irreversible and so its permanence makes sense (you definitely can’t undo circumcision). The covenant entailed a whole-sale commitment to God and so (especially for the first generation) its costliness makes sense. And the covenant was meant to signify a distinction between those who had God as their God and those who didn’t and so its eight-day uniqueness makes sense (other nations practiced circumcision, but not like this). In other words, both the covenant and circumcision were about separation, purity, loyalty, and fertility.

The sign was a gift. It was a God-pleasing way for God’s people to identify themselves with God. One of the more common questions I get asked as a pastor is, “How can I honor God with my life?”. There’s a lot in that question, obviously. Some of what God calls us to is tricky and dangerous. But part of it is simple and straight forward. Circumcision wasn’t hard to understand. It didn’t take advanced degrees to get your mind around. Further, although somewhat painful it wasn’t hard to have done. It was merely a question of obedience. Much like participating in the sacraments (baptism and communion) today, it’s a real gift of God for us to be given something so simple that we know is pleasing to God whenever we offer it in faith.

This sign was for males only (10). On one hand, that might sound unfair to women and girls. Were they outside of the covenant then? Did God think less of them? Not at all. This covenant sign being unique to boys/men was a simple, subtle reminder that God deals with His people through representative headship. Because everyone is represented by Adam, we are all born into sin. Because Abraham represented them they would have land and children. Eventually, gloriously, because Christ represents us we have forgiveness, righteousness, adoption, and a limitless inheritance. The women of Abraham’s line were every bit as included in the covenant promises and blessings as the men, even as they were represented by the men of the sign. God has always worked this way as history worked its way to Jesus, our Great Representative.

Foreigners were welcome (12-13). This is one of my favorite parts of God’s covenant with Abraham. We see here that from the beginning it was never limited merely to the biological descendents of Abraham (as many of the Jews in Jesus’ day had come to believe). It did include the faithful, biological descendents of Abraham but it also included any of the servants and foreigners under his care (12-13). God has always meant His people to be a light to the whole world…to turn their God-given blessing into a blessing for others. God meant the exceptional prosperity of His chosen people to help the world see that He is the one true God in order that they might turn to Him in faith as well. This is really good news for you and I as non-biological children of Abraham. We too may be included in the covenant promises when we share Abraham’s faith in God, even when we don’t share his lineage.

Finally, the consequences of failing to take the sign were severe (14). Everyone who wanted to experience the covenant blessings was required to adhere to its requirements. As we’ve already seen, and will see even more clearly eventually, true fulfillment of the covenant was a matter of the heart. And yet that was never an excuse to neglect the matters of the flesh. Too often we treat our faith as if it were to be entirely disembodied; as if it never needed to translate into acts of obedience. We often act as if our sole responsibility is spiritual; to think right things and feel right feelings. This passage helps us to see that in addition to those things God most certainly means us to act right actions. Without circumcised hearts (hearts transformed by the grace of God) God’s people could not truly keep the terms of the covenant (some really need to hear this—this was Jesus’ main message to the Pharisees in His day). In the same way, without circumcised flesh (the actual removal of the foreskin) they failed to keep the terms as well (others need to hear that). In other words, this wasn’t an either/or proposition. Abraham and his descents would know circumcision of both the heart and the flesh or, as v.14 makes clear, 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” To fail to take the sign of the covenant was to be “cut off from” the people of God; to be cut off from the covenant blessings; to be cut off from the covenant God! Indeed, to fail to take the sign of the covenant was an expression of a heart that was not hoping in God and was therefore still in Adam rather than Abraham.

And so it is for us today. It is absolutely critical that we get our heads around this…any act of obedience to God’s commands is a mere religious ritual without any spiritual significance if it isn’t offered in faith. It is possible to do exactly what God commands and still be a stench to God if our obedience does not proceed from a heart that is surrendered to God.

Isaiah 29:13 this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,

Jeremiah 14:12 Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”

Hosea 6:6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Amos 5:22-23 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

Galatians 5:11-12 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

Whether taking a covenant sign or performing the simplest act of obedience, if it does not come as a true act of faith proceeding from God’s saving grace, it is entirely useless. We must do what God says, but there are no acts that we can perform in themselves that honor God. It is only when our hearts belong to God that our acts offered in faith can please God. And so I challenge you all to consider this today.

For those of you who are here merely as an act of religious performance, you cannot please God in that. It is good that you’re here so you can hear the gospel, but your faithless presence does not make you acceptable to God. But if you will surrender yourself to God, if you will call on the name of Jesus, if you will walk before God in faith, right now, God will forgive you and receive you and turn your obedience into an act of acceptable worship.

On the other hand, for those of you who are overwhelmed because you know you’ve never obeyed fully, I charge you too to hear the gospel. God requires obedience, but He does not accept you on the basis of it. Your acceptance is on the basis of Jesus’ perfect obedience. By faith you are united with Him and His righteousness, and it is in that union that God accepts you; but accept you He does, fully and joyfully and without reservation.

CONCLUSION

The main points of this text/sermon are (once again) that God is King, His commands are always good, His promises are always sure, and consequently living patiently in light of these things is the only thing that makes sense. May we all then, in Christ, know afresh the goodness and glory of living entirely in light of these great and unchanging truths. That is, may we all know the goodness and glory of living wholly by faith in God’s perfect, promised grace.

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