Covenant Confirmed, Clarified, and Commenced (Part 2)

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Genesis 17:15-27 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

INTRODUCTION

If you were here last week you would have heard me say that Genesis 17 is fairly neatly divided into four parts. You would have also heard me preach on the first two of those parts; vs.1-8 describe God’s reaffirmation of His covenant with Abram and its blessings, and vs.9-14 describe the new sign of the covenant, circumcision . This morning then, we’re going to consider the last two parts; vs.15- 21 which gives a few new specifics of the covenant, and 22-27 which reports on Abraham’s faithful response to all of this. Again, all of this occurs 13 years after the events of chapter 16, and almost all of it is communicated through a direct revelation from God to Abraham.

The big ideas in this text/sermon are these: God always keeps His promises, His promises are always better than every alternative, and living wholly/entirely in light of them is the only path to a fresh start and true joy. Let’s pray, yet again, that God would help us to understand all of His promises, to receive them in unwavering, joyful faith, and to use those two things combined to truly make us a light to the world.

NEW COVENANT SPECIFICS GIVEN (15-21)

As we’ve seen a number of times already in Genesis, God made a covenant with Abraham. The heart of the covenant was a promise that God would be Abraham’s God; that is, that God would give Abraham righteousness, have fellowship with him, protect him, provide for him, bless him, and that God would do this for Abraham and his offspring forever. In addition to this, the two primary covenant blessings were that Abraham would have countless descendents and gain a land that was fertile and secure.

As if that were not enough, throughout the twenty-some years that Abraham was forced to wait for the covenant promises to take effect, God continued to add to His promised blessings. We saw some of those additional blessings last week. This week we find even more as God continued to give new specifics on the covenant.

New Name for Sarai (15-16)

The first thing to see is another new name. Within chapter 17, God revealed Himself by taking on a new name (God Almighty, El Shaddai). He also assigned Abram a new name (Abraham, Blessed Father of a Multitude). And in v.15 we see that God did the same for Sarai; He gave her a new name and new promises with it as well.

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.

We’re not really sure what Sarai meant, but Sarah means “princess” or “queen”; female royalty. The point in giving this new name, just like with Abraham, was that God was granting Sarah a fresh start, a new beginning, as the covenant promises were about to take be fulfilled. The time of waiting was nearly over.

Remember that, Grace. You were called an enemy of God, but now, through faith in Jesus, you are called a new creation, a child of God, a brother/sister of Christ. Just as with Sarah, these are not merely new labels; they signify a new identity, a new way of understanding yourself, a new way of seeing the world, a fresh start and a new beginning. You are no longer your sins and rebellion, you are the righteousness of Christ as the time of waiting for covenant fulfillment is nearly over. That’s awesome!

To add to the excitement, God promised blessings specifically to Sarah for the first time.

16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

God reiterated that the son of the promise would indeed come from Sarah’s womb. As inconceivable (pun intended) as it was, barren Sarah would bear a child. What’s more, once again, from this child would come whole nations and rulers of nations. What greater news might God have given to a woman who had long suffered without a child of her own?

Abraham Responds with Laughter (17-18)

For Sarah all of this was truly a blessing on top of blessing. And in the verses yet to come in this section there are more blessings still. In the final section we’ll see Abraham respond in remarkable faith. In the middle of all of this, however, in vs.17-18, we find a somewhat surprising reaction from Abraham.

17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed…

In 17:3, after having been visited by God after 13 years, Abraham fell on his face in humility and worship. Here, he fell on his face in laughter. The exact nature of this laughter isn’t clear. The two main possibilities are that Abraham laughed (1) in disbelief and that he laughed (2) in gratitude. Scholars argue with surprising resolve for each. In all honesty, my money is on it being a bit of both.

Certainly there had to be a hint of glad laughter in Abraham’s heart, didn’t there? Could it really be after all this time that he would have a son with Sarah? How unlikely? How marvelous? How could he not laugh in joy at the entire situation?

I remember feeling really nervous about our lack of decent health insurance when we found out that Gerri was pregnant with Jeremiah. We looked and looked for ways to find coverage but all of them seemed impossible because she was already pregnant. Countless dire situations rolled through my mind. I don’t remember how long we waited and looked (certainly not 24 years like Abraham), but it felt like an eternity. By God’s grace Gerri found something that would work even beyond our expectations. I remember laughing in glad relief; in an exhale of nervousness and in inhale of rest. It’s hard to picture Abraham not having a bit of that kind of laughter.

On the other hand, as the next few verses make clear, there was at least a hint of disbelief in Abraham’s laughter as well.

17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!”

We probably see hints of disbelieving laughter in the questions he asked of himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Abraham knew that this was physically impossible at their age. Every day that had passed since the promise had first been made 24 years earlier made the already unlikely increasingly unlikely to the point of being ridiculous. There’s no way it was possible, was it?

And we definitely see hints of disbelief in the fact that Abraham asked God to accept Ishmael as the son of the promise. That was certainly the easier, more visible path to covenant fulfillment. And yet, if he’d fully trusted in God’s ability to deliver and in the goodness of the delivery (again, pun intended…sorry) he certainly wouldn’t have asked for such a thing.

How often do you wish for the same thing…for God to work in a way that would minimize His glory in order to maximize your comfort; for God to work in a “normal” way so that you aren’t burdened by having to explain your strange faith even though the mighty hand of God might be less visible?

For these reasons it’s not hard to imagine Abraham feeling a bit skeptical. I’m sure most of us have similar feelings all the time. God’s promises are huge and invisible. Our flesh makes us want to trust our reason and senses rather than God’s word. Let this be a reminder that God’s ways are always better and will not be stopped.

God Names the Promised Son (19)

Immediately on the heels of Abraham’s laughter (joyful and skeptical) God reassured him that His promise would indeed come to pass just as He’d said. In fact, God gave greater clarity (which is to say, even greater blessing) on top of that.

19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

God’s patience with Abraham is remarkable. Time after time Abraham expressed doubt concerning God’s faithfulness. Time after time God condescended to assure Abraham that He was serious and then showed himself to be perfectly faithful. Rather than anger, God responded with gentleness. “In spite of your disbelief, you will have a son with Sarah and he will be the child of my everlasting covenant promise! What’s more, his name shall be Isaac.” Of course, Isaac means, “He laughs.” Abraham laughed at God’s plan and then God laughed a tender fatherly laugh at Abraham’s. What comforting and reassuring words these must have been.

God’s Plans for Ishmael (20)

As if all of that were not enough, yet again God continued to expand on His promised blessings. Even his illegitimate child, Ishmael, would be blessed on account of Abraham. In 16:11-12 we’re told that Ishmael would know a life of Cain-like restlessness. Here, though, we find something more.

20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.

Ishmael would not be the child of the promise, and his life would know conflict, but because of Abraham’s prayer he would also know blessing, fruitfulness, royalty, and prosperity. And to be clear, the twelve princes were not symbolic or metaphorical; they were real, historical princes of their respective tribes (25:12-18). How great are the covenant blessings of God even for those outside of the true line of Abraham (which is also our hope)?!

God Establishes a Timeline for Covenant Fulfillment (21)

Finally, God added still another blessing. No longer was the promise set for some vague time in the future, God here affixed a specific time to it.

21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

I recently read The Count of Monte Cristo, a truly remarkable book. Near the end of the story one of the characters, a young man, is certain that his love is lost. He’s fully convinced that the woman he loves with all his heart is dead. This belief causes him to be so distraught that he plans to end his life. His grief is so great that he simply cannot go on living without her. And yet, as certain as he is of his beloved’s death, he’s come to be even more certain that the words of The Count of Monte Cristo always come to pass. There’s a remarkable scene where he’s tormented by the Count’s promise that his beloved will live even though he’s sure she’s already dead.

You told me to wait and hope; do you know what you did, unfortunate adviser? I waited a month, or rather I suffered for a month! I did hope (man is a poor wretched creature), I did hope. What I cannot tell,—something wonderful, an absurdity, a miracle,—of what nature he alone can tell who has mingled with our reason that folly we call hope. Yes, I did wait—yes, I did hope, count, and during this quarter of an hour we have been talking together, you have unconsciously wounded, tortured my heart, for every word you have uttered proved that there was no hope for me.

The young man, Maximilian, chose hope because he believed the Count. And yet, at this point in the story his hope proved to be misguided and he considered himself the worse for it. His misguided hope exponentially deepened his already profound pain.

Again, we can feel a measure of this fear to hope in Abraham. We imagine Abraham daring to believe; but 24 years is a long time (no mere month as in Maximilian’s case). At these words of God, Abraham must have thought, “My son has a name and now he has a birthday! Can it truly be?! I’m OK with my life now. I’m OK if God simply uses Ishmael, but if I allow myself to hope it will be crushing if it doesn’t prove true.”

Grace, hope really is a dangerous thing. When we do not hope we cannot be hurt but we also cannot be happy. When we do hope we may be hurt but we may also be happy. Indeed, the greater the hope the greater potential for pain and pleasure. This is the case for every single promise this world makes. But here’s the great secret of the people of God—one that Abraham would, but had not yet fully learned—that’s not the case with God’s promises. It feels like it is, but it isn’t. God never lies! He alone always keeps His promises! There is absolutely zero risk when we place our hope in God. To hope in God is to have everything to gain and nothing to lose! That’s awesome. To trust in God, Grace, is not a wager, it is a guarantee. Trust in God, Grace. Trust in every one of His promises. Don’t hesitate for one second to bank your entire life and your entire eternal life on them!

Well, Abraham had to choose. What would he choose? Had he learned this lesson? Would he give in to hope? His response in the final section makes all of this clear.

ABRAHAM RESPONDS IN FAITH (22-27)

Before getting to Abraham’s response though we see a curious thing.

God Departed

Look with me again at v.22… 22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

Having said all that He intended to say, “God went up from Abraham.” It’s important for us to understand what that means (and what it doesn’t).

It doesn’t mean any of the things it typically means for you and me when we say such a thing. That is, that God “went up from Abraham” doesn’t mean that God went to a place in which Abraham was outside of His sight or hearing or knowledge. God is omnipresent (He’s always, everywhere at once) and omniscient (He always, perfectly knows everything). Likewise, it does not mean that God went to a place in which He was unable to interact with Abraham. God is always engaged and personal. And it does not mean that God went to a place that it would take Him any measure of time to get back to Abraham if He wanted to. Grace, God is never far away. He is always as near. We must fight to remember this when God seems distant or inattentive. He is always with us and for us even if it seems otherwise.

If not these things, then what does it mean that God “went up”? It simply means that God, for a time, chose to no longer manifest His presence to Abraham’s physical senses. That is, it means that after saying all of these things to Abraham, God decided not to allow Abraham to feel His presence in the same way. Grace, for God’s good pleasure and reasons this is how He has almost always chosen to dwell with His people. Throughout the vast majority of human/redemptive history, God has made His presence felt spiritually, not physically. In this life His presence and pleasure are almost always known exclusively by our spirits, not our senses. This is certainly at the heart of what it means to live by faith. We may struggle to see the goodness of this at times, but we are meant to rest assured that it is good even as we await the day where the fullness of the New Covenant blessings are realized and faith will be no more.

Abraham Obeyed

With all of that, with all of God’s old covenant promises reiterated and several new ones made, with a new name for Sarah, a name and a date for the son of the promise, with promised blessings for the son of the flesh, and with God having gone up from him, what would Abraham do? Would he truly hope in God? Would he give in to hope? Let’s read the last few verses to find out.

23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

In this final section we see Abraham act, once again, with whole-hearted trust and obedience. That is, we see in vs.23-27 that Abraham had made up his mind to hope in God, come what may. Everything he could see told him that was foolish. But deeper still was his trust in God’s invisible promises…and so he obeyed and therein, once again, modeled for us a life of faith.

I want to close with a quick, three-step process for God-honoring obedience.

Abraham Clearly Understood what God Wanted from Him

This probably seems a bit too simple to be important, but it’s absolutely critical. Abraham didn’t make up an act of obedience. He didn’t try to figure out on his own what God wanted from him. God spoke to Abraham exactly what He wanted Abraham to do and so Abraham’s knew exactly what God wanted. Grace, such is the case for you and me. We know what to do only insofar as God reveals it to us. The great promise of God is that He has revealed everything He expects of us in His word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The first step to genuine, godly obedience, then, is in knowing the specific commands of God for our lives.

Abraham Obeyed Immediately

The second step of God-honoring obedience is immediate obedience. The text twice makes clear that as soon as God had finished speaking, “that very day” (23, 27), Abraham obeyed the voice of God. As we used to tell our kids regularly, delayed obedience is disobedience. Parents, we serve our kids well when we teach these things about true obedience to our kids by obeying God immediately ourselves and when we expect that of them as well.

Abraham Obeyed Completely

Finally, the kind of obedience that God requires and deserves is complete obedience. Abraham took care to do all that God required. Abraham made sure that he, Ishmael, and “all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male” was circumcised. Indeed, to make sure we do not think Abraham missed anything or anyone, the text declares this twice. Just as delayed obedience is disobedience, so too is partial obedience, disobedience. Abraham obeyed completely and so must we. And that allows me to close with a plea to remember the gospel.

CONCLUSION

God expects perfect, immediate, and complete obedience. And as His people we should fight with all we have to give to God all that He commands. And yet, even if this is your first time ever stepping into a church (or watching online) you can probably already guess the problem. None of us have done so. Every one of us has failed to give God all that He deserves. All of us have failed to obey God in some measure. Worse still, as we saw on the first few pages of Genesis, the penalty for doing so is death; not mere physical death, but everlasting spiritual death. That’s the whole point of God’s covenant promises with Abraham. It was never mainly about children or land. It was always about God rescuing His people from their rebellion against God. All that God promised Abraham would have already belonged to Abraham and all mankind if Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned against God. God’s covenant promises to Abraham were simply a description of what God made us for; fellowship with God and all the fruitfulness and blessings that accompany it.

And yet, as great of a series of promises as it was, the Abrahamic covenant was only a sort of foreshadowing of (or maybe a down payment on) the fullness of blessing that would later come in Jesus Christ. So Grace, once again, look to Jesus today to be forgiven of all that’s past and freed for all that’s yet to come as we wait for the already certain fullness of the New Covenant blessings of God in Christ!

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