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God emphasizes his promise by giving covenant seals
Genesis Chapter 17, verses 1 through 8
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant
between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”
Thirteen years had passed since Ishmael’s birth, years apparently without any further divine revelation to Abram. It had now been 24 years since God had first appeared to Abram with the promise that he would be the ancestor of the Savior. Abram was now 99, Sarai 89. Humanly speaking, every shred of hope they had of ever becoming parents had been swept away. Martin Luther once made this statement: “It’s God’s way to empty a man first before filling him with his blessing.” Now God decided that the time had come to make a startling announcement about his covenant.
God once again appeared to Abram. He introduced himself by an unusual name; in Hebrew it’s El Shaddai, apparently from a verb root meaning “to display power, to deal violently.” The God who here appeared with good news for Abram is the God who can compel even nature to do his bidding.
The translation “and be blameless” is misleading (as is also the King James Version “be perfect”). The word really means “be complete.” What El Shaddai was asking of Abram was to live his whole life before God in the confidence that God’s unlimited power could compel even nature to do what is contrary to itself.
God had previously made a covenant with Abram, a binding contract in which he had placed himself under obligation to Abram and his future descendants. And God had solemnly ratified that covenant. Now the time had come to implement that covenant, to bring it to fulfillment. For Abram that had to mean that the birth of the son for whom he had waited a quarter century was near.
At hearing this unbelievably good news, Abram bowed with his face to the ground in humble adoration. Apart from God’s grace, how could he, a creature of clay, ever have hoped to have numerous descendants, one of whom would be the Savior of the world? This attitude of humble adoration is the only proper attitude for the sinner in the presence of God. How tragic that this attitude is often missing when we approach the great God in worship! When we lose sight of our littleness and our unworthiness, when we stop marveling at the sheer magnificence of God’s amazing grace, our worship is the poorer.
A covenant seal: Abram to Abraham
As a guarantee of the fact that the child of the covenant would soon be born, God changed Abram’s name. He would no longer be Abram (“exalted father”); he would now be Abraham (“father of many”). This name change was a seal of the covenant, a guarantee that God would keep the promise he had made. If God would fail to keep his covenant promise, the name Abraham would constantly
testify against him. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can see how appropriate this covenant seal was. Abraham did indeed become the father of multitudes of descendants. Some are blood descendants—the Israelites, the Edomites, the Arabs. Some are spiritual descendants of Abraham by sharing his faith. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “[Abraham] is the father of us all” (Romans Chapter 4, verse 16).
As he bowed with his face in the dust, Abraham could hardly believe the good news he was hearing. “Kings will come from you.” We think immediately of the royal line of David, culminating in great David’s greater Son, the King of kings.
Abraham was not to think that these blessings were a special favor of God just for him. God pledged that this solemn contract with Abraham would remain in force also for his numerous descendants, including the ones reading this book right now. The God of the covenant will continue to be a never-ending source of mercy to the fallen children of Adam and Eve.
A quarter century earlier, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would own the land in which Abraham was a temporary resident. But since then there had been no trace of fulfillment. God now felt it appropriate to renew
In view of the confusion in the religious world today about ownership of the Holy Land, perhaps it ought to be restated that God’s two promises, “I will give this land to your descendants” and “I will be their God,” are inseparably linked. If in subsequent years Abraham’s descendants rejected the second promise, they also forfeited the first. But as long as they remained faithful to their faithful God, they had assurance that the land of Canaan would be their home indefinitely.
A covenant seal: circumcision
Genesis Chapter 17, verses 9 through 14
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. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner
those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised
in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
To serve as an additional guarantee of his covenant, God now gave circumcision to his people as another covenant seal. This is not to be understood as saying that circumcision was unknown in the ancient world up to
that time. The prophet Jeremiah makes it clear that circumcision was commonly known among other ancient nations (Chapter 9, verse 25). They practiced it either for hygienic reasons, as is still done today, or as a puberty rite. To seal the solemn contract he had made with Abraham’s descendants, God took this widely practiced custom and designated it a badge of his covenant.
God’s detailed instructions cannot be misunderstood; nothing was left to Abraham’s discretion. The male organ was singled out since it’s the instrument of procreation by which sin is transmitted from father to child. Life needs to be purified at its very source.
For Abraham’s descendants, then, circumcision was another seal assuring the certainty of God’s covenant, just as Baptism is a daily reminder that God has elected us to be his very own. Normally ancient covenants were inscribed on clay tablets; this covenant was in the flesh of a man’s body.
Furthermore, circumcision symbolized the removal of defilement, the putting away of one’s inner resistance to God. Saint Paul calls it a “seal of the righteousness [Abraham] had by faith” (Romans Chapter 4, verse 11). The male Israelite who refused to wear this badge of the covenant in his body was considered to have rejected God’s covenant and was to be cut off from God’s people (Exodus Chapter 31, verse 14).
When Christ, the mediator of the new covenant, came, circumcision lost its purpose. The shadow was replaced by the reality. At the Jerusalem council, the early Christian church took a strong stand against those who taught that
“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts Chapter 15, verse 1).
A covenant seal: Sarai to Sarah
Genesis Chapter 17, verses 15 through 22
God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”
Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
Down through the years, God had spoken often to Abraham, molding his faith in the promise. Each time God spoke, Abraham understood God’s grand plan better; his faith had more to hold on to. In the verses before us, God finally spoke the words Abraham had been waiting to hear.
But before doing that, God gave an additional covenant seal, another name change. At this late date we’re not able to define precisely what the difference is between Sarai and Sarah. We do know that Sarah means “princess.” If Abraham’s wife was to be the mother of kings, she deserved a
royal title, and now she had one.
The heart of God’s good news came in these words: “Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. . . . Sarah will bear [him] to you by this time next year.” These words made it clear why God at the outset introduced himself to Abraham with the name El Shaddai. God’s blessing of a son for this aged couple involved a renewal of their reproductive powers.
Now that he had heard the promise he was waiting to hear, Abraham laughed. Does that seem like an appropriate response to a promise so serious and so significant? Abraham’s laughter was the unrehearsed expression of the
unbelievable joy he felt over what God had just told him. It was as though Abraham was thinking, “Everybody knows 90-year-old women don’t have babies, but nobody told that to God!” And his body shook with laughter. His question
was asked not in doubt but in joyful amazement (verse 17).
Suddenly a disturbing thought creased his brow and stifled his laughter. What God had just said about Sarah’s son being the heir of the promises—did that mean Abraham’s other son was now to be cut off from God’s blessing? Ishmael was, after all, Abraham’s firstborn; for 13 years he had been Abraham’s only son. Was he to be forgotten now? Abraham sought a blessing for Ishmael too.
A covenant seal: the son of promise will be named Isaac
God’s response was twofold. He gave Abraham still another seal of the covenant. Abraham had laughed for joy when he learned that in a year Sarah would be holding a baby in her arms; now he learned that the baby would be
called Isaac, which means “laughter.”
God also concurred with Abraham’s desire that Ishmael share in God’s blessing. For Abraham’s sake, God promised to multiply Ishmael’s descendants, to build him into a great nation with 12 princes (Chapter 25, verses 12 through 16). But God reaffirmed that Isaac would be the son of the promise, the important link between Abraham and the Savior.
With that, God left Abraham. He had taken Abraham into his confidence. He had shared some of his sacred secrets with him, secrets of his power, of his wisdom, and of his grace. With additional information about the promised seed and a number of seals of the covenant, God had bolstered the faith of Abraham.
Genesis Chapter 17, verses 23 through 27
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. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen; Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that same day. And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
Abraham’s faith moved into action. God had commanded circumcision without, however, specifying a time deadline. Abraham saw to it that on that very same day every male in his household carried the mark of the covenant on his body. With a wealth of detail, Moses helps us to see that Abraham’s obedience was complete, it was immediate, and it was willing. Most important, it flowed
from his trust in God’s promise.
God has not called us to follow him blindfolded. Christian faith is not a leap in the dark. Like Abraham, we have God’s word of promise. As we, like Abraham, follow God in trust and obedience, we can say this with the apostle
Paul: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him” (2 Timothy Chapter 1, verse 12).
Martin Luther once made this statement: “There is no more miserable frame of mind than doubt.” Doubt questions God’s pledged word; it weakens our hold on the blessings God has promised us. In previous appearances to Abraham, God had effectively dealt with Abraham’s lingering doubts. But there was another member of Abraham’s family whose faith needed God’s attention and his help. God therefore made another visit to the home of Abraham in Hebron, in southern Canaan, to purify Sarah’s faith of its impurities and imperfections.
Genesis Chapter 18, verses 1 – 8
The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
During the hottest part of the day, the time of siesta, Abraham was sitting in the shade at the door of his tent. Perhaps he had dozed off, or perhaps he was deep in thought about the wondrous promise he had received from God. It was good to think that within a year Sarah would present him with an infant son. At any rate, he was suddenly aware that three travelers had stopped near his tent. Hebron was on the main road that runs north and south along the ridge of the Judean hills, and occasionally there were travelers who needed food and lodging. Hebrews Chapter 13, verse 2 informs us that Abraham did not realize who his visitors were until later. Although they appeared in human form, one was the Lord himself (verse 13), and the other two were angels (Chapter 19, verse 1). The custom of the day required a traveler to stand at some distance from a nomad’s tent and wait to be invited in.
Abraham greeted the three travelers humbly and courteously. By our standards his invitation, and especially his hospitality, might seem overdone, but perhaps our standards need adjusting. The Christian who loves his Lord will learn to look upon people not as things to be used but as creatures designed by God, loved by him, and to be loved by us. It is not to our credit if our daily lives touch the lives of others with as little concern as two billiard balls bouncing off each other.
At this lazy hour of the day, Abraham’s household was suddenly transformed into a beehive of activity. Moses describes meal preparations that must have taken several hours. Abraham instructed Sarah to take three seahs of flour—more than a bushel—and bake bread. There would surely be no shortage of bread at that meal! He himself ran to the herd, selected a choice bull calf, and ordered his men to slaughter it and prepare it. Curds (we’d probably call it
cottage cheese) and milk completed the feast he set before his guests.
“They ate.” What condescending love those two words describe! The three guests ate Sarah’s fresh bread and tender veal. The scene reminds us of what Jesus did when he appeared to his doubting disciples a week after his resurrection. When those frightened men imagined they were seeing a ghost, Jesus lovingly asked for something to eat and actually ate a piece of broiled fish. He was showing them there was no barrier blocking their fellowship with God.
What a staggering thought! Abraham and Jesus’ disciples were to realize, and you and I are too, that the almighty God wants to share our company as a friend. It is this down-to-earth, seeking, caring love of the Lord that melts
down cold and stubborn human hearts and wins them over to himself. We long for fellowship like that which took place under the great tree at Hebron. And God promises that we can look forward to an intimate fellowship with him when
we eat and drink at the feast of the Lamb.
Genesis Chapter 18, verses 9 through 15
9“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said.
Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
It soon became clear that the three visitors had not stopped at Abraham’s place just to get a free meal. The purpose of their visit became evident when they asked, “Where is Sarah?”
This question told Abraham several things about his visitors:
• They must be people of authority. In that culture a casual visitor would not ask about the lady of the household (who remained in her own tent).
• They knew God had given Sarai a new name.
• Their visit concerned Sarah; it was not a chance occurrence.
We can imagine how surprised Sarah must have been to hear these strangers, whom she’d never seen before, mention her name. They were talking about her and had come to bring a message for her.
For reasons that will become clear, Moses explains that Sarah’s tent was behind the speaker. The heavenly visitor was sitting in a position where he could not see Sarah. Sarah now heard from God’s own lips what he had told
Abraham at the time of his previous visit: “At this time next year Sarah will be the mother of a son.” For a woman past childbearing age, this was a miracle. Sarah knew very well that miracles don’t happen by themselves; only God could bring this to pass.
There’s an old proverb something to this effect: “Two things may seem the same without being the same.” It might seem that Sarah’s reaction at hearing this birth announcement was the same as Abraham’s when God earlier predicted
Isaac’s birth. Abraham had laughed, and so did Sarah here. But there was a big difference. Abraham had laughed out of sheer joy. Sarah had given up hoping for a child. Her laughter, therefore, was an expression of unbelief; to Sarah, God’s promise seemed laughable. Because he is all-knowing, Abraham’s heavenly visitor not only knew Sarah’s thoughts but was displeased by her lack of faith in the promise he had just made. His question “Why did Sarah laugh?” revealed his omniscience and told Sarah who he was. Without
seeing Sarah, he knew she was listening at the tent door behind his back.
Imagine how astounded Sarah must have been. Not only had this heavenly visitor read her secret thoughts, but he had considered her doubt unworthy and unbecoming. Surely she should have known that the Lord is not bound by the laws of nature, including the laws of human reproduction.
Sarah, embarrassed, called out from her tent. At first she attempted to defend herself, but then she penitently accepted the Lord’s rebuke. By faith she received God’s promise that she would conceive and bear a child. When
the baby was born a year later, she spoke differently: “God has brought me laughter, and everybody who hears about this will laugh with me” (Chapter 21, verse 6).
Genesis Chapter 18, verses 16 through 21
When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
There was a second reason why the three heavenly visitors had come to Abraham’s home, and God now made that clear to Abraham. As his dinner guests got up to leave, Abraham courteously walked with them to bid them farewell. He noticed that they were heading southeast toward Sodom, 40 miles away.
Then the Lord spoke. His words are a sort of soliloquy, spoken softly yet intended for Abraham’s ears. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” There were a number of reasons why God wanted to inform Abraham in advance about his plans to send fiery judgment on Sodom.
Abraham stood in a special relationship to God. Abraham was, first, God’s “friend” (Isaiah Chapter 41, verse 8), and here God shared a confidence with his friend. Isn’t that an amazing thought? God did not want to proceed with his plans before getting Abraham’s reaction.
But there was a second reason. God had chosen Abraham not only to continue the messianic bloodline but to pass on to his descendants the truth God had revealed to him—in this particular instance, the truth about God’s judgment. There are two truths in particular about God’s judgments that God wanted Abraham’s descendants to know: (1) Whenever God invades human history to pronounce judgment on a person or a group of people, he thereby shows that he hates unbelief and must punish it. (2) God’s judgments, however, are always carried out in such a way that they serve the deliverance of his elect. Here God withheld his judgment on Sodom to give Abraham an opportunity to plead for the righteous. In mercy God had delayed the onset of the flood (Chapter 6, verse 3). In our day the sins of our country cry to God for judgment, yet in the interest of gathering all his elect, God has graciously delayed his judgment.
Abraham was going to see these truths illustrated in Sodom and Gomorrah. God wanted Abraham to make sure his descendants learned them too.
God’s words “I will go down and see” are not to be understood as though God actually had to make a special trip to Sodom for an on-site inspection of the city’s corruption before giving the order to destroy it. God uses a figure
of speech here in which he ascribes human actions to himself, in order to emphasize this important truth: God does nothing without possessing all the facts in the case. He does not act arbitrarily. If he chooses to send punishment on a city or a nation, that judgment is well deserved.
Genesis Chapter 18, verses 22 through 33
The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake
of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?” He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
When the two angels left for Sodom to carry out their assignment, Abraham detained the Lord. He pleaded with God six times to spare the city for the sake of the believers there. There are some characteristics of Abraham’s prayer that are worth noting:
• It was based on mercy, not merit—Abraham knew that the same sinful heart that beat in each inhabitant of Sodom and Gomorrah beat within his own breast and that it was only the grace of God that kept him safe from God’s righteous anger.
• It was an unselfish prayer—Abraham wanted others to experience the same mercy he had.
• It was bold—There’s a holy shamelessness to Abraham’s prayer. Six times he dared to plead the cause of God’s love against God’s righteousness. “God, you surely wouldn’t want to give the impression that you destroy cities and villages, the innocent and the guilty, indiscriminately.”
When the two angels left for Sodom to carry out their
assignment, Abraham detained the Lord. He pleaded with
God six times to spare the city for the sake of the believers
there. There are some characteristics of Abraham’s prayer that
are worth noting:
• It was based on mercy, not merit—Abraham
knew that the same sinful heart that beat in
each inhabitant of Sodom and Gomorrah beat
within his own breast and that it was only the
grace of God that kept him safe from God’s
• It was an unselfish prayer—Abraham wanted
others to experience the same mercy he had.
• It was bold—There’s a holy shamelessness to
Abraham’s prayer. Six times he dared to plead
the cause of God’s love against God’s righteousness.
“God, you surely wouldn’t want to give the
impression that you destroy cities and villages,
the innocent and the guilty, indiscriminately.”
The next chapter of Genesis will help us to see that God did answer Abraham’s prayer. As a matter of fact, God did more than he had promised. Although there were not ten believers in Sodom, God did rescue Lot and his family.
While Abraham was pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah, the inhabitants of those cities were going about their everyday business, blithely unconcerned about the danger that threatened them (Luke Chapter 17, verses 28 and 29), totally unaware that within 24 hours a firestorm of divine judgment would consume them.
Abraham knew that God’s sovereignty is not blind necessity. God lets himself be “overcome” by the prayers of his children (Chapter 32, verses 26 through 28). God actually condescends to take our prayers into consideration as he rules the world. He did so here.