We spent our time last week thinking about the promises God made to Abram and especially his promise to make him into a great nation and his promise to give him and his descendants a land and his promise to bless all the peoples on earth through Abram. And do you remember that I said that these promises are fulfilled in two ways. First of all, they’re fulfilled in an earthly, ordinary and provisional way. And secondly, they’re fulfilled in a spiritual, greater and eternal way.
So, God promised to make Abram into a great nation. A great nation would come from him. In other words, he would have many, many descendants. So many descendants they can’t be counted. And that has been fulfilled in an earthly, ordinary and provisional way in the nation of Israel. Abram had a son, Isaac. Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. And from Jacob there came the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Just as God promised, a great nation came from Abram.
However, that same promise is fulfilled in a spiritual, greater and eternal way because the Lord was also talking about the church and to everyone who shares the faith of Abram. And these spiritual descendants of Abram are filling the earth. They’re everywhere. And so, God’s promise to Abram is true: Abram’s spiritual descendants are like a great nation because there are so many of them that they cannot be counted.
And promised Abram and his descendants a land. He was going to show Abram a land and give it to him and all his descendants after him. And sure enough, in the days of Joshua, God brought the Israelites through the River Jordan and into the Promised Land of Canaan. And he helped them to take over that land and to settle there. And so, God fulfilled his promise to Abram in this earthly, ordinary and provisional way.
But his promise to Abram of a land is also spiritual and greater and eternal, because he was also talking about the Promised Land of Heaven. That’s what Abram was longing for. That’s what he was waiting for. God promised him a land and Abram was looking forward to taking possession of the Promised Land of Heaven.
God kept his promise to Abram in an earthly way in the nation of Israel and in the Promised land of Canaan. But he was also promising to build his church on the earth and to bring all his believing people into their eternal home in heaven.
And, of course, when God promised to bless all the peoples on the earth through Abraham, he was referring to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Abram’s seed — his offspring — is Jesus Christ. And all who believe in him are blessed by God, because he gives them the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life.
But I also said last week that God’s promises to Abram in this chapter are similar to God’s command to Adam and Noah in previous chapters. God commanded Adam to be fruitful and fill the earth. He was to fill the earth with men and women and boys and girls who would love the Lord and who would bring glory and honour to him. But Adam failed to do that, because he sinned.
And God then commanded Noah to do the same. But he too failed, because he too was a sinner.
And so, in Genesis 12, the Lord spoke to Abram. But he didn’t command Abram to increase in number and fill the earth. Instead, he made a promise to Abram. He said to Abram:
I promise that I’m going to make you into a great nation to that your descendants will be so many that will fill the earth.
God promised Abram that he was going to do for him what Adam and Noah were commanded to do, but which they couldn’t do. So, God said to Abram:
I will do it and I will do it through you and through one of your descendants, Jesus Christ.
And so, in due course, in fulfilment of his promise to Abram, God sent his Son into the world who lived and died and rose again and who, from his throne in heaven, is now extending his church north and south and east and west so that the earth is being filled with those who love the Lord and want to glorify his name.
And what has started now, in this life, will be completed when Christ the Saviour returns and all of God’s believing people will fill heaven and together we will praise and magnify the Lord for ever and ever.
What God commanded Adam and Noah to do, he was now intending to do himself through Abram’s seed, Jesus Christ.
So, that was last week. Today I want to begin by getting us to think about the impossibility of God’s promise. What God was promising Abram was impossible. At least, it must have seemed impossible to Abram. And from a human point of view, it was impossible. But, of course, nothing is impossible for God.
So, what do I mean by the impossibility of God’s promise. Well, God was promising to make Abram into a great nation. He would have lots and lots and lots of descendants. That was God’s promise to him. But look back for a moment to chapter 11. Do you see what it says about Sarai, his wife, in verse 30. In verse 30, we’re told that Sarai was barren. And just in case the reader doesn’t know what that means, or just in case the reader missed it or skipped over it, Moses repeated it. He wrote:
She had no children.
So, Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren. She had no children. Now, in verse 4 of chapter 12, we’re told that Abram was already 75 years old. Sarai wasn’t much younger than him. They’d been married for years and were without children. And so, that’s what I mean by referring to the impossibility of God’s promise. He was going to make Abram into a great nation, with lots and lots and lots of descendants. But Abram didn’t even have one descendant and it looked as if his wife couldn’t have any.
Of course, this is not the only place in the Bible where we read how God gave children to women who were barren. There was Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, who was also barren; but Isaac prayed to the Lord and eventually she had twins. Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was also barren for a long time; but eventually she gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin. Then there was Hannah: Remember how she couldn’t have children and how upset she was about it? But then the Lord heard her prayer and she gave birth to Samuel. Samson’s mother was also barren for a time. And in the New Testament, we read about Zechariah and Elizabeth and how old Elizabeth was when she finally conceived and gave birth to John the Baptiser. We have all these stories of married woman who went for years without having children. But then — when all seemed loss — the Lord helped them and they finally managed to have a child.
And, of course, the final example of this kind of thing is the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. But on that occasion, it wasn’t a barren woman who had a child. This time is was a virgin who conceived and had a child.
You see, nothing is impossible to the Lord. He can do what seems impossible to us. And from a human point of view, it may have seemed impossible that Abram and Sarai would ever have even one son, let alone countless numbers of descendants. But nothing is impossible to the Lord.
And what else? Well, the Lord promised Abram a land. He was going to give him the Promised Land. But hold on. Look at verse 6: We’re told that Abram travelled through the land; but at that time the Canaanites were in the land. Now, do you see the problem? God was going to give Abram this land. But the Canaanites were already there. How would Abram and his descendants take over the land when the land was already in the hands of the Canaanites? From a human point of view, it must have seemed impossible. What could Abram and his servants do against all these Canaanites? But nothing is impossible for the Lord.
And, of course, you know how Abram’s story unfolds. Abram did have a son. And from that son came a great nation. And Abram’s descendants were able to take over the land from the Canaanites. You see, God is able to do the impossible. So, look at verse 7. The Lord appeared to Abram and said to him:
To your offspring [but Abram didn’t have any!] I will give this land [the land occupied by the Canaanites at that time!].
It may have seemed impossible, but the Lord was able to do exactly what he promised. Nothing is too hard for him.
Well, I think we can apply this personally to our own lives, because often we find ourselves in situations that seem impossible to us. We don’t know what we’re going to do and how we’re going to get out of the predicament we’ve got ourselves in to. The way out seems blocked to us. Isn’t that what we feel from time to time? We find ourselves in that kind of difficult, seemingly impossible, situation. What are we going to do? And it’s in situations like that — situations that seem impossible to us — that we need to remember that there is nothing too hard for the Lord. We can look to him and seek from him the help we need, because though there’s nothing we can do ourselves, it’s not too hard for him. God promised to make Abram into a great nation. How? It’s impossible. But it wasn’t to God. God promised to give Abram a land. How? It’s impossible. But it wasn’t to God. We need to remember and believe that nothing is too hard for the Lord.
And that leads me on to the second main point this evening. And it’s Abram’s faith. God appeared to him and called him to leave his country and his people and his father’s house. And God promised to make him into a great nation. And he promised to give him a land. And God promised to bless all peoples on the earth through him. And in verse 4, we’re told that Abram left just as the Lord had told him. And, of course, he did just as the Lord had told him because he believed what God had said. He believed that God would make him into a great nation. And he believed that God would give him a land. He believed that God would bless all peoples. He believed what God said to him. And because he believed what God said to him, he did what God commanded him to do.
Contrast what Abram did in Genesis 12 with what Adam and Eve did. God had said to them in the Garden of Eden:
You’re free to eat from any tree in the garden except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. You can help yourself to the fruit from any tree, except that one tree — because when you eat of it you will surely die.
But then the Tempter came along and said to Eve:
You will not surely die. Don’t believe God. Don’t believe what God has said. Listen to me.
And Eve — instead of believing what God had said — believed what the Tempter had said. And she took the forbidden fruit. And so did Adam. Do you see? They disobeyed God because they didn’t believe his word. But when God said to Abram, ‘Leave your father’s home, for this is what I’m going to do for you’, Abram believed what God said. And so did what he commanded. He’s an example to us of someone who believed God and his promises.
And so, what are we to do when we face impossible situations? What are we to do when we don’t know what else to do? Well, we’re to trust in the Lord and we’re to look to him to help us just as he has promised.
And what a relief that is! What a relief! When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, or when God puts us in a difficult situation, what’s he looking for from us? Someone who is smart enough and can find a solution? Someone who is strong enough and can force their way out of trouble? You know, you see these programmes on TV where someone is faced with some kind of problem. Are they smart enough to figure it out? Is that what God is looking for from us? Well, if he were, then we’d be in trouble, because everyday we find ourselves frustrated by life’s circumstances and we don’t know what to do. So, what a relief. The Lord is not looking for intelligence and ingenuity and creativity and flair. He’s looking for faith. He’s looking for people who know they can’t do it on their own and who look to him for help.
God was going to make Abram into a great nation. How? God was going to give him a land. How? God was going to bless all peoples through him. How? Abram didn’t know. But he believed what the Lord said. And that’s what we’re to do as well.
Pilgrimage and worship
Well now, let’s move on now to consider the life Abram lived at that time. So, look at verses 6 to 9. We’re told he travelled through the land. And the Lord appeared to him and re-assured him with another promise. And then he built an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him. And then we read how he went on a bit farther and pitched his tent. And he built another altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord. In other words, he called on the name of the Lord in worship. He prayed to the Lord and praised him.
So, he pitched his tent and he built an altar. Now, another preacher I heard preaching on this passage mentioned that the tent and the altar are a good way to sum up the believer’s life. The tent reminds us that we’re pilgrims and we’re on our way to heaven. You know, so long as we live on the earth, we’re to enjoy all of God’s good gifts to us and we’re to give thanks to God for them. Nevertheless, we know that this life will come to an end. And we know that after this life, there’s another life. And this life is comparatively short. We’re here only for a few decades. If we make it to 90, we’re doing well. But the life to come is for ever.
So, we’re in the world. And we love it. And we give thanks to God for his good gifts. But we know that our life in this world will come to an end and then, for believers, there’s the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in the presence of God. And the tent sums that up, because a tent is a temporary home. It’s the ideal home for pilgrims who know they’re moving on. And believers are moving ever closer to heaven and to the presence of God. And that sums up Abram’s life as well because he was looking forward to entering the heavenly city which would be his eternal home.
So, the tent reminds us that we’re pilgrims and we’re on our way to heaven. And so, while we love this world, we know that there’s something even greater waiting for us in the life to come.
But then the altar reminds us that we’re to worship the Lord. And so, we’re to worship him publicly on Sundays. And we’re to worship him privately with our family at home. And we’re to worship him secretly, by ourselves, day by day. We’re to call on his name in prayer and we’re to confess our sins and we’re to seek his help.
Now, notice something important about Abram’s worship. We’ve already noticed verse 6 where it tells us that the Canaanites were in the land. Now, we generally don’t like to stand out from the crowd, do we? We like to blend in with the people around us and to do whatever everyone else is doing. If we’re going to a party, we want to know what everyone else is wearing so that we can dress appropriately. No one wants to dress up if everyone else is dressed casually. And no one wants to be dressed casually if everyone else is in a suit. We don’t want to stand out.
But while that’s okay for some things — like what to wear to a party — it’s not okay when it comes to worshipping the Lord. Abram could have said to himself:
I want to fit in here. I don’t want to stand out from the crowd. So, instead of worshipping the Lord, I’ll join the Canaanites and worship whichever god they’re worshipping.
He could have done that. But he didn’t. He built an altar to the Lord and he called on the name of the Lord. And when our young people go off to college, or when those who are older start a new job, there’s a temptation to join in and to do what everyone else is doing. You know:
No one here is a believer. Well, I don’t want to be seen as strange. I want to make friends here. I’ll just do whatever they’re doing.
How many people who once called on the name of the Lord have gone astray because they wanted to fit in with those around them. And instead of remaining faithful to the Lord, bit by bit they’re wandered further and further away from the Lord and his ways. And so, we need to remember Abram. Even though he was surrounded by the Canaanites who worshipped false gods, Abram refused to join them. He resisted the temptation to fit in with the people around him. He remained faithful to the Lord and he continued to worship the Lord who had called him.
The final thing to do this evening is to think about verses 10 to 20. In these verses we read how there was a famine in the land. And so Abram travelled down to Egypt. But he’s afraid that the Egyptians will murder him because of his wife, Sarai. You know, he’s afraid that, because she’s so beautiful, they’ll take her for themselves by killing him. And so, he devises a cunning plan: Sarai should say that she’s his sister — which was kind of true because she was his half-sister — and instead of killing him, they’ll be nice to him.
So, what are we to make of these verses? Well, lots of commentators take the view that here we have a failure to trust in the Lord. Instead of trusting in the Lord to provide for them in Canaan, Abram took matters into his own hands and ran down to Egypt. And, instead of trusting in the Lord to keep him safe, he took matters into his own hands and lied about Sarai. What we have is a failure to trust in the Lord. And remember what I said earlier? What does God look for in us? Not ingenuity and creativity. Not the ability to come up with cunning plans. What he’s looking for in us is faith. He wants to us to trust in him no matter what.
Well, that’s one way of looking at this passage. John Calvin takes a different view. He suggests that Abram was still trusting in God in this part of the story. Look at verse 10, for instance. The text tells us that Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while. Calvin argues that Abram believed that God was going to give his descendants the land of Canaan. He really believed that. And so, he assumed that his stay in Egypt was going to be brief. It was temporary. God would soon bring him back to the Promised Land. So, he believed.
And why did he lie about his wife? Because God had promised that through him — through Abram — God was going to bless all the nations. If that was true — and Abram believed it was true — then it was vital that he remain alive. He had to stay alive if God was going to fulfil his promise to bless all the nations through him. So, he misled the Egyptians about his relationship to Sarai because he believed God’s promise.
Calvin argues that Abram still believed God. Now, that doesn’t excuse the fact that he misled the Egyptians and he shouldn’t have put his wife in danger. Nevertheless, he still trusted in God’s promises.
So, most of the commentators argue that this story reveals Abram’s failure to trust in the Lord. Others, like Calvin, suggest that, through it all, Abram still believed in the Lord. For me, I think the point of the story is that it reminds us that God is in control. You see, Abram had gotten into trouble. There was a famine. He went to Egypt to find food. But he was afraid of the Egyptians: he knew that they would want to take his wife for themselves. He was afraid of them. And he was right to be afraid of them because they did take his wife. In the land of Egypt, he got into trouble.
But what about God’s promise to Abram? What about his promise to make Abram into a great nation? How was that going to happen if Abram’s wife was taken away from him? And what about God’s promise to give him the land of Canaan? How was that going to happen if Abram was stuck in Egypt? And what about God’s promise to bless all peoples through Abram and his offspring? How was that going to happen now that Sarai was separated from her husband? Would God’s plan to bring the Saviour into the world fail before it had even started? Were God’s promises to Abram going to come to nothing? Would his plan for our salvation end here, in Egypt? It seems that God’s plan was now frustrated and the history of our salvation was going to end here.
But look what happened. Verse 17: The Lord inflicted serious diseases on the Pharaoh and his household. We don’t know what kind of disease it was, but it had the desired effect, because not long afterwards Pharaoh gave Sarai back to Abram. And instead of punishing Abram, which the Pharaoh could have done, he simply told Abram to leave. And so, Abram and his wife were able to leave with all their possessions. They were keep safe and sound and they were free to leave Egypt.
This story reminds us that the Lord is in control. He rules over all. And so, when Abram and Sarai were in danger, and when it seemed that his plan for our salvation was going to come to nothing, God revealed that he was in control. He protected Sarai. He protected Abram. He re-united them and he delivered them from the Pharaoh. God was going to do everything necessary to protect them and guide them and all their descendants to ensure that when the time was right the Saviour would be born. And through him, he was going to bring salvation to the world.
And the application for us, personally, is to remember and believe that the Lord is in control of our lives. And whenever disaster seems to be looming, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to us, we can trust in him to watch over us and to help us. We can always look to him to help us. And even when he sends trouble and sorrow upon us in this troubled life, we should remember and believe that he’s in control and he will bring great good out of any evil we have to face.
So, that’s the application for us personally. But there’s an application here for the church. God’s great plan was not only to send his Son into the world, but it was to build his church upon the earth. He was going to send the Saviour. And he was also going to extend his church throughout the world. That was his two-part plan.
So, here in Genesis 12, he acted in such a way to ensure that Abram and Sarai would be kept safe so that, in time, the Saviour would be born. He acted to make sure that the first part of his plan would happen.
And so we can be confident that he will continue to act everyday to ensure that the second part of his plan happens too. Everyday he’s acting to ensure that his church will be extended throughout the world.
Now, we worry about the church. What can we do? There’s so much unbelief. So much indifference. So much opposition. So much decline. How can the church survive? Well, in Genesis 12, we’re reminded of the way the Lord is able to intervene and to act and to do whatever is necessary to ensure that his great plan of salvation for the world happens just as he has promised us. So, we should continue to trust in him and to look to him to do what he has promised and to build his church.