We’ve been thinking about the story of Abram for several weeks now. First of all, we saw in chapter 12 how God called Abram to leave his father’s household and to go to the land the Lord was going to show him. And God promised to make him into a great nation. And he promised that all nations of the world would be blessed through one of his offspring. And he promised to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan. It would be their home.
Then we saw how Abram went down to Egypt because there was a famine in the land of Canaan. But in Egypt, the Pharaoh took Abram’s wife, Sarai, for himself. But the Lord rescued Sarai from the hands of the Pharaoh and Abram and Sarai were allowed to go free.
Then, in chapter 13, we read how Abram and his nephew Lot had to separate because the land could not support all of their livestock. And after Lot left to take possession of what seemed to be the best land, the Lord spoke to Abram and repeated his promise to him that he was going to give to Abram and his descendants all the land he could see and that Abram’s offspring would be so numerous they’d be like the dust of the earth. Abram would have so many descendants, they couldn’t be counted.
In chapter 14, we read that a war started between two groups of kings; and Lot — who was now living near the city of Sodom — got caught up in it. But Abram came to the rescue. As soon as he heard what had happened to his nephew, he gathered an army together and went to rescue him. And afterwards, Melchizedek — the priest and king of Jerusalem — came out and blessed Abram.
And then, in chapter 15, we read how God spoke to Abram again and once again repeated his promise to give Abram many descendants:
Can you count the stars? No, there’s too many of them. So shall your offspring be.
And then the Lord made a covenant with Abram. Do you remember? He told Abram to get a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon. And Abram cut the animals in two and laid all the pieces in two rows. And then, the Lord — in the form of a smoking brazier and a flaming torch — walked down between the two rows. And by doing so, the Lord was saying to Abram:
I swear it. I swear that I will give you the Promised Land. I will do whatever it takes and if I don’t, may I be cut in two like these animals.
And then, last time, when we were studying Genesis 16, we saw that while Abram and Sarai believed God’s promise to them about having many descendants, nevertheless they thought his promise would be fulfilled through natural means. And so, Sarah promised that Abram should start a family with her servant, Hagar. But what they didn’t realise is that God was going to keep his promise to them through supernatural means.
So, again and again God made these promises to Abram: He’ll have many descendants and they’ll take possession of the Promised Land. And we’ve seen that one one level, God was talking about the Jewish people and the land of Israel. But on another level, he was talking about the church of Jesus Christ because all who share Abram’s faith are regarded as his spiritual descendants. And all who share Abram’s faith will one day take possession of the Promised Land of Eternal Life. All of God’s promises to Abram speak to us of the great hope that God has given to us and to all who share Abram’s faith.
Well, as we turn now to chapter 17, let me ask you to imagine a wedding scene in a church. The bride and groom are standing before the minister who asks the groom to answer the following question:
Do you take this woman to be your wedded wife, and do you, in the presence of God and before this congregation, promise and covenant to be unto her a loving, faithful and dutiful husband, until God shall separate you by death.
And then he turns to the bride and asks her the same question:
Do you take this man to be your wedded husband, and do you, in the presence of God and before this congregation, promise and covenant to be unto him a loving, faithful and dutiful wife, until God shall separate you by death.
These words are familiar to anyone who has been at a wedding. And what’s interesting are the words:
promise and covenant to be.
People often say that the only difference between a couple living together and a couple being married is a piece of paper: the marriage certificate. But that’s not true. The difference is that in marriage, the husband and wife have taken part in a covenant-making ceremony in which they make promises to one another. They say: I promise to be a loving, faithful and dutiful husband. I promise to be a loving, faithful and dutiful wife. And I promise to be this to you for the rest of my natural life so that I will remain your husband/wife until I die. It’s that promise that makes all the difference and the fact that these solemn promises are made to one another makes the wedding a covenant-making ceremony. A covenant is a solemn promise and when a couple are married they bind themselves to one another by a promise.
Well, in Genesis 17 we have another covenant-making ceremony. God appeared to Abram and said that he was going to make a covenant with Abram. That’s in verse 2. And the promises are set out for us in verses 4 to 8:
I will make you very fruitful so that you will be the father of many nations and I will give you and your descendants after you the Promised Land of Canaan.
Now, maybe some of you are thinking:
I’ve heard all of this before. Didn’t God make these same promises in chapter 12? Didn’t God make a covenant with Abram in chapter 15? Why does God keep repeating the same promises over and over?
So, why did God keep repeating the same promises to Abram? Well, think of it this way. Every year on Valentine’s Day, lots of men and women like to remind one another of their love for each other. Though someone knows that their spouse loves them, they still like to hear those words, ‘I love you’ over and over again. It’s re-assuring and it’s comforting and it’s important to us. And when God made these promises to Abram over and over and over again, he was doing something similar. God was reminding Abram of his goodwill to Abram, and his interest in him, and his commitment to him. It’s as if he was saying to Abram:
I promise to give you this land, I really do. I promise to give you this land, I really do. I promise to give you this land, I really do. I’m still committed to you. I’m still committed to giving you this land. I made those promises to you before and I still mean every single word that I spoke to you.
It was re-assuring for Abram and it was comforting and encouraging. And Abram needed those re-assurances, because it must have seemed to Abram and Sarai that God was taking a really long, long time to do what he had promised to do for them. And so, from time to time, Abram needed God to re-assure him. He needed to know that God hadn’t forgotten him.
Husbands and wives like to be reminded that after all these years, you still love me. And Abram needed to be reminded that after all these years, God will still committed to him and committed to keeping his promise.
So, how long has it been? How much time has passed between the chapter 12 and chapter 17? For us, studying these chapters, it’s only been a few weeks. But in chapter 12 Abram was 75 years old. And in chapter 17 he’s 99 years old. I’m sure you can do the maths, but just in case you can’t, let me tell you that 24 years have passed. Twenty four years since God first made his promise to Abram. Abram and Sarai have had a long wait. And even though 24 years have now passed, there’s still no sign of a son. But the Lord did not leave Abram without any word of encouragement. From time to time, he appeared to him and repeated the same promises to him as if to say to him:
I know it’s been a long time. But I haven’t forgotten my promise to you. I’m still committed to doing everything I said I would do.
But, you know, there’s one more important thing to note about the promises God made to Abram in chapter 17. Yes, he repeated that Abram would be so fruitful that nations would come from him. Yes, he repeated that he will give the Promised Land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. But he added something new. Look at verse 7. He said:
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.
God was promising Abram:
I will be your God.
Now, think back to the wedding. The groom promised the bride:
I will be your husband.
The bride promised the groom:
I will be your wife.
And in Genesis 17 we see God saying to Abram:
I promise you: I will be your God and the God of your descendants. I’m committed to you. I’m binding myself to you and to your family for ever.
Do you see? Over time God was revealing more and more of his covenant to Abram. Back in Genesis 12 he made certain promises. Then in chapter 15, he repeated the promises in the form of a covenant. Now in chapter 17 he revealed a little bit more and he told Abram that by this covenant he was binding himself to Abram to be his God. So as time moved on, God revealed a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more. And God continues to work like that right throughout the Bible, revealing a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more of his plans and purposes to give eternal life to his people. And as we go through the Bible we see a little bit more of what the significance of this is, that God should bind himself to Abram and to his descendants. You see, years later, when Abram’s descendants have come into the Promised Land and made their home there, we see how they turned away from God. You know: They believed the lie that they did not need God. And so they turned to other gods and to idols and they disobeyed God’s laws and commandments and they refused to do his will. Again and again and again we see this. First of all, in the days of the Judges. And then we see it again in the days of the Kings. We see how the people turned away from God and were unfaithful towards him. And finally, at the end of 2 Kings the unfaithfulness and the sin of the people became so great that God sent them into exile. Foreign armies invaded the Promised Land and they ransacked Jerusalem and they led God’s people away into captivity. And so we read about God’s people in exile in the books of Esther and Daniel. Because of their persistent sin, God had driven them out of the Promised Land.
And you read this and you might ask yourself:
Didn’t God bind himself by a promise to Abram and to his descendants to be their God?
Well, now that they’re in exile: what about God’s promise to them? Has God broken his promise to be their God? And the answer is no: not at all. You see, as we read on in the Bible, we discover that eventually God forgave the sin of his people and brought them back to the Promised Land. He promised Abram that he would be Abram’s God and the God of his descendants. And though Abram’s descendants were unfaithful, though they disobeyed God again and again, though they turned to idols to worship them, God remained committed to his people. And he forgave them. And he brought them back.
And that’s the promise of the gospel. Through faith in Jesus Christ we’re reconciled to God so that he becomes our God and we become his people. And like the Israelites in the Old Testament, we continue to sin against him. We continue to break his laws and we disobey his commandments. Instead of loving and trusting him above all other things, we love and trust other things. We keep turning away from him and we break his laws again and again and again. So when we come to church every Sunday we have to confess our sins, because we know that every day we sin against God. We’re just like Abram’s descendants in the Old Testament who continued to sin. And yet, here’s the thing: In the gospel God has promised to be our God. He’s committed himself to us. He’s committed to bringing us into the Promised Land of Eternal Life. And so, though we are unfaithful to him, he remains faithful to us. Though we turn away from him, he remains committed to us. And though we continue to sin against him, day by day, week by week, year by year, he promises to keep forgiving our sins, again and again and again whenever we come and confess them to him. He continues to forgive us again and again and again for the sake of Christ who died for us.
Look how Genesis 17 begins. God said to Abram:
Walk before me and be blameless.
But Abram was never blameless. Never. And neither are we. Some of us can think of the privileges we’ve had, and the good homes we’ve come from, and the godly example of our parents, and how from our earliest years we known of Christ and we’ve been taught from our mother’s knee about the goodness of God. And yet, despite all the privileges we have received, we continue to sin against God and to disobey him. None of us is blameless. But in the gospel God has promised to be our God for ever and he has promised to forgive our sins again and again and again. Never will I leave you, he says. Never will I forsake you. For better, for worse, I am your God.
God was making a wonderful promise to Abram in this chapter. And we read in this chapter how God promised that Sarai, his wife, would bear him a son. And he promised her that she would be the mother of nations, with kings coming from her. And their names are changed to reflect what God has promised: Abram would become ‘Abraham’ which means: ‘Father of many’. And Sarai would become ‘Sarah’ which means ‘Princess’. These are wonderful promises to them. But God then commanded Abraham to do something. In verses 9 and 10 God commanded Abram to circumcise himself and every male in his household, including Ishmael (his son by Hagar), all his servants, and every male who is born in his household. And (verse 12 tells us) they are to continue to circumcise their children down through the generations.
And we scratch our heads and wonder:
Why? Why did God wants Abram to do this?
Well, verse 11 tells us:
You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.
Circumcision was to be a sign of the covenant. By this covenant, God promised to be Abram’s God and the God of his descendants after him. And so, Abram and all his descendants after him were to receive circumcision as a sign of the covenant which God had made with them in Genesis 17.
Now, we’ve thought about the purposes of signs before; and so this should be familiar to you. From time to time in the OT, God provided signs. For instance, after the flood God placed the rainbow in the sky as a sign. When God asked Gideon to lead the Israelites in battle against the Philistines, Gideon asked for a sign and God gave it. Do you remember? Gideon put a fleece outside at night and once God kept the fleece dry and the ground around it was wet with dew; and the next night the reverse took place: the ground was dry, but the fleece was wet. Then, in the days of King Hezekiah, God caused the sun’s shadow to go backwards as a sign for the King.
Now what was the purpose of these signs? Well, in each case it was a sign to confirm God’s promises. In the case of the rainbow, it was a sign of God’s promise never again to send a flood to destroy the whole world. In the case of Gideon’s fleece, it was a sign of God’s promise that God would save Israel from their enemies by Gideon’s hand. The sign for Hezekiah was to confirm God’s promise to preserve the king’s life and to deliver the Israelites from the Assyrian army. In each case, God makes a promise and confirmed his promise by giving a sign, as if to say to his people in each case:
There you are. That seals it!
And we see the same thing in the NT. In Luke 7, some of John the Baptiser’s followers came to Jesus and asked him:
Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else. We’re not sure if you’re the Promised Messiah. How can we know?
And do you remember what the Lord Jesus said in reply? He said:
Go back to John and report what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured and so on.
In other words, what the Lord Jesus was saying is that the miracles he performed were signs to confirm that he was the Promised Messiah. God provides us with signs to confirm what he has promised.
And so back to Genesis 17. God had made this covenant, this solemn promise to Abram:
I will be your God.
And as a sign to confirm the promise, Abram and his descendants after him were circumcised. So, from that time on, every Israelite grew up, knowing that the God of Abram was his God too; that just as God was committed to Abram, so God was committed to him; that as God bound himself to Abram, so God had bound himself to Abram’s offspring. And we can imagine one of the Jews asking himself:
Can it really be true? Can it really be true that God is committed to me?
And then he looked down at his body and he saw the sign of the covenant and he was able to say to himself:
Of course! The sign seals it. God has promised it and it’s true.
So, think of those Israelites like Ezra and Nehemiah and Daniel who had been taken off into captivity, far away from the Promised Land of Canaan. Driven into exile because the people persistently sinned against God. And we can imagine them thinking:
God must be so angry with us. He’s so angry that’s he’s given us up to our enemies. We’ve sinned against him and know we’ve got what we deserved. But is there no hope for us? Has he cut us off for ever?
And then they see the sign on their very own bodies and they are reminded of God’s promise that he would be Abram’s God and the God of Abram’s descendants. And the sign seals it. The sign confirms it. And they know that there is hope. God will not abandon them. He will not cast them off for ever. He has bound himself to them and he will not leave them or forsake them. The sign tells them that God is their God and he will save them. So they ought to keep trusting in him.
Do you see how valuable this covenant sign was? It was given to comfort the people and to encourage them and to remind them that they could continue to rely on God because God had promised to be their God. It gave them hope whenever everything around them seemed hopeless.
Now, wouldn’t it be great if God could give us a sign like that? In the gospel, God promises to be our God. For the sake of Jesus Christ, who lived and died for us, God promises to forgive all that we have ever done wrong and to give us eternal life. But when we look at ourselves, we see our sin and our guilt and our shortcomings. We see that we’re just like the Israelites who continually disobeyed God. Again and again, I resolve to be a better Christian. I’m determined to be more faithful and more obedient and more committed. But I keep messing up. So wouldn’t it be great if God gave us a sign to confirm his promise that despite our sins and shortcomings, he’s still prepared to forgive us and to be our God? Wouldn’t it be great to have a sign like the Israelites had?
Or people will say:
If only God would reveal himself to me, then I’ll believe in him. How can I believe in a God I can’t see? Give me a sign and then I’ll believe! A sign would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?
Well, in fact, God has given us not one, but two signs. He’s given us baptism. And he’s given us the Lord’s Supper. We come to church on Sundays, conscious of how we have let ourselves down and we’ve let God down. We’ve messed up and we’ve said things we shouldn’t have said. And we’ve done things we shouldn’t have done. We know there are other things we ought to have done, but we didn’t do them. We know we ought to love God more than we do. We should have treated our families differently. We shouldn’t have said those things to that person we work with. And we come to church and we know that what we deserve from God is nothing less than condemnation. We’ve broken his laws. Even when we’ve tried to be the best we can be, we’ve still fallen short. And we think to ourselves:
One of these days, God is going to give up on me.
But then, we come to church, and a child is being baptised. And this baptism is a sign which speaks to us of God’s promise to wash away all our sins. God has promised — for the sake of Jesus Christ his Son who died to pay for all our sins — to wash away all my guilt. We see a baptism taking place — or we remember that once our parents brought us to church to be baptised — and we remember what God has promised to do for each one of his people. The water of baptism confirms God’s promise. It says to every believer:
God has promised to forgive you. God has promised to forgive you. God has promised to wash away all your sins. He has promised to forgive you. He is still your God.
That’s one sign. Then there’s the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper. We take the bread and we drink from the cup and the Lord’s Supper speaks to us and it says to every believer:
For the sake of Jesus Christ — whose body was broken for you and whose blood was shed for you — for the sake of Jesus Christ who died for you, God promises to give you eternal life.
God has promised it; and by this sign he confirms it to you.
Wherever we go, we’ll meet people who are only too glad to point out our faults and our shortcomings. They bring up the things we’ve done which were wrong. In the heat of an argument, someone brings up something we did in the past. People at work will point out to others all the ways we have messed up and they’ll talk about us behind our back. And from time to time, when we’ve had enough, we’ll react and we’ll try to defend ourselves and makes excuses for what we’ve done. We’ll try to cover up our mistakes. Or we’ll go on the offensive and criticise the other person and point out their faults. Or we’ll try our best to make up for our past mistakes, but still knowing deep down that nothing can make up for the past. Wherever we go, we’ll meet people who remind us of our faults and our shortcomings.
But when we come to church, what does God want to remind us of? What does he want to convince his broken-hearted people of? That he is still our God; and that — through Jesus Christ — we are forgiven all that we have ever done wrong. He wants to re-assure us that he does not hold our sins against us. And just as he gave Abram and his descendants the sign of circumcision to re-assure them, so he gives us signs to re-assure us and to comfort us and to say to us:
My child, I remember your sins no more.