Monday, June 19, 2017

Genesis 15 - "Abram Assured and Re-assured"

If you are like me, then I suspect that you have times in your life when you need assurance and re- assurance that you are indeed doing the right thing or whether you are on the right road. Often we tend to become anxious and fearful of the future in the light of present developments. Those can be dangerous times, depending who we are listening to. The Bible always directs us seek God and His Word. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God” (James 1:5). In the Christian ministry I have often needed to ask the Lord for assurance as to whether I was doing the right thing, and in doing so I have needed to search His Word. The counsel of Christian friends and colleagues who have drawn my attention to the Word of God in various matters has been invaluable.   

In the text before us we have a situation in which we find Abram in such a position, and the situation arises as a result of the happenings in Chapter 14 and even before that! Let’s take a step back and take it from the beginning. We had met Abram in Chapter 12. He was a pagan man from Ur in Mesopotamia. God, the true God and Creator of the Universe did the unthinkable and spoke to him and revealed Himself to him. He said to Abram, “Leave your  country and your family to go to a land which I will show you.” We are not told how it was that the LORD spoke, but it was such a powerful encounter that there was no doubt in Abram’s mind that the LORD God had spoken.

Abram’s move to the Promised Land would, however, not be without its challenges. We now must also remember that he is a descendant of Adam, whose original sin has affected the spiritual DNA of his entire offspring.  Abram leaves Ur, by God’s command and by His promise of blessing, but he also leaves Ur as a fallen man, and it is going to show.
We see these two sides of Abram’s nature, portrayed in Chapter 12.  One side portrays the real faith which he has in the God who has called him and who is going before him to the Promised Land [2:1-9]. The other side portrays his faithlessness, when upon arrival he faces a drought in Canaan. Instead of trusting God to provide, he is moved by   fear, anxiety, doubt and this causes him to go to Egypt for help. There he encounters   even more severe challenges, when he almost loses his wife and even his life [12:10-20]. Were it not for God’s sovereign love and grace to Abram, he would have never escaped from Egypt.

Chapters 13 and 14 are beautiful chapters as we see Abram resolutely trusting in his God. He makes a  good decision as to where he should live in the promised  land, while his nephew Lot  makes  a disastrous decision, based on what his eyes and his heart desire. He chooses to live close to the fallen world of Sodom. When Lot is taken captive and carried away   by an invading army, Abram, full of faith rescues him with the help of his God against an overwhelming army.  This remarkable victory does not go unrecognised, particularly by Melchizedek [1] the king of (Jeru) Salem, one of the many kings of a city state in that area. In the book of Hebrews we see that he prefigures the Lord Jesus Christ as a prophet- priest-king. Melchizedek recognizes a kindred spirit in Abram, and Abram does the same, as he pays homage to this king of Salem, in the giving of a tithe of everything that he had.  

Chapter 15 starts with these words, ”…after these things the Word of the LORD came to Abram.”  What things?  The reference is obviously to the recent wars in Chapter 14.  War has a very unsettling effect on people, creating anxiety about the future.  Am I going to be safe here? Does my family have a future here?  Abram’s greater concern however  relates to his family’s  future, with regard to his childless status: “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless… behold you have given me no offspring…” [vv.2, 3]. There is as yet no physical offspring to make this promise come true.  At this stage, the arrangement is for Eliezer of Damascus, a son born in his home, whom he had adopted, to be the heir.  Abram in his mind has  much reason  to be worried about  the promise of God.

This is the first time in the Bible that the oft repeated and majestic phrase is used, the Word of the LORD came to Abram…”.  When we are anxious the most reassuring voice is the voice of the Father. And so, Abram need not fear! The God who is faithful to His promises is directing Abram’s heart with certainty and progressively, and while He does this, He is teaching Abram many lessons along the way.  God does not dump His purposes on us all at one time. God is leading Abram, step by step. Our journey with God is designed for one step at a time, and always accompanied by faith in the promises of God. “Fear not Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  [v.1]   And God comes to him with the reassurance that His promise first given in Chapter 12 will stand. He will have his very own son [v. 4] and through him his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of the sky [v.5].  As a result of this   we read, “And he believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness” [v.6].  The first hurdle is overcome.  By faith in the  Word of God  his anxiety is settled. The apostle Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3  explains  and establishes  the great doctrine of  “justification by faith alone” on this  text.

In verse 7 we find the second hurdle. God also promised Abram that he would possess a land as his inheritance. [v.7] The recent conflict in the Jordan valley   has raised for him some serious questions about his future.    Again, Abram anxiously asks the LORD: “How am I to know that I will possess it?”   
The answer comes by way of another strong assurance from God.

God reminds him again, that He has brought him here from Ur.  [v.7]. God had brought him from that land of idols, from the kingdom of darkness, so to speak,   into this place where he will bless him and his descendants.   God cannot lie. He cannot go back on His words, but Abram struggles, and the typical manifestations of our fallen nature in such matters are, as already  indicated, doubt and anxiety. These are ultimately rooted in unbelief. We do not trust God to be true. This is a typical sin associated with the fall. There is very little difference between the doubts which the devil sows into the mind of Eve, “Has God really said?” [Gen. 3:1] and the doubt that Abram expresses here: “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”   The fact is that God has promised this to him at the very beginning [Gen. 12:2,3]  of his encounter with him.
O the grace and the patience of our God!  Knowing his weakness, God is willing  to bear with him and  provide   Abram  with more assurance.  He begins with these weighty words:  “I am the LORD.” [v.7] We hear these words again  in Exodus 6:2,6,8  and 20:2  in the context of the   giving of the 10  commandments, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the  house of slavery”.  I Am is here. Do not fear!  God is about to establish a strong bond, a covenant with Abram to provide Him with the needed assurance for the future.  Remember that Abram did not have  the full revelation that you and I  have,   living  as people  under the  full revelation of the New Covenant by which we have been made secure  with God  by the Holy Spirit  through  the knowledge  of Jesus’ death on the cross, for us! 

So, how did the assurance come?  In a way which Abram would have understood! A covenant!
God tells Abram to bring to him a three year old heifer, a three year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon [v.9].  Abram slaughters the animals and cuts them in half (except the birds) and lays the pieces opposite to one another.  This all is deeply significant.  Blood is to be shed, depicting the seriousness of this transaction!  Only clean, mature,   animals were to be used in this process, ranging from a heifer to a pigeon. The dove and the pigeon were included because the sacrifices must be within the reach of all.   But the cutting of the animal sacrifices is particularly significant, because it underlies the symbolism of covenant.  The Hebrew   idiom for making a covenant can be better translated as “cutting a covenant”.  In the ancient Near East   such covenants were common,  and the parties to such a covenant would walk between the pieces  of carcass and say to each other , “As it is to these animals , so it will be to me and to you if we break the terms of this covenant.”  Making a covenant was the strongest form of assurance in the Ancient Near East. It was thought of as unbreakable.  And so here, God was saying to Abram that by this act, He was absolutely committing Himself to Abram’s future in terms of the land.

The unclean birds  of prey that  wanted  to come  down on the carcasses [v.11]  are pertinent reminders   that the terms of the covenant,  and the people  of the covenant  are forever attacked  by evil, unclean forces, and it is a tiring  battle to keep these away .  Abram fell asleep, probably from exhaustion, and a dreadful and great darkness fell on him. [v12] Many of God’s people, in their battle to remain faithful to God in the midst of life’s trials have experienced the dark night of the soul, and again I remind you that it is only the God who calls you, who keeps you in such times! But when you have come through these times you will have found yourself to having been greatly strengthened in your assurance by this experience.

In the midst of the darkness comes the prophetic assurance of v. 13: “Know for certain…. God shows Abram a panorama of the history of his descendants.  He shows him that they would have to endure a four hundred year exile. This points forward to the times of the Exodus under Moses, when they had to suffer slavery in Egypt, and when  God was refining them and preparing them for the Promised land. They would learn that by suffering they would inherit the kingdom of God. But they would leave that   land and when they left, God promised Abram that they would come out with great possessions.  Abram would not see that day. He would have died years before in a good old age. Abram himself would not see that day, but the fourth generation would, and they would come out of Egypt, as numerous as sand on the seashore.   And  God is doing so much more than our simple minds can fathom. 
The Amorites, the people of the land of Canaan  in the meantime would be piling up their sins and iniquities (Behold the patience of God towards  sinners!), and then Abram’s descendants would return under Joshua as God’s instruments of wrath upon Canaan, and the land would be theirs. 

Thank God   then, that our days, that history , that the future  are in His hands.  There is nothing more reassuring  than that !

The 15th  Chapter of Genesis  is  a key chapter  in the Bible, containing key  Bible doctrines : 

·          Strong emphasis on the doctrine of  Assurance,  which is rooted in the promises of God.  Twice in this chapter God answers Abram’s  fundamental questions  concerning his future.
·         Strong teaching on the nature  of  justification by faith, a key doctrine in the Bible by which we are reminded  that the faith by  which we  are justified  is possible , because of God’s prior working  in our life. Abram was called. That calling showed itself in a corresponding  faith in God, which  proved him to be a righteous and therefore a justified  man.
·         A strong reminder of the unbreakable nature  of the covenant. For the Christian the New Covenant in Christ’s blood   speaks of a better  covenant, since this  covenant is sealed  in the blood of the Son of God , who loved us and who gave Himself for us.
·         A strong reminder  that  our confidence in God is continuously assaulted and sometimes severely battered.
·         A strong reminder that  history and future is in God’s hands.  God tells  Abram accurately what must happen to his  people. 

[1] Lit.  “King of righteousness”

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