Monday, August 14, 2017

Genesis 17 - “Faithful God!”

God is utterly faithful to His people … even when our experience says otherwise.  And God, if He is our God requires us to be faithful.  We can be faithful to Him because He is first faithful to us. This is the great lesson before us this morning.

The biggest crisis in Abram and Sarai’s faith is that God has promised them an offspring and nothing appears to be happening.  Here is some perspective.  There are 13 years between chapters 16 and 17.We know this because Ishmael, born in Chapter 16 is now a 13 year old teenager (17:25).  Abram was 86 years old in 16:16 and he is now 99 old in 17:1,24.   Sarai is   90 years old (17:17).  Altogether it  has been  about 25 years since the LORD had first made a covenant promise to Abram and Sarai regarding a covenant offspring (12:1-3).  By now both knew that humanly speaking there was no chance for Sarai to conceive a child. We have seen in Chapter 16 that human scheming (Abram’s temporary lapse of faith) only made things worse.  Abram and Sarai began to entertain the thought that a covenant child could be produced by their own scheme.   Even in 17:18 we find Abram still bargaining with God, hoping somehow that Ishmael  might become  the future heir of the covenant.

But God had remained very quiet in those years between Chapters 16 and 17. There  were no  special appearances  and no further  assurances  with respect  to  the promise  of  an  offspring[1] .  One almost begins to wonder whether God was finished with Abram, following his great lack of faith in God’s promises in Chapter 16.  But God, who entered into a covenant with Abram in Chapter 12 is indeed faithful. He would not be quiet forever.  And so we read in 17:1,2

“When Abram was 99 years old  the LORD appeared   to Abram  and said to him: I am God Almighty (EL SHADDAI), walk before me and be blameless, that  I may make my covenant between me and  you , and  may  multiply you greatly.”

God had not forgotten Abram, and Abram’s faithlessness in Chapter 16 did not cause God to abandon him.  Quite on the contrary, God spoke again, and confirmed His covenant to Abram again.  In fact, covenant is a key word in this chapter. It’s a key word in the Bible. God’s faithfulness to you and I, rests on His New Covenant in Christ. The Covenant  is the most basic expression of God’s faithful character to us. It is powerfully seen in His dealings with Abram. Here in the 17th chapter, the word ‘covenant’ is mentioned 13 times. And God is committed as ever to fulfil His promise to Abram.

God’s silence in the life of a true believer must never be interpreted as a negative sign.  Just because God is not seen, heard or felt is not a sign that He is not there.   After I left my parent’s home, living in another city, there were long periods in which I did not hear from them nor speak to them. But I knew that they were there, and I knew that they were still my faithful parents!    

And we must not judge God’s faithfulness by our perception of time. God’s timing is clearly quite different to ours.  Peter reminds us   that for God a thousand years is like a day (2 Pet. 3:8). Whereas 25 years must have seemed like an eternity to Abram and Sarai, it wasn’t so for God. Impatience with God is the result of the fall, and has become one of our greatest enemies. Waiting on God is hard. It leads to making great mistakes because we are forever trying to formulate shortcuts to fulfil our desires.  It seems to me that our own generation driven by a culture of ‘instant gratification’ is exceptionally impatient. People want answers and solutions and they want them yesterday, and they want them according to their own imaginations and desires.  
But God knows what He is doing, and God is always on time: “ But when the fullness of time  had come , God  sent forth his Son...” (Gal. 4:4,5). Christianity is about long waiting. It took 2000 years after the promise was made to Abram for the Lord Jesus to come. Many in Israel,   for many years were longing for the Messiah’s  appearing (e.g. Lk 2:25,38; 1 Pet. 1:10),and even then many were not satisfied with His appearance.

If God is silent, there is a good reason. And if God has spoken once, He actually does not need to repeat Himself. This is especially true in Abram’s case. Babies are always a gift from God and many, many parents even in our day have had to wait for their gifts to arrive in God’s good time. Without God, Abram could do nothing to bring a covenant child into the world.  He tried, but look, where it got him. 

By grace, Abram’s faithful God appeared and He spoke to him again. This is the first time in the OT  that  God introduced Himself as EL SHADDAI ,  ‘God the Almighty’ – the God of the impossible, the  sovereign God , the God  who can suspend the laws of nature, and who can  make a woman bear a  baby in her nineties.  This God says to Abram, “walk before me and be blameless. Abram’s holy and faithful God requires him to be faithful and to be holy as He is holy (Lev.11:44; 1 Pet.1:16). Abram can walk blamelessly and upright before God, because the God who called him is also the God who equips him. “His divine power has granted to us all things  that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him  who called us  to his own glory and excellence.” (2 Pet.1:3). When a person becomes a believer, he is no longer a slave. He can choose to say ‘no’ to ungodliness, (though he may, like Abram also compromise).  But God calls us to be faithful, and it is our walk with God is the expression of our faith in Him.

17:2  “That  I may make my covenant  between me  and you , and may multiply you greatly.” In Abram’s mind there is still the thought that God might do this through Ishmael (17:18), but Abram’s thoughts are not God’s thoughts. God’s thoughts are bound to His  covenant and central to these covenant thoughts   for Abram is  a child called  Isaac,   born  of the covenant marriage  between Abram and Sarai (17:19)

17:3:  “Then Abram fell on his face” (see also 17:17). See Abram’s response - a mixture of worship and fear and disbelief – “Shall a child born to a man who is hundred years old?  Shall Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?”  The answer is YES! The faithful  God is still where He  was  when He first  promised to make Abram “the father of  a multitude  of  nations” (Ch. 12 à17:4) and  He says it again in  17:5 and again in  17:6 . “I will make you into nations.”

17:5:  That is the reason why Abram’s name (exalted father) was changed, because God promised to make him a ‘father of a multitude’. That is what the name ‘Abraham’ means. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. Both her names mean, ‘princess’.  But there is a difference. Her father had named her ‘princess’ but he had no power to make her one. God alone had that power, and she , like the promise  to  Abraham would become the mother of many nations, and  kings would come from her (17:16) God fulfills what he promises. He is faithful.
Their new names were an indication that things were beginning to happen.   By taking on this new name Abraham and Sarah were beginning   to live as if the fact had already happened. 
How little did  Abraham  understand  the  immensity of that promise, and despite  that  He was enabled  to  become  the father of faith, the father  of  all those that would believe God  (all those  who would be born into the covenant),  a  father  of  a  people from  every nation, tongue and tribe. How little did Abraham know, and yet  he believed and  the Lord Jesus  credits him with a faith that  saw  far head  in John 8:56: “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad.”  Abraham was enabled in His faith, because the God that called Him was faithful to Him.  The basis of our faith is the faithfulness of our God. God is faithful. He leads us and keeps us and He bears with us even when we struggle to fully believe.
It clearly wasn’t easy for Abraham.  He trusted God and yet it wasn’t always easy to see the way ahead. By this time Abraham had entertained the thought that Ishmael might live under God’s blessing (17:18), but he was becoming content with a substitute for the blessing of God.  His hopes were focused on Ishmael.  He desperately needed a reminder that this wasn’t it.  Oh faithful God, thank you for adjusting our cheap visions!  Thank God   that  from time to time He revives  our  feeble  faith by meeting  with us and  by  causing His Holy Spirit  to  make  us able  hear His Word in a much more profound and  intimate manner, stirring up renewed  faith, hope and love  in our souls, so that  we are  weaned from our small ambitions and become more  fully conformed to His plan and purpose.

And so Abraham is promised at this time afresh that he would be exceedingly fruitful (17:6) and, that nations and kings (and ultimately the King of kings) would come from his and Sarah’s union. He is promised afresh that God’s covenant will extend to  his offspring (17:7 repeated in 17:8,9,10,19). This covenant promise , we see in the NT extends to the family of true believers  in all the world and among all nations , tribes and tongues.  This covenant promise  includes  the  promise of the land of Canaan  (17:8), which is,  as we  see, fulfilled  in the NT in  the  eternal kingdom. All  true believers , all the sons and daughters of Abraham   will  be gathered  in that sacred land, the kingdom of Heaven,  the renewed   creation in which  God rules  and reigns  without dispute -  “ I  will be  their God…”. 

Then God gives Abraham a command:  “As for you, you shall keep my covenant” (17:9). And God stipulates how the keeping of that covenant should look like. God’s faithful covenant grace to him demanded a visible response:  Every male born to his offspring was required to be circumcised.  This outwards sign was to be a mark of belonging to the covenant community, the company of the faithful believers in God.  And yet we know that circumcision has in itself never saved anyone. Ishmael the thirteen year old son of Abraham was circumcised on the same day as Abraham (17:26), and yet he showed no evidence of a heart renewed by grace. Ishmael bore the sign of the covenant, but he lived in hostility toward all his kinsmen. (Gen. 16:12). The Old Testament hope  was that,  with the coming of the Messiah, the hearts of every member of the New Covenant family would be circumcised. In fact,  Paul told the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6) and, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).  Circumcision, or it’s NT equivalent, ‘baptism’, was an important sign of belonging to the believing community, but it needed to be preceded by a  true  circumcision  of the heart, or in the case of the NT, a baptism in  or with the Holy Spirit.  

So then, this faithful God speaks again to Abraham.  He reassures   him that the promise is not via Hagar but via Sarah, his princess. She shall bear a son, ‘Isaac’. His name means, “he laughs” and even the date of his birth is announced: “at this time next year” (17:21), twenty-six years after God first told Abram that he would have a son. Ishmael too will become a great nation but he is not the one through whom God will establish his covenant. Isaac alone will be that one.

God only has one way to enter into the covenant which leads to spiritual blessing and ultimately eternal life. It is by faith in His promises, and from a NT perspective   it is very clear that your only hope is in the Son of the New Covenant - the Lord Jesus Christ! He is that door, that gate, the way, the truth the life. Follow Him faithfully all the days of your life.  

As we come to the Lord’s table to celebrate His great work for us,   you need to remember that this table is for those that have been embraced by the faithful God of the New Covenant. This table is for those that have in turn embraced him in love and with thankful hearts, and who in dependence upon divine grace, seek to live faithfully before Him. Amen 

[1]  Gen. 12:7; 13:15,16;  15:4,5

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