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 . 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