The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham) Ė 1. The Call of Go
If you would look with me at Godís word in Genesis, chapter 12. Weíre going to attend tonight to verses 1 through 9. We, of course, are beginning the life of Abraham at this juncture. We have seen the preface to this great book set forth in the first eleven chapters, and specifically from chapter 11, verse 27, which begins the book of Terah of which this part of the book of Genesis is a constituent. The book of Terah beginning in Genesis, chapter 11, verse 27, begins to tell us the main characters in the story of Abraham. And the passage weíre going to study tonight is going to continue to fill out for us. Itís almost like a listing of the great characters in a Shakespearean play written on the front page of one of those Riverside Editions of the works of Shakespeare so that you know who is who and what roles they are going to play in this great drama of redemption. And we continue to see that in the passage before us, but we also see the very heart of the covenant promises give to Abraham. Lawrence Richards says this: "Abraham stands as the greatest figure to be found in the ancient world. Three world religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, revere him as the father of their faiths. But what makes Abraham important to the Bible student is not the reverence in which he is held. It is not even the belief that the The National Geographic once expressed that ĎAbraham, the patriarch, conceived of a great and simple idea, the idea of a single Almighty God. (Youíll find that in National Geographic in December of 1966, page 740, if youíre looking.) Abrahamís importance is not even found in the fact that he is today a prime model of saving faith. No, the importance of Abraham in Genesis is that through Abraham God reveals His purpose and goal for the universe. In promises to Abram, God revealed that he had a plan."
If the first chapters of Genesis show that this magnificent universe in which we are set as a very small part is, in fact, not an impersonal universe, but a personal universe created by a personal God who is in covenant relationship with us through Adam, then the story of Abraham which begins to be set forth here shows that that universe is not only personal, it is purposive in the sense of God working out the history of redemption for the sake of His people as we are drawn into fellowship with Him. So, letís turn our attention to Godís word here in Genesis 12. This is the word of God:
Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word. We acknowledge the power, the might of the promises contained in this passage as we begin to study. We pray, O Lord, that You would open our hearts, that we might attend to the details of the truth of Your word. But more than simply a study of this passage, we seek to yield our hearts to You, and so walk with the faith of Abraham in this world, trusting in the promises of the covenant of grace, trusting in the mediator of the covenant of grace. Help us then to see this truth with the eyes of the new covenant and with the hope of eternal glory set before us. We ask it in Jesusí name, Amen.
It has been well said that Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3 is the center point of the promises of the covenant of grace in the history of redemption. Everything before Genesis 12, 1 through 3, is leading up to it. Everything after Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3 in the Bible is fulfilling it. We have here an epitome of the promises of the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace will indeed be spelled out in greater detail, but the covenant of grace is set forth in seed form right here in these verses. The great theme of these chapters focusing on the life of Abraham will be the promised seed or posterity which is given to him by the Lord. And to the lesser extent the promised land to which the little group clings tenaciously and in the final chapter to which they look back on in certainty of return. There is much that we could study in this passage, and so letís focus ourselves on three or four things.
The first one is the covenant of grace itself. Iíd like you to look at verses 1 through 3. Letís remember the chronology of this story. Abraham, we are told, was 75 years old when he entered Canaan. We are told that in verse 4. In Genesis, chapter 16, verse 15, we are told that he was 86 at the birth of Ishmael. In Genesis, chapter 17, verses 1 and 24 we surmise that he was 99 when the covenant sign of circumcision was given. And so, a year later in Genesis 21, verse 2, he was 100 when he his son Isaac was finally born. He was at least 115 and perhaps 125 when he was commanded by the Lord to take his son, his only son whom he loved, Isaac, and sacrifice him in the land of Moriah. He was 137 when Sara died. He was 140 when Isaac was married, and he was 175 when he died. This passage of Scripture, this section of Scripture which we are launching into a study of, covers certain events in the great long life of Abraham. Now of course by definition Moses has to be specific and episodic as he reveals this life. This was a very full life. And this is not really a biography of Abraham. Specific events are chosen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by Moses to set forth for us not only the promises of God, but to give us instruction for the living of our own lives. So as we look at this passage, we will have many things that pop into our minds that we might ask. But what about this? Well, what happened here? What about this, is there an answer to that? Youíre going to have to line up before the Lord in glory to come and ask Him those questions because Moses doesnít tell you all those answers. But he tells a glorious story of Godís covenant promises. And Iíd like to start off by looking at that covenant of grace which God has made with Abram.
Now letís remember a couple of things. First, God has already spoken to Abram, telling him to leave Ur of the Chaldees. When Godís word comes to him here in Genesis 12, it comes to him in Haran. Now by the way, just to be confusing you will have noticed in this passage that in Genesis 11, verse 27 there is a brother of Abram, named Haran, and there is this city that they are now in Genesis named Haran. The two words are really not the same in Hebrew. They are unrelated. But one thing I do want to point out to you if youíll look at verse 26. Verse 26 of Genesis 11 tells us that Abram had two brothers, Nahor and Haran. Now Abram is listed first there and you might think that that meant that he was the first born. But apparently Abram was the youngest of those three brothers. And the reason he is listed first is not for the last time in the book of Genesis, God has chosen the younger to be the line of promise. And so once again we see here the election of grace where God takes initiative and reaches out and takes one that through the law of primogeniture one might not expect to be the line of blessing and makes him, in fact, his choice servant for the work of the Lord.
I. All our happiness is tied up and produced by Godís covenant grace.
Letís look at this passage very briefly. Here in Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3, I want you to see two things. First of all the commands of the covenant of grace, and second of all, the promises of the covenant of grace. We have already talked about covenants and especially in Genesis, chapter 2, where we see the outline of the covenant of works given, and in Genesis chapter 6 when we saw the covenant of Noah. But here in Genesis 12, we see a clearer presentation of Godís redeeming covenant than we saw in the life of Noah. But here again we also see that important reality that the covenant is always mutual. There is no such thing as a covenant without mutuality. There may be promises that are made by God and established by God in a gracious covenant, but there is always mutual obligation in a covenant relationship. Remember we defined a covenant using Palmer Robertsonís definition. Itís a bond in blood, sovereignly administered. It is a relationship which is binding. It is a life or death relationship. It is one which comes with mutual blessings and mutual obligations. And so here in Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3, we see commands even in the covenant of grace. Now Iíve stressed this because sometimes people will single out the covenant that God makes here with Abram and say this covenant was unconditional, whereas other covenants in the book of Genesis were conditional. That is a false dichotomy, because there are requirements for Abram here in the covenant of grace. Look at the very first words. "Go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your fatherís house to the land which I will show you." Notice that the first words of the covenant of grace are commands, conditions, or perhaps better, requirements. God gives these requirements. And by the way, there is not only the requirement of verse one, but if you look further down there is another requirement. If you look at verse 2, the very last clause in verse 2 reads in most of our translations something like this. So you shall be a blessing. Now that looks like perhaps an indicative statement, or a statement of future reality. But, in fact, it is an imperative. There are two imperatives in this passage. Go forth and be a blessing. So those are the commands of the covenant of grace. Abram is told by God to go forth from his country, his relatives and from his fatherís house. And then he is told to be a blessing. Those are the two commands of the covenant of grace.
I want you to note two things about this. First of all we have been noticing, ever since Genesis 1, a gradual narrowing of Godís focus in this great book of Genesis. Starting off with the great universe, zeroing in on the lines of the sons of Adam, zeroing in on the sons of the line of Noah, zeroing in on the sons of Shem, zeroing in on Terah, one of the lines of the sons of Shem, and now zeroing in on Abram. Itís like a great funnel and now the focus has been drawn down to the very point of the funnel. But at the same time we have seen a separation going on in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
And isnít it interesting that the covenant of grace begins with the call of God to Abram to separate himself. Now that call of separation does not mean that Abram is to take himself out of the world, to have no affiliation or association with anyone else in the world, to be utterly repulsed by the world, to hate the world, to not have anything to do with it. Oh, no, because whatís the second part of this command? Be a blessing to the nations. So on the one hand he must separate, on the other hand he must be a blessing. Is that not what God calls us to? Is that not precisely what Jesus was telling us when He called us to be salt and light? We must be different from the world in order to be a blessing to the world. Abraham must be separate from the nations in order to be a blessing to the nations. And here God calls Abram to separate himself from his country, from his relations and from his fatherís house in order that he might be a blessing to all nations. There is so much truth packed into that command of the covenant of grace. Listen to what Derek Kidner says: "The history of redemption like that of creation begins with God speaking: this, in a nutshell, differentiates Abramís story from his fatherís." Remember, his father started out with him. Terah went as far as Haran, but Terah went no further, and Abram went on. Why? Terah had not been called by God. Abram had, and that makes all the difference in the world. God had spoken to Abram. Thatís why Abram went. Terah, in all likelihood, went because his son was going. He may have been aged and in need of his sonís care. But at any rate, the difference between Terah and Abraham is in that call. Now Kidner goes on to say: "The call to forsake all and follow." Heard that before? Studying the gospel of Matthew for a long time. "The call to forsake all and follow finds its nearest parallels in the Gospels. And Abramís early history is partly that of his gradual disentanglement from country and kindred and fatherís house, a that is a process not completed until Genesis, chapter 13." Okay.
So we see here emerging a pattern where Abram is having to separate himself from the nations in order to be a blessing to the nations. And thatís a message to us, too. As Christians we must distinctively see ourselves as different from the world. We must think differently from the world. We must have a different world view and outlook from the world. We must have a different set of priorities. We must have a different set of goals. Our agenda is different from the agenda of the world. But we do that not so we can stand over against the world and feel superior to the world. Or despise the world in the sense of not having any concern for the interests of men and women who are not part of the faith. We are distinctive in order that we can be a blessing. In other words, we must say no to the world in order that we can say yes to the world. We must be different from the world and say no, your way of thinking is wrong. Again, not so that we feel superior to the world, but so that we might be a blessing to the world. For our agenda is not something that we have cooked up. Itís something that we have received from the call of God. Itís His agenda, itís His priority, itís His goal, itís His world view, itís His focus and our desire is to see the world won to that. But we canít do that if weíre like the world. And so all of us are called to separation from the world, and all of us are called to be blessings to the world. And isnít it interesting that Christians have a hard time keeping those two things together? They either do a real good job of separating themselves from the thought life of the world so much that they despise the world in an unbiblical sense of that phrase. Or they so long to draw the world to Christ, and they decide that the best way to do that is to become like the world that they lose their distinctive saltiness. But Jesus calls us to be salt and light. He calls us to be distinct from the world in order to be a blessing to the world. And that is the challenge of the Christian life. And we see it laid forth right here in the story of Abram.
Now weíve see the two commands: Go forth from your country and separate and be a blessing. Now letís look at the promises of the covenant. There are many different ways that we could enumerate these promises. Many of them are legitimate. But let me just give you this particular enumeration of the promises. I find here at least six promises in Genesis, chapter 12, verses 1 through 7, zeroing in on verses 1 through 3 and then skipping down to verse 7. I find at least six promises here given in the covenant of grace to Abram. And these are expanded on in the rest of the story of Abram, in the rest of the story of Genesis, in the story of Exodus and throughout the Old Testament all the way up to the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31.
The first promise is, of course, the promise to make Abram a great nation. Abramís name, of course, meant exalted father. But this is a great irony because Moses has gone out of his way already to tell us that Abramís wife, Sarai, was barren. She had no child. You catch the redundancy? She was barren. She had no child. Well, of course, if sheís barren, she had no child. The double emphasis there is emphatic. And God is saying, I will make you a great nation. We see there the promise of the seed for Abraham.
Then, I will bless you. The specifics of this blessing will be spelled out, but Abraham is to be the object of special saving favor from the Lord, and he is being singled out here as the line of promise. A line that we have already seen developing in Genesis 1 through 11.
Thirdly, God says, "I will make your name great." Now we have already commented on this, but letís look back just to remind ourselves. If youíll look back to Genesis, chapter 11, verse 4. Remember what the men of Babel said. Come, let us build for ourselves a city and a tower whose top will reach into heaven and let us make for ourselves a name. So the agenda of the people of the plain of Shinar was to make for themselves a name. And God brought them to nothing. God humbles the proud, but God exalts the humble. And so what does he say to Abram? I will make your name great.
The fourth promise. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse. This is not unlike the promise that God had made to Shem in the prophecy of Noah. And so we see a providential tear for Abraham and the promised line here. Those who bless Abram, they may expect to find blessing. Those who curse him, those who oppose him, God will bring to naught with his curse.
The fifth blessing we see here in Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3, is that in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. Here we see again the focus of the nations in the promises that God has made to Abram. Though this focus of the seed of Abrahamís ministry to the nations will almost drop off the charts in the Old Testament in some senses, it is at the very heart of the covenant promises, and it is at the very heart of what the New Testament notices about the ministry of the Messiah and His disciples in the age in which we now live. Now the good news of God is to go to the nations as promised all those years ago by God to Abram himself. You will be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
And then finally, it is hinted at in verse 1, go forth from your country to the land that I will show you. The hint there is, of course, that God is going give Abram a land. But it is made explicit in verse 7, and this is the sixth promise that we see in the covenant of grace, to your descendants I will give this land. And so the promise of the land of Canaan is set forth here to Abram. And these are the six great promises of the covenant of grace which we will see explained and unfolded in the weeks to come.
II. The Covenant of Grace requires covenant loyalty
By the way, thatís a hint at how God sometimes works in our own experiences when He calls us to obedience and weíre sluggish in it. He speeds up the process through His direct divine providence. At any rate, Abram apparently takes Lot along as his potential heir because as weíve already observed, Abram had no physical heir at this point. And so Lot, his nephew, is taken along for this purpose. But at this point it is Abram, Sarai, his wife, Lot, his nephew, and those that are now a part of the household of Abram. Theyíve separated themselves now from his fatherís house. Theyíve separated themselves from his fatherís country, and heís almost separated himself from all his relations. And so we see this process of separation unfolding.
III. The pilgrim declares the Lordís dominion in the shadow of idols.
Now this is a tremendously important site in the history of redemption. You remember it was at Shechem that the people of God had to make the choice between the mountain of curse and the mountain of blessing, Ebal and Gerizim in Deuteronomy. It was at Shechem that Joshua gave his final address to the people of God. And it was at Shechem that Solomonís kingdom was divided. And here God brings Abram to Shechem in the very shadow of this Canaanite shrine, and what does God do? He gives his promise to give the land to Abram in the shadow of the Canaanite shrine, and Abram builds an altar there in the face of the pagan worldliness of his day. Abraham, the man of faith, sets up a place of worship to the one true God. A defiant declaration that Godís dominion extends everywhere. He is the one true God.
IV. Responding to the Covenant of Grace means being a pilgrim.
You know it was said that it was a custom of some of the early American colonial settlers, many of them are Scotch Presbyterian descent, to first build the house of worship in their little village, and then to set forth in building their individual homes. Abram pitches his tent, but he builds an altar to the Lord. You see to respond to the covenant of grace means to be a pilgrim, in a strange land. And Abram understood that for all his faults. And so over these next few weeks and these next few chapters, as we study Abraham, weíre going to see the promises that God made to him about his seed, his posterity. Weíre going to see the promises that God made to him about the land, and weíre going to see the promises that God made to him regarding the nations. Weíre going to see how those are fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Mediator of the new covenant. May the Lord bless His word. Let us pray.
Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the thrilling truth of Your word, and we ask that by Your grace you would give us the hearts of pilgrims, that we would long for that city which has foundations, and that we would not be satisfied with the trifles and the temporalities of this world. For we ask these things in Jesusí name, Amen.