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The Call of God

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)

Part I

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jan 3, 1999

Genesis 12:1-9

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Genesis 12:1-9

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham) — 1. The Call of Go

If you would look with me at God's word in Genesis, chapter 12. We’re 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 we're going to study tonight is going to continue to fill out for us. It's 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 ‘Abraham, the patriarch, conceived of a great and simple idea, the idea of a single Almighty God. (You’ll find that in National Geographic in December of 1966, page 740, if you’re looking.) Abraham's 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, let's turn our attention to God's word here in Genesis 12. This is the word of God:

Genesis 12:1-9

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 Jesus' 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 let's focus ourselves on three or four things.

The first one is the covenant of grace itself. I'd like you to look at verses 1 through 3. Let's 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? You’re going to have to line up before the Lord in glory to come and ask Him those questions because Moses doesn't tell you all those answers. But he tells a glorious story of God's covenant promises. And I'd like to start off by looking at that covenant of grace which God has made with Abram.

Now let's remember a couple of things. First, God has already spoken to Abram, telling him to leave Ur of the Chaldees. When God's 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 you’ll 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 God's covenant grace.

Now as we look at Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3, and God's promises and God's requirements in the covenant of grace. One thing comes through loud and clear, and that is that all of our happiness is tied up with and produced by God's covenant grace. So often in life Satan attempts to tempt us to believe that walking in the way of God spoils all our fun, and that fulfillment and satisfaction and contentment and life are found only when we deviate from the way of God. But it is crystal clear as you read these promises that happiness and contentment and satisfaction and fulfillment are by-products of dying to ourselves, trusting in Christ and resting in the promises that God has given in the covenant of grace. And that message is just as important for us today as it was to Abram.

Let's 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 God's 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 Robertson's definition. It's 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 I've 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 father's 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 father's 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 God's 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. It's 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 isn't 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 what's 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 father's 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 Abram's story from his father's." 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. That's why Abram went. Terah, in all likelihood, went because his son was going. He may have been aged and in need of his son's 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 Abram's early history is partly that of his gradual disentanglement from country and kindred and father's 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 that's 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. It's something that we have received from the call of God. It's His agenda, it's His priority, it's His goal, it's His world view, it's His focus and our desire is to see the world won to that. But we can't do that if we're 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 isn't 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 we've see the two commands: Go forth from your country and separate and be a blessing. Now let's 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. Abram's 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 Abram's wife, Sarai, was barren. She had no child. You catch the redundancy? She was barren. She had no child. Well, of course, if she's 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 let's look back just to remind ourselves. If you’ll 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 Abraham's 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

Now let me notice just two or three other things very quickly. If you will look at verses 4 and 5 you will see here this separation to which we have already alluded being worked out. The call of the covenant of grace is always a call to separation. When we're called by God in His covenant of grace to come after Him, it is a call to separation to put behind us our worldly agenda, our worldly world view, our worldly way of thinking and to adapt and to adopt what the Lord's plan is for us. A covenant of grace requires covenant loyalty which says, God is my first priority. God is the one who sets the agenda for my priorities and for my preferences, and God is the one who by His word determines my decisions. This kind of covenant loyalty is seen very clearly in the life of Abraham. Look at verse 4. "So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him and Lot went with him." Let me just make a mention here. Abram, of course, is going forth from Haran at this point. They have already left Ur of the Chaldeans, they have made their way to Haran. Abram is responding in obedience to what God has called him to do. And now Abram leaves behind his father and his brother. Because while they are in Ur, Haran, his brother, dies. While they are in Haran, his father, Terah, dies. And so notice how God is bringing about the separation which he called Abram to. There seems to be no faulting Abram in the text. Abram is not aggressive in separating himself from his family. And so God begins to take his family out of the picture.

By the way, that's a hint at how God sometimes works in our own experiences when He calls us to obedience and we're 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 we've 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. They've separated themselves now from his father's house. They've separated themselves from his father's country, and he's almost separated himself from all his relations. And so we see this process of separation unfolding.

III. The pilgrim declares the Lord's dominion in the shadow of idols.

If you look at verses 6 and 7, again, we will see a glorious passage in God's covenant of grace with Abram. By grace, in verses 6 and 7, this pilgrim, Abraham, a stranger in a strange land, declares the Lord's dominion in the shadow of idols. What in the world am I talking about? Look at this passage. "Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem." Now the phrase "the site of Shechem" seems to indicate that there was a Canaanite shrine there. The place was a term that was often used to describe Canaanite shrines. Now God takes Abram right to Shechem, and they get there and we read this. Verse 7: "The Lord appeared to Abram and said ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’ And so he built an altar thee to the Lord who had appeared to him."

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 Solomon's 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 God's dominion extends everywhere. He is the one true God.

IV. Responding to the Covenant of Grace means being a pilgrim.

Then, look again at verses 8 and 9 because we see here the pilgrimage of Abram. Responding to the covenant of grace always means being a stranger in a strange land. It always means being a pilgrim, and there's a hint at it here in verses 8 and 9. "Then he proceeded on from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord." Now we already remember that phrase "called upon the name of the Lord" from Genesis, chapter 4, verse 26. It's a very important term that refers to corporate worship. In Genesis 4, it was, of course, occurring in the line of promise. Corporate worship in the days of Seth. Here Abram is calling upon the Lord in the midst of this pagan land. But I want you to note two verbs that are mentioned here. Notice what Abram did in verse 8. He pitched his tent. But before he worships the Lord corporately, what does he do? He builds an altar. He pitches his tent, he builds an altar. Abram's own living quarters are impermanent. He lives like a Nomad. But he builds an altar to the Lord which will stand forth as a testimony to the permanence of the promises of God. We can see Abram's priority even there.

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, we're going to see the promises that God made to him about his seed, his posterity. We’re going to see the promises that God made to him about the land, and we're going to see the promises that God made to him regarding the nations. We’re 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 Jesus' name, Amen.

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