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The Cutting of the Covenant

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)

Part V

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 7, 1999

Genesis 15:1-21

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Genesis 15:1-21.

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)[5] - The Cutting of the Covenant

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 15. One of the great passages in all of the Old Testament. We have so far been walking through the life of Abraham. This is the fifth in a series of the study of this great patriarch which runs from Genesis 12 to 23.

We've already said that there's a sense in which Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3, is the very center point of the history of redemption in the Bible. Everything before Genesis 12, 1 through 3, leads up to it. Everything afterwards fulfills it. We've also noted along the way since the Missions Conference is coming up next week that the covenant promises to Abraham actually supply for us the ground for the work of gospel mission. It is God's promise to Abraham to make him a blessing to the nations which undergirds the Christian proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth. It's not something added on. It's not something optional. It's at the very heart of God's plan for us as His covenant people to be a blessing to the nations. And what greater way could one be a blessing to the nations than to introduce them to the one who can save their souls eternally and heap upon them the blessings of God. Now we've been walking through Abram's life for the last few chapters, and we've seen some ups and downs already. We've seen Abraham look very bad at the end of Genesis, chapter 12. And just this last time we saw Abraham as a hero saving his friend, Lot, in the time of conquering and conquest in the land of Canaan.

So let's turn our attention to God's word in Genesis word in Genesis 15, beginning in verse 1.

Our Father, we thank You for Your word. And as we study it together this night we ask that You would open our eyes to behold the glory of the truth contained therein. We pray, oh God, that our hearts would bow before You, that our faith would be strengthened, and that Christ would be glorified, for we ask it in His name, Amen.

In this great passage the covenant of grace with Abram which we saw established in Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3, is in the most striking way imaginable confirmed. And that confirmation of God's promises to Abram is just as important for us today as it was when God first entered into that covenant with Abram. Derek Kidner says this, "The New Testament finds this a momentous chapter in two respects: first in its declaration that Abraham was justified by faith in verse 6. That phrase is at the heart of Paul's gospel in Romans, chapter 4 and in Galatians, chapter 3; secondly it finds this chapter to be momentous because it records for us the covenant. For this, rather than the covenant of Moses at Sinai, is the foundational covenant of the Old Testament. It speaks of grace as the apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians, chapter 3, verses 17 through 22." This is a glorious phrase. "To honor this promise God would bring His people out of Egypt and send His Son into the world." To honor the promise contained in this chapter, God would bring the children of Israel out of Egypt and send His Son into the world. We are indeed on holy ground. We could not possibly do justice to all the themes in this chapter. But let's outline it in two parts.

If you look at the first six verses, 1 through 6, we’ll see faith seeking assurance of God's promises. Here Abram is wrestling with trusting God to provide him an heir. His faith is seeking assurance of the promise that God has made to him to give him an heir. If you look at the second half of the chapter from verse 7 all the way to verse 21, Abram's faith there is seeking again assurance of God's covenant promise to him. But this time assurance that God will indeed give him the land.

So the two parts of the chapter are clear. Abram's faith wrestling for assurance about the promise about having an heir, and of course ultimately having descendants to great to number. And then the second part of the chapter from 7 to 21 dealing with Abram's faith seeking assurance that God would indeed give him the land. Now remember Abram has been walking with the Lord for many years. He has no son, and he does not own a stitch of land in the land of Canaan which the Lord has shown to him and said to him would be his one day. So in that background we approach Genesis, chapter 15. The words, "After these things" in verse 1 remind us of the immediate context. What had Abram just done? He had just rescued Lot. He had just defeated the army of the four kings. In human terms, Abram was on a high. But if you’ll remember the last words of Genesis, chapter 14, we have just found that Abram refused the rewards of the King of Sodom. He will have nothing to do with the rewards of this wicked Canaanite king, and in this context we read, "After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying ‘Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.’" Abram had turned down the reward of the King of Sodom, and God is coming to him to say Abram, I've seen you, I've watched you. I am pleased. I will be your reward, even though you have not as yet tasted the reward that I have promised you. So Abram in the context of refusing the worldly wealth of Sodom, is comforted by God who repeats His promise to Abram. And the purpose of God repeating that promise is, of course, to strengthen his faith. Abram has been walking many years with the Lord since he first left his home land in Ur of the Chaldeans, and he has yet to see the specific promises of God given to him come to pass. Now, God approaches Abram in a vision to tell him these things. But I want you to see that even though God comes to him in a vision, the purpose of the vision is to convey what? To convey the promise, or more specifically, to convey the word of God. The vehicle is the vision, but the central point is the message.

So often today we have people who are preoccupied with the extraordinary, the mystical aspects of Christian religion. And yet notice that even in this vision, the point is the word of God. The vehicle is simply the vision or the vision is simply the vehicle by which God conveys to Abram confirmation of the word that He had already spoken to him. And it is vital for us to see when Abram begins to respond in verses 2 and 3 that Abram's struggle is not a reflection of unbelief. It is a struggle of faith which Abram reflects. When God says to Abram, "I am your shield. Your reward will be very great." Abram says this: "O Lord God, what will you give me since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Since you have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir." It's important to see that Abram's struggle is with the confirming word of God's promise, and it's not a struggle of unbelief, of pure unbelief. In the Old Testament, when God's people manifest bold and brazen unbelief towards Him, especially in the context of His word and promise, normally the response is not gentle. But when God's believing people wrestle with Him, not complaining about Him, but wrestle with Him, complaining to them, begging Him to strengthen their faith, God often shows an incredibly tender, fatherly forbearance and helps them along gently. And that's exactly what we see in this passage and so we may deduct from that fact that Abram's response is not a sheer manifestation of unbelief as if Abram is saying, ‘Well, Lord, You haven't done anything for me yet. How can I believe that this is going to happen?’ This is not the dynamic that is going on in this passage. Remember this. God had made an explicit promise, an explicit commitment to Abram, and the blessing of the whole of humanity depended on God fulfilling that promise. And so Abram could not be satisfied with personal blessings. He could not be satisfied until God's full covenant commitments were fulfilled. Nothing less than the fulfilling of the promise would do.

Furthermore, God's provision of a seed, of an heir was absolutely integral to God's plan of promises for Abram. So Abram here is not just struggling with the sting of childlessness, though no doubt that is part of it. Abram has been many years before the Lord. He is incredibly wealthy. By human terms he is greatly blessed, he is successful as a businessman, he has a wonderful wife, he has an incredible extended family, faithful servants. He has won victories in battle, but he has no son. And when he is gone without a son, there is no one of his line to leave those blessings to. And more importantly than that, there is no one upon whom he can rest his hand and say, ‘I am passing on to you, my son, the covenant blessings of God which you will pass on to your son, and they to their sons and on and on through the ages.’ Abram is acutely aware of this. But this thing of childlessness is coupled with the most acute spiritual struggle because God has made to him definite promises. And Abram's cry is poignant, and we can identify instinctively when he says God, what will you give me since I am childless? God's covenant promises to Abram, and to us are dependent upon God's provision of a seed. What can God give Abram without an heir that will survive him? Without an heir, what can God give Abram that will survive him in this world? God makes this promise to Abraham to be his shield and his great reward, and the cry of Abram's heart is Lord, what will You give me? I have no heir of my own house except this servant. And I wish you could imagine for a moment what it would have been like to be in the seventh century before Christ in a time where Syria was a great occupying and threatening country to the north of Judah. Can you imagine reading Genesis 15 and hearing that before God provided Isaac, that the heir of the father of faith was a Syrian slave? We cannot imagine the impact of that upon the Jewish mind that God had provided no heir for His beloved, faithful friend, Abram. But only the Syrian slave born in his house was to inherit all that he had. And in the face of this crisis of faith, the Lord emphatically reaffirms His commitments to Abraham, and He uses the stars as an illustration. Whether the Lord took Abram literally out under the night sky of the near East and showed him the stars, or whether God did this in the context of the vision, I don't know. But the Lord shows to him and displays to him the stars of the sky, and He declares to them that his descendants will be as innumerable as they are.

This is the beginning of the Old Testament explanation of the function of covenant signs. Sacraments like baptism and the Lord's Supper find their origin in passages like this in the Old Testament. God's covenant signs are graciously given by God in order to confirm His spoken promises. So you have the spoken word confirmed by a visible sign, so that a visible, tangible sign given by God confirms the invisible promises that God has made in His covenant. Do you see how beautifully that goes together? God knows that we worldly-minded human beings struggle with the spiritual promises given to us in the word. And so He gives us tangible signs that we can see and touch in order to remind us of the sure reality of the invisible spiritual promises He has given to us in the covenant. And so God shows Abram the stars as a visible illustration of the spiritual promises that He has made to him.

And then of course in the context of this illustration we come upon verse 6. Look at it with me. "Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." This is, of course, the passage that Paul goes to to prove the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone. And you should note that it is the first time in the Bible that the ideas of faith and justification are linked together. This is the first time in the Bible that these ideas are combined. And Abram's believing was, of course, of a very sturdy sort. He had to look at the facts of his own experience, recognize his age, recognize the age of his wife, Sarai, and then he had to believe that God was going to be faithful to this promise despite the evidence to the contrary. Larry Richards has a beautiful phrase describing this faith. Faith faces the facts, but it also faces the fact of God. Faith faces the facts, but it also faces the fact of God. You see Abraham's fate was not such a one that simply said, ‘Well, I'm going to be optimistic that this is going to turn out for the best. I'm just going to hope that things sort of turn out in the end.’ That was not Abram's faith. Abram looked at the facts, and he said there is no way, there is absolutely no way, but my God is also one of the facts of this experience, and He has been faithful to me, and I will trust Him despite all the other evidence to the contrary. And so we see here a glorious example of saving faith.

And it forces on us this question. Have we exercised that kind of saving faith in God? Have we trusted Him like that for our salvation? Have we trusted Him that Christ is who He says He is and that the promises of salvation are what He says they are. Have we rested in Him. And do we continue to trust Him when we run up against the trials of our own lives, or the minute that circumstances are adverse, do we desert the calls? Abram faces the hardest of trials, and because God is as real to him, or maybe we should say, more real to him than his trials, he continues to trust in God.

Then we see in verses 7 through 21 a second aspect of the struggle for assurance. And here God confirms His covenant with Abraham by a blood sign. In the first part of the chapter, verses 1 through 6 God had reiterated His covenant commitments to Abram. Now God confirms His covenant with Abram by a blood sign. As soon as God has brought comfort to Abram's heart about the promise of an heir, God makes another word. He says another word to Abram designed to strengthen his faith. And it evokes the same response that God's first confirming word had. When God first spoke, Abram had brought up a question. Now God speaks again in verse 7. "I am the Lord who brought you out of the Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it." That phrase is designed to strengthen Abram's faith. What is the response? Another question. "O Lord, how do I know that I am going to possess this land?" And so again the cry of faith asks how shall I know. Now I want you to understand as you study the biblical covenants that the covenants are God's answer to the question of our hearts how can I know? Why are Protestants, who believe in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone, so confident that believers in this life can be assured of their salvation? Not because we're such wonderful people, but because of the promises of the covenants, because what God has done on our behalf. And as Abram cries out how shall I know? God's response is nothing short of shocking. God tells Abram to go take animals, to slaughter the large animals and lay them side to side, to kill the birds and lay them in a row so the animals are parallel to one another with a space in between. Abram's response to God's sign is simply to trust and obey. He's to obey what the Lord said in preparing this sacrifice. Abram doesn't know what is going on yet. As far as he knows perhaps a sacrifice of some sort is going to be offered. And Abram was familiar with the particular customs and rituals and laws of sacrifice, and so he prepares these animals and he waits. At first we think what in the world does this have to do with confirming Abram in his faith, of assuring Abram of his faith. But let me pull back and tell you something. In the Old Testament when tribes or nations came into conflict and one overlord or king conquered another tribe, very often as an act of loyalty, the king or the overlord would make the conquered peoples walk between the pieces of slaughtered animals, symbolizing this. As long as you are obedient and loyal to me, I will protect you, I will provide you a system of justice, and I will be one who blesses you. But if you rebel against me, be it done to you as we have done to these animals. May you be slaughtered, even as we have slaughtered these animals. In other words, walking between the pieces of animals was a self-curse, technically a self-maledictory oath, an oath of self-curse or of self-destruction. Here in this passage, God tells Abram to lay animals side by side, and it looks like that one of these treaties is going to be inactive, in response to Abram's question, "How long?" Now this is not the only time in the Bible that something like this happens. If you turn with me to Jeremiah 34, we’ll see another example of it. You remember the story of Jeremiah 34. Nebuchadnezzar is smashing his battering rams against the gates of Jerusalem. And the people of Jerusalem realize that one reason they are to be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar is because they have been unfaithful to the covenant. And so all the leaders of the people call the people together, and they renew the covenant. And we read this. In this passage, Jeremiah 34, verse 18: "I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant who have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made with Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts - the officials of Judah, and the officials of Jerusalem, the court officers, and the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf - I will give them into the hands of their enemies and into the hands of those who seek their life. And their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth." You see what had happened is the leaders of Israel had cut this covenant, they had walked between the pieces of the slaughtered animals saying to the Lord we are renewing our oath, we are renewing our commitment to you. We will be loyal to your word. We will cease to break your laws and as soon as the Babylonians had gone away for a few moments they had reneged on their covenant. And so God says, ‘Because you walked between those pieces and then you broke the covenant, I am going to do to you what you symbolized in the slaughter of those animals.’ And you notice the picture of the birds of prey. What is the picture of carcasses lying on top of the ground with the birds of prey descending on them? It is the picture of a person who is so cut off from God's covenant that there's not even anyone left to bury him. He falls dead on the top of the ground, and there's no one there to dig a hole for him, and so the birds of prey descend. It is the sign of the ultimate judgment of God being cut off from His people and promises. And in Jeremiah 34 that curse is going to be enacted upon Israel because of their unfaithfulness to the covenant. How does that relate to Genesis 15, and how in the world does that relate to Abram's assurance? It relates this way.

The interesting thing that we learn in Genesis 15 is that Abram himself does not walk between the pieces of the slaughtered animals. God in the form of a smoking oven and a flaming torch passes between the pieces. What happens here? In Genesis 15, God the Lord, God the sovereign, God the Overlord, He walks between the pieces. Not the vassal, not the servant, not Abram, but God walks between the pieces in order to say to Abram this. Abram, I promise unto my own death that I will fulfill my covenant commitments to you. Abram, be it done to me as we have done to these animals if I do not fulfill my covenant promises to you.

Do you realize, my friends, how utterly shocking that is? For God, the Overlord, to assume the place of the vassal all for the sake of the assurance of His people. And that assurance, my friends, is not just Abram's assurance, it's our assurance. Because if you’ll turn with me to Luke, chapter 22, on the night in which he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus Christ said to His disciples this. Luke 22:20: "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood." Now Jesus is not just saying that this cup fulfills the promises that God made to you in Jeremiah 31 about the new covenant. Jesus is saying this: ‘My friends, long ago God the Father, God My Father, said to your father, Abram, I promise unto death. I am here to pay the price. Not only that you might be redeemed from your sins, but that you could know that there is no power in all the universe that can prevent your receiving the blessings that God has promised to you, because I have sealed these promises with My blood.’

How shall I know? Look at the cross. Who hangs there? God's own Son. The slaughtered sacrifice of the covenant that we might be assured of the promises of God. Let us pray.

O Lord, it is our glory that the foundation of our assurance is found not in what we have done but in what You have done in Christ. Help us to see it and believe it, in Jesus' name, Amen.

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