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Faith Assured

The Promises of God (The Life of Abraham)

Part VII

Series: Genesis: The Foundations of the Faith

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 7, 1999

Genesis 17:1-8

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Genesis 17:1-8

Faith Assured

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Genesis 17. Thirteen years have passed since the birth of Ishmael. And Abram has resigned himself to be content with Ishmael as the son of promise. That may be a surprising statement for me to make. You may be asking, how in the world do you know that? And I will show you in just a few moments how I know that. But God had other plans.

This chapter is about the personal, spiritual renewal of Abraham in this encounter with Almighty God. Let me remind you that the context for the whole of Genesis 17 is set by the two previous chapters, chapters 15 and 16. God has confirmed His covenant which He first made when He drew from out of the Ur of the Chaldeans. He has confirmed it in Genesis 15 in the most striking way as He Himself takes the position of a vassal and walks between the pieces of the slain animals, saying to Abram, Abram, if I am unfaithful in my fulfilling of the promises of My covenant to you, be it done to Me as we have done to these animals. Abram, I'm calling a curse down upon Myself, so certain you should be that I'm going to bring about this promise.

Then in Genesis 16 the faith of Abram begins to waiver, and Sara prevailed upon Abram to seek an answer to God's promises in Hagar, her maid servant, the Egyptian. And so Abram conceived a child by Hagar. But that child was not appointed by God to be the heir of the covenant promise. And so those two stories juxtapose God's awesome covenant. Abram's failing of faith, set the context for our passage tonight.

As we turn to Genesis 17 and the first eight verses, we see here the prelude to God giving His covenant sign of the covenant promises here in this great passage. Let's hear God's holy word beginning in Genesis 17:1:

"Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly.’ And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. And I will make you exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’"

Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write His eternal truth upon our hearts. Let's pray.

Our Father, we recognize that we are on holy ground anytime we are reading Your holy word. And yet even when we read Your holy word, there are places and times where we sense particularly important truths being set forth. Such is this time. We ask, O Lord, that You would give us hearing ears and willing hearts as we hear the instruction of Your own mouth for Your people. Help us, O Lord, to draw from this great passage the strength and comfort which You desire Your people to have and the resolution to walk in faith, persevering to the end. We ask these things through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

In the wake of the Hagar-Ishmael soap opera, we find this man of God wavering, wavering in his faith, mired we might dare say in a spiritual decline almost ceasing to look for God's grand fulfillment of His promise. And I'd like you to look at this passage with me tonight. It tells us the story of what God did for Abram right in that moment of his need, right when his faith was at a low ebb.

This passage really could be broken into two parts. If you look at verses 1 through 3 we have a picture of God coming to Abram and reviving his faith by showing Abram again who He is, by reminding Abram again that he has entered into covenant with Him. That's what we see in verses 1 through 3. And then in verses 4 through 8 we see God renaming Abram, calling him Abraham and repeating to him, and expanding for him, the promises of the covenant. And so verses 1 through 3 are sort of the prelude and verses 4 through 8 are the promises in this passage. And I'd like to look with you for a few moments at this great passage.

I. God appears to Abram.

First of all let's look at verses 1 through 3. Here we see the appearance of God to Abram. And we see in particular that the way God revives our faith is by revealing Himself to us in His word. The way God revives our faith is by revealing Himself to us in His word. Now let me just remind you for a few moments about Abram's spiritual state. Abram, for many years, had borne this name Abram, and we may estimate that he had borne that name to great embarrassment. You know that that name Abram means exalted father. And I want you to just picture for a few moments what Abram would have had to have endured for seventy some odd years of his adult life. Someone is coming through from Mesopotamia on the way to Egypt. They stop in Abram's tent. Hospitality is extended. Orientals show respect for one another by asking questions, questions that we might think of as being a little too personal. You know questions about your family life, questions about other matters that are intensely personal, and you can see the dinner conversation rolling around one night: "Abram, what an interesting name. Doesn't that mean exalted father in your language? How many children do you have?" None. How many times did that man answer that question in the seventy years of his adult life? It's almost a cruel joke. How many children, Abram? None. And at the age of eighty-six he has a child by Hagar, and though there is tension in the household eventually the Lord Himself intervenes and brings Hagar and Ishmael back and some modicum of domestic tranquility is restored. And Abram becomes comfortable with the idea that maybe Ishmael is going to be the one through whom God fulfills these promises. And you can understand it. Finally, the poor man when he's asked the question Abram, how many children do you have? Finally he can say well, I have one son.

Now no doubt there were concealed snickers when his guests went back to their tent, thinking this man has not seven sons and many daughters. He has one son. How can he be called an exalted father? And we know specifically, if you’ll look down at verse 18, that even after God said all the things He's going to say to him in the first seventeen verses of this great chapter, Abram's first response to God's words is this: "Oh that Ishmael might live before You." God tells him all these things that He's going to do, and Abram's first response is, "Oh that Ishmael might live before You."

Abram, you see, had begun to be contented with the merest of blessings, almost ceasing to look for further favor, ninety-nine years old. And we may also estimate that there was an increased tension in Abram's domestic situation. For after the birth of Ishmael and after the problems that ensued between Hagar and Sara, remember that Abram and Sarai would have spent many years together bearing the reproach simultaneously for having no children. I mean you can imagine the servants talk in their quarters. Whose problem is it? I mean is it Abram or is it Sarai that is sterile. Who's the problem here? And after Hagar bears Sarai's child, Sarai alone must bear that reproach. We can only guess what tensions that brought between Abram and Sarai. But you know we have a visible description of them in Genesis 16, don't we? The rest is left for us to read between the lines. Now Sarai must bear that pain alone. She is the problem, or so it seems. So here we are in Genesis 17 with Abram, the exalted father, with one son, Ishmael in whose hopes he has now found a resting place. Calvin says this: "Abram being contented with his only son, Ishmael, ceased to desire any other seed." Genesis 17, verse 18 confirms that Calvin was not overstating the case for Abram. Here's what R.S. Candlish, the great Scottish minister said: "He had got, as it has been well said, if not the very thing promised, something at least very like it; and so he almost ceased to look or long very earnestly for more. In such a state, how great the need of such a revival as Abram now experiences; receiving, as he does, a repetition of his original call, as preparatory to a renewal of the covenant."

That is the condition, that is the context of this visitation of God. That's the situation that Abram is in. When the Lord appears to him and He says, "Abram, I am God Almighty." God reveals Himself. Spiritual renewal begins with the sight of God. When we see His character, when we see who He is, as He reveals Himself in the word. A process has begun. A process of the revival of the soul. And so the Lord comes to Abram, and He says I am El Shaddai. I am God, the God of power. And that term is used to emphasize over and over in the Old Testament, especially in Ruth and in Job and especially in Genesis the might and the power of God, his all-sufficiency, and His self-sufficiency. Derek Kidner says: "In Genesis this name for God tends to be matched to situations where God's servants are hard-pressed and are needing assurance. That's exactly where Abram is and the Lord comes to him and He says Abram, I am El Shaddai. Jim Boice tells of the letterhead of the Chinese evangelist Leland Wong. He had three Scripture verses on his letterhead in order to bear testimony to what he thought of his God. Let me read those Scripture verses to you. The first scripture verse says: "The sun stood still." Joshua 10:13. The second scripture verse was, "The iron did swim." 2 Kings 6:6. The third Scripture verse is Psalm 48:14: "This God is our God." Now Boice says, "By the juxtaposition of these verses, Leland Wong affirms that his God does the impossible." "The sun stood still." "The iron did swim." "This God is our God." That was his God. And that is precisely what God is saying to Abram. Abram, I can do anything.

And you know Abram should have gotten nervous the minute that the Lord said that. Because when the Lord said that he was saying Abram I'm going to do this in a way that you are still not expecting it. I'm going to have to change the way you are thinking to square with the reality that I'm about to bring about. And so God reveals Himself to Abram, and immediately He commands Abram, "I am God Almighty; walk before Me and be blameless." This reminds us of the mutual responsibilities of the covenant. God's grace initiates and brings Abram into the promises and secures those promises for him.

But the covenant is mutual. There are mutual obligations and responsibilities. And Abram is to walk before the Lord and be blameless. What in the world does that mean? It means that Abram is to live under the conscious gaze of God; to walk before Him. That is, he is to walk, to live in such a way that the holy and pure Heavenly Father can look upon him and see one who is holy. He is to walk before Him, living under the gaze of God, and he is to be blameless. That does not mean that he is to be perfect in the sense that we normally use that word. It means that he is to be blameless, a man of integrity, a man who is whole-hearted in his commitment to God. In other words, he's not to be a hypocrite. He is to truly love God and trust God and worship God from the inside out and his outward actions are to flow from that inward trust in God. He is to walk before Him and be blameless. We have heard that Latin phrase coram deo used perhaps many times, that we are to live before the face of God, under the eyes of God, under the gaze of God. That is exactly what God is saying when He says to Abram, walk before Me, live before My eyes and with integrity and wholeheartedness serve Me. In other words, don't be double-minded, half-hearted and hypocritical. Serve me with all your heart.

This is such an important concept, I want to read to you the definitions of some of the great sages of old. Again, R.S. Candlish says: "To walk before God, is to walk or live as if in His sight, and under His special inspection; to realize, at all times, that His presence and His providence are there; to feel His open and unslumbering eye ever upon us. To walk thus before God is impossible if there be not redeeming love on his part, apprehended by faith on our part; to be perfect, guileless, and upright, is thus walking before God, it is the great duty of the believer and only the believer can discharge that duty." You understand what Candlish is saying there. You can't walk before God with a whole heart if you’re not trusting in Him, if you’re not believing Him. And so the only people who can walk before God with integrity are those who are believers. It is an expression of our faith and trust in Him. Alders says this: "God required that Abram live a life that was pleasing to Him, in order that he need not fear being seen by His holy eyes." That's exactly what it means to walk before Him. Matthew Henry says this: "To be a Christian is to walk before God in our integrity; it is to set God always before us, and to think, and speak, and act in everything, as those who are always under His eye; it is to have a constant regard to His word as our rule and to His glory as our end in all our actions, and to be continually in His fear. It is to be inward with Him in all the duties of worship, for in them particularly we walk before God, and it is to be entire for Him, in all holy conversation. I know no religion but sincerity." Again, this is what God is getting at. Abram, walk before Me, live before Me in such a way that I take pleasure in your living and be sincere in your trust of Me, wholehearted.

And then the Lord gives Abram two good reasons why he ought to comply to those responsibilities, why he ought to respond to the Lord in that way. He says, I am God Almighty, and I will establish My covenant. He gives Abram His nature and He gives Abram His covenant as two good reasons why Abram ought to respond in this way. In other words He says to Abram trust in Me and live before Me because of who I am. I am the Almighty. I can do anything. I'm not dependent on anyone and I have everything that you need; therefore you trust in Me and you walk before Me with integrity. So He draws attention to His nature, who He is, and then He draws attention to the covenant. He says, I will establish My covenant between Me and you." Abram has perhaps forgotten the force of that vision that He had seen so many years ago in Genesis 15 when the God of heaven and earth came in the form of the smoking oven and the flaming torch and passed between those pieces. And God, by saying, Abram I will establish My covenant with you, He is saying, trust Me and live before Me because of what I have done. I have trudged like a vassal before You in order to confirm My covenant, the covenant that I initiated. The covenant that I entered in with you. I didn't have to do that. I wanted to do that. And so He sets before him His nature and His covenant and He says Abram, respond to Me in whole-hearted living, trust and integrity. God calls us to whole-hearted faith and consciousness of living before Him by encouraging us to look at Himself and look at His covenant.

You know we should never enter into the study of the Bible without going to the Bible with the express purpose of asking what does this teach me about my God? Jim Packer says that's the secret of sole-fatting Bible study, but it's more than that. If we don't go to the Scriptures looking to see what they teach us first and foremost about our God, not whether they are relevant to us. Of course, they are relevant to us. Saying that the Scriptures are relevant to us is not saying too much, it's saying too little. Saying that the Scriptures are relevant to us is like saying that gasoline is relevant to the running of a car. If I were to stand up here and give you a lecture about the relevancy of gas to the running of a car, you wouldn't say how profound. You would ask if I were mentally retarded. Of course, it's relevant to running a car. It can't run without it. Of course the Bible is relevant to believers but more than simply looking to see how the scriptures apply to us in our particular situation, we ought first to go asking what do the scriptures teach me about my God? Because that, seeing the sight of our God and the covenant that He has made with us, is what strengthens our faith for the walk that God has called us to. God revives our faith by revealing Himself to us in His word. That's the first thing that we see in this great passage.

II. God renames Abram in prospect of the fulfillment of His promises.

But there's one more thing that I'd like to appoint your attention to and you’ll see it in verses 4 through 8. There in verses 4 through 8 God renames Abram; calls him Abraham in prospect of the fulfillment of His promises. And then God repeats and elaborates on those promises to Abraham. So we see the repetition and the specification of God's covenant promises. He's going to get even more specific than He's been before in the promises that He makes to Abram. And again we learn a great lesson here in verses 4 through 8.

God revives our faith by setting before us His promises. He revives our faith by setting before us His promises. The promises of God are here reiterated, they are emphasized and they are expanded. And you’ll see at least six of them in this passage. Look back with me at verse 2. In verse 2 God promises that He will establish, that is, He will make firm His covenant and He will multiply Abram exceedingly. In other words, He's going to do something beyond Abram's thinking. He's repeating that because Abram thinks well you know Ishmael is going to be the one through whom God does this, and God is reiterating this so that Abram will know that no, Abram, my plan is a little bit grander than you have imagined. Behold, I will make firm the covenant that I have made with you, and I will multiply you exceedingly. That's the first promise that He reiterates.

Second, He says that He will make Abram the father of a multitude of nations. Look at verse 5. "I will make you a father of a multitude of nations." God had before promised a land to Abram. Now He promises that He will make him a father of nations and therefore Abram's name is changed. And we’ll talk about that in just a moment. Abram's name is changed to Abraham because God has promised to make him a father of a multitude of nations.

Verse 6. Third promise. He will make Abram the father of kings. He's already promised him land. He's now promised him that he will be the father of nations. But not only the father of nations, the father of kings, in verse 6. In fact, the book of Genesis will tell us that the Midianites, and the Ishamelites and the Edomites and the Israelites, all their kings will be descendants of Abram.

Fourth promise, verse 7. He will include Abram's descendants in the covenant. This covenant is not only for Abram, it's for his descendants. This promise is not only to Abram, but to his children. We see here the establishment of the covenant community.

Fifth promise, verse 8. He will give the land to Abraham and his descendants. Here again we see the promise of land revisited and confirmed by God to Abraham. And then sixth and finally, in verse 8 we see God say this. I will be a God to you and to your seed, to your descendants. God in this phrase, notice he repeats this. I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you. And then the end of verse 7, "to be God to you and your descendants after you."

And then verse 8, "for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God." This is a marriage pledge from God to Abraham. God is pronouncing His own I will. He's pronouncing His own I do. I am going to be your God, Abraham, and the God of your spiritual descendants. I'm going to be their God. This is the greatest gift that could possibly be given. Alders says this: "God not only gave many gifts of graces to Abraham, but He gave Himself to His covenant people. And this indicates the true reality of the covenant blessing. God's covenant people would not only be blessed by God, they would possess God as their own God." And Matthew Henry says this: "He is enough to us, if we are in covenant with Him; we have all in Him, and we have enough in Him, enough to satisfy our most enlarged desires, enough to supply the defect of everything else and to secure us a happiness for our immortal souls."

And so God holds up these promises and He says Abram, this is what I'm going to do for you. Behold, the feast that I am spreading for you, and you’re thinking for the last thirteen years that I've forgotten. Behold the promises, remember the promises, believe the promises.

Now I want you to remember, too, that Paul, the great apostle has his eye on God in this passage, and he tells us three very, very important things. And I'd like you to turn with me to the New Testament to see those three things.

First, if you would turn with me Galatians, chapter 3. When we read in Genesis 17:7 that the covenant was with Abraham and with his seed, we naturally think of all those who follow in the faith of Abraham. And we're not incorrect to do that, but the apostle Paul draws us to very sharp, theological point that he wants to drive home in Galatians, chapter 3 and especially verse 16. Look at it here. Galatians 3, verse 16: "Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to His seed. He does not say ‘and to seeds’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘and to your seed,’ that is, Christ. Do you realize what Paul is telling you there? That all the promises that God made to Abraham and to his seed are found and summed up and possessed by and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He alone is the inheritor of the promises of Abraham. And so, if I can say this reverently, if you want a piece of that pie, you must be in Christ. You must be united with Him, you must be identified with Him, you must have trusted in Him and rested in Him alone because all of these promises that we have just enumerated belong to Christ, and they are only enjoyed by those who trust in Him. That's the first glorious theological point that Paul draws from Genesis 17.

There's another one if you turn back to Romans, chapter 4. We ask the question, who is Abram's seed? And Paul tells us unequivocally Christ. That is Abram's seed. And so we ask another question as we look at Genesis 17. We ask, well, who are the nations? Who are these nations that God has promised Abram to be a father of? Paul gives us an answer in Romans, chapter 4, beginning in verse 14. He's talking about those who are heirs of the promises, and he says in Romans 4, verse 14: "If those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason, it is by faith that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, ‘A Father of many nations I have made you’) in the sight of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. In hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be.’"

And the apostle Paul makes it clear there that this is fulfilled as both the Jews who trust in Christ and all the Gentiles who trust in Christ, the mediator of the covenant of grace which God had made with Abraham, that the Jews and the Gentiles would be the many nations, and out of all the nations of the earth, men and women and boys and girls would be brought and drawn to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is how he would be a father of many nations. Who were the nations? A spiritual family of all those who believe from every tribe and every tongue and every nation.

One last question that Paul answers from Genesis 17. And if you’ll look back to Romans 4, verse 13, you’ll see the answer to it. What is the land? What is the land that is promised to Abram? Abram never possessed anything himself but his burial plot in the land of Canaan. Did God forfeit His promise to Abraham? Israel was lost to the Babylonians. Did God forfeit His promise to Abraham? The apostle Paul in Romans 4:13 says no, "For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world." You see the promise of God to Abraham for the land of Canaan is transcended in the new covenant. That is hinted at when the land is lost in the exile. And the prophets then begin to think what is God exactly going to do in the new covenant? And Paul answers the promise is the world. The new heavens and the new earth. The humble shall inherit the world literally. All those who trust in the God of Abram will become the possessors of the new heaven and the new earth in Christ.

And so in this passage God renames Abram. He calls him Abraham which means the father of many nations. Wonder what Abraham looked forward to when he was given that title the father of many nations? The New Testament tells us that, too. Turn with me to the book of Revelation, chapter 7. Revelation 7 and verse 9. "And after these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands."

Is that multitude of nations surrounding the throne of the Lord Jesus Christ the same that Abraham saw as he was called the father of nations? Jesus Himself confirms that in John, chapter 8. In talking with the Jews in John, chapter 8, they said to Jesus, "Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham who died? Whom do You make yourself out to be? In answer to that, among other things, Jesus said in John 8:56: "Your Father, Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad." And in verse 58 He says: "Truly truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM." We must revive our faith with a view of the promises of God to us in Christ with a view of the glory to come, with a view of the glory of the Savior.

Can you imagine Abram walking back to the tents that night. For seventy some odd years he had borne the name and reproach of Abram, exalted father. For thirteen years he had found some relief that he had one son. Now he goes back to his tent to announce to his servants and to his family, friends, family, God has changed my name. I mean you can imagine the reaction of the family. They would be thinking well perhaps the Lord gave him a little more appropriate name. I mean one son, after all. He said, yeah, the name that he has given to me is the father of many nations.

Perhaps you are here tonight with your own hopeless prayers. El Shaddai is here. The God of the father of many nations. Your father, Abraham. Behold his children. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God You love to shut our mouths before Your awesome plan. We bow before You with Abraham and we believe. Lord, help Thou our unbeliefs, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

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