18. Grasping the Great Truth of God (Genesis 17:1-27)
One of the greatest temptations I face in preaching week after week is the compulsion to find something new to proclaim from the pulpit. When this happens, I must force myself to recognize that such an urge is most often not from God. It was the pagan Athenians who were eager to hear something new and novel (Acts 17:19). The apostles, on the other hand, set themselves to reminding Christians of the truths they had already heard (cf. I Corinthians 4:7; I Timothy 4:6; II Timothy 2:14; II Peter 1:12,13; 3:1).
Novelty may be entertaining, but it is not often edifying. Listen to these words of wisdom from the pen of C. S. Lewis. While the context is not precisely ours, the principle remains the same:
To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain—many give up churchgoing altogether—merely endure.…
But every novelty presents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself, and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was ‘for what does it serve?’ ‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’
A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service, but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.166
While little that we find in Genesis 17 may be new to us, we must remember that we have ‘read the last chapter of the book.’ What we read as ancient history, Abram learned over a period of years, piece by piece. Much of what is said in chapter 17 was new and exciting to Abraham. We cannot experience the excitement and expectation of Abraham until we have ‘walked in his shoes’ through this text.
As we approach the passage, let us think of ourselves as Abram did. He was 99 years old at the time. Twenty-four years ago Abram had left Haran, in obedience to the divine call of Genesis 12:1-3. After Abram and Lot separated and Abram had defeated the eastern alliance of kings (chapters 13 and 14), God formally made a covenant with Abram, specifying that his heir would come from his own body (15:4), and giving a more exact description of the land that he would possess (15:18-21). In addition, he was told the fate of his offspring for the next several generations (15:12-16).
Thirteen years previous to where we stand in chapter 17, Abram had taken a wrong turn. Following the advice of his wife, Abram attempted to produce the heir God had promised by following an established practice of his day, taking Sarai’s maid, Hagar, as his wife. This led only to disunity and heartbreak for all involved. So far as we can tell, God has not spoken since He encountered Hagar on her way to Egypt.
These thirteen years were not wasted. They served to illustrate the consequences of serving God in the power of the flesh, and of acting presumptuously . They served, as well, to intensify the impossibility of Abram and Sarai ever having a child between them. In this way, if a child was born at this time it would surely be a work of God, and not of man. It appears that, in the light of this difficulty, Abram had come to believe that Ishmael was his only hope for an heir.
God’s words in chapter 17 break the silence of 13 years:
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’ (Genesis 17:1-2).
After thirteen years of silence, Abram must have been greatly encouraged by this encounter with God. In times past, God had only been said to have spoken to Abram (cf. 12:1) or come in a vision (15:12-17). Here, after 24 years, God revealed Himself; He appeared to Abram. Abram had seen God for the first time.
God had disclosed Himself to Abram in a more intimate fashion. Also, He manifested Himself more fully in terms of His character and attributes. God referred to Himself as ‘God Almighty,’ E1 Shaddai. This is the first time God has been called by this name. It is a designation which emphasizes His infinite power.167 What God had long before determined, and what would now be more precisely defined, would depend upon a God of infinite power to accomplish.
Previously, God had required little of Abram other than to leave (Ur) and believe (15:6) in His promise. Now that the covenant was about to be implemented,168 Abram would be required to behave in a way that God prescribed. He must walk before his God blamelessly, not in perfection,169 but in purity (15:1). It is probably not without significance that God withheld specific duties until long after Abram’s belief was evident, so that works are not the basis of the covenant but a by-product of it.
Just as Abram had heard God refer to Himself by a new name, so Abram is renamed, a token of his destiny:
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 (Genesis 17:4-5).
The name Abram meant ‘high father’ or ‘exalted father.’ This alone may have proved to be an embarrassment to Abram who had only one child and that by a slave. But now his name was changed to ‘father of a multitude.’ How could Abraham ever live this name down? By the grace of God, he would soon live up to his new name.
Most of us have had the unhappy experience of making an agreement only to find that it profited us far less than we had hoped for and been led to expect. Just the opposite is true with God’s promises. The more we learn of them, the richer the blessings they contain. Abram had been told that he would become a great nation (12:2); now he is told that in fact he will become the ‘father of a multitude of nations’ (17:4). Beyond this, he will be the father of kings (17:6). El Shaddai promised to be a God to Abram and to his descendants (17:7), among whom we must include Abram’s spiritual seed (cf. Galatians 3:16). The covenant was not only between Abraham and God, but between God and Abraham’s seed, forever.
Stipulations of the Covenant
There is a clearly defined outline of the obligations of this covenant described in chapter 17. In verse 4 God said, ‘As for Me.’ In verse 9 He said, ‘As for you.’ In verse 15 we read, ‘As for Sarai.’ Finally, in verse 20, we find, ‘As for Ishmael,’ God’s covenant is eternal and sure. The enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant is conditional. Only by keeping these conditions can man enjoy the blessings of God as guaranteed in the covenant.
The obligation upon Abraham and his descendants was that they be circumcised:
This is My covenent, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:10).
In one way, circumcision seems too simple. How can God require only this one act? Let us remember that God had already said to Abraham, “Walk before Me, and be blameless” (verse 1). Circumcision was not all that Abraham was required to do—rather, it was the symbol of his relationship to God and signified what his moral conduct should be. Circumcision, for Abraham, meant that he had bound himself to God in this covenant. He looked forward to its blessings, and he also submitted to its stipulations.
Circumcision is the only act of surgery of its kind that is beneficial to mankind. More than its physical benefits, it signifies spiritual requirements as well. Symbolically, the flesh is put away. Abram had acquired a son by the use of his reproductive organ. Now he submitted it to God. No Israelite could ever engage in the sex act without being reminded of the fact that he belonged to God. Children that were begotten were to be brought up according to God’s Word. Circumcision of infant sons did not save them but evidenced the faith of the father and mother in the God of Abraham. As that young child grew up, his circumcision was a sign to him that he was different from other boys—he belonged to God. It was not the circumcision that saved the boy, but the sign which would forever remind him of what God required to enjoy the benefits of His covenant. Circumcision of the male only may have signified the special responsibility which God had assigned to the father. (This may have had particular significance to Abraham after the incident with Hagar.) Some have emphasized the similarities between baptism and circumcision and surely there are some (cf. Colossians 2:10-12). Both signify a union with God that has already occurred. Both necessitate the putting away of former things and living a life pleasing to God (cf. Romans 6:1ff; Colossians 3:1-11) .
But there are rather obvious differences which must be kept in mind. Baptism is for believing adults, as an indication of their faith in God (Acts 16:33; 19:1-7).170 Circumcision was performed on infants eight days old and evidenced the faith of the parents. Baptism was a public sign, circumcision was a private sign. Baptism is for all believers, male and female, circumcision was only for the males. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant with Abraham; baptism is not the sign of the New Covenant but the Lord’s supper (cf. Luke 22:20).
A Promise for Sarah
Up to this time, God had promised Abraham a son but had not specifically identified the mother of this child. Abraham had been convinced by Sarai and circumstances that it must be Hagar. It seems as though Abraham still considered this to be the case. What a shock God’s words must have been, and what a commentary on chapter 16:
As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her (Genesis 17:15-16).
What Abraham must have originally assumed, what experience seemed to deny, was that Sarah would be the mother of his son and heir. The promise of an heir is now narrowed to Abraham and Sarai.
Abraham’s response is puzzling:
Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ (Genesis 17:17).
Before we attempt to determine whether Abraham’s response was consistent with his faith, let me point out that what is recorded is not spoken to God. This was Abraham’s inner and immediate response to God’s proclamation. Personally, I do not view this as the laugh of delight, but of disbelief. The impossibility of such a thing taking place was the cause of Abraham’s outburst. Lest we be too pious about this matter, I suspect Abraham’s response is just about what we would have done. At the same time, I do not want to suggest total unbelief on Abraham’s part. The promise was an incredible one—too much to take in one dose. Laughter is often the response to things which catch us off guard.
Abraham’s words to God also reflect a failure to fully grasp what has just been promised: “Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!” (Genesis 17:18).
If Abraham could not believe that Sarah would bear a son to him, then his request is easily explained. He informed God that so far as he was concerned, Ishmael was satisfactory as his heir. No such wonder as another son through Sarah was necessary since a son was already in the family. In addition, the love of Abrabam for this boy is again evidenced. Why should another child be born, especially when conflict would be inevitable? Couldn’t God choose to bless Ishmael rather than to provide another child?
God’s plans would not be changed. God had purposed to give Abraham and Sarah a child and through this child to bring about His promises. No substitute son was satisfactory, especially when he was the result of self effort. Indeed, Sarah would bear a son and the spiritual blessings could only come about through him:
‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him’ (Genesis 17:19).
A Promise for Ishmael
While the spiritual blessings must come through Isaac, God will not overlook the love of Abraham for his son nor of His own promise to Hagar (cf. 16:10ff.). Ishmael would become a great nation, and of him would come 12 princes, but the spiritual blessings could only come through Isaac. The doctrine of divine election is to be seen in this promise.
Verses 22-27 stress the important role of obedience in our Christian lives. It is precious to God. Because of this, He recorded the circumcision of Abraham, Ishmael, and all of Abraham’s household. The response of faith to divine commands is always obedience.
While there was a time lapse of 13 years from the birth of Ishmael to this appearance of God, there was only about three months from the circumcision of Abraham to the birth of Isaac.
There is little in this passage which is new to anyone who has read their Bible. Let us not forget, however, that a good deal of what was said was new to Abraham.
New revelation was simply clarification of the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It suddenly occurred to me in my study of this passage that all of Abraham’s life was primarily focused upon the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It took him a lifetime to begin to grasp the promise which initially took only three verses to record. The pinnacle of Abraham’s growth in faith is seen in his willingness to sacrifice his son (chapter 22). This act was the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to bless him through his descendants.
If it took Abraham a lifetime to grasp three verses of Scripture, how long will it take us to fathom the depth of the riches of His grace (cf. Romans 11:33-36)?
This passage helps me come to grips with the desire to learn ‘new’ truths for my own life and for my preaching. God is not so interested in us knowing new truth as He is in us grasping the few great truths of His word. How easy it is to think that we have learned some truth, only to pass on to another. In Abraham’s life, God revealed a truth, then continued to return to it, testing him, and then revealing more of that truth than he had known before. Which one of us can say that we have come to fathom the doctrine of the grace of God or of the atonement? Who would be willing to claim that he had seen all of its implications? I believe that, like Abraham, we can expect God to be at work in our lives, expanding and expounding upon the few great and central truths of Christianity.
The more I study the life of Abraham, the more I see that his was a relationship of growth. He came to learn more and more about the God Who called him. He came to a deeper and deeper understanding of the meaning of God’s Word. As he did so, he invariably drew nearer and nearer to God. There was not only a growth in Abraham’s knowledge, but in his intimacy. At first, God only spoke to Abraham (12:1). Twenty-four years later He revealed Himself to Abraham and spoke with him. Abraham, for the first time, communed with God and interacted with Him. Later, he would be called the friend of God.
You and I cannot have a static relationship with God. Not if we are truly born again. God will not allow this to happen. He may allow us to fail such as Abraham often did. He may leave us to ourselves for a time, as Abram found God silent for 13 years. But sooner or later God will break into our lethargic lives and draw us closer to Himself. That is what the Christian life is all about.
167 “This was a new title of God (Hebrew: El Shaddai). The root idea seems to be that of power and ability, and is best rendered by the phrase ‘the Mighty God,’ the addition of ‘All’ being no necessary part of the word. This special emphasis upon God’s power was very appropriate to the new message about to be given.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis : A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1946), pp. 153-154.
168 The covenant had been formally made in chapter 15. Here in chapter 17, the implementation of the covenant is referred to in verse 2. Thus the translators of the NASV render the word (literally ‘give’) ‘establish.’
170 Some would use the Acts 16 passage to proof-text infant baptism, but this cannot be done. All who were of the jailor’s household heard the gospel (16:32); all believed (16:34); all were baptized (16:33), all rejoiced (16:34). All who were baptized were themselves believers, just as was the jailor.