Lecture 05: Abraham's Covenant
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: Abraham's Covenant
Let’s pray. Father, we hear stories that are so far out of our experiences that they are simply beyond comprehension. Yet we have seen other atrocities and we hear of those others have experienced and our soul cries out to you, “God, how can you be good and powerful? It is simply not possible that a good and powerful God allows these kinds of things to happen. Yet, Father, you have called us to believe, to believe that you are good, to believe that you reward righteousness and punish wickedness. And until we see that, you have called us to simply believe it. Father, we look at the story of Abraham this morning and your call for faith on his part and we pray, Father, that you will, perhaps in a way never before in our lives, help us understand what faith and a good, powerful God is. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
After the Flood
We read in Genesis 8:21 that the flood did not change the human heart. God says, “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” As we read past the story of the flood, we see that sin and its consequences continue both individually and communally. They continue individually as we read about Noah’s son, Ham, and being cursed for his sin. We read about the spread of sin corporately as the nations gather against the express command of God to build the Tower of Babel and try to achieve significance apart from God and they are punished for it. So we see sin continue, but we also see God’s redemption continue. The themes of the garden and the flood continue because God chooses one of Noah’s descendants, initially called Abram, and later renamed Abraham. We see the story of how God chose Abraham to be His agent of redemption, the means by which God was going to deal with sin.
God Renews His Call to Abraham
God calls Abraham to leave Ur, which is somewhere around Kuwait, maybe a little further north in the modern map. Abraham and his family leave and get stuck in Heron, which is about halfway to Canaan. They live there until Abraham’s father, Terah, dies; we are somewhere around 2100 B.C. Then in Genesis 12 we read about God renewing his call to Abraham. Genesis 12:1, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonors you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went. God tells Abraham, “If you leave your home country, if you will go to the land that I will identify for you, then here are the promises that I’m going to keep.” There are basically two parts to the promise.
Two Parts to the Promise
First of all, God promises that he will make a great nation out of Abraham. As we read about this later on, we see that God has been promising him descendants and land. Although, interestingly, in Genesis 12, God does not specify that Abraham’s descendants will be through his own son, but He does promise them descendants, He promises them land, and He promises to make them a great nation. Secondly, God promises a blessing to Abraham. God promises to bless Abraham, He promises to bless those who bless Abraham and to curse those who dishonor him, and in turn, Abraham is told that he will be a blessing, not just to his descendants, but to all the families of the world. That is the two-fold promise to Abraham of a great nation and a great blessing.
Two Steps to Receive Promises
As you read the story, you can see that there are two steps that Abraham has to go through if he is going to receive these two promises. There are two things he has to do. The first is that Abraham must believe. Abraham must believe that God’s promises are true. He must trust God’s promises. In other words, Abraham is called to have faith. Although the word “faith” is not used explicitly in Chapter 12, it does occur in Chapter 15, and in the book of Hebrews, Chapter 11 when they are retelling the story. The whole point is that Abraham was called to have faith. So if Abraham is going to receive these two promises, there are two things he has to do. First of all, he has to believe, he has to have faith that God’s promises are true. And then secondly, he must act on that faith. It is really important to see that. This is a conditional promise from God. God is not going to make a great nation and bless Abraham if he sat there and said, “You know, God, I really do believe that You’re God and I believe that what You say is true, but you know what? I’m kind of happy here so I’m just not going to go anywhere.” In Chapter 12, the promises are conditional, and Abraham must believe that the promises are true, but then he must put feet to those promises, to that faith. He must faithfully obey. So Abraham has a choice to make, and he chooses to believe God’s promises and then faithfully obeys. He believes God’s promises and then, because his faith is real, he faithfully obeys God. He leaves Heron and he travels to the Promised Land, to Canaan.
There are several stories that happen after that, but we are going to pick back up in Genesis Chapter 15. Genesis 15 has Abraham in Canaan, and this is a story of what we call the Abrahamic Covenant, the covenant that God makes with Abraham. If this were a sermon series on the top ten stories of the Bible, this would be the second one after creation. It is that foundational of the story. Genesis 15 is the creation of the covenant between God and Abraham, and then Abraham and his descendants.
Definition of Covenant
I am going to talk a lot about the word “covenant” and so I want you to understand what the word means. The word “covenant” means simply that there is a formal agreement between two parties. If you look at the ancient literature outside of the Bible, you can see covenant ceremonies all over the place where, for example, two kings get together and they establish a covenant with each other, they establish a formal relationship and their obligations are specified in the covenant, what their privileges are, how these two parties are supposed to relate to each other. If you read on in Genesis 15, starting at verse 7, and I would encourage you to do that this afternoon, you see the actual covenant ceremony being acted out. What the kings would do, for example, is take animal sacrifices cut in half and they would lay them open. In a normal covenant ceremony, both kings would then walk through the two parts of the animals. They are saying, “If I break the conditions of this covenant, may what we have done to these animals be done to me.” It is a little different in Genesis 15 because only God walks through, but that is the covenant ceremony. So covenant is a formal agreement where you have two parties and they agree on their respective obligations and they agree on their respective privileges. I will talk a lot about covenant relationships through the rest of the series a relationship is being established that affects the rest of the story.
There are certain privileges and obligations within the relationship that Abraham has as part of the covenant, but I am also going to be talking about a covenantal community because God’s covenant is not just with Abraham. God’s covenant, His formal relationship, is with Abraham and his descendants. Covenant: a formal agreement where there are obligations, privileges and a relationship that therefore exists, in this case, between God and Abraham and his descendants and Abraham and his descendants are the covenantal community, the group of people who are in relationship to God.
Let’s look at Genesis Chapter 15, starting at verse 1, because this is the situation that leads up to the covenant ceremony. “After these things, the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield’ [meaning I am your king, I am your protector]. ‘Your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O, Lord God, what will You give me for I continue childless and the heir of my house is Eliazar of Damascus.’ And Abram said, ‘Behold You have given me no offspring and a member of my offspring will be my heir.’” We are seeing an ancient practice for a childless couple. They would find someone and designate him or her as the heir of their estate, which is what Abraham evidently has done. He has no child and he is getting older, so he found Eliazar. “And behold, the Word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir. Your very own son shall be your heir.’ And He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and number the stars if you are able to number them.’ Then He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” God comes back to Abram. Abram has just done some really neat things, things of faith, and God says, “Your reward is going to be great.” And then Abram asks Him a question, and it is really important to understand that Abram’s question in verse 2 does not come out of a lack of faith. In fact, Abram’s question comes because he believes God so deeply. When Abram calls God, “My Lord God,” it is a very unusual title in Hebrew. It is the title that emphasizes that God is Master and Abram is slave. So Abraham has not moved out of his relationship with God, he just doe not understand what is happening. It is because he believes in Chapter 12 so intently that he is scratching his head and saying, “I don’t get it, God. I don’t understand what’s happening.” Bruce Waltke says in his excellent commentary on Genesis, “Abraham complains out of his faith, not his unbelief. It takes spiritual energy of faith to complain in contrast to despairing in silence.” Abram is saying, “I believe you, God. I believe that You will be my shield of protection. I believe that you will give me a great reward, but what good is the reward if I have no son of my own? What good is the reward if I have no heir of my own to leave it to? I don’t understand what’s going on.” And so God, in His mercy, clarifies the promise that He made to Abram in Chapter 12. He says, “The great nation that I promised of you is going to be through your own son.” Then He takes Abram out, shows him the stars and says, “Your descendants will be as numerous as these innumerable stars.” This is God repeating and clarifying His promise of Chapter 12, He is going to institute a covenant ceremony starting at verse 7 to formalize this promise. What does Abraham do? Verse 6, one of the three or four most important verses in the entire Old Testament, and I am going to supply antecedents for pronouns, “And Abraham believed the Lord and the Lord counted it to Abraham as righteousness.” Abraham trusted that God would do what He said He would do. That is the essence of Abraham’s faith. He is old, He has been promised things, and he still believes Him, but he is scratching his head and saying, “I still don’t understand how this is all going to work out. Eliazar, my own son, I do not understand.” God restates His promise to him, but nothing else has changed, right? Sarah did not suddenly come running into the room saying, “I’m pregnant!” No, nothing else has changed and God clarifies His promise, and Abraham believes the promises of God and God counted it to him as righteousness. Abraham trusted that God would do what he said He was going to do.
When Paul retells the story in Romans 4:21, he says that Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised.” There’s your definition of faith. Faith is being fully convinced that God is able to do what He has promised. Having faith in God, trusting God, believing in God; all of these are ways of saying that Abraham was fully convinced that God is who He says He is and that God will do what He says that He is going to do. When Abraham responds in faith, God responds by declaring Abraham righteous. At the very base, bottom level of the meaning of the word “righteous” describes conduct that is appropriate within a relationship. There are other meanings attached to it, especially in the New Testament, but at its most fundamental level, God has called Abraham into a covenant relationship and He’s saying, “Within this covenant relationship I am calling you to have faith. That is the only appropriate response to My promise. And so Abraham responds in the way that is expected of him as a child of the covenant. He responds in faith and God says, “You’ve got it! That’s what I want from you, that’s righteousness. Because you responded to Me the right way, because you responded to Me in faith, because you believed My promises, you are righteous.”
What Does God Expect of Us?
That is what God expected of Abraham. So the logical question to ask is: What does God expect of us? The answer is very straightforward: Exactly the same thing. What is the conduct that God expects? What is the response, I should say, that God expects from you and me and we live in our covenantal relationship with Him? And we are in a covenantal relationship with Him.“This cup is my blood of the New Covenant.” We, too, like Abraham are in a covenantal relationship and how are we called to respond?
To Trust Him
We are called to respond in faith. That is what God wants from us. He wants us to trust Him, to trust Him even when it runs counter to what appears to be the case. Even when we hear about death and atrocities, we are to respond believing that God is a holy, righteous God who will reward righteousness, and who will punish wickedness. That is the call of faith for those of us within the community of faith. There are many more that we could look at on faith, but here are two prominent ones. Hebrews in the New Testament, verse 1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” That is Abraham, is it not? Abraham has full assurance even though it is just something that he is hoping for. He is completely convinced that God will keep His word even though he cannot see it. My favorite passage is from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk looks at the world and he says, “God, it looks like the righteous are losing and the wicked are winning. What’s going on?” And God enters into a dialogue with Habakkuk and explains to him what is going on. At the end of Habakkuk, He calls the prophet to faith. Listen to Habakkuk’s response, 3:17-18, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vine, the produce of the olive fail, and the field yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice.” See, that is faith. “I will rejoice in the Lord. I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk says, “I don’t care if there’s not another single fig on any fig tree around. I don’t care if all the vines have no grapes. I don’t care if the olive trees have no olives. I don’t care if there are no sheep in the fold. I don’t care if the stalls are completely empty. Nevertheless, I will rejoice in the Lord. I will have faith in Him and I will put feet to that faith, and I will faithfully obey.” Now that is faith. No matter what appearances are, you still believe that God is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He’s going to do. What is the human tendency when it comes to this? The human tendency is to not believe, right? The human tendency is the exact opposite of faith in God. The human tendency is to want to hang onto something. The human sinful tendency is to say, “Well, if I could just see God, then I would believe.” The human tendency is to say, “Well if I could just feel His presence, then I will believe.” See, we want something more than faith. We want something that is physical and emotional, something that we can see and touch. It is in our hearts because the sin is still present. Thomas got in a lot of trouble for that. We still call Thomas “Doubting Thomas” because of what Thomas said when they told him that their Lord had been raised from the dead. John 20:25, “Unless I see in His hands the marks of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will never believe.” Oh, I bet he wishes he could take those words back. Because then Jesus appears and says, “Look and touch.” And Thomas falls down and makes and amazing declaration for a Jew, “My Lord and my God.” And Jesus responds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Without what is it impossible to please God? Faith. Without faith, not without emotion, not without some sort of physical or sensory assuredness it is impossible to please God. Without faith it is impossible to please God. This is the core, bedrock requirement of righteousness. If you want to know what God’s will for your life is, this is it. That you and I be fully convinced that God is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do, even if it runs counter to everything before our eyes. Bruce Waltke writes later on, “Christians are people of the ear not the eye. God does not appear to be seen, but He speaks to be heard.” And I would add, believed. This is what God wants from Abraham. It is what He wants from me. It is what He wants from you. He wants us to trust His promises, to believe His promises and then if that faith is true, guess what happens?
True Faith Always Shows Itself in Action
If it is true, it will always, always show itself in action. If faith is not followed by faithful obedience, if faith is not like Abraham’s, then our faith is no better than the best of demons. Even the demons believe and shudder, James 2:19. James goes on and says, “That is why faith without works is dead.” Faith that does not change your life, faith that does not move you to step out in faith is dead, it is useless, it is not righteous and God does not want anything to do with it. But if faith is true, if you and I are totally convinced in the promises of God, then it will show itself in our lives. It is faith that made Noah obey God and build the ark. It is faith that made Abraham leave his homeland and in Chapter 22 offer Isaac as a sacrifice. It is faith that made Moses refuse the power of Egypt. It is faith that made King David praise God even in the midst of being attacked and maligned. It is faith that made Habakkuk praise God even though the fig tree would not blossom. It is faith that led Paul in the New Testament to say, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” Romans 8:18. It is faith in Paul’s head that says, “Things are difficult, things are bad, I’m being beaten, I’m being ship-wrecked, I’m being laughed at. Well, that is no big deal. All these things are happening to me, but no matter how bad it gets, it’s not even worth comparing with the incredible glory that lies ahead for us.” That is faith. It is faith that makes the husband trust God even when his wife’s medical tests suggest she has cancer. It is faith that makes the wife trust God even after she has buried her first two children. It is faith that makes Jerry Sitzer trust God even though a drunk driver murdered his wife, mother, and I believe two daughters. It is faith that made Gretchen Hill, in spite of having cancer in 21 of her 22 lymph nodes return to Turkey and share the Gospel with Muslims in Istanbul. And it is faith that will support Gretchen’s husband and her four little boys now that she is gone. And it is faith that made Anna Ragland, several nights ago on her deathbed, ask her son Gary Leonard, “How could anybody go through this and not be a Christian?” We see faith not only in these extraordinary things, but we see faith in the ordinary things as well. We see faith in the life of a husband who ignores the lures of the world and honors God’s priorities in his life, which means he comes home from work, which means he plays baseball with his kids when he would rather sit on the couch on Saturdays. James Dobson’s got a great quote about this. He says, “The straight life” (I would call it the life of faith), “for a working man is pulling your tired frame out of bed five days a week, 50 weeks out of the year. It’s earning a two-week vacation in August and choosing a trip that will please the kids. The life of faith is spending your money wisely when you’d rather indulge in a new whatever. It is taking your son bike riding on Saturday when you want so badly to watch the baseball game. It is cleaning out your garage on your day off after working 60 hours the prior week. The life of faith is coping with head colds, and engine tune-ups, and crabgrass, and income tax forms. It is taking your family on church on Sunday when you’ve heard every idea that the minister has to offer.” Good thing these aren’t my ideas. “It is giving a portion of your income to God’s work when you already wonder how you’ll make ends meet.” See, that is the life of faith, in this case of a husband, who has all these lures and all these things in front of him, but he believes in God’s priorities and he puts his God and he puts his family first and he says no to the other things.
Are You Fully Convinced that What Gods Says is True?
This is the faith of Abraham. This is the faith of being fully convinced in the promises of God and then faithfully obeying Him. This is what God wants from Abraham, this is what God wants from you and me. And so I have to ask the question: Are you fully convinced that what God says is true? Are you in the deepest, darkest part of your soul absolutely convinced that God is who He says he is and that He will do what He says He will do? Because if you are, then you have the life of joy, a joy that is deep, down inside because you are receiving the blessings of God. You are accepting God at His word and you are stepping out in faith and watching Him keep His promises. Who receives the blessings of Abraham? You and I do. Galatians 3:7 and following, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham, all the sons and daughters.” And the scripture, “Foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ And so then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” If you and I are fully convinced that God is true, then we are an inheritor of the blessings of Abraham. The blessings that God gave to him and through him to bless all the families of the world. If you are not fully convinced that God is true, then I have a few things to ask: First, would you be willing to cry out with the Father in Mark 9? He brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus. He says, “If you will You can heal him.” Jesus goes, “If I can!” And the man responds in one of the most beautiful declarations in Scripture, “I believe, help my unbelief.” I invite you today, if you have been holding portions of your heart back where you have been refusing to really believe God, to cry out to Him, “I do believe God, but please help my unbelief.”
Secondly, please step out. Please step out on the promises of God. If you play it safe you are going to be sorry. But true faith will always push you out to test, to take a chance, to risk believing. And You will find that if you are fully convinced in the promises of God and take that risk to step out because you believe in God, then you will see God work in perhaps ways that you have never seen Him work before.
Let’s pray. Father, may there not be a Laodicean among our midst. May there not be a single person who will leave this place lukewarm, who kind of believes, who thinks it is okay to be a part-time saint, a partially committed disciple of Jesus Christ because that is not faith. Oh, Father, there is nothing that I can do in my words to drive this point home. I pray through the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of everyone here that we will ask ourselves, “Are we fully convinced that God is able to do as He has promised?” If we are, halleluiah! If we are not, then Father, we believe, but oh, Father, help us in our unbelief and give us the conviction to walk out because You are faithful and You will care for Your children. May we not be lukewarm. Amen.
- What do you think about the connection between faith and faithful action? Think of Abraham as the biblical paradigm for faith, and then think about perhaps what you have been taught or what you have experienced. How do they line up?
- Have you ever questioned God as an expression of your faith? How were these experiences different from those times you cried out to God because you lacked the faith?
- How would you define “faith”? Use only terminology that a non-Christian would understand.
- What are some of the things we substitute for faith? In other words, what are some of the things that replace faith and keep us from having to really have faith in God?
- Much of American Christianity historically has emphasized faith but has had very little to say about faithful obedience. Now that you have thought through some of these issues, how do you think the paradigm of Abraham’s faith measures up to yours?
- What are some areas in which God is calling you to trust him? What is the world telling you to do instead? Why is trust in God so hard (at least some of the time)?
- Share some times in which you cried out, “I believe. Help my unbelief!” What drove you to this point, and how did it all turn out?