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Here, we continue our study in the life of Abraham.
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before Me and be blameless. 2I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers."
3Abram fell face down, and God said to him, 4"As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God."
God just doesn't give up on us. By all logic, He should. We stumble so often, yet He remains faithful. Witness Abram. God called him to go to the promised land where He promised to make Abram's name great. Abram tarried until he was 75 years old before he finally went (Gen. 12:4). Once in the promised land, Abram fled to Egypt at the first sign of hardship (Gen. 12:10). In Egypt, he lied by saying he was not married and, in doing so, put his wife severely in jeopardy (Gen. 12:13-15). After God had come to him in a vision and stated clearly the promise of offspring (Gen. 15), Abram took matters into his own hand and had a child by his wife's handmaid (Gen. 16). With God, though, a promise is a promise. In this chapter, despite Abram's unfaithfulness, God restates His promise for the fifth time.[Footnote #1] Thirteen years have passed since Abram took matters into his own hand and had Ishmael. Certainly, the fulfillment of God's promise must have been slowed by Abram's intervention. Often, we interfere with the work of God in our lives when we step out of His will and do things our way. The motto of many in the world is "I did it my way." We, as servants of Christ, should have the motto: "I did it His way."
Abram here needs the restatement of the promise because it seems that he forgot all about it. He most likely considered the promise fulfilled (by his own efforts) through Ishmael. Abram was satisfied, content and at peace. He was retired from the work of God (so he thought). But God still had great things planned for Abram, and God had yet to truly fulfill His promises to Abram.
If, when he was eighty-five, Abram considered the fulfillment of the promise improbable (such that he took matters into his own hand), he must have, at ninety-nine, considered it impossible. Abram, at ninety-nine, was impotent and Sarai, barren throughout their marriage (see Gen. 11:30), was now past menopause also. Paul tells us that Abram "faced the fact that his body was as good as dead--since he was about a hundred years old--and that Sarah's womb was also dead" (Rom. 4:19). We might wonder, well, why did God wait so long? Why did He wait until the promise was "impossible" to carry out? The answer (I'm certain) is that now God could work without Abram's interference, and now God would get all of the glory for fulfilling the promise. If Abram (at ninety-nine) and Sarai (barren all the years of their marriage) bore a son, it would certainly be a miracle and the clear work of God (especially given that He promised it ahead of time). This is why Abram had to wait: so God would be glorified. God must make us wait on His promises (at times) so that we won't take any of the credit. Our natural tendency is to give ourselves the credit, and then acknowledge that (oh, by the way, as an afterthought) God helped a little too. Given this, God often is forced to bring us to an "impossible" situation. Then, He is assured of getting the glory. We should make it easy on ourselves! If we gave God the glory all the time (as He deserves), maybe He wouldn't find it necessary to put us into "impossible" situations.
The statement of the promise in this chapter was very clear: "The LORD appeared to him." Given that Abram had all but forgotten the promise, a clear statement of the promise was necessary, so God appeared and spoke directly to Abram. He began by saying: "I am God Almighty." Abram needed to be reminded of this. Abram stumbled in the last chapter due to the fact that he did not remember that God was all-powerful, "Almighty". The name "God Almighty" (used here for the first time in the Bible) expresses the power of God to fulfill His promises. Our disobedience, our trying to do things our way, comes from a lack of faith in God's Almighty-ness.
God then (before He restated the promise) gave Abram a command: "Walk before Me and be blameless." In the Bible, God's people are often told how to "walk" in His presence. Here, Abram is told, "Walk before Me", meaning, be aware of His presence and that He is watching; in the wilderness, Israel was told, "Walk after Me" (Deut. 13:4), meaning, walk as a servant in obedience; Enoch and Noah were told, "Walk with Me" (Gen. 5:24; Gen. 6:9), meaning, walk in fellowship, as a friend, with God; we are told, "Walk ye in [Christ]" (Col. 2:6; KJV), meaning, walk in communion, in full identification with the Lord. We, as God's people, should strive to walk in the presence of God in all of these ways.
Again, Abram was told to "walk before [God]", that is, to be conscious that God is watching, looking over his shoulder (so to speak). Such a consciousness will help Abram to carry out the other part of the command, which is to "be blameless." It is more difficult to fall into sin when we are acutely aware that God is watching us.
The term "blameless" is a strong term, denoting perfection. God desires, expects, requires perfection: no less. Christ commanded: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Of course, the only way that we (in our sin) can meet this requirement is to be declared righteous through faith in Christ. God, by His grace, has provided a way for us to be considered "blameless" in His eyes; nevertheless, do not rest in this fact. Grace is great, but righteousness is better. I often see bumper stickers that say, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." I do not like these bumper stickers because they give the impression that Christians are almost proud of their imperfection. I praise God with all my heart that, by His grace and through His Son, He has forgiven me; but I still strive (by His Spirit) to be perfect, "blameless".
The Lord continues: "I will confirm my covenant between Me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." Abram must have been astounded at this visitation of God, especially since he thought that the promise was already fulfilled. Thus, in awe and reverence, "Abram fell face down." God then began to enumerate His promises: "You will be the father of many nations." Because of this, God changed His name: "No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations." The name "Abram" means "exalted father"; and "Abraham" means "father of the multitudes". When God says that Abraham will be the "father of many nations", He is not just referring to his natural descendants, but his spiritual descendants. Abraham (in God's eyes) is considered the father of all those of faith, Jew and Gentile. Paul informs us: "It is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring" (Rom. 9:8); and "[Abraham] is the father of us all. As it is written: `I have made you a father of many nations.' He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed" (Rom. 4:16-17). Interestingly, God speaks in the past tense. He says to Abraham: "I have made you a father of many nations." In other words, it is a done deal; God considers it already done. As Paul says, God is a "God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" (Rom. 4:17).
God then enumerates five elements, five "I wills", of the promise. First, concerning Abram's service of God: "I will make you very fruitful." Indeed, Abram's faith and obedience (especially as demonstrated in Gen. 22) has strengthened the faith of countless multitudes throughout the ages. Second, concerning his offspring: "I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you." Third, concerning the endurance of the promises: "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you." Fourth, concerning the promised land: "The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you." Fifth (and most importantly), concerning the relationship of God with Abram's offspring: "I will be their God."
Clearly, with such promises, Abram was greatly blessed by God.
9Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner--those who are not your offspring. 13Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
Here, God institutes the ritual of circumcision for the descendants of Abraham, which is, as God says in verse 11, "the sign of the covenant" between God and them. Covenants between men of that time were often carved in stone; God chose to carve His in the flesh of His people. Circumcision is a rite that signifies the foregoing of living after the flesh, choosing to live in obedience to God instead. The rite means nothing in itself, unless the life behind the rite reflects the sign of circumcision, that is, unless the life is lived in obedience to God. It is really circumcision of the heart (so to speak) that is important to God, the inward manifestation of the outward sign of circumcision. God said in the Law: "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer" (Deut. 10:16); and "Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem" (Jeremiah 4:4). Christians have been given a similar rite: baptism. Baptism symbolizes the death of the old self and rebirth into the kingdom of God. As Paul says: "We were...buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom. 6:4).
The rite of circumcision was to be observed by "every male...including those born in [one's] household or bought with money from a foreigner." So, free and slave, high and low born, all beneficiaries of God's promises to Abraham were to participate in circumcision. Circumcision was "to be an everlasting covenant." The Jews broke this covenant during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt. We know this because Joshua, before entering the promise land, had to reinstitute the covenant of circumcision: "At that time the LORD said to Joshua, `Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.'" (Josh. 5:2).
Those who rejected the covenant of circumcision were "to be cut of from [their] people." This punishment on those who rejected circumcision was appropriate, because they were violating the covenant of promises given to Abraham's offspring. Thus, they were to be cut off from those promises by being "cut off from [their] people."
15God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." 17Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" 18And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!"
19Then God said, "Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year."
Lest Abraham make the same mistake that he did in chapter 16, God makes it crystal clear that Sarai will bear the son of blessing. But first, just as God changed Abraham's name, He changes Sarai's name to Sarah. "Sarai" means "my princess", whereas "Sarah" means (generally) just "princess". By bearing Isaac, she will go from being specifically Abraham's "princess" to the "princess" (in general) of the multitudes of Abraham's offspring. As God says: "I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of people will come from her" (vs. 16).
Abraham's response to this was to fall "face down" and "laugh". This was not so much in unbelief, as it was in joy and surprise at God's being able to do such an amazing thing. Abraham says: "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?"
Then Abraham says to God: "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!" Despite God's purpose, Abraham still desires Ishmael to be the child of promise. There are at least three reasons that Abraham desired that Ishmael be the child of blessing. First, Abraham undoubtedly loved Ishmael very much. In fact, he most likely thought that Ishmael was the child of the promise for these thirteen years. Second, Abraham was probably weary. To make Ishmael the child of the promise would have been easier for Abraham. He would not have to go to the trouble of raising another child. We prefer to maintain the status quo. We like things as they are. God comes to us with His plan, and we reply, "Well, aren't things fine the way they are?" But God has better things planned. Yes, His work will require effort. We will have to stir ourselves up from the sofa. But, in God's work, the effort is always worth it. Third, Abraham still desired to exalt his own work, his work of the flesh. Ishmael was the product of Sarah's and Abraham's worldly plan to fulfill God's promise. But God wanted the child of promise to be clearly seen as His work, not the world's. Salvation is the work of God, not the world.
By God's grace, even though Ishmael is not the child of promise, God will bless Ishmael. God gives Ishmael five promises, five "I wills": "I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation." However, it is with Isaac and his descendants that God's covenant will be established.
To end this revelation, God blesses Abraham greatly by giving Abraham a time-table for the fulfillment of His promise: "But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year." It is a rare thing for God to give us a time-table for His promises. He prefers that we lean on Him and live by faith, day by day. I guess God figured that Abraham waited long enough, and so blessed him by giving him the time that the promise will be fulfilled.
22When He had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him. 23On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that same day. 27And every male in Abraham's household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
After God "had finished speaking with Abraham", Abraham immediately obeyed God in ratifying the covenant: "On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him." Abraham did not waste any time. This is wise in the obediece of God. We can often, if we tarry, talk ourselves out of obeying the Word of the Lord. Immediate obedience is best.
Abraham's immediate obedience demonstrates his faith in the ability of God to carry out what He promised. Certainly, the circumcision of a ninety-nine year old man would hinder even further his ability to father a child. Thus, the circumcision of Abraham served to display God's power even further. Only God, "who gives life to the dead" (Rom. 4:17), could enable a recently circumcised, near-centenarian, to conceive a child with a wife who has been barren their entire marriage. And so, God, entirely through His power, gave life to His people through Abrarham.
Not only did Abraham himself obey God, but also Abraham's household, through the preaching of Abraham, entered into the covenant. I am sure that this was no easy message to bring to his household. Abraham had to convey to his household the surpassing goodness of God and His covenant. He had to be so convincing in his preaching that he would persuade them to be circumcised. And he was convincing, for they were all circumcised. Certainly, we have a much better gospel to preach than Abraham did. Our gospel is not the receipt of earthly blessings through circumcision, but the receipt of eternal life through faith in God's Son. Now if Abraham could preach his gospel so successfully, can't we ours?
Father, by Your Spirit, give us the ability and opportunity to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to those around us, so that they would take hold of dearly the gift of eternal life. Also, give us the kind of faith that Abraham had, faith that leads to obedience. Finally, we praise You for Your faithfulness amidst our unfaithfulness. Forgive us for our inconsistency in following Your will and obeying Your Word. We pray these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we take hold of Your promises, Amen.
1. The previous four statements of God's promise to Abram can be found in Gen. 12:2-3; 12:7; 13:14-16; 15:1-21.
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