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Abraham and the one-sided covenant

Back to all sermons Jesus in the Old Testament 2017

Date: November 12, 2017

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: Jesus in the Old Testament 2017

Scripture: Genesis 15:1–15:21

During November and December, leading up to Christmas, I am preaching through a series I’m calling “Jesus in the Old Testament.” That may seem like an odd title, seeing that the Old Testament never mentions the name Jesus. But the reality is that, even though the 39 books that make up the OT were written by many people over many years in many different places, the whole Old Testament points to Jesus’ coming, telling the story of the redemption God is bringing into a broken, fallen world that culminates in the giving of His Son Jesus for the sins of the world. Jesus recognized this; as he said to the Pharisees in John 5:39-40 - You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me,  40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.


It is important to understand how the whole OT points to Jesus because many of you have been taught to read the Old Testament like they are stories about moral examples – Noah is about trusting in God, even when people think you’re nuts. David and Goliath is a story about overcoming the giants in your life. And there are some examples to follow, of course, but truly the Old Testament is primarily about the redemption God is bringing into a broken, fallen world that culminates in the giving of His Son Jesus for the sins of the world. 


Last week we looked at Adam & Eve, the fall, the rebellion that created the separation between God and the people He created. However, we also saw that even in that fall, there was a promise of a battle between Satan, the serpent, and Jesus, that the serpent would wound the seed of the woman but the seed would crush the serpent’s head. Even in the fall, there is a sign of the redemption that is to come through the Son of God.


This morning, we’re fast forwarding to the story of Abraham. In Genesis 11, we find that faith in God is almost gone, and we meet a man named Abram. Abram and his family live in a place called Ur.  The people of Ur were not a people that worshiped the God of the Bible; in fact, it was well known as a center of lunar worship.  They had a religion based around a moon god named Sin.  And Abram’s family was no longer serving the God of the Adam and Eve, the God of Noah, but had given in to the worship of their society. 


Joshua 24:2 - Joshua said to all the people, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods”


Only Abram is apparently still holding on to faith in God, but his wife Sarai is barren.  It seems that faith in the true God is about to die out.  And into this scene, God speaks.

Genesis 12:1-4 - The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.  2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."  4 So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.


So Abram, childless and 75 years old, sets out on the adventure that God has called him and Sarai and Lot on. Let that be a lesson for those of you who are little more experienced in life, that God is never done challenging you to live a life of adventure. God says to Abram, leave your country, your people, and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you.  That’s it – no directions, no map.  Just leave all that you are familiar with.  And I promise you that I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.  I will bless you with land, descendants, and honor, and life that has a meaning beyond anything you ever could have hoped for.


And by faith, Abram leaves, believing that God has something better planned for him.


So the story of Abram begins with this: God sets apart one man who He will bless, and through whom the world will be blessed. His blessing is his favor, yes his gifts – land, descendants – but primarily His presence and relationship. 


But the years go by and the promise is not coming to pass. Abram turns 80. Still no child. We come to Genesis 15.


Genesis 15:1-21 - After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward."  2 But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?"  3 And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."  4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir."  5 He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars-- if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."  6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness7 He also said to him, "I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."  8 But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?"  9 So the LORD said to him, "Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon."  10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.  11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.  12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.  13 Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.  14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.  15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age.  16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure."  17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.  18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates--  19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites,  20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites,  21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites."


What is going on here? Abram, still waiting on that child of promise, asks God how he can know that God will fulfill his promise. Notice the two things he says – he is doubting that God will come through on his promise of a child, and he is also doubting in verse 8 that he has what it takes to enter the land. He doubts God’s faithfulness, and he doubts his own faith. Even thought he has heard God’s audible voice, he still doubts!


What does God do in return? First of all, he doesn’t say “How dare you question me. Nobody doubts God!” He does not condemn Abraham for doubting. I think this is very important for many churches to hear.  I know that I’ve been in many Christian circles and not felt like it was okay to doubt, to ask questions.  For example, the last time I led youth group someone had asked whether or not a person could lose his salvation.  So I led a discussion where one group looked at Bible verses that talked about the assurance the believer has that they can never lose their salvation, and the other group looked at verses that seemed to say that you needed to persevere to the end in order to be saved.  In the end, I wound up summarizing by referencing a classic Reformed doctrine known as perseverance of the saints, which states that those who are truly saved can never lose their salvation, but that part of true salvation is persevering to the end.  I was surprised to hear soon after from one of the pastors, an elder, and one of my leaders that it was wrong for me to raise such questions, that the church believed you could never lose your salvation, so teach that, end of story.  But God is not like the church – “Abram, my followers aren’t allowed to question or doubt” – he welcomes Abram’s questions and does not cut him down for it.


But notice that God also doesn’t say “well, we all have our doubts” and leave it at that.  He answers Abram, and challenges him to move past his doubt into belief.  It’s like the most famous doubter in the Bible – Thomas, known as doubting Thomas.  After Jesus’ resurrection, he says that he won’t believe Jesus has been raised from the dead unless he touches him himself, and Jesus appears to him, welcomes his doubts and answers him, and then challenges him to move past his doubt to belief.  


John 20:27-28 - Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."  28 Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"


This is beyond what we find in academia, or in many circles in the world today.  Doubt and skepticism just for the sake of being a fashionable skeptic are not validated by God.  There is nothing wrong with doubt, as long as it has the courage to genuinely look for the answers and believe if that answer is found.  It’s one thing to doubt God’s existence, but it’s another thing to actually look for the answer.  The first is often just cowardice, while the second is courageous.  I think what we find with God is that doubts and questions are completely accepted, but then doubters are challenged to move past their doubt to belief.


So what does God do? Remember that Abram lives in an oral culture.  If you want to make a contract with someone to work on your roof today, you enter into a written contract.  If you do it orally and something goes wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it.  But if it’s written, then there are consequences if they put a hole in your roof or if you do not pay them for their labor.  In Abram’s day, contracts were done orally, and two parties would dramatize the penalty.  They would take an animal or a few animals, and cut them up, and then the parties would walk between the pieces to act out the penalty.  Essentially, they would be saying to each other, “if I do not do all that I am saying, may I be cut up like these animals.”  There’s an example of this in Jeremiah 34:18, where God says


Jeremiah 34:18 - The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.  


What happens in verses 9-17 is that in response to Abram’s doubts and questions, God makes a covenant, a contract, with Abram.  


Does that make sense?  Now let’s look at the covenant between Abram and God.  Abram has expressed his doubts to God, wondering if he will actually have a child and inherit the land.  So God has Abram set up this covenant. Typically a king has a servant walk through the pieces, and maybe a generous and good king might walk through the pieces as well, but they do not have to, because they are the king, of course. But what happens here?  Who passes through the pieces?  God passes through the pieces, in the form of a smoking firepot and a blazing torch.  The smoking firepot is reminiscent of Exodus 19:18, when the Lord descends on Mount Sinai in smoke and fire, and the blazing torch is reminiscent of the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness, where God went ahead of them as a pillar of fire in the night.  By passing through the pieces, God is telling Abram, if I do not come through for you, if you do not have a child and inherit this land, may I die and be cut up as these animals are.  Do you doubt me Abram?  By this covenant I promise you that I will come through for you, or I will die.


But notice one more thing – who doesn’t pass through the pieces? Abram!  Remember that when two parties cut a covenant, both would walk through the pieces so as to declare their allegiance.  But whenever a king and a servant made a covenant, the servant would go through, and rarely would a king go through, because, after all, he’s the king.  But in this covenant, God passes through the covenant, but Abram does not.  What is God saying?  If I fail to come through for you, I will die.  But, if you fail to come through, I will pay the penalty as well.  Remember that Abram didn’t just doubt God, but he doubted himself.  I’m not sure that I’m up for this, God – I’ll probably let you down.  God could have told him, listen – come through, or you will die.  But God amazingly tells him, even if you fail, I will pay the penalty.  And as you may know, Abram will fail in some big ways in the upcoming chapter, even to the point of doubting God to the point of producing a child with Hagar, Sarai’s maidservant.


Do you notice what happens here?  It’s only Genesis 15, early on in the Bible, we already are hearing the gospel – if you fail, Abram, I will pay the penalty you deserve.  This points us to the gospel of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for our sins.  


Isaiah 53:5 - But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.


1 Corinthians 15:1-4 - Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures


The good news is that Jesus died for our sins. He took our punishment, our penalty. 


I think that the issue of doubt is one of the ways of looking at salvation.  We do not trust that God has our best interests at heart, nor do we trust that God is who the Bible claims he is, nor do we necessarily even trust that the Bible is God’s Word.  We put more trust in ourselves, that we know what is best for us, and doubt God.  God is calling us to trust him with all of our hearts, knowing that not only will he never let us down, but even if we let him down, he will pay the penalty for us.  Essentially, he is inviting you and me to enter into a relationship where he cares for you like a good king, and you can trust him to care for you.  He will never fail you, and even if you fail him, he will take the penalty.


And Abraham believes God, and it is credited to him as righteousness. Abraham is made righteous not by his deeds, not by his good works, but by trusting in God’s promise. 


Do you hear the staggering pronouncement that God is making here?  Do you see how he handles our doubts?  Do you doubt me, he says?  I will come through for you, I will do what I have promised, or I will die.  Do you doubt yourself?  God tells you that if you fail, He will pay the penalty for you.


Romans 8:31-32 - What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?  32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?


So what is doubt?  How does doubt show itself?  I think doubt is what is underneath sin – unbelief, distrust that God knows what’s best.  There’s the big picture, doubting that what the Bible says is true, doubting that Jesus actually is God’s Son and the savior you need, doubting that there is an absolute truth, that there is right and wrong.  Or you can doubt that church is actually important, or that spending time with God in prayer will actually pay off.  Every time we sin, we are doubting that God will come through, that his way is best – is it better to remain sexually pure until you are married, and then to remain faithful to your partner?  That takes trust in God.  Is it better to forgive, to swallow your words whenever you want to tear someone apart, instead of letting everyone know what a horrible person he is?  That takes trust in God.  Would it be better to be honest at work instead of spinning, fudging, and lying to make yourself look better?  That takes trust in God.  


Some of you may not have ever made a commitment to God.  Do you doubt him?  Do you not believe that he is who he says he is, or that he can do what he says he can do?  He will come through.  But some of you are afraid to take steps of faith along this adventure not because you doubt God, but because you doubt yourself.  You know yourself, how weak and frail you are, and you’re afraid that you will screw up and let God down.  It’s like doubting that I can do anything around the house, so I don’t even try.  What if someone were to say to me, “Listen, give it a try.  If you screw something up, I’ll pay for the repair so you can try again.”  I can doubt that I can be a leader, or that I can be an evangelist, so I don’t even try.  Jesus says if you fail, he will pay the penalty.  You have nothing to lose.


If you fail, He will pay the penalty for you.


I think that what we find in Genesis 15 is that doubters and questioners and skeptics are so welcomed by God, but then they are challenged to stop doubting and believe.  Skepticism just for the sake of being a skeptic is not encouraged.  But neither is belief without honest questioning.  Bring your honest doubts, and when he answers, have the courage to stop doubting and believe.


God is saying this morning to you - Enter into a covenant, an interactive relationship with me.  I will never fail you, and I promise you that I will be your protector, your guide, your savior.  In return, follow me, obey me, go where I lead you and trust that what I tell you is what is best for you.  I will never fail you.  If you fail me, I will pay the penalty you deserve.