“Isaac - the Promise of a Seed”
Genesis 17:1-8, 15-21
December 2, 2012
God’s provisions now are down-payments on his promises.
I. A promised seed (Genesis 17:1-8)
II. The first seed of the promise (Genesis 17:15-21)
What do you long for? What do you cry out for? What is your heart restless about? I believe we all have longings. A hungry child longs for the next meal, a lonely child for a mother’s embrace. A young man in a dead end job longs for significance. An addict longs for freedom. A husband in an embattled marriage longs for peace. A childless wife longs for a baby in her arms. But there is more to it. We seem to have a hunger and a longing for something more, some indefinable fulfillment that will bring meaning and hope to life. When we look at the stars in the sky or the fog on the water or the stream flowing through the hills, we long for a world that should be, but isn’t.
C. S. Lewis was keenly aware of what he called this ‘"inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what." In the afterword to Pilgrim's Regress he gave examples of what sparked this desire in him: “that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.” These may not spark longing in you, but I think you long, you long, for something more, something beautiful, something just beyond reach.
From first to last the Scriptures are about longings and promises and fulfillments, and fulfillments that don’t quite fulfill and that awaken further longings and that point to the ultimate eternal completion of all things. I believe Scripture is in fact the grand story of God’s age long answer to our longings and his eternal promise of their fulfillment. Many people feel that longing at Christmas. I don’t know about you but every year one version or another of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ grips my soul:
But as I say, the whole of Scripture tells this story of longing and fulfillment, and one of the things I noticed sometime recently is that that grand story is often punctuated by the arrival of a baby - not just at Christmas, but three or four other times. And in each of these cases the baby is an expression of longing fulfilled or of hope in the midst of longing. My prayer this year is that as we study these babies; Isaac, Moses, Samuel, Obed, John the Baptist and Jesus, we will find longing fulfilled, and hope in the midst of longing.
I. A promised seed (Genesis 17:1-8)
The birth of Isaac is perhaps the most well known baby story in Scripture, apart from the birth of Jesus. It begins in Genesis 12 where, after the dispersion of the nations at the tower of Babel, God begins to call out for himself a nation from whom would come the rescue of the world.
He calls Abram of Ur to leave his home and pursue a promised land. Abram was a successful man. From the first time we meet him he has servants and flocks and herds. But this man heard the voice of God. Hebrews tells us “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went, not knowing where he was going.”
So Abram was following by faith, imperfectly, but following. Yet Abram and his wife Sarai were not free of longings. As we listen to Abram chapters 12 to 20 of Genesis, we see that he longed for a heritage, someone to pass his prosperity down to, a son to receive what he had accomplished and carry it forward. And because Abram was one who had heard God's voice, and seen God's work, he brought his longing before God more than once.
In Genesis 15 we read that “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5And 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.” 6And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Abram is openly expressing his earthly longing - for an heir. But God is promising more than Abram had asked - offspring as numerous as the stars in the desert sky. And in this Abram believes God; trusts him; is made righteous in his sight not because of inherent righteousness, but because of his faith.
But God may not have been specific enough in this promise because Abram’s wife Sarai, who was barren, and whose longing was for a child, had a really bad idea - maybe God meant they could obtain children through another mother, through Hagar her servant. After all God hadn’t promised that Sarai would have a child, only that Abram would. And so Hagar gave birth to Abram’s son Ishmael. But this did not fulfill Sarai’s longing for a child.
Which brings us to today’s text, Genesis 17. What we’re going to see here is that God made a promise to Abraham bigger than Abraham’s longing, bigger than Sarah’s longing, because God was not just concerned with Abraham’s need, or Sarah’s need, but with the need of the whole world for rescue and for right relationship with him. So from the very beginning God looked forward to a rescue that would create that relationship with all nations.
Genesis 17:1-8: 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, 2that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael the Lord appears to Abram again. In the previous chapter and the next the Lord appears as ‘the angel of the Lord,’ but here no physical description is given; he simply appears. One imagines a light and a voice. And God introduces himself by a new name: “I am God Almighty.” God Almighty is ‘El Shaddai,’ a name is used 48 times in the Old Testament. Abram, here, Isaac, in Genesis 27 and Jacob in Genesis 35 receive covenant promises from God as ‘El Shaddai’ so that in Exodus God tells Moses “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but my name the Lord I did not explain to them.”
The moment is also significant because God calls Abram both to a relationship and a moral standard: ‘walk before me and be blameless’. The phrase ‘walk before me’ or ‘walk before my face’ is a relationship phrase in Genesis. God walked with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day. Enoch ‘walked with God and was no more’. Noah, “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” And this walking involved a moral standard: to be blameless is to be perfect, whole, complete; to have integrity. God is calling Abram not to sinless perfection, but to integrity of purpose and of heart before him. Abram is to be single-mindedly God’s.
Yet God doesn’t go on to say ‘if you do this I will do this.’ Instead he graciously affirms his unilateral commitment to Abram: “2that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” On hearing this Abram’s response was fear and worship. And God said “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Abram means ‘exalted father’, but Abraham means ‘father of many.’ The component of God’s promise emphasized is the multitude of Abraham’s descendants.
Abram had wanted an heir to receive his prosperity; God wanted nations to receive his promise. Verse 6: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.” Up until now there’s been no prophetic indication that kings like David, Solomon or Jesus are part of this program. But God’s promises to David do so much to describe God’s promised seed that when Matthew summarizes the lineage of Jesus, he calls him ‘the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ The kings of Israel and the king to come are all envisioned in this moment of promise.
Verse 7: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” Here the relationship comes to the forefront. First, God makes it clear this is an everlasting covenant to Abraham and his descendants. Second, the promise itself is ‘I will be your God.’ It implies very strongly ‘you will be my people.’ God is God of the whole world and all its peoples, but he relates in a special way to those he has chosen through grace. In the Old Testament it is the people of Israel and all who join them in the faith of Abraham. In the New Testament, it’s us, all who have believed on the Lord Jesus for salvation. God chooses to establish an intimate relationship with those he has created and called.
This promise, as I’ve said before, becomes central to God’s communication with us. Let me remind you of a few of these verses. The first full statement of the promise is Leviticus 26:11 “I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. 12I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” It’s a new covenant promise, Jeremiah 31:33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” It’s an eternal promise: Revelation 21:3 “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” God promises Abraham the holy privilege of an intimate relationship with an Almighty God.
Do you see what God does here? He takes Abraham’s desire for a son and heir and magnifies it to look like the deeper longing of all mankind for a God to be our God and for a relationship that is eternal. So the promise God makes is already a promise that looks forward to Christmas, because the fall of mankind has already broken the relationship God created us to live in, and only the radical act of incarnation, the radical act of redemption, the radical act of the incarnate one’s death and resurrection is enough to restore broken mankind. And at some level that’s what we all long for.
Abraham’s longing for a legacy is really a longing for eternity. All our longings seem to be surfacings of one deeper longing for relationship and eternity. Solomon said, ‘God has set eternity in our hearts.’ Augustine “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.” Jon Foreman’s song ‘Restless’ captures this; I can’t play the whole thing but here’s twenty seconds: “I am restless, I am restless, I am restless, looking for you. I am restless, I run like the ocean to find your shore. I’m looking for you” God knows that this restless longing lies behind Abrahams’ narrower longing, and gives him a promise that presumes a redeeming savior, even if Abraham can’t conceive of that yet.
II. The first seed of the promise (Genesis 17:15-21)
But the whole thing is clarified when God answers Sarah’s longing. In verses 9-14 God tells Abraham about the covenant sign of circumcision. Then in verse 15 God says “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
God just changed Abram’s name to Abraham; now he changes Sarai’s name to Sarah. The change is subtle: Sarai means ‘my princess’. Sarah means ‘the princess’. She who had been princess to her father and her husband was now to be princess to nations: “I 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.” Abraham’s response is surprising: He falls on his face and laughs, thinking ‘Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ Was this disbelief or wonder? Some commentators lean one way, some the other. The fact that God doesn’t chastise Abraham for unbelief, as he later does Sarah, leads me to think there is at least a seed of faith here. It might be a ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ moment.
But there is no doubt Abraham’s fails to grasp what has been promised. He’s still living in his own surface longing for an heir. Verse 18: “And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!”
Abraham couldn’t quite believe Sarah would bear a son. He told God that so far as he was concerned, Ishmael was satisfactory as his heir. But God’s plans would not be changed; he had purposed to give Abraham and Sarah a child to fulfill His promises, the beginning of a line of promise that would lead to the birth of the Savior. God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” Isaac, of course, means laughter. God takes Abraham’s surprised response and makes it part of the eternal plan. You laugh - we will call him laughter. And “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.” Isaac was to be the son through whom the promise would come.
God makes this promise very concrete: “whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” God puts a time-table to this promise. And he points it specifically to Sarah. While Abraham's longing was for a legacy, and a son and an heir to receive what he had prospered in, Sarah's longing appears to be much more elemental, the longing for a child of her own in her arms. We see this especially in chapter 18, where the angel of the Lord visits Abraham, and promises that Sarah will have a son, and Sarah laughs. And Scripture explains that she is thinking inside her heart I'm old and worn out and my husband is old and shall I have this pleasure. Clearly the pleasure she speaks of is that of a baby she has undoubtedly longed for decades.
In fact we find that several of the babies in Scripture are babies longed for by women who are infertile. In two weeks we’ll look at the birth of Samuel, born to a wife who, while loved by her husband, is unable to bear children. We also think of Jacob's wife Rachel, who was unable to bear children until the Lord opened her womb. In the fourth message in our series we’ll look at Elizabeth, another old woman, past childbearing, until the Lord blessed her with a child of promise, who would make known the coming of the Messiah.
So God works through this longing for a child. And I believe this longing, like the longing for a legacy represents the deeper longing for God to rescue. Just as Sarah and these other women waited for the fulfillment of a child in their arms, so also all of mankind waited and longed for the fulfillment of God’s promised redeemer. Just as Sarah’s child represents new hope and new life, so the Messiah would bring home and life into a longing world,.
But the most significant aspect of longing, is the way God transforms it. Just as he transformed Abraham's longing into a promise of relationship and eternal covenant, so here he transforms Sarah’s longing into the promise of the seed, the offspring. On the surface that offspring is Isaac, the child Sarah would bear In less than a year.
Genesis 21: The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. 2 And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” 7 And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” The birth of the promised one bring joy!
And on a deeper level that promised one, the seed, the offspring is the entire line of Abraham’s descendants, beginning with Isaac but culminating in Jesus. This reality is introduced in Genesis 3:15 in a passage called the protoevangelium or ‘first Gospel.’ The first good news comes when God says to Satan: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Notice that in that text the collective ‘offspring,’ seed, descendants becomes a singular ‘he.’ There will come one who is ‘the seed.’
This is the exact argument Paul makes in Galatians ‘Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. The promise made to Abraham is Isaac and his descendants. The birth of Isaac brought laughter. But Paul sees that the deeper fulfillment of this is Christ, the Seed, the Promised Seed, the one who fulfills all our longings. Every baby of Scripture is the fulfillment of a longing, or of the longings of a people, but Jesus most of all, who fulfills the longings of the whole world.