“We're God's People”
October 8, 2006
God’s people have a living relationship with God Almighty.
I. The Relationship (Genesis 17:1-8)
II. The Sign (Genesis 17:9-14)
III. The Blessing (Genesis 17:15-22)
IV. The Obedience (Genesis 17:23-27)
MessageWhen I was growing up during the Hippie period of the 1960's and 70's, Christianity was un-cool. Religion was for old people and Church was part of the establishment. Then came the Jesus People, the Jesus Movement, in which thousands of young people, hippies and drop outs found Jesus outside the established church and way of doing thing. Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel, Chuck Girard, Canton, Ohio, Explo ‘72 in Dallas TX, there was this whole Jesus scene happening. Some at the center and some at the fringes of that movement are still following Jesus today. And we remember one of the key phrases and thoughts that came from that movement: ‘It’s not religion - it’s a relationship with Jesus Christ.’ Not religion, but relationship.
Now where would a thought like that come from? How about from Scripture? How about from the heart of God? It turns out that from Genesis to Revelation God reveals that what he is seeking with fallen men is relationship. He wants to be our God and he wants us to be his people. This theme is prevalent in Scripture, both in preced and in example. How early is this truth of relationship taught? You could say it begins in Genesis 2, in Eden where God walked with Adam. We were created for that relationship. But after man fell into sin and was separated from God the relationship was broken. And the story of Scripture is the history of God’s plan to restore an intimate relationship with the people he had created in his image. Our text for this week, Genesis 17, shows a key moment in that plan, a relational moment between God and Abraham, a moment in which God announces that he will be the God of his people. Here we begin to see that God’s people have a living relationship with God Almighty.
I. The Relationship (Genesis 17:1-8)
We start with Genesis 17:1-9 where God’s covenant with Abraham is confirmed and his relationship with his people announced. Genesis 17:1-9 When 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 facedown, 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."
Thirteen years have passed since the birth of Ishmael. As far as we can tell not much has changed in Abram’s household. But when Abram was 99 the Lord appeared to him again. In the previous chapter and the next the Lord appears as ‘the angel of the Lord’, but here no description of a physical guise is given. The Lord simply appears; one suspects this was something like a light and voice. And God introduces himself by a new name: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” In the previous chapter Hagar called God ‘El roi’ - the God who sees. Here God calls himself ‘El Shaddai’ God Almighty. Though this name is used only 48 times in the Old Testament, a number of them are at key moment. The word has been translated ‘almighty’ since before the time of Jesus, but scholars are divided as to it’s root meaning, which may be something like ‘the God above the mountains’ In any event Abram, here, and Isaac, in Genesis 27 and Jacob in Genesis 35 receive covenant promises from God as ‘El Shaddai’ so that in Exodus God will tell 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.”
So it’s a significant moment because God reveals this name. It’s 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, Genesis 6:9 tells us, “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” To be blameless is to be perfect, whole, complete; it is 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, as Noah was.
And yet God does not go on to say ‘if you are . . then I will’. Instead he once again graciously affirms his covenant commitment to Abram: “I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” On hearing this Abram’s response was fear and worship: he fell face down in awe. And God said “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.” Abram means ‘exalted father’, but Abraham, as God says, means ‘father of many’. The component of God’s promise emphasized here is the multitude of Abraham’s descendants, so that even his name now points to this promise of God. Verse 6: “I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.”
Notice another new promise. 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: “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.” This is where the relational stuff begins to come to the forefront. First, God makes it clear this is an everlasting covenant, which had only until now been mentioned in passing. Second, God makes it clear that his covenant promise is to be God to Abraham and his descendants. This is an incredible promise: ‘I will be your God.’ And it implies very strongly ‘you will be my people.’ God is God of the whole world and all it’s 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 obedience. In the New Testament, it’s us, all who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. God chooses to establish an intimate relationship with those he has created and called. It’s not a peer relationship - he’s God and we’re not- but it is a close relationship - walk with me - and a relationship in which God like a father cares for those he’s called.
This promise, as I’ve said before, becomes central to God’s communication with us. Let me just highlight a few verses. The first full statement of the formula is probably 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.” Deuteronomy 7:6 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” 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.” And it’s a promise for eternity: 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.” So God is promising Abraham the holy privilege of an intimate relationship with an almighty God.
II. The Sign (Genesis 17:9-14)
Now in the previous covenant, chapter 15 there were no conditions. But if there is to be relationship, there must be some form of mutual commitment. Verses 9-14. Then 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 for the first time is introduced the concept on the human side of ‘keeping’ the covenant. God has already described his commitment to the relationship; now he describes Abraham’s commitment: “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.” Why is circumcision the sign of this covenant? I can’t rehearse every idea rabbis and preachers have had over the years, but I can conclude that God wanted a physical sign of belonging to his physical people in a physical covenant that would involve a physical land and physical descendants. In other words the literal symbol on Abraham’s part was parallel to the literal promises God had made to be literally fulfilled. Not that circumcision is without spiritual significance. God will tell Israel to circumcise their hearts, cutting out sin from thier lives. Paul will apply circumcision in the New Testament as circumcision of the heart and not of the flesh. But my sense is that God wants first to establish that there is a physical reality to his promises and so a very physical sign of participation in them is given. In fact God says this is the sign of an everlasting covenant, and that those who have not submitted to this physical covenant will not have a part in the fulfillment.
III. The Blessing (Genesis 17:15-22)
So we’ve seen that there is a relationship that grows out of this covenant, because God will be their God and they will be his people. We’ve also seen that there is a sign of this covenant, a concrete physical response in the covenant people. In verses 15-21 God continues to express this relationship to Abraham.: God 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 facedown; 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." 22When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.
God just changed Abram’s name to Abraham; now he changes Sarai’s name to Sarah. This is not only a relief to the tongue-twisted preacher, but it is the start of something God often does in Scripture: he names Jacob Israel; he gives Solomon the additional name Jedidiah; Jesus gives Simon the name Peter, the rock. Here the name change is subtle, ‘Sarai’ to ‘Sarah’: 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 a nation: “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 fell on his face and laughed, and thought, ‘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 response disbelief or wonder? Some commentators lean one way, some the other. The fact that God doesn’t chastize 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. As one commentator says “I don’t want to suggest total unbelief on Abraham’s part. The promise was simply too much to take in one dose. Laughter is often the response to things which catch us off guard.” And laughter becomes one of the key words in these chapters.
But there is no doubt Abraham’s words reflect a failure to grasp what has been promised. Verse 18: “And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!"” 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. In this his love for the boy is shown. Couldn’t God choose to bless Ishmael rather than give another child? But God’s plans would not be changed; he had purposed to give Abraham and Sarah a child to fulfill His promises. No substitute was satisfactory, especially when he was the result of self effort.
“Then God said, "Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him 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, who would inherit this promised covenant, and through whom the seed would come. But Ishmael would not be left out altogether. Verse 20: “And 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.” The twelve rulers are listed in Genesis 25.
IV. The Obedience (Genesis 17:23-27)
But the covenant was through Isaac, and 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 so that in a very real sense it begins to move from a faith-testing promise to a faith-building promise. Sure, all promises reinforce our faith, because they come from God. But while the ones way out there demand faith, a promise already received can build our faith, as can one about to be received. And Abraham does respond to all this blessing in faith, that is, in obedience. Verses 23 to 27: 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. 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.
Abraham obeys and circumcises himself and all the male members of his household. It says something about Abraham’s influence and authority that all these males would submit to such a process. It’s true though that things like circumcision were already practiced in places like Egypt by this time, so it may not have been a complete shock that Abraham would require this. But Moses definitely emphasizes that every eligible person participated, and it has been true ever since that the most strictly adhered to aspect of Jewish faith has been circumcision. When every other observance has been neglected in favor of idolatry or of secular humanism, still the Jews in every culture have clung to this sign of the covenant.
So what have we seen? It’s not stated directly, but we can confidently infer from this passage that God’s people have a living relationship with God Almighty. We’ve seen it in God’s desire to walk with Abraham, in his desire for Abraham’s blamelessness and obedience, in his change of Abraham’s name, in his commitment to an everlasting covenant of descendants and land, in his call for a relational response of obedience in circumcision, in his blessing of Sarai and his promise of Isaac in Abraham’s immediate rather than far off future. All these things are summarized in God’s commitment to be God to his people. This is the unique and wonderful relationship established by God with those who are chosen by him.
And it’s still true today. The bottom line is God wants to be your God and he wants you to be his person. He wants a relationship with you, just as he did with Abraham. That relationship has to start with faith in Jesus. God sent him to be the rescuer, to bridge the gap that sin has created between God and man. By his death on the cross he paid the price of sin and allows us now to draw near to God. Hebrews 10:19 “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.” We have the privilege of drawing near to God when we put our faith and trust in his Son Jesus.
But our salvation is supposed to result in relationship: Do you have a real relationship with the God who has rescued you? What does a relationship look like? It looks like Genesis 17. It’s walking daily with the Lord, as Abraham was called to do. And when you walk with someone, you talk with them: only in the previous chapter did Abraham actually begin speaking to God. He says more here, and wait until you hear his boldness next week. For us that ongoing conversation is called prayer, where we are aware of God and address him with our thoughts, our praises and our concerns both in formal times and at every moment of the day. This conversation is also listening to God: Abraham raises the question; God responds to his concern and gives him further information and further promises to believe. For us that happens as we go to the Word, and listen to God’s responses and assurances and promises and instructions there. Only in God’s word can we intimately know God.
Finally, remember that a huge part of the relationship between God and Abraham is seen in the fact that when God commands, Abraham obeys. This is also true in our relationship with God. It’s not a peer relationship where we debate and decide which of our opinions ought to be followed. This is a ‘you are God and I am not’ relationship in which we hear God’s command and obey. To Abraham the command of circumcision was given as a sign of the covenant. No such command has been given to us. But does this mean we have no covenant response? Hardly. Galatians 5:6 “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” The sign of our inclusion among God’s people is not physical - neither is it purely spiritual - it is relational: faith working through love. Faith is depending on God Almighty as the only source of eternal salvation and daily strength, refuge and provision. And faith expresses itself in love - love for God and love for others, as Jesus called for in the greatest commandments. Also, love for one another, which is in a sense a sign of this new covenant. John 13:35: By this will all men know that you are my disciples - if you love one another. It’s not a physical sign; it’s not purely spiritual: it’s relational. God’s people have a living relationship with God Almighty.