God’s Covenant and the Assurance of Faith | Genesis 15:7-21
Brian Hedges | June 23, 2019
Most of you know that I grew up in a preacher’s family, a pastor’s family. One of the things that meant for us was that we often had overnight guests who would come and stay in our home; lots of times visiting pastors and preachers would come and would spend a night or two or three with us. My parents were part of a small denomination that was pretty closely knit, so even preachers and pastors from other states or other cities would come and visit us from time to time.
I’ll never forget when I was probably ten or eleven years old there was a family that came to visit us for a night or two, and this preacher really captured my interest. He was very articulate, he was very well-read, he was a smart guy. I remember him talking up certain books that really interested me as a kid. He was talking about how good Louis L’Amour books were (that’s how I got started on Louis L’Amour), and he was also talking about the old Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels.
Now, most people have probably never read those today, but I loved reading those growing up, but I’d never heard of these before, didn’t know anything about them, until this guy visited, talking up these books and how wonderful they were. He told me that he had four sets of these books, and he promised that he would send me a full, complete set of the Tarzan books.
I was checking the mailbox every day for the next week, and for the week after that — and the week after that. And they never came. It was one of my first experiences as a kid of someone breaking their promise, of hope deferred, where I was really disappointed and just grew somewhat disillusioned, especially about this particular guy. Here was a Christian who had told me he would do something and didn’t do it; here was a preacher who lacked the integrity to fulfill the promise that he had made to me.
I was able to find the books and read them anyway, but I’ve never forgotten that experience, and years later found out that that particular pastor went bad in all kinds of ways, in marriage and in ministry and other ways.
Most of us have experienced at some point in our lives a broken promise, haven’t we? Maybe a parent that made a promise to us and didn’t keep it. Or maybe it was a friend who we thought would be there for us in a hard time and then proved to disappoint. Maybe it was an employer who promised a promotion or a raise or some kind of new compensation and they never came through. Some of you have actually experienced the broken promise of a mate, a spouse, someone who made a covenant with you, to love you through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, and you’ve experienced the betrayal of a spouse who was unfaithful to their vows.
All of us experience in either greater or lesser degrees broken promises in our lives, and the older you get the more you grow guarded with your heart, the slower you are sometimes to make friendships, or at least to really trust people when they say they will do things, until you really know. You’re guarding yourself because you know that people are not always faithful to their word.
Now, if my experience as an 11-year-old had been somewhat different, I think that my whole memory of that situation would be different. If this preacher, for example, had sent me one of the books the next week and had said, “Hey, read this one, and the rest will come,” then there would have been some assurance that, “He’s actually going to come through on the promise.” That’s not what happened. But that is what happens in Genesis 15.
In Genesis 15, Abram or Abraham, as we know him, the man of faith, has been walking with God for some time in his life, and God has made some promises, but those promises have not been fulfilled yet. Abram is looking for some kind of assurance that God will be faithful to his word, and God does something amazing in Genesis 15 to show his faithfulness to his promises. That’s what we’re going to look at this morning, so turn in your Bibles to Genesis 15, and I want you to see three things as we work through this passage: the promise God makes, the delay in the fulfillment of the promise, and the covenant that guarantees the promise.
1. The Promise God Makes
Here I just want to read verses 7 and 8, the beginning of the passage, and then I want to read the end of the passage, verses 18-21, because what you need to see here is that these verses, these five verses kind of frame this passage, forming an envelope, so to speak, of this passage that shows us what the passage is about.
Alright, verses 7 and 8. This is the Lord speaking. “And he said to him [God said to Abram], ‘I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.’ But he [that is, Abram] said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’”
So you see right there, Abram is looking for some assurance. “How can I know? How can I have certainty that you’re going to keep this word?” What God says and does in the verses that follow are the answer to that question. The end of the passage kind of shows us what happened in summary form. Look at verse 18.
“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.’”
So you can see what this passage is about. It’s about a certain promise, the promise of land that God would give to Abram. This is one of the several promises that God had already made in Genesis 12, but now Abram is asking, “How can I know, how can I be assured that you’re going to fulfill it?” and the answer is that God made a covenant with Abram.
Walter Bruggemann in his commentary says, “The overriding agenda of this passage is that (a) God is a promise-maker, (b) Abraham is a promise-bearer, and (c) the substance of the promise is land.”
That’s what this promise is about, and it is showing us something about the character of God and about the nature of God, that God is a promise-making God. In fact, you could say that one of the major themes in Scripture is the promises of God.
Mark Dever’s written a wonderful two-volume exposition of the entire Bible, and Volume 1 is the Old Testament, and it’s called Promises Made. Volume 2 is the New Testament, and it’s called Promises Kept. That’s a pretty good summary of Old and New Testament. God makes promises in the Old Testament, he keeps those promises in the New.
This passage is about one of those promises, and it’s showing something about God’s character and God’s covenant and how God keeps his promises.
Now, I want you to see what God says and then what God does. Look at what God says first, verses 13-16. “Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know for certain…’” Okay, so here’s the answer. “How can I know?” He says, “‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
This shows us the second thing in this passage...
2. The Delay in the Promise’s Fulfillment
This is what God says; this is essentially what God communicates verbally to Abram in this strange vision that we’re going to look at here in just a minute.
What’s going on here? This is essentially a prophecy. God is giving Abram an assurance of what his promise entails, and it’s a prophecy of what’s going to come for Abram and for his family.
In this prophecy, it gives us something of a miniature summary of the events that will be befall Abram’s family, his descendants, the children of Israel, over the next four centuries, over the next 400 years.
So look at this. You see here that “they will sojourners and afflicted” (verse 13). The word “afflicted” there is the very same word that’s used in Exodus 1 for the oppression of the Israelites for Egypt. God is telling Abram right now, “This is what’s going to happen. Your family are going to be strangers in this land, they are going to be afflicted, they are going to be oppressed.”
Then verse 14 prophesies the exodus. “I’m going to exercise judgment on this nation and they’re going to come out with great possessions.” That’s the book of Exodus, isn’t it? Then in verse 15 God gives Abram an assurance that his own life will be marked with peace, he tells him he will be at peace; it’s the first occurrence of this word “peace” in the Bible, shalom.
Then verse 16, he prophesies the conquest of Canaan. “They shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
Derek Kidner says that that verse is "one of the pivotal statements of the Old Testament." Why in the world would he say that? This isn’t a passage that you memorize and repeat to yourself; this isn’t something you’re going to put on the walls of your home. Why is this so important?
Here’s why. One of the biggest objections that non-Christians often have to Christianity has to do with the Old Testament. People, when they are beginning to think about the Bible, they’re beginning to think about Christianity, if they’re thoughtful, if they’re actually trying to take seriously what the Bible says, they will often feel an objection to the Old Testament, and they’ll say, “How do we justify what is called the genocide of the Canaanites,” right? Here’s the children [of Israel], and they go into this land that is not theirs, and they wipe out these other peoples, the destruction of the city of Jericho and Ai and so forth. The idea here is that it seems like God gave permission to his people to do something that was terribly unjust, to wipe out these other civilizations.
Well, the answer to that question is found right here in this passage, because it’s showing us that there was a delay in the promise of this land, there was a delay in the children of Israel actually inhabiting this land, precisely because it wasn’t the right time for God’s justice to be exercised on this land, on these peoples. Notice what it says here; again, verse 16. “And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet completed.”
You see what’s going on here? God will not fulfill his promise to the children of Israel and to Abraham at the expense of justice. “The iniquity of the Amorites,” standing here for all the Canaanites, he says, “is not yet complete.” In other words, God was very patient. He was giving them time, he was giving them space, and instead of repenting they were getting worse and worse.
Here’s what Kidner says. He says, “The clause ‘for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full’ throws significant light on Joshua’s innovation and, by inference, on other Old Testament rulers, as an act of justice, not aggression.”
It wasn’t unjust, what the children of Israel did under the divine guidance of God in the Old Testament. It was an act of judgment on these nations whose iniquity, whose sin, whose evil and wickedness had become so terrible, had become so awful, that there had to be a clean slate.
That was a little parenthesis, but the practical point for us together this morning is simply this, that sometimes there are delays in the fulfillment of the promises that God makes to us. Notice this: God is upfront about it. He actually tells Abram right here, “There’s going to be a delay. There’s going to be suffering, there’s going to be oppression.” God isn’t hiding the fine print!
Have you ever bought a product, or maybe signed up for a service, like a phone service, or Internet, or something like that, or maybe a vacation rental? You got into it, and you realized, “This is costing a lot more money than I ever thought it was going to cost,” because there was something buried in the fine print that you never saw. You’re kind of like Lando Calrissian, you know, with Darth Vader: “This deal is getting worse all the time.” You ever feel that way?
Listen, God never does that. He never hides the fine print. He tells us upfront what the Christian life will be like. He tells Abram upfront, “There’s going to be suffering, there’s going to be a period of waiting, there’s going to be a delay.”
In the same way, when we enter into the Christian life, what does Jesus say? He says, “In this world you shall have tribulations.” The apostles, when they’re establishing churches in the book of Acts, in Acts 14 actually go back through churches they have planted, and it says that they are “strengthening the souls of the disciples.” How are they doing that? By saying, “It’s through much tribulation you must enter the kingdom of God.” God’s upfront about that. There will be delays, there will be suffering, there will be hardship, there will be problems. We can expect that.
How, then, can we be sure that the promise will really be fulfilled? We spend a lot of time in our lives waiting, don’t we? There are promises that God has made and we haven’t seen the fulfillment of them yet. There are things that we hope for, there are things that we long for, we pray about, and we don’t see the answers to those prayers. How can we know that God’s promises are true?
We see the answer in not only what God says, but in what God does. We see that in verses 9-12 and then 17-18. Here’s where we see...
3. The Covenant that Guarantees the Promise
We see what the promise is, we see that there’s a delay in the promise, but there’s a covenant that God makes that guarantees the promise.
What God does here is strange. You’re going to read this and you’re going to think, “Man, this is really a strange passage of Scripture.” It is strange to us, and no doubt it was a somewhat mysterious kind of experience for Abram, but God was coming down to Abram’s level. He was doing something that Abram would have been familiar with in making a covenant with Abram. Let’s read the passage. Look at verse 9. This is God speaking again.
“He said to [Abram], ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’” All of those, by the way (all but maybe one of those), are sacrificial animals, animals that would be used for sacrifices in the Levitical law. “And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep feel on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.”
Drop down to verse 17. “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land…’”
This is a really strange passage. What is this? This is, most scholars believe, a theophany. It is a manifestation, physical manifestation of the presence of God in a symbol-laden form. It seems clear in light of the fact that God is speaking, as we’ve already seen in verses 13-16, and then you have this strange symbolism. You have this covenant ceremony with the pieces of the animals, and you have the smoking firepot (it would have been like a little oven) and then a flaming torch that are moving between the pieces of these animals.
What’s this teaching us? What does it have to teach us this morning? I want to suggest three things to you.
(1) Here’s number one: it shows us, first of all, the faithfulness of God’s presence with his people.
Gordon Wenham says that “the rite pictures Abram’s descendants, in the form of sacrificial animals, who are protected by the Abrahamic promises from attack by foreigners, the birds of prey.” So, if the pieces of the sacrificial animals represent God’s people, the birds of prey represent their enemies, the Egyptians and Philistines and Midianites and Amorites and so on, and Abram is beating them off.
Then, the smoke and the fire seem very clearly to represent the presence of God. You remember on Mount Sinai, when God gave his law to the children of Israel, made a covenant with Israel, what do you have on the mountain? You have smoke and fire. You remember when the children of Israel then go into the wilderness, and they’re journeying through the wilderness to the promised land? What goes before them? A pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.
So that seems to be the symbolism here, that God, symbolized by the smoke and fire, is present with the people of God in their suffering. It shows us God’s faithfulness to us, even when we’re suffering. Again, this is a theme that just runs through Scripture.
Do you remember the story of Joseph? This would have been the great-grandson of Abraham, and do you remember Genesis 39? He’s been sold into slavery, right, he’s in Egypt now, he’s in Potiphar’s house, he’s falsely accused, he’s thrown into prison, and then he’s forgotten in prison for year after year. What does the text say? There’s a refrain that runs all the way through Genesis 39; over and over again, it says, “But the Lord was with Joseph.” God is with us when we suffer, he’s with us in the wilderness, he’s with us in prison.
I’ll never forget reading, probably 15 or 16 years ago now, the autobiography of John Paton, the missionary. Ever heard of John Paton? He was a Scottish missionary to the Hebrides islands in the South Seas, and when he decided to go there, people tried to discourage him. They said, “Don’t go there; you’ll be eaten by cannibals!” It was known to be a cannibalistic island. Missionaries had gone there, they’d been killed and eaten. Somebody said that to him; they said, “Don’t go there; you’ll be eaten by cannibals.”
He said to this guy, essentially, “You’re going to die soon, and you’re going to be eaten by worms. Whether I’m eaten by cannibals or by worms it doesn’t really matter; I’m going to go.”
So he goes. He goes to this island, and he suffers in incredible ways. His wife dies and his child dies. He experiences all of this loss. There comes a point where the whole island turns against him, and they are hunting him down, and he hides overnight, an entire night, in a tree. They’re down looking for him on the ground and they don’t seem him, and he says that in that experience he was very conscious of the presence of the Lord. He kept remembering the promise of the Great Commission: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The end of that story is amazing. He went to another island, also a cannibalistic island, started over in his ministry, and the entire island was converted. Everybody came to Christ, one of the great missionary stories in church history.
Think about another story. Haralan Popov, who was a Bulgarian pastor during the Communist era. He was imprisoned, I think it was for 13 years, in a Communist prison camp, tortured in the most inhumane, unbelievable ways. There were times where he spent days on end in solitary confinement, and yet he was conscious of the presence of Jesus with him in the prison. He writes about that in his book, called Tortured for His Faith.
Listen, when you’re going through trials, when you’re going through tribulations, when you’re suffering, God is with you. He promises to be with you! Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”
Or do you remember this wonderful promise from Isaiah 43? “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers; they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
God’s covenant guarantees for us and assures of his faithfulness and his presence with us, even when we’re suffering. That’s the first lesson for this text.
(2) Here’s the second, the second assurance. This passage also shows us the uniqueness of God’s grace for his people.
So this covenant ritual, dividing the pieces of the animals and then passing through the pieces; the scholars tell us that that was probably a ritual that was performed when people made covenants in the ancient near east. And the scholars tell us that there were actually two kinds of covenants.
There was what’s called a Suzerain-vassal treaty. A suzerain was an ancient near eastern king, and a vassal was a lesser king. Think of a king who’s sort of like an overlord, and he has lesser houses who would come and they would swear allegiance to him, but he would have the rule over them. It was a bipartisan covenant; it was a treaty, where each of the parties making the treaty would promise to do certain things, and they would promise it with an oath. They would perform a ceremony something like this. They would take these animals, they would divide them, they would walk between the pieces, and they would say, essentially, “If I don’t fulfill my end of the bargain, may what happened to the animals happen to me.” That seems to be what’s going on there.
That’s one kind of covenant, but scholars tell us there was another kind of covenant was called a royal grant covenant, and this is where a king freely gave a piece of land to someone, and it would begin a relationship with him, but it was more of a one-sided covenant. That seems to be what’s going on in this passage, because did you notice, Abram doesn’t walk between the pieces. In fact, God puts him in a deep sleep! It’s the same language that’s used in Genesis 2:21, when God put Adam to sleep before bringing him Eve.
Now God puts Abram into deep sleep, and I guess he just kind of wakes in the twilight of that sleep, still groggy, and he sees the smoke and the fire passing between the pieces. Do you see what’s going on? It’s a unilateral covenant! God goes through the pieces alone. He takes the obligations of the covenant all upon himself! The fulfillment of this promise is not up to Abram; it’s solely up to God. He takes 100 per cent of the responsibility.
I want to tell you, this shows us something utterly unique about Christianity, the utter uniqueness of God’s grace for his people. Did you know that every other religion in the world is essentially a religion where you have to contribute in order to get salvation or eternal life or nirvana or whatever it is you’re looking for? I mean, whether it’s the eight-fold path of Buddhism or whether it’s observing the five pillars of Islam, or whether it’s trying to live a good enough life that you can escape your bad karma in Hinduism...essentially it’s left up to you. You have to live a good enough life in order to achieve salvation or eternal life or reincarnation or whatever it is you’re looking for.
Now, those religions, many of them, teach other things that are good. They may be very moral people, and oftentimes they are, but they’re not religions of grace. Here’s the unique thing about Christianity: it is a religion of grace, where God takes the obligations on himself! God is the one who does the work.
We could put it this way (I’m sure you’ve heard this before): Religion says, “Do,” Christianity says, “Done,” because God has done the work himself. It’s what God has done for us. Now, are there obligations that come upon us? Of course there are, but they are obligations that come because of grace, not in order to get the grace. The grace comes first, and then we respond to that grace in loving obedience. This shows us the uniqueness of God’s grace for his people.
(3) Then here’s the third thing: it also shows us the costliness of God’s love for his people. Why? Why is his love costly? Because when God walks through these pieces, he walks between these pieces, he is essentially making an oath--in fact, Hebrews 6 tells us that “God confirmed the promise to Abram with an oath, swearing by himself…”
God is essentially making an oath, and he is performing a self-imprecation ritual, where is calling down curses upon himself if he does not fulfill his terms of the covenant.
I’ve already mentioned that this was a common ritual in the ancient near east. We have one other place in Scripture that gives us some biblical example of this, in Jeremiah 34:18; verses 17-20, really. It’s God who is calling people to account for their failure to keep the covenant. This is what verse 18 says. It says, “The men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts.”
That seems to be what’s going on here. But here’s the deal: God is the one who walked between the pieces of the animals, so it seems that God is taking this imprecation upon himself! He’s saying, “If I don’t fulfill the terms of this covenant, may I undergo the curse.”
Now, there are some people who doubt this, some scholars who think, “Well, God couldn’t really do that. He couldn’t really bring a curse upon himself.” But don’t you remember that there’s another occasion, there’s another covenant that is made in another place in Scripture? It’s a covenant that is made with a cup symbolizing blood, Luke 22, when Jesus says, “This is the new covenant in my blood.”
Do you remember what follows that? Three hours of darkness as Jesus hangs on the cross. What happens as Jesus hangs on the cross? He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What is the apostolic commentary on the cross? Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 3. He says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law…” How did he do it? “...by becoming a curse for us--as it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”--so that in Christ Jesus [get this] the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
When Jesus hung on the cross, he was fulfilling the terms of the covenant, and he was fulfilling the terms of the covenant not only for God, but he was fulfilling the terms for us. We’re the ones who’ve broken the covenant, and he took the curse that we deserved! In fact, as he hung on the cross he became a curse. He was treated as if he was cursed by God, bearing the wrath of God, bearing the judgment of God for our sins, so that God could fulfill all of his covenant promises made to Abraham and made to us, who are the children of Abraham by faith. It shows us the costliness of God’s love for his people.
Listen to John Calvin’s comment on Galatians 3. He says that “Christ took our place, and thus became a sinner and subject to the curse--not in himself, indeed, but in us, yet in such a way that it was necessary for him to act in our name. He was smitten for our sins and knew God as an angry judge. This is the foolishness of the cross and the wonder of angels, which not only exceeds but swallows up all the wisdom of the world.”
That’s the heart of the gospel, that God, through Jesus Christ, took the curse that we deserved so that we could receive the blessing that Christ deserved. This is the guarantee. This is the guarantee that God will fulfill all of his promises to us. How did God guarantee it? He guaranteed it with a covenant. He did that with Abram, and he’s done that with us by giving his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins.
You know that wonderful passage, Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Everything we need for life and for godliness and for faithfulness, and at the end eternal life and resurrection and a new world and new bodies--everything that we need, it’s guaranteed in this one act, this making of a covenant, the new covenant that Jesus Christ made and sealed with his own blood on the cross.
That’s how we can be assured. We can be assured that God is for us, that he is not against us; that God will be with us when we suffer, that God’s grace is sufficient to cover all of our sins, that God does all the work himself, and that God loves us with an everlasting, unfailing covenant love.
As we draw to a close this morning, let me ask you, have you embraced that love? Have you rested your soul in that grace? Do you know God as a gracious God, as your Father, rather than as an angry judge? Have you trusted in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins? Are you looking to him? Are you trusting in him? Do you know what it is to have God with you, present with you, when you suffer?
Christian, have you been through times of darkness, where you know that the pillar of fire is there with you, the presence of God, the presence of the Spirit, right there in the midst of your suffering, sustaining you, upholding you, strengthening you? If you don’t know that this morning, I want to tell you, you can know that, and you can know it through faith in Jesus Christ, looking to him, asking him to be your Savior, to be your Redeemer, to forgive you of your sins, to fill you with the Spirit, and to go with you through the fire. If you haven’t done that yet, I hope you will this morning. Let’s pray together.
Our gracious and merciful God, we thank you this morning for your covenant faithfulness, your covenant love, for your grace, your mercy that you’ve shown us in Christ. We confess that we are unworthy of such love. We look at our sins. We know that we’re only worthy of judgment, and yet you have reached down to save us, and you’ve done it in the incarnation, the obedience, the life, the death, and the resurrection of your Son. We give you thanks for it this morning.
Father, I pray right now for any who do not know Christ, that today would be the day of salvation, that they would be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, that the gospel would be clear and would become real and precious and powerful in our hearts. Father, I pray for all of us this morning, that in our fresh embrace of the gospel we would know the assurance that comes through Jesus Christ, that we have eternal life in the Son, that we have a God who is for us and who promises to work all things together for our good, to conform us to the image of Christ and to not only call us and justify us, but also to glorify us, to make us like Jesus. Lord, may we rest in that promise this morning.
Lord, as we observe the Lord’s Supper today, may we do so remembering that this is a covenant meal. It is the meal that Jesus established as part of the new covenant. It reminds us of the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus Christ. As we take these elements, may we do so with hearts full of faith, full of love for our Lord and Savior. May you meet with us in these moments; we pray it in Jesus’ name and for his sake, Amen.