God’s Sufficiency and the Obedience of Faith | Genesis 17
Brian Hedges | July 14, 2019
Probably the most famous love story in all of history is William Shakespeare’s story Romeo and Juliet. If you remember the story at all--maybe you’ve seen the movie or a play in high school, or maybe you even had an English teacher who made you read the play--if you remember the story at all, it’s about two teenagers who fall in love with each other, and the problem is that they belong to rival houses, they belong to rival families. One of them belongs to the Capulet family, Juliet. She belongs to the Capulet family, and she falls in love with Romeo, who belongs to the Montague family. The problem is that their names mean that they cannot be married, that their families will not in any way allow this.
So you have this place in the play where they’re speaking to one another where you have a famous line. Even if you don’t know Romeo and Juliet, you probably have heard this line: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
The point of the play is that the name actually means quite a bit. It’s because of their last names that they’re not able to be publicly married and their families be at peace with one another, and if you know the story it’s not just a romance, it’s a tragedy, and in some ways it actually shows the foolishness that sometimes happens when people make romantic love an ultimate thing in their lives.
I bring it up this morning just to remind us of the importance of names. Names are really important, and they’re especially important in the Bible. In the Bible, names have great significance, and so oftentimes in Scripture you see God changing someone’s name, God giving someone a new name, and these new names always have some significance to the calling in their lives, to the things that God wants to do in their lives.
For example, Simon became Simon Peter, right, which means rock. The Lord Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.” It’s Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, then Peter becomes a cornerstone and a pillar in the early church.
Of course, you have it in the Old Testament as well, and particularly in the story of Abraham. We’ve been looking at the story of Abraham for, I don’t know, seven or eight weeks now, and up until this point in the story Abraham has been known as Abram. Now, I keep slipping up and saying Abraham even when he’s Abram in the text, but finally today, in Genesis 17, we get to the passage where God changes Abram’s name, he gives him a new name, he calls him Abraham.
There are actually four important names that are given in this passage, in Genesis 17. God not only changes Abram’s name to Abraham, he changes Sarai’s, his wife’s, name to Sarah. You have for the very first time the name that their child will have, the name Isaac, and you also have for the very first time in Scripture a unique name of God, a special name of God. The names of God are very important. They tell us something about his character, and that’s especially true here in Genesis 17.
So, turn there in your Bible or you can follow along on the screen. This morning we’re looking at God’s sufficiency and the obedience of faith. God’s sufficiency and the obedience of faith. We’re looking at Genesis 17. It’s this chapter that takes place chronologically about 13 years after Genesis 16, the whole Hagar incident that we looked at last week. So, 13 years later, God speaks again.
One of the things you should just note as you’re reading your Bible is that even when God is communicating with the patriarchs and the saints, like Abraham or Isaac or Jacob, it’s not like he’s doing it every day. These revelations will come maybe once in a decade, then they’ll go 13 years and there’s not another word.
You might sometimes think, “Oh, if I just lived back in those days, where God spoke to me audibly, that would be so much better than today!” But the reality, folks, is that today we have the word of God, and God by his Spirit lives within us, and God speaks to us every day when we get into his word. That wasn’t the experience for the Old Testament saints. The revelation was occasional, it was periodic, and it was building up over time as God was revealing himself more and more to his people. That was certainly true with Abraham.
So, 13 years, as far as we know, Abraham hasn’t had the direct word, he hasn’t had a revelation from God, and now he gets one in Genesis 17. In this chapter we see three very important things that I want us to look at this morning. We see the covenant God makes, the obedience God requires, and the miracle God performs. Let’s look at each one of those things.
1. The Covenant God Makes
First of all, the covenant that God makes. What we see here is God revealing himself to Abram, God’s appearance to Abram, and we’ll pick up in verse 1.
It says, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty.’” Stop right there. “I am God Almighty.” The very first thing you have right here is a revelation of who God is. “I am God Almighty.” It’s a revelation of God’s name. This is the very first time in Scripture where you have the name of God El Shaddai. Almighty God; that’s how it’s translated here.
Now, scholars debate exactly what this means. We’re pretty sure that it carries the idea of strength, the idea of power, so this is a good translation, God Almighty. It also might carry the idea of sufficiency. In fact, the root of the word Shaddai, the Hebrew word is the word shad, and it’s actually the word that describes a mother’s breast, by which she would nurse her child. So it’s the idea of a source of nourishment, a source of sufficiency. It’s a very tender metaphor that perhaps lies at the root of this name.
So sometimes the idea here is that God is sufficient, and it’s a word, it’s a name that appears over and over again in the patriarchal narratives. There’s another book of the Bible where it shows up again and again and again. Any idea which book it is? It’s the book of Job.
In the book of Job you have the story of a suffering man, right, a man who’s suffering. He loses virtually everything. He loses children, he loses his wealth, he loses his health, even his wife turns against him, his friends turn against him, they’re all accusing him of some hidden sin, he doesn’t even realize what’s going on in his life. He’s losing everything, and 31 times in the book of Job God is described as God Almighty, the all-sufficient God. This is an important name of God that discloses to us the sufficiency of God’s power for his people.
One of the things we’re going to learn in this text and that we see over and over again in the Abraham story is this pattern that gets worked out in the lives of saints, that in our weakness God is strong. In our failure, God is the one who comes through for us again and again and again. In our times of loss, God is our comfort. In our impotence, God’s power is what comes through, and in our limitations God is all-sufficient. That lies right at the heart of the story here in Genesis 17.
So when God comes and he makes this covenant with Abram and gives him a new name, he begins by giving his own name. He begins by saying, “I am the all-sufficient, almighty, all-powerful God.”
Then God begins to make promises to Abraham. Look at verse 2. In fact, let me read verses 2-8, and as I read this I want you to notice how many times it says, “I will.” God is speaking, and over and over again he says, “I will…” do something, and what you’re seeing here are the promises of God as part of the covenant that God made with Abraham. Pick it up in verse 2.
“‘Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’
“Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.’” That’s what the name Abraham means; it means father of a multitude, father of many nations. Verse 6, “I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 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. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.’”
Do you see this? Over and over again God says, “I will.” These are the promises that God makes in this covenant.
Now, you might remember that we’ve already seen in Genesis 15 that God has already made a covenant with Abram, many years before. Now, in Genesis 17, God says, “I will make a covenant,” and you actually have the appearance of this word covenant more right here in Genesis 17 than any other chapter in Genesis.
So you might ask the question, “Is this a new covenant? Is this the same covenant? I thought there was already a covenant? Are these two different stories that come from two different sources? How is this working?”
There are different opinions about that. I think the best opinion, I think the best view, is that it’s essentially the same covenant, but it’s the covenant being renewed, and now God is giving more information. There’s more truth here, there’s more information, there’s more connections, there’s more to teach us, more that God is teaching Abraham and more that God through this is teaching us about his promises.
One Old Testament scholar that I would not follow in all respects, but I think it’s very helpful with the theology of this passage. It’s a guy named Walter Brueggemann. Walter Brueggemann points out four things about these covenant promises that I think are very insightful, and they’re really right here in the text.
Here’s one of them. This promise is linked to creation. Notice in verse 6 that God says, “I will make you very fruitful.” Does that remind you of anything? Does it remind you of Genesis 1:28, where God gave this commission, he gave this mandate, this command to the first man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”? That same language is getting picked up here, and God is saying to Abraham, “I will make you very fruitful.”
In other words, the covenant that God is making with Abraham is meant in some way to get us back to what God originally intended in creation, but which we have lost through the fall. Ultimately, as Christians, we know that that is fulfilled in the great heir, the great descendant of Abraham, Jesus Christ, who brings about new creation, and for all who are the children of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ, so that we are part of this new creation. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” You have right here a hint of that, this link with creation.
Not only that, there’s a royalty in this line of descendants. There’s royalty; it’s a royal promise. Again in verse 6 he says, “Kings will come from you. Nations and kings will come from you.” So this is a somewhat new thing. There are going to be kings that descend from Abraham.
Again, as we read our Bibles all together, we know that there’s another great covenant promise that God makes hundreds of years later, and he makes it to a king, the greatest king Israel ever had, King David (2 Samuel 7). It establishes the royal dynasty, this house of David, through whom a king will come who will rule over God’s people forever. Again, that is the son of David, Jesus Christ. But you have a hint of it right here as God tells Abraham, “Kings will come from you.”
The third thing that Brueggemann points out is that this is an eternal promise. God says it is an everlasting covenant. In fact, this word “everlasting” pops up again and again in Genesis 17. An everlasting covenant, and he says this land is going to be an everlasting possession. It links, I think, to God’s great and secret, only slowly disclosed through Scripture, eternal plan, what theologians often call “the eternal covenant,” the covenant of redemption.
Whatever language you want to use, what becomes really clear in Scripture is that God had a plan before the world was ever made. He had a plan, and that plan is gradually disclosed through history. Listen, brother and sister, you are part of that plan if you believe in Jesus Christ. You’re included in that plan, and that’s the plan that God has to glorify himself through the redemption and the salvation of the world through the Son, Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The other thing we see in this covenant promise is the fundamental relationship between God and Abraham. Right at the end of verse 8 God says, “I will be their God.” “I will be their God.” He’s speaking now about Abraham’s descendants. This is the first time in Scripture where you have a part of this covenant formula, “I will be their God and they will be my people.”
What does it mean to be in relationship with God through a covenant? It means that God is our God and we are his people, and it means that all that God is he is for you. It means that God in his love is for you. It means that God in his goodness is for you. It means that God in his power is for you. It means that God in his sufficiency is working for you! It means even that God in his justice is for you and not against you. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul asks, Romans 8:31. “I will be their God. I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
To be in a covenant relationship with God means that God is for us, that he is our God, and that everything God is he is for us.
Listen to how the letter of 1 Peter describes the hope of our inheritance in Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:3-5: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last times.”
Right there! That’s three verses, and in those three verses do you see how much of God is working for you? In his great mercy (God’s mercy is working for you) he’s given us new birth to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (the resurrection’s working for you), into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power (his power working for you) till the coming of the salvation ready to be revealed in the last times.
One of the things that you and I have to learn in our Christian lives is to actually trust in the character of God, to trust in the covenant promises he has made, to trust in God as he has revealed himself and disclosed himself through his names, to trust that God is sufficient and good and powerful and gracious and merciful and just, and he is all of that for us in our times of need.
Now remember, God made a promise to Abraham a long time ago, “I’m going to give you a son,” and so far the only son on the horizon is Ishmael. God made a promise to Abraham a long time ago, “I’m going to give you land,” and so far he doesn’t enough to set up a baseball field! Right? He doesn’t own one plot of ground in Canaan. He doesn’t own anything. He’s wandering, he’s a nomad, he’s wandering around in tents. He doesn’t own any of it.
God’s made the promises, but he hasn’t received them yet, and it’s in that waiting that God comes and reminds him, “I am the all-sufficient, almighty, all-powerful God,” and invites him to trust.
You and I over and over again in our lives will find ourselves in moments just like that, where we have not received our inheritance. We’re still waiting. Things are not the way they’re supposed to be. Will we trust in God’s faithfulness? Will we trust in God, the all-sufficient one?
Those of you who know me know that I like to read, and I especially like to read people who are dead. Dead theologians are the best theologians. I particularly like the theologians from the 1600s, so back a little bit, a few hundred years. I’m always coming across new ones, or maybe reading theologians, pastors I’ve heard about for years and never really read them.
Recently, I just started reading the letters of an old Scottish Presbyterian whose name was Samuel Rutherford. Anybody ever hear of Samuel Rutherford? A few of you have; not very many. He’s not as well known. Samuel Rutherford was a Presbyterian preacher in Scotland in the early part of the 1600s, and he was preaching the doctrines of grace. He wrote a book about his theological views, made the people in power mad, and they kicked him out of his church. It wasn’t his church that kicked him out, it was the rulers, the magistrates. Kicked him out of his church, exiled him from his hometown of Anwoth, Scotland to Aberdeen.
So there he is for several years, living as an exile, basically under house arrest, doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He had two great loves in life--he says this over and over again. He says, “I have two eyes, and they’ve pulled out one of my eyes.” He said his two eyes, his two great loves in life, the two things that were most precious to him, like his two eyes, were Jesus Christ himself and preaching Jesus Christ, and they took preaching away from him.
He was really upset at first. He felt like God had gone against him and he was kind of complaining. He just wasn’t dealing with the trial well. But as he lived in exile in Aberdeen those several years, he gradually began to experience more and more of God’s love and of God’s mercy and of fellowship with Jesus Christ, and it deepened him, made him a richer, deeper pastor and preacher.
He left behind a volume of letters that’s like 600 pages of letters. You can also get the little slim, edited volume (that’s what I’m reading) that are somewhat modernized and easier to read, the best of the bunch. I want to read you an excerpt from a letter from Rutherford. I read this the other day, maybe two weeks ago, and as soon as I read it it was just kind of making me sore with delight. Listen to what he says.
“This soul of ours hath love and cannot but love some fair one, and oh, what a fair one, what an only one, what an excellent, lovely one is Jesus!” Listen to this. He’s going to describe how great Jesus is. He says, “Put the beauty of ten thousand thousand worlds of paradises, like the Garden of Eden, into one. Put all trees, all flowers, all smells, all colors, all tastes, all joys, all sweetness, all loveliness, in one. Oh, what a fair and excellent thing that would be! Yet it would be less to that fair and dearest well-beloved Christ than one drop of rain to the whole seas, rivers, lakes, and fountains of ten thousand earths! Oh, but Christ is heaven’s wonder and earth’s wonder. What marvel that this, his bride, sayeth, ‘He is altogether lovely.’”
Isn’t that beautiful? He’s saying you take the very best this world can give and it’s like one raindrop compared to all the oceans and rivers and lakes of ten thousand worlds of the loveliness of Christ.
Now listen. The only way you can begin to experience that is when you’re going through times when almost everything’s taken away. That’s what happened to him! They took away the one thing he loved. The one thing he loved, they took it away. He didn’t have it anymore. But it’s in that moment, it’s in that loss, it’s in that waiting, it’s in the periods where the promise hasn’t been fulfilled yet and you’re waiting on God in years of silence or darkness. It’s in those moments that you begin to understand that God really is the all-sufficient God! He really is El Shaddai, he really is God Almighty. He is the God who is altogether lovely and who meets our needs.
This is the heart of the covenant that God made us. “I will be their God. I will be their salvation.”
2. The Obedience God Requires
Then secondly, I want you to see the obedience that God requires, because God not only comes to us with promises, he comes and he requires something from us. You see it right here in Genesis 17. In verse 1, it says, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless.’” “Walk before me and be blameless.” That’s the basic command in the passage, kind of the overarching command in the passage. “Walk before me and be blameless.”
Now, the idea of walk or walking, that’s used often in Scripture. It connotes the idea of a journey, a lifetime of walking with God. Remember that Enoch “walked with God and he was not, for God took him,” and the Scriptures over and over again describe for us the life of the Christian as a walk. So God comes to him and says, “Walk before me and be blameless.”
To be blameless means to be a person of integrity. It doesn’t mean absolute perfection, but it means that the whole heart is oriented towards God. Here it is, one of the great secrets of living a holy life. Oh, how we need to learn this! I need to learn this, you do too. To walk before God; it is to recognize that every moment of every day of our lives we live before the face of the Almighty God. We live before him, we walk before him. We are to live Coram Deo, before the face of God.
This is how Spurgeon described it. He said, “The mark of the truly sanctified man of God [you could also say woman of God] is that he lives in every place as standing in the presence chamber of the divine Majesty. He acts as knowing that the eye which never sleeps is always fixed on him. The saint feels that he must not, dare not transgress, because he is before the very face of God.”
Now, I know that in my moments when I sin, what’s going on in my head (I don’t always see it in the moment when I’m sinning, but I usually see it afterwards) is that, in the moments when I sin, what’s going on in my headspace is that I’m not thinking about God. I’m not remembering that I’m in the presence of God. I’m not thinking of the watchful eye of God. I’m not, in that moment, living as if I am before the face of God! It’s that forgetfulness of God; it’s forgetting to walk before him, to remember that we are before him, that leads to disobedience.
Now, remember what had happened in Abram’s life 13 years before. Abram had done something really terrible. He had slept with his wife’s slave girl in order to conceive a child. I think it was a sin; I made a case for that last week, that it was a sin, it was one of the sadder, uglier parts of this man’s life.
We don’t really know what transpired in those 13 years following. We don’t know. We don’t know if there was restoration, we don’t know if there was distance between him and God. We don’t really know. But what we do see in Scripture is that often you have a pattern where God’s people sin in some terrible way, and the chapter or maybe a couple of chapters later there is a covenant renewal that takes place.
This is a pattern that happens over and over again. Children of Israel, golden calf, Exodus 32; covenant renewal, Exodus 34. Children of Israel, the sin of Achan, Joshua 7; covenant renewal, Joshua 8. You have the pattern right here. Abram sins in Genesis 16; covenant renewal in Genesis 17.
I want you to think about that as we read these next verses, because God now gives Abraham some very serious and urgent commands. These are stipulations of the covenant. This is what Abraham and his family must do in order to be right with God. Pick it up in verse 9. I’m going to read verses 9-14. God has just said, “As for me, I will do these multiple things for you,” and now he says to Abraham, “As for you, this is what I’m going to command.”
Verse 9. “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant.’” How is he going to keep the covenant? “‘...you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For 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. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who has not been circumcised in the flesh will be cut off from his people, for he has broken my covenant.’”
Then at the very end of the chapter, verses 23-27, “On that very day,” it tells us, Abraham was circumcised at 99 years old, along with his 13-year-old son Ishmael, along with all of the servants in their household.
Now think about this for a minute. What’s the significance of this? Why is God doing this? What’s the meaning of this, the significance of this? As any of you know if you’ve read your Bible much at all, circumcision, this rite, comes up again and again and again in Scripture, and often it’s symbolic of something deeper. In fact, as Scripture goes on it becomes more and more clear that what God’s really interested in is not the physical surgery as such; he’s interested in the cleansing of the heart. Deuteronomy talks about the circumcision of the heart. So it’s the idea of cleansing, it’s a cutting away of the flesh, and it’s the idea of cleansing, that something has to be removed from the heart.
I think there’s something to that right here. The most helpful thing I’ve read is a paragraph from a book on Abraham by a guy named Ian Duguid, and I just want to read this paragraph to you. You can follow it on the screen. I think this will help you see the connection between what’s just happened in Genesis 16, the sin, and now the covenant renewal in 17. Then I want to apply it to us today.
Duguid says, “Circumcision was a covenant sign, a sign that involves cutting, just like the cutting up of the of the animals in Genesis 15. There, the curse of the broken covenant was symbolized by animal carcasses, starkly demonstrating the destruction that would come upon the covenant breaker. God himself passed alone between the pieces, symbolizing the fact that he himself would pay for any breach of the covenant. In Genesis 17, however, the sign of judgment was applied to Abraham’s organ of reproduction. This was the source both of the hoped-for, promised seed and also of Abraham’s failure involving Hagar.”
It’s a cleansing. It’s a renewal. It’s a reconsecration of Abraham to God. God is saying, “Abraham, if you’re going to follow me, I have to have all of you. If you’re going to walk with me, you have to be blameless. You have to live in holiness.” So there’s this requirement, this covenant requirement.
Now, a lot more can be said about circumcision. I won’t, except to just make this connection that there is the necessity for us, not of physical circumcision (the New Testament makes it clear that’s not necessary any longer for those who are in Christ), but Romans 2 does talk about the necessity of a circumcision of the heart. There is a need for a change of heart! There is a need for holiness in our lives. He always requires holiness. God saves us by his grace and he saves us by grace through faith alone, but he does not leave us in our sin. He always saves us in order for us to live a holy life.
When God enacts his covenant with us, he comes to us and he takes on the obligations of the covenant himself, as he did in Genesis 15, but he also brings certain requirements and certain commands that if we are to walk in faithfulness to him, there are certain things that we must do in obedience. Those things do not earn us anything, those things do not guarantee the covenant, God himself guarantees it; but they are necessary if we are to walk with God. It’s why you and I are called to live a holy and a consecrated life.
Let me give you one more quote from Spurgeon about this. Spurgeon is talking about holiness and consecration, and he makes the point that it’s not the first thing. Justification comes first, God’s call come first. This is in the sequence of Abraham’s life. He’s called in Genesis 12, justified in Genesis 15, and now here’s the consecration. But it’s still necessary, and this is what Spurgeon says.
“For a man must be justified by faith which is in Christ Jesus or he will not possess the grace which is the root of all true sanctity. Sanctification grows out of faith in Jesus Christ. Remember, holiness is a flower, not a root. It is not the sanctification that saves, but the salvation that sanctifies.”
I think that’s wonderfully clarifying. It’s not the sanctification that saves, it’s the salvation that sanctifies. But get this: if you’re saved, if you are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, then you will be living, in some degree, in some measure, a holy life. You will at least be fighting your sin, you will at least be seeking to repent, you will at least be attempting to put the sin to death and to walk in holiness. Like Abraham, many failures along the way. Man, we mess up so much, don’t we? But you can’t stay there. You can’t rest in that. There must be the pursuit of holiness.
Now, one more comment before we move to the last point. Circumcision is often connected with the New Testament rite of baptism. Now, there’s all kinds of theological debate about that; I don’t have time to get into it this morning, so I’m not going to. But I do think there’s similarity, that just as members of the old covenant were to be circumcised, the male members, so all members of the new covenant in Jesus Christ, all believers in Jesus Christ are to be baptized. What is baptism? It’s cleansing! It’s a bath, right? It’s a cleansing, it’s a washing.
You remember when Saul of Tarsus is baptized, and Ananias says to him, “Saul, wash away your sins.” It’s a washing, and it’s not that the water itself washes away sin; it’s that the water is symbolic of the burial and the death of Jesus Christ that mortifies our sins so that we are raised to walk in a clean, new way, in a clean, new life.
But listen: if you are a believer in Jesus Christ and you have never been baptized, then you’re living in disobedience to God. If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ and you’ve never followed the Lord in baptism, then you haven’t obeyed the first fundamental command that Jesus gives to his followers to follow him and to be baptized in water. If you’d like to baptized, I’d love to talk to you about that.
3. The Miracle God Performs
So we see here the covenant God makes, we see the obedience it requires, and then thirdly, I want you to see the miracle that God performs. I’m running out of time, so let me hurry quickly.
Drop down to verse 15. We’ve already seen that God has said, “As for me, I will…” lots of promises. “As for you, Abram,” there’s this keeping the covenant through circumcision. Now God brings his wife, Sarai, into the picture, and he says, “As for Sarai,” in verse 15. This is where he gives her a new name.
Verse 15: “God also said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai, your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai. Her name will be Sarah.’” Sarah also gets a new name. So maybe there’s renewal here for Sarah as well.
Verse 16: “‘I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her.’” This is the first time that that becomes crystal clear, that it is only through Sarah that the child of promise will be born. “‘I will bless her, so that she will be the mother of nations. Kings and peoples will come from her.’”
Look at Abraham’s response, verse 17. “Abraham 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?’”
Poor Abraham! He’s still struggling with unbelief! I mean, right here in this moment, God’s speaking to him, and in the moment, as God’s speaking to him, he falls down on his face and he laughs. Then Abraham says to God, verse 18, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing”! Abraham is as thick-skulled as the disciples are in the New Testament, right?
Jesus is saying, “This is the plan. I’m going to go to the cross,” and they’re like, “No, Lord. No, Lord. You’re not going to do that. That’s impossible.” Abraham’s doing the same thing. The Lord says, “This is the plan.” “No, Lord! No, Lord! That’s crazy! Let Ishmael live before you. I already have a son. Let this kid live before you.”
But notice how God responds. Verse 19: “Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call his name Isaac.’” The word Isaac is kind of a pun off of “laughter” in Hebrew. It carries the idea of laughter or of a smile. Isaac, the child that God gives in spite of the laughter of Abraham, and Isaac, the child that God gives that will bring real laughter and real joy into his family. “You will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you.” God is so merciful here to Abraham! Look at what he says. “I have heard you about Ishmael. 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. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” Then verse 22, “When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.”
What’s God doing here? He is telling Abraham that the plan involves a miracle, the plan involves doing something which is absolutely impossible, humanly speaking. It is not possible, humanly speaking, for a 99-year-old man to conceive a child with a 90-year-old woman! It’s impossible. This is an impossible birth.
In fact, as Paul puts it in Romans 4, “his body was as good as dead.” He’s an old man, and God says, “It’s through you and it’s through your wife, Sarah, that this child will come.”
Here’s what I want you to get. The miracle that God performs. Here’s what I want you to get. God’s plan (and this is true in the gospel, this is true in our lives, it’s true to the pattern of discipleship) always will involve, to some degree, taking us up to the very limits and beyond the limits of what we ourselves can do, so that in our impotency God’s power is shown. In our weakness, God’s strength is displayed. In our impossible situations, God shows himself to be the God of the impossible.
In fact, God will do this with Abraham not only in the birth of Isaac but, as you know by the time you get to Genesis 22, he will do it by requiring the greatest possible obedience of Abraham, a willingness to let Isaac himself go, so that out of death will emerge life. That’s the plan.
Don’t you see that plan in the gospel itself? Here is an impossible birth. An angel comes to a teenage girl who’s never known a man, she’s a virgin, and the angel says, “You’re going to have a child.” It’s an impossible birth! The God of the impossible does that which is humanly speaking impossible, and Jesus Christ is born of a virgin. We just sang it this morning: “I believe in the virgin birth.” It’s right at the heart of this plan of God in Scripture.
What happens is Jesus goes to the cross, the disciples think that all of their hopes and dreams are being crucified right there with Jesus. No kingdom, no promises. If he dies, everything dies with him, and he dies so that out of his death there will be resurrection, there will be life. This is the pattern of the gospel, and it’s the pattern of the Christian life. God, in our weakness and in our impotency, in our failure, in our misery, in our disappointment, in our many deaths to sin and to self and to our hopes and dreams--out of those, God brings life and grace.
Let me conclude by telling you the story of one man who this was true of. This man’s name was George Matheson; he lived from 1842 to 1906. When George Matheson was 20 years old, he was engaged to be married, but he started going blind. At 20 years old. It was going to be irreversible; he was going to be fully blind. He told his fiancé, and she thought about it, and she decided that she could not bear the hardship of being married to someone who was blind. She didn’t want to be a caretaker. So she broke the engagement off.
Of course, it broke George Matheson’s heart. But he gave it to the Lord, he walked with the Lord. He was a brilliant man; in fact, some people tell us that if he had not been blind he might have been the greatest theologian Scotland had ever produced. He was already writing amazing theology.
But he left the academy and decided to become a pastor. As a blind pastor, he was preaching to 1500 people a week, and he was being cared for by his sister. They had a very tender relationship, and 20 years his sister lived with him and took care of him. Then she fell in love and decided to get married. On the night before the wedding, George Matheson was all alone. He was facing the prospect of losing this companion he had had in his sister. He was no doubt, probably, remembering the loss of his own hopes for marriage and of love 20 years before. He was wrestling with all of that with God, and words came to him. The stories tell us that he wrote this in five minutes and never edited it, never changed it. He wrote the words of the song. We’re going to sing it at the end of the service. I want to read it to you, at least three of the verses. It’s one of the most beautiful hymns that’s ever been written, and it captures what we’ve been talking about this morning.
“O Love, that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee.
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
“O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
“O Cross, that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.”
Isn’t that beautiful? This is the mysterious love of God that requires that we give all that we are to him. “I give thee back the life I owe.” We give everything back to him. It requires, even, that we die. We lay in the dust, we lay in the ground, our own lives, so that from it will come forth a harvest of life.
That’s what was happening with Abraham. That’s what happened with Jesus himself, and that’s what you and I are called to this day. Let’s pray together.
Gracious, heavenly Father, we thank you this morning for the beauty and the mystery of the gospel. Father, we don’t always understand your ways, and even in our own lives I’m sure that many this morning feel this way, that there are circumstances in our lives, there are aspects of our relationships, of our hopes and dreams, of things that we wanted to see true in our lives that have not been the way we expected. Lord, I pray that we would embrace the truths that we’ve studied this morning, that it’s in those very moments of our suffering, of our limitations, of our weakness, of our failure, of our disappointments; it’s in those very moments that you work out your miracles of grace, that you show yourself as the all-sufficient God, that you open our eyes to the see the beauty and the loveliness of Jesus Christ, and that you change us and make us more like your Son. Would you help us this morning to embrace that? Would you help us to trust those promises, and would you help us to give thee back the life we owe?
Lord, it may be that there’s someone here this morning who’s never done that, never bowed the knee to Jesus as Lord, never confessed with their mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. For those persons this morning, I pray that you would give them the gift of faith and open their eyes to see their need for Christ and to see how irresistibly beautiful Christ is; that they would know him and embrace him and walk with him in faith and in love.
Father, as we come to the Lord’s table this morning, we come to receive what Christ has done for us. We come, and in taking these emblems of bread and juice we are observing the new covenant meal that shows us visibly and tangibly the brokenness and the crucifixion of our Savior. As we take these elements, we do so by confessing that in faith we also take Christ himself. We give ourselves to Christ. We pray that this time of communion would be a rich time of real fellowship with Jesus, that it wouldn’t be just a ritual that we go through, not just motions we go through, but that we would, in our heart of hearts, in the very act of taking the bread and the juice, in our heart of hearts we would say yes to Jesus as Lord and as Savior. We ask you to meet with us in these moments. I pray it in Jesus’ name and for his sake, Amen.