|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 5, Number 38, October 27 to November 2, 2003|
Pastor of Ketoctin Covenant Presbyterian Church
Round Hill, VA 20142-0628
The living God who reveals himself to His people is a God of promises. He stoops to reveal himself specially and specifically to his people. He promises verbally to those who believe him that what he says - - He will do. But God also promises us by showing us his grace visually. In our study today, we want to consider God's verbal and visual promise made to Abram and to all of those who would believe God -- like Abram.
When we think of the term 'covenant', it can be a difficult term to define. To put it simply however, the word 'covenant' has to do with God's promises to His people. 'Covenant' is the way God binds himself, or promises, or vows to his people that he will save them. God binds himself with a verbal promise to his people, in Genesis 15, to Abram. He then "signs" his promise with blood visually (which we will see in Genesis 15:8ff), then he makes sure, or guarantees that what he promises both verbally and visually will come to pass.
Let us read Genesis 15, then begin our study today!
Genesis 15: After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." 2 But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 And Abram said, "Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir." 4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: "This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir." 5 And he brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be." 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. 7 And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess." 8 But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 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. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, "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. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites."
In Genesis 15:1-5, God promises to Abram verbally that he will keep his word to him and give him numerous descendants by his grace!
Remember that Abram had left his land of Ur of the Chaldeans by faith because the LORD had appeared to him and told him to leave the land of his fathers. The LORD was going to bless him with a great inheritance as he promised him in Genesis 12: 1-4:
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
Time had passed since Abram had first left his homeland of Ur and he did not as yet see the fulfillment of these promises. The LORD appears to him in a vision and tells him that he will be his shield and protector and that also his reward will be great (Gen. 15:1-2). Just like us, we live between the promises of God and His fulfillment of these promises! We live between the times of Jesus our Lord saying that he is preparing a place for us and not to be dismayed, and the time when he will actually return (John 14-16).
Much of our daily lives are lived between prayers of request for God to help us, sustain us, to hear us and to answer our prayer, and the waiting time between as God fulfills his promises to us to be faithful. Yet, we can be reminded of our great and covenantal God, that all of his promises are "yes" in Christ Jesus! (2 Corinthians 1).
Abraham was confused in our passage today. He only had Eliezar of Damascus, his servant - -he had no son. How was he to inherit all of the things God had promised to him? He cannot understand how these things could be. According to Abram, the slave born in his house will be the inheritor of everything, including Abram's name and heritage. At this time in history, if patriarchs died without a seed, without children (a great shame in this culture), then a slave would inherit all that the patriarch had. For Abram, it was a difficult thing to believe that God could indeed bless him and make his name great at this point.
But God tells him that he will graciously and sovereignly provide for all his needs. In fact, he will provide the seed Abram needs in order to make all his promises come to pass. God says your "son" will be your heir. Abram might have replied, "What son, O Sovereign LORD?" Then God, reminds Abram what he had told him previously in Genesis 12, that indeed his descendants, Abram's seed will be not only like the sand of the seashore, but also the stars of the sky. You can imagine Abram looking up at night and seeing the innumerable number of stars that seemed so close you could touch them.
All of these stars were dazzling before him as a man who would have laid many a night to rest on his back and been able to observe the great content of these heavens created by God. At this point in Abram's life, he did not see all of God's provision and all of his promises would be quite impossible to believe. However, that is just what Abram did. He believed God, in spite of how things seemed at the time.
Think back in your own life when God seemed unfaithful, he seemed quiet, and seemed not to hear your constant requests when you prayed. You may have thought at the time that the situation was hopeless, that it was no use praying or even serving God anymore. Yet, if you recall, God was faithful and did above and beyond anything you could have asked or imagined!
Genesis 15:6 And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Despite how things seemed at this point in Abram's life, he believed God and God reckoned or counted this to him as righteousness (cf. Romans 4). The righteousness that comes from God alone by faith alone. Abram knew that true faith was indeed the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11). Abram had followed God and believed him from the beginning when he left his home and believed God's promises. However, this time, for the first time, Moses teaches us that Abram's faith was credited or reckoned to him as righteousness.
Abram knew that if any of God's promises were to come to pass, it would not be based upon his own wisdom and efforts, but it must be dependent on the LORD who had revealed himself to Abram and will continue to be faithful to him. God has sovereignly and graciously revealed himself to Abram by promising him a great reward and inheritance, and all Abram had to do was believe. This can be quite amazing when you think about it. The LORD, the Sovereign Creator of heaven and earth appeared to a simple and sinful Chaldean man to bring him knowledge of himself and to even reward him with a great inheritance- -all because of faith!
It is just because that faith is extraspective in character. That is, it looks away from oneself to the only LORD and God that can truly provide; the only God who man can truly believe. This great and sovereign God revealed himself to Abram in a vision, just so he could bless he and his descendents. What grace the LORD shows to his people. Sure Abram had concerns about how this was all going to "pan out"- - he is human. He doesn't know how this will all come about, but because God has graciously revealed himself to Abram, he knows the LORD is able to keep his promises. In fact, the LORD not only accommodated and stooped to reveal himself to sinful Abram, but was about confirm his promise in an even more astounding manner. What was about to happen, Abram could have never imagined.
Genesis 15:7-21: And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." 8 But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 9 He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites."
So Abram had believed God and God credited this or reckoned this to him as righteousness, nevertheless Abram sought a little bit more information. He believes God and believes God can do it, but he wants to know how. He asks, "But LORD how am I to know that I will possess it?" You see, faith is imperfect. Abram's faith was not a perfect faith. It was a small faith, but God was great. In God's sovereignty, he had enabled Abram to believe, but Abram still had questions.
As we all do from time to time. You know, when we have those questions of God's goodness and the "how's" that we all have now and then, we need to be reminded of this. We should never ask: "Why?", but "WHO?" That is, when we are troubled by situations and circumstances, we should be reminded never to try and penetrate the mystery of God's purposes (the "why's", but simply to rest on Who He is and how He has always revealed himself as faithful and committed to his people (the "WHO")!
The LORD then tells Abram to participate with him in a covenant ceremony. The LORD was not only gracious enough to promise Abram a great inheritance, he was willing visually to show Abram just how great his grace and promises are to him. The LORD God of heaven and earth is about to not only reveal himself but to "cut" a covenant with him as well to assure and confirm that all of his promises to him are "yes" and "amen".
Now, before we continue, allow me to explain what a covenant is as clearly as possible. In the Old Testament, one of the principal ways of describing God's dealing with his people is that of covenant. A covenant is simply the formal expression or establishment of a relationship as I noted briefly in the introduction. In the Old Testament, almost all references to covenant are to God's formal relationship to his people. The covenantal form in the Old Testament is patterned after other ancient Near Eastern covenants, so that Abraham, and later Moses and the rest of God's people could grasp what God was doing. It was unbelievable.
Covenants at this time in history, typically had four parts (compare this covenant with Abram to God's covenant with the nation of Israel in Exodus 19-20, particularly in the revelation of God's Law).
(1) A historical prologue which named the parties and gave the background to the relationship [Gen. 15:7a- "I am the God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees]; (2) a statement of the nature of the relationship [Gen. 15:7b- "to give you this land"]; (3) stipulations about the obligations of the parties in the covenant [In these verses the implication is faith or belief as the stipulations]; and (4) sanctions, or blessings and curses to be brought to bear upon fulfillment or violation of the covenant's terms [Gen. 15:8ff-the visual splitting of the animals and the covenant ceremony]. Covenants were usually ratified or sealed by some oath-taking ceremony which represented the curses, such as a killing of animals or circumcision.
It is important for us to realize that in 15:6, "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited to him as righteousness," is found in the course of a covenant-making. The Lord had promised Abram descendants as numerous as the stars. And following on the heels of Abram's "justification by faith," is a covenant-making ceremony. The LORD tells Abram to divide some animals, and when Abraham goes to sleep, he hears the promises of descendants and land reiterated, and then "a smoking firepot with a blazing torch passed between the two pieces." On that day the LORD made, or literally "cut" a covenant with Abram and said: "To your descendants I give this land" in Gen. 15:17-18. The smoke and the fire were representative of God's presence (called a "theophany" or "appearing of God") and this ceremony was one in which God took the covenant oath.
Notice that Abram arranges the sacrifices for God as he instructed him. As Abram arranged the pieces of animal halves, this would have formed a bloody path for those who were going to promise or "cut a covenant" with the other in this covenant ceremony.
Suddenly, Abram is in the midst of terrifying darkness and in a deep sleep. The LORD tells him that his promises will be fulfilled, but not immediately. In fact, the LORD reveals to Abram how the whole of history is under his sovereign control and direction. In addition, God teaches Abram that the path he will take has been well orchestrated by him. There is nothing in the future that is uncertain or unknown in his great omniscience. The LORD tells him that before his seed inherits all of the promises, they will be oppressed for over four hundred years, but this is not by accident.
At this time in history, when a king "cut" a covenant with his people, to keep his promises to them. The people would respond to the king's demands by walking through two portions of an animal. This signified that the person who fails to keep his promises to the king, would be cut in half- - they would be killed for disobedience and failure to keep their oath to the king. In other words, the covenant ceremonies that Abram was familiar with would be where the people, like himself, would walk through the bloody path of animal pieces.
In contrast, what we have here is not only the unexpected, but the unbelievable. The Sovereign LORD of heaven and earth has not only revealed himself by his grace to sinful man in spite of what they deserve; he has not only promised, literally the world to Abram and his seed; he has not only reckoned Abram righteous because of his faith and belief in God's promises; but God covenants with Abram that if the promises are not kept, God himself would be cut in half, God would have to die!
The symbolism of the smoking fire and flaming torch, or the cloud and the fire that God reveals himself through later, is none other than an appearance of God Almighty as he passes through the pieces. This is not just amazing grace, but astounding grace! This is incomprehensible grace, but then that is the YHWH who Abram believed by faith!
In the fullness of time, God does come as man in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus does walk the bloody path, not with the blood of the halved animals forming a path, but with his own blood and the blood of others as he walked the via dolorosa, or way of suffering, to the cross. This is what Galatians 3 is all about when it said that Jesus became a "curse" for us (Gal. 3:10-13).
The incredible news of God's gospel and promise to his people is that in order to fulfill the promises to Abram and to HIS Seed, which is Christ (Gal. 3), God would come and take upon himself the covenant curses in order to keep his promises to his people!
As the people of God, when we look upon the cross of Jesus Christ, let us be reminded that God always keeps his promises to his people! When we come together for worship on the Lord's Day, let us be reminded that through the preaching of God's Word, God is still verbally promising us that he is faithful- - and his people respond by faith. When we come together and take the Lord's Supper or participate in baptism, we are visually seeing God's promises to his people. When we believe together as a people God's Word, both verbal and visual, so we commit to one another, and honor other above ourselves because of God's commitment to us. You could say that every time we worship together, it is a covenant ceremony commemorated! Praise be to God for his faithfulness!
No matter what your difficult situation or circumstance, rest in the LORD who keeps his promises to his people. No matter how many have caused you to distrust, become cynical, or unbelieving of promises in this world. Believe God! Because in the cross of Christ we see the "yes" and we yell "amen" to the glory of God- - because God is a promise-keeping God! When we think of our commitment to God, let us first think of His commitment to us. Then in light of His commitment may we live our lives committed in love to Him and to our neighbor around us!
Soli Deo Gloria!
Pastor Charles R. Biggs
Ketoctin Covenant Presbyterian Church
9 S. Locust Street Post Office Box 628
Round Hill, VA 20142-0628