God’s Covenant With Abraham (Genesis 12-50)

Last week, we began our study of the Bible with a look at Genesis, chapters 1-11.  This morning, we want to continue by taking a look at the rest of the book of Genesis.  Let’s watch together this video on chapters 12-50, then I want to talk with you about what I think is one of the most important themes in this part of scripture.

            Show VIDEO (https://thebibleproject.com/explore/genesis-12-50/)

            Most everyone knows that the Bible is divided into two parts – the Old Testament and the New Testament.  But you may have wondered where that word “testament” comes from.  It comes from several passages in the King James Version of the Bible. 

            But the Greek word that’s used there is actually better translated as “covenant” and most of the newer translations translate it that way.  So, it would be more accurate to speak of the Bible as having two covenants — the old covenant and new covenant.  But, of course, we’ve all grown up with that word “testament”, so I don’t that’s ever going to change, but this notion of “covenant” is very important.

            The truth is, there are actually more than two covenants in the Bible.  There are at least seven or eight covenants that God made with people in the Bible, and then there are many more covenants that different people made with other people.  But first, let me explain what a covenant is.  A covenant is a relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other.

            Now, a covenant is similar to a contract, but there’s one very important difference.  A covenant involves a personal relationship.  When you buy a car or a home, you may sign a contract which says I promise to pay back this amount of money, and you promise to let me have this car or this home.  That’s a contract.  It’s not a covenant because there’s no personal relationship involved.

            On the other hand, marriage is a covenant relationship.  In a marriage, a man and a woman come together and they say, “Here’s what I promise to do for you.  I promise to love you.  I promise to treat you with respect.  I promise to be faithful to you for the rest of my life.”  Those are binding promises, but it’s not a contract.  It’s a covenant, because it’s a relationship in which two people are make these binding promises to each other.

            When you look through scripture, you find a lot of examples of covenant.  For example, there are some scholars who believe that God made a covenant with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The word “covenant” isn’t used there, but there is this agreement between God and humans where there is worship and adoration on one side, and blessing and protection granted by God on the other side.

            In Genesis 9, though, there is a very clear covenant between God and Noah.  This covenant takes place after God destroys the world with water and only eight humans are left alive to repopulate the earth.  God tells Noah what he expects from him, and then he says, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you” (Genesis 9:9).   And then, as part of that covenant, God makes a promise that he will never again destroy the world by water. 

            Then, on Mount Sinai, God makes a covenant with the people of Israel.  When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, he said to him, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” (Exodus 34:27).  And, in that covenant, Israel promised that they would always obey God and God promised, in return, that he would bless Israel.

            Numbers 25 speaks of a covenant that God made with the priests, 2 Samuel 23 speaks of a covenant that God made with King David, and Jeremiah 31 prophesies of a “new covenant” that God would make with his people, which turns out to be the new covenant which we know as the New Testament.

            But, perhaps the most important covenant in all the Bible is found in our text this morning, the covenant that God made with Abraham.

            This covenant develops over several different chapters, so let’s just go through and look at the text.  First of all, in Genesis 12: “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.  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.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

            Now the word “covenant” doesn’t appear just yet, but we have God saying, “Abraham, here’s what I expect from you, and here’s what I promise to do for you.”  God expects Abraham to leave his home and travel to an unknown location, which turns out to be the land of Canaan.  But, in return, God promises to create a large nation from Abraham’s descendants, he promises to make Abraham’s name great, and, most importantly, God promises to bless the whole world through one of Abraham’s descendants, which we know is going to be Jesus Christ.

            Genesis 15 starts with God coming to Abraham in a vision and there’s a lot of talk about God’s promise that he will provide a son and an heir and he will give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan as his inheritance. 

            Then there’s this dramatic scene where Abraham cuts a bunch of animals in half and he lays them out in order to seal his covenant with God.  You see, in those days, people didn’t just “make” a covenant.  They “cut” a covenant.  They cut animals in half, they laid them out on the ground, and then they made promises to each other.  And then they walked between the animals on the blood and they said, “May the same thing that happened to these animals be done to me if I don’t keep my promises, if I ever break this covenant.”  It tells you just how seriously people took the idea of covenant.

            I wonder what would happen today if marriage covenants were done the same way.  After you say your vows to each other, before the minister pronounces you husband and wife, you have to cut an animal in half and both the bride and groom have to walk through the blood of this animal and say to each other, “May God do the same thing to me if I don’t keep my promise to love you and be faithful to you.  Let this be done to me and more also if I should ever break this covenant.”  That might lower the divorce rate just a bit.  And some of you are thinking, that would definitely lower the marriage rate quite a bit.

            But, animal or no animal, that ought to be the serious attitude we all have toward covenant, that if I promise to do something, I’m going to do it.  Because that’s the attitude that God has.  He not only says, “I promise to keep my part of the bargain.”  He also says, “I expect you to keep your part.”

            But back to Abraham and these cut-up pieces of animals.  What happens next is most unusual.  Because, in order to follow normal procedure, God would need to go through these animals, and then Abraham would also go through.  But, here in this story, Abraham doesn’t go through the animals.  Instead, only God goes through.  It’s as if God took the curse on himself and said, “Abraham, if you ever fail to keep your part of the covenant, may I suffer the punishment.”  And ultimately, that’s exactly what God did, through Jesus Christ.

            In Genesis 17, this covenant between God and Abraham is sealed with a sign.  When God made a covenant with Noah, he sealed it with the sign of a rainbow.  When God made a covenant with Israel, he sealed it with the sign of the sabbath.  And when God made a covenant with Abraham, he sealed it with the sign of circumcision.   

            Beginning in verse 9, “God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.  This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” (Genesis 17:9-11)

            Today, we often think of circumcision as simply a sign of national identity (of what it is to be a Jew), but it was so much more than that.  Circumcision was a physical act with a deeply spiritual significance, which is why there are so many passages in the Bible that talk about the concept of being circumcised in your heart.  Physical circumcision was the putting away of a piece of flesh.  True circumcision always involved cutting anything out of your life that stands between you and God. 

            And this is actually a very important concept for those of us who are Christians because we also have a sign of our covenant with God.  That sign is baptism.  Paul wrote in Colossians 2, “When you came to Christ, you were ‘circumcised,’ but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision — the cutting away of your sinful nature.   For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized.  And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.” (Colossians 2:10-11, NLT)

            Paul makes it clear that baptism is similar to circumcision in that the physical act conveys a far deeper and spiritual meaning. It’s not the washing of our bodies that matters, but rather the washing of our hearts as we put our faith in Christ and his death and resurrection.

            And then in Genesis 22, we have the testing of Abraham, where God tells him to sacrifice his son, his only beloved son, Isaac.  And when Abraham shows that he is willing to do that, God sends an angel to stop him.  And then, after that, God makes another promise to Abraham.

            Beginning in verse 6, he says, “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely make your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.  And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:16–18).

            This is the same promise that goes all the way back to chapters 12, 15, and 17.  God says, “Abraham, I will bless you and your family.  I will give you so many descendants that you won’t be able to count them, and I will make those descendants into a great nation.  And then I will give those descendants this land, the land of Canaan, to live in.  And one day, many, many years from now, one of those descendants will do something that will bless the entire world.”  What a beautiful covenant!

            But now it’s time to talk about what any of this has to do with us.  Because some of you are probably thinking, “OK, God made a covenant with Abraham.  So what?  What does that have to do with me?”   And I would suggest that it has a lot to do with us. 

            So far, I’ve emphasized God’s part of the covenant, I’ve shown you all the things that God promised to do for Abraham and his family.  But a covenant has two sides.  So, what was it that Abraham was required to do to keep his side of the covenant?  And the answer to that question is very important because God required Abraham to do exactly the same thing that he requires us to do to keep our covenant with him.

            In Genesis 15:6, we read that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”  The one thing that God required of Abraham was that he have faith, which is the same thing that that he requires of us.

            The New Testament writers repeatedly looked to Abraham as the great man of faith.  And it seems incredible to me that Abraham is the one whom God held up as the ultimate example of the faith which God wants in his people today — not Moses, the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt and gave them God’s law; not David, the man after God’s own heart; not Elijah, the great prophet who was received up into heaven without experiencing death.  It was Abraham who trusted God in such a way that he is held up as an example to us all.

            So, let’s go back through and take a quick look at Abraham’s journey of faith.  In Genesis 12, when God told Abraham to leave his family and his home without even knowing where he was going, Abraham did it.  Which would have required a tremendous amount of faith in God.

            In Genesis 13, God promised Abraham that all the land he could see would one day belong to his descendants, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust on the earth, too many to count, which is an amazing promise to a man who doesn’t yet have any children.

            In Genesis 15, Abraham was starting to have some serious doubts about Sarah having a son.  And Abraham knew that if he didn’t have a son, God couldn’t give him anything that he had promised.  So, Abraham proposed to God an alternate solution.  He requested that God accept his servant Eliezer as his heir.  He could be an adopted son. 

            But God rejected that proposal and told Abraham that his heir would come from his own body (Gen. 15:4).   When God said that, Abraham believed God’s promise. And it was at that point that we’re told that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6).  It was only when Abraham trusted God’s promise in the face of his own doubts that God counted Abraham’s faith for righteousness.

            And it’s important to notice that nothing physically had changed at this point.  Sarah was barren in Ur.  She was barren when she arrived in Canaan.  She was still barren at this time.  Nothing physically indicated she had been given the ability to conceive.  

            But God said that a son would be born.  And on nothing more than the promise of God, Abraham believed it would happen.  He believed that God would keep his promise simply because God said that he would.  And that is the kind of faith which God counts for righteousness.

            Now, there was still a lot that Abraham and Sarah didn’t understand.  They both had to wrestle with the uncertainties and their concerns.  And when some years went by and a child still wasn’t born, they continued to have their doubts.

            And so, Sarah came up with her own alternate plan.  She gave Abraham her handmaid, Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael.  But 13 years later, God told Abraham that Ishmael was not the promised son.

            Once again, in Genesis 17, God renewed his promise.  God would give Abraham and Sarah a son.  And this is where Abraham was told to seal his covenant with God with circumcision.

            But I want you to see the reaction of Abraham here.  Verse 17 tells us he fell on his face and laughed.  He asked in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old?  And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17).  Abraham begged God to accept Ishmael as his heir.  I want you to see what a struggle this.  I want you to see the doubt that Abraham felt in his heart.  It just didn’t seem like there was any way for God to keep his promise.

            But God was clear.  Ishmael would not be the heir.  Another son named Isaac would be born of Sarah.  In fact, Sarah would give birth to Isaac at that same time in one year.

            Now I want you to notice the kind of faith which God counts for righteousness. When God stopped talking with Abraham, Abraham immediately circumcised every male in his household.  Why?  Because he had full confidence that God would keep his promise.  What had changed?  Nothing.  Was Sarah pregnant?  No, and she wouldn’t be for another three months. What tangible evidence did Abraham have that God would do what he said?  Absolutely none.  But Abraham trusted God.

            And it was that kind of faith that made Abraham righteous before God.  Abraham was obedient to God, but it was not his obedience that made him righteous.  It was his faith — the faith which prompted the circumcision — which made him righteous.

            Take a look at what Paul says in Romans 4.  I want to pick up in verse 9, and I want to read from the New Living Translation:

            “We have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith.  But how did this happen?  Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised?  Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!

            “Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous — even before he was circumcised.  So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised.  They are counted as righteous because of their faith.  And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.

            Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith.” (Romans 4:9-13)

            Picking up in verse 20, “Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God.  He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises.  And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous.  

            “And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Romans 4:20-24)

            Allow me to make a few observations about this passage and then the lesson will be yours.  There’s a phrase that appears over and over throughout this chapter.  Depending on which translation you’re using, you’ll read that Abraham’s faith was “reckoned” to him for righteousness, or “counted” to him for righteousness, or “credited” to him for righteousness.  The Greek word that’s used there is a legal term, it’s an accounting term.  It means “to credit something to someone’s account”. 

            The idea is that God takes his own righteousness and he puts it in our account.  And when he does that, he doesn’t see our sinfulness when he looks at us, he sees his righteousness because that’s what has been credited to our account.  And what puts his righteousness in our account is faith.  Faith like Abraham.

            A faith that believes God when he says that he will do something.  It’s a faith that trusts God no matter what.  It is a faith that says, “I don’t understand how God will get me through this mess, but I trust that he will.”  It’s a faith that says, “I don’t understand why God allowed this to happen, but I trust that God will take care of me.” 

            Abraham did not obey God perfectly, but it was because of Abraham’s faith that he was led to obey God – to leave his hometown, to offer his son, to circumcise the males in his household.  Having faith doesn’t mean that we don’t have to obey God.  In fact, just the opposite.  Faith requires that we obey God.  If we truly have faith in God, we’re going to do whatever he’s asked us to do.

            But perhaps the most important lesson we need to take away from Abraham’s faith is this:  being righteous before God is not an achievement; it’s a relationship.  We’re not righteous before God because of all the things we’ve accomplished.  We’re righteous before God because of our relationship with God which is made possible by putting our faith in God.   And if we truly have that faith, it will lead us to obey, like Abraham did, and be baptized.


    • God’s covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people was to prepare the way for the Messiah (Jesus), who would provide forgiveness of our sins through the cross. If they reject the Messiah, there is no other way to be forgiven of sin. If Jewish people (or anyone else) can be saved without Jesus, then Jesus was a fool to die on the cross because it was unnecessary.

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