Abram and Sarai were very ordinary people. Their struggles with relationships, their tendency to doubt and confusion, their giving way to fear, their willingness to deceive, their distressed awareness of weakness and declining strength all show their common lot with fallen humanity. We study them and view them as people of faith because God purposed that they, among all the people of the earth, would be pivotal in fulfilling his love for His eternal Son. Through them the promise would come to fulfillment and Jesus would redeem his people. The magnitude of the promise, however, is far beyond the perception or the power of those to whom it comes. Faith in a fallen world depends on two things: one, a revelation from God of his character and purpose; two, an internal moral change in the one receiving the revelation so that he or she believes it. The moral change is necessary because of our native disposition of hatred toward God and his truth. To be saved we must not only confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord, but we must believe in our heart that God has raised him from the dead. Abraham and Sarah, as they were so named by God, are models of faith, but only because they were objects of seeking, prevenient, effectual grace.
I. The Covenant Renewed and Sealed
A. Abram’s age – Now at 99, Abram still lived with a promise that had been given 24 years earlier.
The covenant had been initiated with Abram when he was 75. It included the blessing to Abram’s “offspring” or “seed.”
- For eight generations following the flood, the age of conceiving the first child, after Arpachshad, son of Shem, had been about 30 years.
- Shem lived to be 600 years old and Terah, Abram’s father, eight generations later, lived to be 205. Nahor, Abram’s grandfather had lived to be 148. Length of life was rapidly declining and age of first conception was getting younger.
- Terah first conceived a child at seventy but was more than thirty years above the average at that time. When the promise was first given and Abram was 75, the fulfillment of the “seed” probably already seemed somewhat urgent. Waiting for the fulfillment would prove difficult.
- Being convinced by Sarai that he must do something to fulfill God’s promise to him, Abram had fathered a child in his house through Sarai’s maidservant thirteen years earlier, at age 86. Chapter 16 describes this event. Though God had made the promise and had spoken to Abram, he “listened to the voice of Sarai.” This event produced pride, resentment, bitterness, and alienation immediately and enduring enmity in the world through this “wild donkey of a man” (16:12). Though his descendants would consist of great multitudes, his hand would be against everyone, the hand of everyone would be against him, and he would “dwell over against all his kinsmen.” Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph to Ishmaelites going down to Egypt to do business (Genesis 37:25–28).
B. God states conditions intrinsic to the covenantal relationship
- God reminded Abram that the promise will be fulfilled by his power, since he is God Almighty. We can never embrace with sufficient fervor and confidence the wisdom, righteousness, and power of God in fulfilling his decreed purpose for the world with the focus on his covenantal arrangement with his people.
- Though implied earlier and already pursued by Abraham, the covenant involves a restoration of the covenant people to a life of obedience to God (“walk before me”) and blamelessness of life.
- The people who are to be blessed by the sovereign establishment of this covenant will indeed be a holy people. The fullness of this provision may be seen in a passage like Titus 2:11–14. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11–14 ESV).
- “And may multiply you greatly” – God’s multiplication of Abraham would be two-fold—the physical descendants, most directly the Israelites who would take possession of the land after a 400-year sojourn in Egypt, and the true seed of Abraham who are of the faith of Abraham (Galatians:3:29; 4:31; 5:5, 6). They come from every nation and tongue, including the descendants of Ishmael, and are justified in the same way Abram was justified.
C. He is given a name consistent with the covenantal arrangement – “Your name shall be called Abraham.” This means “Father of multitudes.”
- Its Extravagance – God promised that a multitude of nations and kings would come from him. God would make him exceedingly fruitful.
- From a physical standpoint the nation of Israel with its twelve tribes would come from Abraham through his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob. Also, through Ishmael (see 21:9–21) many people would arise, including twelve princes (20). Abraham would have six sons by Keturah who gave rise to large nations. The nation of Israel had three kings when the nation was united, and after the division both kingdoms had numerous kings.
- From a spiritual standpoint, Abraham is the father of all who believe, as the writer of Hebrews noted, “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham” (2:16). By this he meant all those for whom Christ died as a propitiation. The exceeding fruitfulness of Abraham was directly related to the success of Christ in performing the work of reconciliation for all of those that the Father had given him. All these believers also are made kings and priests to God. In its ultimate fulfillment we hear the voices of the inhabitants of heaven in loud voice saying, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever.” (Revelation 11:15)
- Paul refers to this very promise in its context. Circumcision was given as the covenantal sign after the Scripture says Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness. “The purpose of this,” so Paul wrote, “was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the Circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” (Romans 4:11b–12).
- Its enduring nature – The land was theirs as long as the nation endured and was not taken into exile because of apostasy. It was restored periodically to keep a people in the line of David for the fulfillment of the promises. Even though under the oppression of Rome, the people were in the land when Messiah came and the true meaning of the inviolability of a promised land would begin maturing rapidly. See Mary’s Magnificat, especially Luke 1:54, 55.
- He renamed them to show that he had absolute prerogative over them to do with them as he saw fit in his purposes of grace.
- This renaming is a startling and early example of God’s claim on those upon whom he has placed his favor, whom he claims as his children. “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of is glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:5, 6)
- God’s initiative in naming a person as indicative of his special appointment of them may be seen also in the naming of Israel to replace the name Jacob (Genesis 35:9–15). The name of John (the forerunner) was given by God (Luke 1:13, 60–64). The name of Jesus, “Yahweh is salvation,” was announced by angels under divine authority to both Joseph and Mary (Matthew 1:21–23; Luke 1:31).
- This is a manifestation in time of what God already has done in eternity with a view to show his power, exhibit the glory of his Son, and flood the vision of all rational creatures with the beauties of his justice and his mercy.
- Because God has written names in the Lamb’s book of life, many survived the vicious persecution of Christians by Rome and will continue to confess their faith in and love for Christ in the face of contemporary attempts to destroy Christian faith. It is this precise grace of eternal love and specific purpose that lies behind the perseverance of the saints (See Revelation 13:8–10)
- Only those whose names are written in the book of life will survive the terror of the final judgment and manifestation of divine vengeance (Revelation 20:15).
- Those whose names are in the Lamb’s book of life not only will be spared the just wrath of eternal fire but will be given the infinitely splendid blessings of eternal life, which involves an absolute freedom from any remnant of the curse, whatever was resident in the created order and that which is inflicted directly by God in eternity. Not only are their names in his book, but his name is on their foreheads Revelation 21:27, and 22:3–5).
D. The sign of Circumcision (10). –This was a symbol not only of peculiarity among the nations as a matter of ceremonial identification, but a type of regeneration (Colossians 2:11–13; Philippians 3:3; Romans 2:29) and atonement (Romans 3:24, 25, 30).
Removing the foreskin meant the removal of the hardness of one’s heart. The process could not be performed without the shedding of blood. Paul described the meaning of circumcision in saying, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11). Circumcision marked Abraham as the recipient of justification by faith. That blessing is possible only because the Messiah would shed his blood in order to procure the blessing of the Spirit’s work of regeneration by which a sinner believes.
- Circumcision was the “sign of the covenant (1). On Abraham’s part he was to enact the sign on all the males in his household, born or bought (12, 13). All who were not circumcised were to be “cut off.” If the foreskin were not “cut off,” then the person would be.
- The Hebrew word is used close to 300 times in the Old Testament. Sometimes it means literally to cut as in “cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe” (1 Samuel 24:4, 5). It is used to “make” or “cut” a covenant (Genesis 15:18; Deuteronomy 4:23; 1 Chronicles 7:18; Jeremiah 31: 31, 32). It means to stop entirely the flow of a river as when the Jordan was “cut off” (Joshua 3:13). It can mean “amputate” as in “cut off the head of Sheba” (2 Samuel 20:22).
- Although one Old Testament commentator asserts, “To be cut off did not mean death but exclusion from the community,” the first use of this word occurs in Genesis 9:11, where it clearly means to eliminate the life. In Numbers 15:30, 31, “shall be completely cut off,” appears to mean capital execution, for an execution was inflicted on a Sabbath-breaker in verses 32–36. In 1 Kings 11:16 and 14:10 it clearly means to kill. Jezebel “cut off” (“massacred” NKJV”) the prophets (1 Kings 18:4). Jeremiah 9:21 makes the words synonymous with death. In Daniel 9:26 we read, “And after sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off, but not for himself.” Messiah was executed. God will “cut off” (cause to perish) Ammon, Moab, Edom, and Philistia in Ezekiel 25.
- That the uncircumcised among Abraham’s household and eventual descendants were to be executed if not circumcised explains partially why the Jews in Jerusalem had such difficulties accepting the idea that the Gentiles could receive Messiah and be covenant people without circumcision. They had to see that atonement and new birth accomplished all that circumcision foretold.
- Symbolically, to be uncircumcised means to be without atonement or the new birth. Without these, one must perish in his sins. The transmission of corruption and condemnation from Adam to all his posterity came through the male seed. Circumcision meant that purification and justification, the shedding of blood and making alive, must come to those whose being is in consequence of the male sperm. “In Adam, all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). “Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). All born of the male seed are dead in trespasses and sins and by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1, 4). Christ’s death summarizes the necessary elements of justification and clears the way for regeneration.
II. The Importance of Sarai
A. The meaning of her name was not changed but claim on her was emphasized. It means “Princess” and as such those that would be kings would come from her.
B. The covenant with Abraham continued through the son of Sarah.
- This continues the hope of the “seed of the woman.” God would select precisely the line of the Messiah, not only through the seed of men, but through precisely selected women so as to emphasize his power and his grace. Through Eve, through Sarah, through Rebekah (Abraham’s brother’s granddaughter), Ruth (a descendant of Moab the son of Lot by one of his daughters), through Mary, the virgin—examples of mercy, power, universal inclusion, and infallible purpose are propagated throughout human history.
- The poignancy of this situation sets the stage for the test in Genesis 22. The son so longed for, promised under such seemingly impossible conditions, was to be given in sacrifice. This episode, to be studied later, showed the growth of Abraham’s faith as commensurate with his knowledge of God (Hebrews 11:17–19).
C. The promises of the covenant remain the same and become important to the historical narrative of Israel. (Genesis 35:12; 50:24; Exodus 3:6, 16,17; Deuteronomy 6:10–12; 28:52; 63; 32:44–47, et al.)
III. 17:22–27 – Abraham immediately obeys and implements the physical sign of the covenant.
This was the first, but just one of the ceremonial laws given to make his descendants a “peculiar people.” Christ would fulfill all the typological provisions of the ceremonial law, would also fulfill all the requirements of the moral law, and in doing so would die to redeem for himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works from every tongue and nation.
To the sinner grace came down by sovereign revelations.
God Almighty told his purpose to a sinful man.
This one person God would make a blessing to all nations.
Point by point and grace by grace God opened up his plan,
A plan to bring salvation.
“I Am”—the Lord in exaltation made His Being clear.
Thirteen years had passed in silence after Sarai’s ruse.
“You shall” by sovereign declaration “bless those far and near.”
“I will,” said God, “Do this thing and pow’rs cannot refuse.”
Truth will stand—be of good cheer.
A sign will mark the nation’s males through whom the oath prevails.
Transformed hearts and blood for guilt required to cleanse man’s sin.
Without new birth and threatened exile e’en the oath would fail.
Remove the debt without and wash clean the filth within.
What deep suff’ring sin entails!
Past the age of bearing children, he of procreation,
Sara would conceive the promise from her husband’s seed.
From their union kings and peoples, endless generations,
Every tongue and tribe would find God’s “WILL” to meet their need;
No human machination.
An everlasting covenant through Isaac would ensue.
Ishmael’s strength would multiply through earthly rulers’ power.
The son of promise soon to come will righteousness pursue.
Abraham obeyed God’s word and waited for the hour
When the promise would be due.