Moving From Failure to Direction


Lesson Focus:  God has a plan for our lives, but we need to trust Him to work in us and through us to accomplish that plan. We do not need to take shortcuts and take matters into our own hands. Like Abraham, we can learn to trust God’s timing.

Trust God:  Genesis 15:4-6.

[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.  [ESV]

[4-6]  Have you ever noticed how many things in your life depend on someone’s promise? You enter into business, get married, take a job, buy a piece of property, and do thousands of others things because of someone’s promise. If you are a Christian, you act on the promises of God. Because of His promises you believe that your sins are forgiven, that you possess eternal life, that God hears and answers prayer, that God is providing for you now, and that He will also provide for you fully in the life to come. These promises are found in many verses: see e.g., 1 John 1:9; John 11:26; 14:1-3. Abram was a man who lived by God’s promises. The promises God gave him were not exactly the same as those we have been given to live by today, but the God who gave them is the same and the reason for them is the same. God gives them in order that we might live by trusting Him. The Bible says that even at the very beginning of Abram’s walk with God, Abram was living by God’s promises. God came to him with a command to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household, and go into a new land that God was going to show him. The most noteworthy characteristic of those early verses of Genesis 12 is the number of times God says “I will.” God was going to do a great deal with and for Abram, and Abram began his spiritual life by believing and stepping out on God’s promises. In chapter 15 we find Abram confronted by a problem. God had told him that he was going to have a numerous posterity and Abram believed God. He expected God to do it. But the years were beginning to go by, and Abram and his wife were still childless. In these verses we find that Abram now begins to talk about his problem. God has told Abram that He would be his shield, his very great reward. Abram accepted that but now he questions God about the promise of an heir. Both Abram and Sarai were getting old and still had no children. And the one who would inherit Abram’s estate was his servant, Eliezer of Damascus. In verses 4-5 God answered His servant, Abram, and gave him a promise he depended on for many years. Think about what God did as He gave this further revelation of His will and ways to Abram. First, He repeated His promise. Abram had heard God’s promise once but now had doubts. The God of all truth should not have to repeat His promise. But God, who is gracious, repeats His promise to Abram. God did something else in His answer to Abram. He not only repeated the promise; he clarified it. In Abram’s case, this was even more important than merely repeating it, because Abram was actually puzzled over how the promise might be fulfilled. We know this because in Genesis 16 he begins to think of fulfillment through Hagar. Here apparently he is thinking of a fulfillment through Eliezer. He does not know how it is going to work out. God clarifies the matter by telling Abram that his heir would be your very own son. God did a third thing. He not only repeated and clarified the promise; he expanded it. He did this by adding a comparison involving the vast number of the stars in the sky to the number of Abram’s offspring. So whenever Abram began to doubt God’s promise in the future, all he had to do was look at all the stars in the night sky and remember God’s promise. God contrasts Himself with Abram when He asks Abram if he can number the stars which, of course, he could not do. But God could because He made them. So when Abram looked up in the sky at the stars, he should remember, not only God’s promise, but also His greatness and should trust in God’s ability to fulfill all His promises. The ultimate question in life is whether you believe God. It is not a question of whether you believe in God. Many people say they believe in God. The real question is whether you believe God, who makes these promises, and whether you live by what God has promised. Genesis 15:6 is perhaps one of the most important verses in the entire Bible because the doctrine of justification by faith is set forth for the first time. This is the first verse in the Bible explicitly to speak of faith, righteousness and justification. We know that faith existed before Abram for all the godly patriarchs were saved by it. But up to this point in Genesis, we have not had this truth taught explicitly. Here the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and hence the theme of the entire Bible, is set before us. Justification by faith is God’s answer to the most basic of all religious questions, namely, how can a person become right with God? We are not right with Him in ourselves; this is what the doctrine of sin means. Sin means that we are in rebellion against God, and if we are against God, we cannot be right with God. we are transgressors. The doctrine of justification by faith is the most important of all Christian doctrines because it tells how one who is in rebellion against God may become right with Him. It says that we may be justified, not by our own works-righteousness, but solely by the work of Christ received by faith. What does 15:6 actually mean? Justification means the pronouncing of a person righteous before God. but here we are confronted with a problem. Men and women are not right before God, yet God justifies them. It cannot be denied that God’s judgment is always according to truth and equity. It cannot be denied that we are ungodly. It cannot be denied that God nevertheless justifies the ungodly. But how can this be? If we were to justify the ungodly, that is, if we were to declare a person who is guilty to be innocent, our act would be an outrage before both God and man. Yet this is what God does. How can He do it? How can He justify the ungodly and at the same time be just? In answering this question we note that the Christian doctrine is justification by faith, as Genesis 15:6 shows, and not merely justification. By faith means faith in Jesus as God’s provision for our sin. The Christian doctrine of justification is therefore actually God’s declaring the believing individual to be righteous, not on the basis of his own works or irrespective of works, but on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. In God’s justification of the sinner, there is a unique factor that does not enter into any other case of justification. That unique factor is the combination of Christ’s atonement for our sin and God’s provision for our need of a divine righteousness through Him. In justification, God declares that He has accepted the sacrifice of Christ as the payment of our debt to the divine justice, and in place of sin has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us [see Rom. 3:21-26]. It is the glory of the Christian gospel that God has graciously worked in the lives of all those who, giving up trying to do good works in order to earn or merit salvation, instead, by faith, receive the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior; He makes them spiritually alive (that is, they are regenerated), declares their sins to have been punished at Calvary, and imputes to them the righteousness of Christ.

Don’t Take Matters into Your Own Hands:  Genesis 16:1-5.

[1]  Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. [2]  And Sarai said to Abram, "Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. [3]  So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. [4]  And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. [5]  And Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!"  [ESV]

[1-5]  As Abram and Sarai grew older, the fact that they had no children created great marital problems as well as problems where the promises of God were concerned. God had promised Abram that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and Abram had believed God. This was the whole point of Genesis 15. But now the man of faith becomes the man of unbelief. Retreating from his walk by faith, he begins to walk by sight and gets into trouble in the process. On this occasion, the temptation came from his wife. Abram follows the lead of his wife, as Adam before him had followed the suggestion of Eve, and stumbles badly. It happened because Sarai was herself bothered by the lack of children. Abram’s disgrace was her disgrace. So instead of patiently waiting for God to fulfill the promise in His own way and in His own time, she approached Abram with the suggestion that he see if he could have a child by her Egyptian servant Hagar. No doubt if the suggestion had come from anyone else, Abram would have instantly refused. But this was Sarai, his wife. Moreover, she had a right to do this under the laws and customs of the time. Perhaps this was the way God intended them to get an heir. Perhaps Sarai had a point. Abram decided that the expedient should be tried and therefore went in to Hagar, who conceived a child by this action. Abram operated in the flesh when he went in to Hagar and the fruit of that union was not the son of promise. Instead of listening to his wife or trusting his own reasoning, Abram should have waited patiently for God to send blessing. One thing that happens when we stop trusting God – no matter how reasonable our lack of trust seems – is that we then tend to blame God (and other people as well) for our difficulties. We see this in Sarai’s situation. The narrative begins by noting that when she approached Abram with her suggestion, she blamed God for the fact that she had no children: the Lord has prevented me from bearing children [2]. And later, when Hagar had conceived and then began to despise her mistress for her sterility, Sarai complained that it was Abram’s fault that she was suffering [5]. This always happens when we stop trusting God. We do wrong. We say God caused it to occur. Then, when our plans go sour, we blame either God or others for the outcome. The difficulty is not with God. The sin is in ourselves. The fault is in our own bad choices.

Refocus on God’s Plan:  Genesis 17:3-6,15-19.

[3]  Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, [4]  "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. [5]  No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. [6]  I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. [15]  And God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. [16]  I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." [17]  Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" [18]  And Abraham said to God, "Oh that Ishmael might live before you!" [19]  God said, "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. [ESV]

[3-6]  At ninety-nine Abram had been in the land for twenty-four years, and it was thirteen years since Ishmael’s birth. The Lord appears to Abram, here as God Almighty, in order to reaffirm His covenant with Abram. Abram’s gripping response of falling facedown expressed his awe at God speaking to him.. This is the demeanor of respect toward a superior; also it is the action accompanying profound pleading before the Lord in a moment of crisis. The covenant possesses four features. First, God will make Abram the father of a multitude of nations. This feature is central as shown by the parallel repetition of the promise in verses 4 and 5. The giving of a new name usually marks a special event in a person’s life. For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations expresses a future promise but, as the basis for the name change, is viewed as already occurring. Second, the Lord will grant him numerous offspring, exceedingly fruitful. Fruitful is the common metaphor for physical descendants, here echoing the creation ordinance [1:22,28] and the Noahic covenant [8:17; 9:1,7]. The beginning fulfillment of the blessing is the population exposition experienced by the Hebrews in Egypt, precipitating their oppression and expulsion [47:27]. Reference to kings among Abraham’s descendants indicates that autonomous nations will result. Abraham, though not a king himself, is the ancestor of multiple royal houses. Third, this covenant is multigenerational, even an everlasting covenant [7] for Abraham’s generations to come. Fourth, the final promise combines the key elements of descendants and land. The land promise is expressed in terms of covenant relationship, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. This promise of an everlasting possession was a particular inheritance in that it applied only to Isaac and not Ishmael. This particular inheritance was understood in the New Testament as including the spiritual possession of eternal life [Rom. 9:4-13; Heb. 11:8; 1 Peter 1:4].

[15-19]  The fourth speech in this section names Abraham’s wife Sarah and blesses her with the promise of a numerous offspring, even nations and kings. Specifically, the Lord promises Sarah will have a son, in contradiction of her doubts [16:2]. Sarah is an alternate form of the older “Sarai,” meaning “princess”. In the context of patriarchialism, the husband is charged with the task of renaming his wife. But remarkably, the Lord announces blessing directly upon the woman, usually reserved in Genesis for the male progenitors. Abraham’s reaction consisted of the range of human response; initially, he collapses in reverential awe, laughs, reasons, and then urgently pleas. His laughter is shared later by Sarah at the annunciation of Isaac, which explained the meaning of the name “Isaac” (laughter). Abraham reasons that their elderly state prevents her pregnancy; again Sarah echoes the same inner dialogue of doubt [18:12]. Abraham presents to the Lord a counterproposal by pleading for Ishmael’s acceptance. Abraham’s request is not neglected by the Lord (I have heard you [20]), for the boy also receives a blessing [20]. The fifth divine speech answers Abraham’s concerns regarding the viability of a son born to Sarah and the future of Ishmael. The reality of a son born to Sarah is forcefully confirmed by God in verses 19 and 21. The annunciation includes a specific name (Isaac) and time period (next year). The Lord confirms His promise by repeating the promissory language given to Abraham in verse 7: everlasting covenant. The birth announcements of Ishmael [16:11-12] and Isaac [19] present a striking contrast in the destinies of the two sons. Ishmael will become the father of a great people, but he and his offspring will be outsiders, whereas Isaac will assume his father’s inheritance. Thus, the covenants of God have three features. First, they are unilateral, that is, ‘one-sided’. This means that the covenant comes from God alone, not from God and man getting together to decide what the conditions of their future relationship are to be. Second, the covenants are eternal. That is, God does not change, and since the terms of the covenant come from Him and are maintained by Him, the covenant does not change either. Third, the covenants of God are gracious. If the promises of God depended on anything to be found in human beings, they would never have been established, for we deserve nothing. That they are established is due solely to God’s good favor.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In 15:4-6, what three things did God tell Abram in reply to Abram’s concern expressed in 15:2-3? Note how God gives Abram a visible reference point in creation (the stars) to provide continuing assurance to Abram about God’s power and faithfulness.

2.         What is the difference between believing God and believing in God? (Many people say they believe in God but lack a personal relationship with God built upon trusting Him in all aspects of their lives. As the story of Abram teaches us, trust in God’s promises is the essential element in our having a personal relationship with our Lord.)

3.         Genesis 15:6 is one of the most important verses in the Bible. See how this verse is used in Romans 4; Galatians 3:1-14; and Hebrews 11:6-12. What does justification by grace through faith mean and why is this doctrine essential for a correct understanding of the Gospel?

4.         In 16:1-5, what did Abram and Sarai do wrong? What were the consequences of their sin? What do we learn here about the importance of trusting in God’s timing for our lives?

5.         List the four features of the covenant in 17:4-7. What do we learn from these passages about God’s grace and faithfulness to His covenant promises?


Genesis, Vol. 2,  James Boice, Baker.

Genesis, John Sailhamer, EBC, Zondervan.

Genesis 11:27-50:26, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, Broadman.

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