The Point: God’s plans are always better than our own.
God’s Covenant with Abram: Genesis 15:1-6.
 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."  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?"  And Abram said, "Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir."  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."  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."  And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. [ESV]
“[1-5] In the words of verse 1, God teaches Abram (and us) that He has power to protect His own – whatever the circumstances. Divine protection is only half the story of God’s promise to Abram in this verse. God Himself was to be Abram’s reward. To have God as your reward means, first of all, that you share in all that God has. Abram received many revelations from God during his lifetime, and many of these had a name of God connected with them. At one point, Abram came to know God as Jehovah-Jireh, which means “the God who provides.” In this incident, he came to know Him as El Elyon, “the God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” It was this God who promised to be a reward to Abram. To have God as our reward also means that we share in all that God is. We possess it in part even now. Many of God’s attributes mentioned in the Bible are to be ours in Christ Jesus. Is God wisdom? We share that wisdom. Is God holy? We share that holiness. Is God almighty? We share that power. 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 other 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 [e.g. 1 John 1:9; John 11:26; 14:1-3, etc.]. 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. But in these verses Abram had a problem. He had no children. God had told him that he was going to have a numerous posterity – as numerous as the dust of the earth [13:16]. Abram believed that. 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 he says, in effect, “Lord, you know that I have this great problem. You promised to give me many things. But what can you give me that matters now? I am old. I have no children. The one who is going to inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus. Abram was so concerned about this that he repeats his problem twice: once in verse 2 and once in verse 3. Abram was correct in voicing his problem to God. But there are different ways in which we can ask God questions, and not all ways are right. We can ask defiantly or we can ask humbly. After Abram presents his problem to the Lord in verse 3, the Lord answers him in verses 4 and 5. 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 Abram still had his problem. He was puzzled. So God, who is gracious, repeats the promise once again 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: your very own son shall be your heir. 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 stars. God took Abram out into the clear night air and said, Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. Of course, Abram was not able to number the stars. Then God said, So shall your offspring be. In the future when Abram had doubts concerning God’s promise, all he needed to do was look up in the night sky and let the stars be a reminder of how great God is. One of our problems is that we are always looking at ourselves, and that leads to doubt. We look at ourselves and say, “I don’t see how I can do that. I don’t see how I can believe what God is promising.” The problem is that we are looking at ourselves. We are not the one who gives the promises. God is. So we need to stop looking at ourselves and keep our focus on God. We need to have our minds stretched by God’s greatness. 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. There has to be a God, in their opinion. But this does not mean anything to them. The real question is whether you believe God, who makes these promises, and whether you live by what God has promised. Has God spoken? If so, has God spoken clearly? If God has spoken clearly, can God be trusted to do what He has promised? Wise is one who answers yes to these questions and lives by faith in those promises.
 Salvation’s Hinge. Following the first chapter of Genesis, which tells of the creation of all things by the eternal and self-existent God, and the third chapter, which tells of the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, the next great pivotal chapter of the Old Testament is Genesis 15. By many standards it is the greatest, for it tells of Abram’s justification by grace through faith and records the official covenant established with him by God, through which his posterity was blessed. In verse 6, 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. Faith existed before Abram, 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. 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 verse 6 actually mean? God does not substitute faith for righteousness. It is never said in the Bible that people are saved because of their faith or on the basis of their faith. They are saved by faith, which means “by faith as a channel.” The use of the word counted in verse 6 further teaches this truth. The Hebrew word translated counted by the ESV can also be translated as “credited” or “reckoned”. This word refers to an accurate kind of record keeping, as in financial accounting. When Psalm 32:2 says: Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, it refers to how God handles our sin. The verse does not mean that God simply subtracts sin from the account book of our lives and forgets about it. He removes it from our book, but this is only because He has transferred it to the book of Jesus Christ. Jesus paid sin’s penalty when He died on the cross. In a parallel action, God reckons Christ’s righteousness to us. This is what happened to Abram, and it is what has happened to everyone who has ever been saved. Justification is not only a bookkeeping matter. It is also a legal matter, for it involves the pronouncement of God, who, in this case, appears in the role of judge. 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 [Rom. 4:5]. But how can this be? How can God justify the ungodly and at the same time be just? In answering this question we note that the Christian doctrine is justification by faith, and this latter phrase 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 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 [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.” [Boice, pp. 526-559]
Sarai and Hagar: Genesis 16:1-5.
 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar.  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.  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.  And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.  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]
“Chapter 16 contains several allusions to Genesis 3:6. These allusions are clearly intentional and help shape the narrative and provide its primary connection to the larger themes of the book: faith and obedience. A central parallel between Genesis 3 and 16 is Sarai’s plan to produce the “promised” son for Abram. This story is intended to replicate Eve’s attempt to find wisdom apart from God [3:6]. Eve desired the fruit she believed would make her wise, so she took the fruit, gave it to her husband, and he ate. Similarly, Sarai desires a son from whom she hopes her house will be built. So she takes Hagar and gives her to her husband, Abram. Sarai’s words it may be that I shall obtain children by her  point to the promise offspring of Abraham in the earlier narratives. God had not given him a son, and the only one to possess his inheritance will be your very own son [15:4]. By bringing the events of Hagar and Abram into the larger context of Genesis 3, the author extends the sense of the story beyond Abram and Hagar as individuals and ties their actions to the themes of the book as a whole: trust in God alone to fulfill the promises. The first section of the narrative about Hagar focuses on Sarai’s plan to overcome her barrenness and have a child. Sarai’s plan to assure Abram the promised child was no doubt acceptable within the social customs of their day, but from the author’s vantage point the plan is an example of human effort in the face of a call for faith. Eve’s plan was an attempt to find wisdom apart from God by eating the forbidden fruit; Sarai’s plan is an attempt to achieve the promised blessing by leaving God out of the picture. The author’s disapproval of Sarai’s plan is suggested by casting the plan along lines similar to Eve’s plan in Genesis 3. Sarai’s plan, like Eve’s, is an attempt to achieve God’s blessing on her own, without God’s help. The positioning of this narrative immediately after the account of the covenant affirming the promise of a child [15:4] is surely intentional. Sarai’s plan clearly looks as though it were intended to head off the divine promise by supplying it with a human solution. Hence the story follows along the same line of meaning of the narratives that precede it. It demonstrates the futility of human effort and its ultimate failure to fulfill the divine promise. Sarai’s plan, though successful, does not meet with divine approval [17:15-19]. The same focus on the failure of human plans and schemes is found in earlier narratives [11:1-9; 12:10-20; 13:1-12; 14:21-24].” [Sailhamer, pp. 174-176].
God’s Covenant with Isaac: Genesis 17:18-19.
 And Abraham said to God, "Oh that Ishmael might live before you!"  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.
“Abraham’s response to God’s promise in verse 16 is not what the reader may have expected: Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed .In light of the author’s portrayal of Abraham thus far in Genesis [e.g., 15:6], it does not seem likely that his laughter is intended to point to a lack of faith – though the text leaves something of that impression. Without commenting directly on Abraham’s reaction to God’s promise, the author allows Abraham’s own words in verse 17 to uncover the motivation behind his laughter: Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? Abraham’s laughter is an expression of his utter amazement: “How can this happen?” In 18:12, where Sarah also responds to God’s promise with laughter, the author shows that her laughter is met with divine disapproval: The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh [18:13]. The absence of a rebuke of Abraham’s laughter suggests that Abraham’s laughter does not so much reflect a lack of faith on his part as it does a limitation of his faith. Abraham is not one whose faith in God has reached full maturity. He is one whose faith must still be pushed beyond its present limits. His faith must grow if he is to continue to put his trust in God’s promise. The irony of Abraham’s response is evident. Even in his surprising response of laughter in the face of God’s promise, Abraham’s laughter becomes a verbal sign marking the ultimate fulfillment of the promise in Isaac. Throughout the remainder of the narratives surrounding the birth of Isaac, a key word within each major section is ‘laughter’ [18:12; 19:14; 21:6,9; 26:7,8]. Thus for the author of the book, both the power of God and the limitations of human faith are embodied in that most ambiguous of human acts, laughter. For the first time the name Abraham, rather than Abram, is used as the subject of a verb: Abraham fell on his face and laughed . The author’s irony can be seen in the fact that Abraham is laughing at the very thing his new name is intended to mark: you shall be the father of a multitude of nations [17:4].” [Sailhamer, pp. 182-183].
Questions for Discussion:
1. What did it mean for Abram that God was his reward? What does it mean to you that God is your reward? What is the connection between God’s promises and His being our reward? Note here that God being our reward only becomes real in our experience to the degree that we trust in and rely upon His promises to us in His Word.
2. What great doctrine is set forth in 15:6 for the first time in Scripture? What does it mean for God to count faith as righteousness? How can a just God do this? What is the basis for God declaring a believer righteous?
3. What happened to Abram and Sarai because they did not wait for God to fulfil His promise concerning a son? Compare Sarai’s actions in Genesis 16 with those of Eve in Genesis 3. How are they similar? Note that both chapters deal with the theme of faith and obedience which runs throughout Scripture. How have you experienced in your life the consequences of not trusting in and obeying God’s promises given us in His Word?
Genesis, volume 2, James Boice, Baker.
Strangers & Pilgrims, V. Paul Flint, Loizeaux Brothers.
Genesis, volume 2, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, Broadman.
Genesis, John Sailhamer, EBC, Zondervan.