Abram And The Covenant Of Faith

Genesis 15:7-21 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.”

INTRODUCTION

If you were here last week you’ll remember that Genesis 15 tells of two encounters Abram had with God. In the first, which came through a vision, we are given the first covenant promise and the key to understanding God’s covenant with Abram—namely that the children of Abram (the true heirs of the covenant) were those who would share his faith in God, not those who shared his DNA (last week). In the second encounter, then, which came through a dream, God gave the second covenant promise and the actual terms of the covenant—namely that God would bless Abram and his descendents in spectacular physical and spiritual ways (this week).

What’s more, you may also remember that these two encounters (which give us the key and the covenant) were critical for the Apostle Paul’s understanding of salvation in Jesus. In particular, he argued in Romans that the Jews’ failure was not in clinging to this covenant, but in missing the key that unlocked its meaning. That is, Paul wasn’t arguing against esteeming the contents of Abram’s second encounter with God, but in failing to understand it in light of the first. For that reason, once again, this passage is absolutely critical for us to grasp God’s promise to save His people and His promised means of doing so. These two encounters together help explain why Christianity is the fulfillment of the OT promises rather than a new religion altogether.

The main point of this passage/sermon then is that God made a covenant promise with Abram to bless him and his descendents in spectacular physical and spiritual ways if they would trust in Him. The main prayer is that we’d understand, receive, and share its implications for the world today.

THE SECOND ENCOUNTER (7-21)

This second encounter that Abram had with God (which almost perfectly parallels the first in shape and the one God would later make with Moses in language) gives further clarification to God’s intentions for Abram and his offspring. To really understand and appreciate it we need to recognize what it says about 1) the nature of the God of the covenant, 2) the promises of the covenant, and 3) the terms of the covenant.

The Nature of the God of the Covenant (7)

The first thing to see then is the nature of the covenant-making God. The God who had just promised countless descendents and was about to promise fertile and abundant land chose to identify Himself once again to Abram.

7 And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans…

It’s important that we ask why God would do this? Why would God preface the covenant with these words?

Think about that for a moment. If you wanted someone to believe a great promise, what would you offer in the way of assurance? What might you say to them to set their mind at ease? For instance, if you promised to pay someone $1,000,000, what could you possibly offer to get them to trust you? It would have to be pretty big, wouldn’t it? “Remember that time I told you I’d buy you a McDonald’s cone and I did” probably wouldn’t cut it. In reality, there probably isn’t much that most of us could say for we just don’t have the resources to back it up.

On the other hand, what if Bill Gates promised to give you $1,000,000? He’d have all kinds of things to offer as legitimate assurance. He might even be able to show you a handful of things he’d purchased at 10x that amount. The point is that big claims require big assurances to give us rest.

In other words, in the first half of v.7 God reintroduced Himself as the LORD, the one who had already done great things, as a means of reassuring Abram that He was able to deliver on every future promise. As proof of His ability to keep His word, God offered Abram His name and His perfect track record.

But what, specifically, was God saying? What, exactly did he mean by, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans”. On the surface that might not mean a lot to us. (“I am David who drove you here from Scandia” might not get you to trust my promise of $1,000,000.) The key, then, is in understanding all that contained.

In short, God charged Abram to recall all that he’d been through already by the hand of God since his time in Ur. He’d already received God’s call, been delivered by God from Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, been made rich by God at Pharaoh’s hand, and been able to rescue his nephew, Lot, from invading kings by the power of God. In other words, God said to Abram, “As you consider my promises of offspring, property, and righteousness, remember the power I’ve already displayed all around you and trust Me.”

This is the most certain guarantee Abram could have hoped for. There is nothing more dependable than the name and perfect power of God. Indeed, God would use this same method again and again. Most notably was His self-identification as the God who rescued Abram’s children from Egyptian slavery. “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God” (Leviticus 11:45). When God would call His people to trust Him in some new promise He often rooted it in His name, His past works of power, and His prior keeping of another hard-to-believe promise. The message here is that God’s past power and faithfulness are His assurance of His future power and faithfulness. He can be trusted in all He says because He has never failed to accomplish all He said.

And so it is for you and me even today. As we saw last week God has made some very remarkable promises to us. To truly trust in them would certainly mean doing things that would look foolish to the world and make us more vulnerable to difficulty in this life. Thus, each minute of each day we’re faced with the decision to live by faith in God’s promises or by what our own senses and reason would dictate. God’s revelation to Abram here helps us to understand the simple fact that the only thing that makes sense in light of God’s perfect faithfulness (most fully seen many years after Abram in Jesus) is to trust in God. Would you consider afresh where you need to do so today, Grace?

The Promises of the Covenant (7-8)

And that leads us to the specific covenant promise of God that He here guaranteed by His name, faithfulness, and power. What would God promise on the basis of these things? He’d already promised countless descendents. What more could He offer?

7 … “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”

Just as God re-promised offspring in the first (chapter 15) encounter, here He re-promised (from back in chapter 12(:7)) the land of Canaan. Abram had no children or land of his own. Calling on Himself as collateral, God promised him an entire nation. How would Abram respond to this awesome news?

Well, just as Abram did with God’s first encounter promise, here, once again, he displayed a bit of skepticism. Rather than wholly trusting in God, allowing His word to suffice, Abram again asked for proof beyond God’s name and past power and faithfulness. Thus, in v.8 he said,

8 … “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

God had just given Abram absolute proof, but Abram wanted more. And yet, again, rather than become angry or impatient, God condescended to provide further proof. This time it took the form of the second explicit Biblical covenant (Noah was the first). And that leads to the third and final section of this sermon. We’ve considered the nature of the God of the covenant, God’s promises in the covenant, and now the actual terms of the covenant.

The Terms of the Covenant (9-21)

The rest of chapter 15 (vs.9-21) describes various aspects of the giving and fulfilling of the Abrahamic covenant—the covenantal terms. And from that there are four things to which I’d like to draw your attention.

  1. God alone established the terms of the covenant (9-10). God didn’t ask Abram what he thought should happen—what animals to bring or what to do with them (who would ever have thought to do any of this apart from God’s specific charge anyway?). God didn’t ask Abram who should be involved. And He didn’t ask him what he thought the blessings for keeping or the curses for breaking the covenant should be. God declared these things to Abram. Thus, as God began laying out the covenant terms…

    9 He said to [Abram], “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”

    God told Abram what to do. Abram’s role was simply to obey; just as he did.

    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.

    This covenant, along with every element of it, was determined by God alone. Grace, in thinking and praying through this I couldn’t help but to feel convicted about how often I want to dictate terms to God. Likewise, I was convicted as to how utterly foolish that is. Why would I ever want anything other than what the God of all wisdom and power wants for me? What kind of arrogance causes me to offer counsel to God?

  2. God promised short-term opposition to the covenant (11-13). Though God promised great blessing to Abram and his descendents, the Garden curse was still in effect and the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman were still locked in battle (Genesis 3).

    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.

    There is undoubtedly a good deal of symbolism wrapped into vs.11-12. There is a great deal of discussion as to what, specifically, the birds of prey and great darkness represent. There are questions around the deeper meaning of Abram’s active role in driving out the birds of prey and its contrast with his passive role in falling asleep. Again, there is assuredly more than meets the eye here. And yet, while we cannot be certain of what these things represented specifically, there is no question as to what they meant overall; namely, that Abram and his offspring would be intimately involved in God’s fulfillment of the covenant even as it would be fulfilled through much suffering and difficulty.

    Thus, what vs.11-12 imply symbolically, v.13 states explicitly.

    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.

    The lives of God’s people would certainly involve great blessing, but they would also involve great turmoil and hardship. Centuries-long homelessness and enslavement were two specific examples promised by God.

    And so it is for us, Grace. To be a Christian is to be assured of blessing and joy without limit. And yet, it is a lie from the pit of hell that Christianity is the good news that you can have your best life now. It is a diabolical lie of the Father of Lies that following Jesus means comfort and ease in this life.

    Perhaps I’ve shared this illustration with you before (I can’t remember where I first heard it). Consider a plane whose engines have failed mid-flight. It will inevitably crash to the ground. Everyone still on board at that time will certainly die. The only hope for the passengers and crew is to put on a parachute and jump. Now imagine that there are certain people on the plane who do not believe that the plane is going to crash. What do you do? At first you might try to reason with them and offer evidence. If they still refuse to believe you might plead with them. But if they still won’t believe you what do you do? They look at the parachute and all they can see is that it is big and bulky and will cut into their already-limited leg room and make their already-uncomfortable flight more uncomfortable. What’s more, the thought of jumping out of a plane thousands of feet above the ground with or without a parachute seems nuts. Again, what do you do?

    In the case of modern evangelism, many have resorted to offering a modified, minimized parachute designed more for comfort than function. What’s more, they’ve told their fellow passengers that it’s fine to put it on without even jumping; just slip it on, feel the cushion on your back, and sit still. Of course more people are inclined to put that kind of parachute on, but all that means is that they’ll be wearing it comfortably when the crash and die.

    From the very beginning (as we see in this covenant promise) God has told His people that trusting in Him would always lead to ultimate justice, blessing, and reward; even as it also leads to immediate injustice, suffering, and persecution. While many have softened the gospel in an attempt to make it more appealing to a world that would otherwise reject it, to do so only serves to drive people further from salvation as it is no gospel at all.

  3. God promised ultimate covenantal success (14-16). God established the terms of the covenant and promised short-term difficulty for all who lived according to it, but He also promised ultimate covenant success. By His own name, faithfulness, and power, God guaranteed that it would succeed.

    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.”

    “I will bring judgment” on your enemies. I will ensure that my people “shall come out with great possessions”. All who opposed the covenant people would be condemned. All who remained faithful to it would be greatly rewarded. God Himself had determined this ultimate success. In this passage Abram’s children were simply the passive recipients of God’s covenant keeping grace. That’s the best news they could have hoped for.

    What’s more, you might have noticed that vs.15 and 16 each contain an interesting nugget on the covenant’s ultimate success. In 15 God promised that Abram would experience both ultimate and immediate covenant enjoyment. Unlike his offspring, by God’s sovereign hand, Abram would only know peace and stability.

    And then, in a truly amazing—even if subtle–revelation in 16, God shows us a bit of His heart and mind concerning the judgment of the wicked. Let me try to explain what I mean.

    God promised Abram the land of Canaan.

    God also promised that Abram’s descendents would only realize that promise after 400 years (4 generations) of struggle. Abram must have wondered why God would do it that way…just as you and I often wonder why God allows us to go through hardship even though He promised fullness of life and joy.

    In v.16 we’re given a specific reason for this delay. The land promised to Abram was filled with people who had rejected God as God and deserved His judgment. God had determined to fulfill His promise to Abram while simultaneously executing judgment on the Canaanites for their rebellion. In other words, God would allow Abram’s children to take the land by conquering those who inhabited it.

    And here’s what’s truly remarkable…to demonstrate His patience and mercy and justice, God did not immediately allow the Canaanites (Amorites) to be destroyed. To demonstrate the rightness of His judgment upon them God would allow their iniquity to reach a level that all could recognize as deserving destruction. “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.“ What an amazing glimpse into the plan of God this is.

    Let me spell it out even more clearly. The key here is in the fact that God reveals to us a specific reason for the Israelite suffering (400 years of difficulty before inheriting the land). We don’t often get that, but here we do. And in this we are reminded of what is always the case (even if God doesn’t choose to reveal the specifics of it)…God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him; everything, always. When life isn’t as you would like it to be the temptation is to become bitter and complain. In this short, simple verse, we are shown a better way: trust that God has a perfect plan. Neither Abram nor you and I deserve God’s explanation. God doesn’t owe one to us. In His mercy and grace, though, here, God gave one and in that blessed Abram and us richly. Grace, trust in God in every way. He is always working for your good.

  4. Finally, the covenant success was certain because God alone fulfilled its terms (17-21). How could all of this be? How could Abram know for certain that all would take place exactly as God promised? How could God promise ultimate success? Was there any way for this covenant promise to be undone? By no means! For God alone was responsible for its fulfillment. We see this in the fact that God alone passes through the animals.

    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.”

    Under ordinary circumstances two parties would enter into a covenant with one another and both would pass through the animals. In this case, however, God alone passed through them; and thus He alone is the ultimate guarantor of covenant success. The smoking fire pot and flaming torch would have been very familiar to the Israelietes—Abram’s descendents—who would have first received Genesis. They would have drawn to mind the pillars of smoke and fire by which God led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness as they awaited their opportunity to take the Promised Land. They represented the very presence of God.

    And once again, we find this in even greater fullness in Jesus. He is the reason God could guarantee this to Abram; for He would die on the cross to reconcile man to God and bring us into His inheritance as God’s very children (not merely Abram’s)! Romans 9:16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

CONCLUSION

This covenant means different things for different people. Abram and the Israelites, for instance, would have received this news very differently. For Abram to hear these words from God would have meant simultaneous deep joy and deep sorrow. God was promising great things for Abram and his offspring. God also promised great trials and suffering along the way. Combined, if its news were rightly passed on to future generations it would be a comfort, reminding Abram’s children that difficulty did not mean that the covenant had been voided. Likewise, the news that God passed through the animals alone, were it rightly passed on, would have reassured the offspring that the fulfillment was dependent on God’s faithfulness alone.

For the Israelites, however, who were the first to receive Genesis, and who did so with countless offspring and on the very edge of this land that God promised centuries ago, these words (especially the 400 years) would have indicated the nearing of the end of the suffering and the imminent fulfillment of God’s promise of great reward. This would have been a powerful explanation and a welcomed assurance that they were indeed about to receive what they hoped.

Different still, the Church today, on the other side of Israel being given children and land, receives this covenant description as a reminder that God does fulfill His promises, that He can be trusted, and that echoes of this ring even into the time of the New Covenant—our great promise and hope. Grace…

1 Peter 5:10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.