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.” 2 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?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 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.
Genesis 15 is one of the most pivotal passages in the entire bible. The second section (7-21; next week) forms the foundation for the Jewish understanding of what it means to be the people of God. For centuries (and even on to today for many) the descendents of Abram put their hope almost exclusively in the covenant God made with Abram in this passage. More importantly, the first section (1-6; this morning) forms the foundation of Paul’s argument on salvation in Romans (chapter 4 especially). In particular, v.6 gives one of the first and clearest indications that God’s redemption would come by grace alone through faith alone. V.6, Paul argued, because the Jews missed it, is the interpretive key to the covenant; for it defines what it means to be a child of Abram. That’s a lot obviously. It’s quite a passage.
All of this is communicated through two encounters that Abram had with God. In these encounters God promised Abram a “very great” reward. Specifically, He promised Abram protection, countless descendents, peace, and fertile and abundant land. What’s more, though these things would be received through hardship, God guaranteed all of them by making a unilateral covenant with Abram—a covenant dependent only on God’s faithfulness. Again, we’ll look at the first encounter this week and the second next week.
The main message for us is that God promised to bless Abram and his offspring beyond imagination; especially in providing the righteousness that God required of Abram (which we now know would come in Jesus). And the main prayer for us is that we’d join Abram in believing God’s promises that we might receive the righteousness of God in Jesus by faith.
ABRAM’S ENCOUNTER WITH GOD (1-6)
Hebrews 1:1 says that “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” Another way of saying this might be that God used many different means of communicating with His people prior to Christ (which is the point of the very next verse, Hebrews 1:2). We see one such way in our passage for this morning. This new Genesis scene opens up with God speaking to Abram through a vision.
1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision…
After everything that had taken place in Genesis 14, which Pastor Mike preached on two weeks ago, and in which there is no mention of God communicating with Abram, God came again to him; this time in a vision. We don’t know exactly how this works or what form it took. Thus, while we might like to know some more particulars they are not the point of this passage. The point is the content of the vision and Abram’s response to it.
What, then, did God communicate to Abram in the vision God gave him?
1 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.”
In this simple opening line God promised protection and reward for Abram. We’re not immediately told how God would shield Abram or what would Abram’s reward be). And yet, Moses gives us a clue in each to help us to see that these promises were something Abram ought to have been delighted to receive.
Regarding the promise of protection…remember, Abram had just witnessed a nine-nation war, and the kidnapping of his nephew and his nephew’s family, along with the plundering of all his things. All of this is told so simply and succinctly in Genesis 14 that it might be easy to forget how scary and dangerous all of that must have been for Abram. With even a moment’s contemplation however, it’s not difficult for us to imagine how frightening all of that must have been in real-time. Thus, it was no small thing that God assured Abram that he didn’t need to be afraid. More importantly—and here’s the first clue—God told Abram that he needn’t be afraid because God would be his shield. You’ll notice it doesn’t say that God would provide a shield (although God sometimes does that); it says that God would be Abram’s shield.
Let me quickly share with you a personal example of why this makes such a difference, and therefore why it should have been the source of great delight for Abram to receive this promise.
For most of my pastoral ministry things worked in a certain, fairly predictable way: I’d seek God, I’d love the people He entrusted to me, and I’d pray for them while working hard to equip them to follow Jesus. The general response was that people knew that I loved God, loved them, trusted me to shepherd them well, and grew (at varying speeds) in fellowship with me and likeness to Christ. Of course there were exceptions here and there (n me and them), but for the most part that’s how things worked. There are a lot of challenges in ministry but God used this steady rhythm as a kind of shield for me from excessive discouragement, burn out, and fatigue. It was only once that rhythm got interrupted in a significant way that I realized I’d been trusting in the rhythm rather than the God who provided it. Rhythms can be (and in my case dramatically was) broken; God cannot. God promised to be Abram’s shield (and my shield and your shield) from all that might cause us eternal harm or keep us from growing in Jesus. We need not fear because God can never falter.
Regarding God’s promise of reward, note in the text that God did not merely promise a reward to Abram (although that would be awesome in itself). Note also that He didn’t even merely promise a “great” reward (although coming from God that would be a staggering thing). Finally, note then that God promised a “very great” reward (even with the most child-like understanding of the greatness of God, the true and full nature of what God considers to be a very great reward is impossible to fathom). The rest of our passage explains some of what that means, and the rest of the bible (especially the NT) unpacks it further. And yet, Grace, even once we get to heaven, in the visible and physical presence of Jesus, we will still never be able to fully understand the fullness of this promise—indeed, we will spend the rest of eternity wherein each moment of each day we will be fully convinced that we have finally received the entirety of our very great reward and that our capacity to experience any more has been exhausted; only to have God expand our capacity and reward…on and on and on forever and ever. Let that sink in for a bit and let that spur you on to faithful obedience to Jesus.
Well, how would those things land on Abram? They landed much the same way they often land on you and me. Abram’s reply seems less celebratory and more skeptical.
2 But Abram said [how often do we reply to the awesome promises of God with a ‘but’?], “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
It’s as if Abram said back to God, “That’s great, God, and I really do believe you (mostly) but you’ve already said that before and yet here I am, still childless. All I have is some distant relative to leave my things to.
To be clear, this really isn’t meant to be understood as an act of faithlessness by Abram. Indeed, it’s mainly an act of faith. Abram believed that God would keep his word, but he couldn’t understand how. It is very much like the desperate father who pleaded with Jesus to help his son in Mark 9:17-24. An evil spirit had made the man’s son unable to speak, have seizures, throw himself into fire and water, grind his teeth, and foam at the mouth. Jesus told the man to believe in Him. “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief” (v.24)! In the same way, Abram believed but asked God to help with his unbelief.
Grace, for your growth in Jesus, notice three things:
- Notice that “I believe; help my unbelief” ought to be our constant cry. If you are a Christian, you are hoping in God. That is to say, if you are a Christian, you are believing in God. God’s grace does not save us through past faith, but present and future faith. To be crystal clear, this is not to say that we are saved through a particular amount of faith. It is, rather, to say that being a Christian means being in the continual possession of God-infused and God-preserved faith—belief in God’s promises. If you are a Christian, you believe.And yet, at the exact same time, we never fully hope in God. In every given situation we lack some measure of belief. Truly, the amount of trust that we place in God in any given circumstance is a further gift from God. And thus, as faithful Christians, we ought to continually cry out to God in faith, “Help me in my lack of faith”. If you are a Christian you need help with your unbelief.
It is when we bring these two truths together (that Christians are never entirely without faith, even as we are never entirely trusting in God) that we are able to live life in a manner pleasing to God. The ever present reality of our belief in God keeps us from falling into despair and excessive discouragement. It also keeps us from being tricked into trusting some past decision or experience or belief for our assurance of salvation. And the ever present reality of our remaining lack of belief keeps us humble and seeking after the sustaining and transforming grace of God.
- Notice how easy it is for you and me to effectively scoff at God’s promises. We would never do that explicitly or overtly or perhaps even consciously, but in a dozen unspoken ways we do so constantly. Upon hearing the promises of God (for protection and reward), Abram ought to have exploded into the highest worship. The simple word of God ought to have been enough for him to find rest and peace (picture the patient who receives a cancer-free diagnosis from their doctor—immediate joy and peace). But, as we see, it didn’t—at least not entirely or immediately. There’s a sense in which Abram scoffed at God’s promises. Again, with the benefit of hindsight and the simple unfolding of this story in Genesis we might be tempted to look down on Abram for his folly. But let me ask you this: How would you describe your present response to God’s promises for you?
Romans 3:23 all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Romans 6:23 the wages of sin is death, Hebrews 4:12-13 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Romans 10:13 everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
John 1:12 to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,
Romans 8:28-30 for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Luke 12:40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Are you able to say that your life is built entirely on these (and God’s many other) promises? Do you find your soul rightly and continually stirred by them? Can you say that they make every difference when life is good and when life is hard? If not, then you are effectively, like Abram, scoffing at the promises of God. Therefore, we give great praise to God for His promises and for his forgiveness of our scoffing at them.
- Finally, notice that God’s fulfillment of God’s promises come in God’s timing. Oh how many times I’ve wished a particular promise of God would come true on my timeline. It’s easy for anyone who has had trouble having children to resonate with Abram’s longing for God’s promise of a son to come true. And yet, in Abram’s day it would have been even more painful. Being childless would have been a major embarrassment. What’s more, it would have left him afraid for the future of his name and his possessions. Children were necessary to perpetuate both and Abram was without child. It’s easy to see why Abram would have struggled with God’s timing (and He wouldn’t for around 25 more years!).
But Grace, let us settle on this now…God fulfills God’s promises in God’s timing. What’s more, let us settle on this now…God’s timing is always infinitely better than our timing. Not only do we need to trust that God will keep His word, we also need to trust that the manner in which He does so is the best manner…always; every time. How much more rest and peace would be ours if we truly trusted in God’s promises and His timing for them? How much less stress and worry would we experience if we simply believed God? Coronavirus, job issues, relational struggles, death of a loved one, exhausting or wayward children, unbelieving family member, jerky spouse, divorce, health issues, money problems? God has given promises for everyone of His people for everyone of these things and His timing in fulfilling all of them is perfect.
God made very great promises to Abram. Abram believed but needed help with his unbelief. Grace, in this we must find ourselves and then find rest in God’s promises to us and His timing for us.
God’s Further Promise
We would be right to wonder how God would handle Abram’s unbelief. Would He be upset? Tired of it? Light on patience? In light of an initial lack of trust on Abram’s part, God wasn’t any of these things. Instead, once again, He condescended to Abram to elaborate on the “very great” nature of His promises.
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.”
In 13:16 God promised Abram descendents as numerous as the dust of the earth. Here he promises them to be as many as the stars in heaven (imagine that!). On top of that God reiterated the fact that they would not come through some distant relative, but through his very own son even though his wife was barren (imagine that!). Abram was a bit skeptical. Rather than rebuke, though, God offered clarification and reassurance.
RIGHTEOUSNESS IS THROUGH FAITH (6)
There’s another encounter between God and Abram—through another vision—that makes up the rest of chapter 15 (next week). Right in between the two exchanges, however, is an absolutely critical link between the Old and New Testaments. V.6 provides, once again, the interpretive key to God’s covenant with Abram. Once I’m done preaching through the story of Abram (after chapter 25) I’m going to come back and preach a series on Paul’s understanding of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as informed by this one verse (Genesis 15:6). To say that this passage is at the heart of the gospel is no exaggeration.
6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
The two key words are “believed” and “righteousness”. To believe in this sense is to deem trustworthy enough to base actions/decisions on. That is, Abram was characterized, this passage declares, by trusting in God such that God’s character and words determined Abram’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. (This is one way we know that there are no true atheists, for no one lives consistently with that belief…act as if life has meaning, as if there’s real morality, as if there’s real coherence in the world). There are, as you can see, two sides to this coin of belief. The first side is accepting God’s words as true and the second side is responding in appropriate application. Just like you can’t have a coin if you don’t have something with both a head and a tail, you don’t have this kind of belief if you don’t have both trust in a specific word of God and a corresponding response. Most simply, the kind of belief ascribed to Abram in this verse was trust in action. In this sense, biblical belief is such that if we claim to believe something but it doesn’t change the way we live, our claim is shown to be false. And that, of course, is right at the heart of the definition of faith in the NT.
The second key term—righteousness—describes conformity to God’s requirements. The key distinction here is between acting righteously and being righteous. The bible describes people as acting righteously often. But that’s not the extent of what God requires of us. He requires that we be righteous (perfect, continual, conformity to His requirements). The problem, of course, is that since Adam all mankind has lacked true righteousness. That Abram here is considered righteous is a truly amazing statement. How can this be? Was Abram actually righteous? The text does not say that about Abram. It does not say that he was righteous. It says that God counted Abram’s belief as righteousness. Abram wasn’t righteous on his own (even if he acted righteously at times), but God declared him righteous on the basis of his belief in God. What God required of Abram, but Abram lacked, God credited (imputed) to Abram’s account. (Think a student account at school where a parent deposits the money necessary for the students needs.)
The great hope, then, is not that Abram actually met God’s righteous requirements, but that God counted Abram’s faithfulness/trust/belief as the righteousness God required of him. Again, that’s truly amazing. We have to wait until the NT, until Jesus, to truly understand and fully appreciate this. To that end, and in conclusion, consider with me just two NT passages the fling wide this gate of grace.
Romans 4:4-5 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…
Galatians 3:8-9 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Like Abram, then, our great hope is not that we will ever attain the righteousness God requires of us on our own. Our great home is that He will credit the perfect righteousness of Jesus to our account. And thus, being found in Jesus (by grace through faith), God sees not our own sins and faults and failures, but the glory and righteousness of His only Son. And that is the gospel—the good news—that marks the Christian faith and hope.
These few verses in Genesis 15 move us further along in the story of Abram and God’s promises to him. They move us along further in the story of the battle between the offspring of the Garden serpent and the offspring of the Garden woman (Genesis 3). More importantly, though, they move us further along in the story of God’s plan of redemption in Jesus. All of this is the foundation and background for understanding why Jesus needed to come and what He accomplished when He did. Would you consider those things afresh this morning? Would you pray over them? Would you ask God to drive them deeper into your mind and heart that you might come to know Christ and the power of His resurrection (for the first time or be increasingly transformed by it yet again)? And would you carry all of that with you as we now turn to the table—the meal—that God has given us to proclaim and celebrate these things until Jesus returns?