The Gospel From Genesis to Revelation #6: Pillar Two- The Abrahamic Covenant

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Introduction

In the last few posts we’ve covered the promise of the Messianic Seed stemming from Genesis 3:15 and what the promise sets in motion. It is key to have this as the foundation for everything that comes afterwards. This Seed, and the things which relate to Him, is the whole subject of Scripture after its mention. We’ve also seen how God acts upon Genesis 3:15 by continuing His covenant with Noah, knowing from that point onward things (events) are now moving distinctly forward through time and space to fulfill what God said. You could say that with God’s covenant with Noah, the gear of redemption begins turning to fulfill the promise in Genesis 3:15.

We affirmed in post 5 (and it is the lively horse I will continue to kick as it gallops forward towards that great redemption!) that it is absolutely necessary to maintain a literal interpretation of Scripture so that our biblical theology remains consistent with the things God has said in the past and is congruent with the things that happen in the future. Literalism is the simple key that allows God to be Himself and keep His plan consistently through Scripture from start to finish. Without it, we are but dodging and weaving through the ideas of men and never landing a punch. Now, continuing our chronological story, we can turn our attention to Genesis 12-22 as seen in the second pillar on the diagram above.

For some, approaching Abraham may feel redundant. I remember a time when I was a kid in Sunday School and the subject of Abraham and Isaac was brought up… again. There on the flannel graph was the frozen, velvet figure of an old, bearded man, wielding a knife over his small son who lies helpless on the two-dimensional altar tied up in ropes… (Enter heralding angel from flannel graph right). “Abraham, do not harm the lad!” (Quickly insert ram into thicket behind altar and turn Isaac’s frown upside down). 

The beige and dull colors of the biblical figures have become vague and colorless memories caught in the cobwebs of people’s minds who no longer find the story worthy of their time or deserving of their attendance at a church service. The stories lay there in their minds still in two-dimensional form, flat and lame, and somehow lost the influence God intended them to have upon the generations that follow Abraham. I need not name the diversions of our modern era that make it so. But, how can we reacquaint ourselves with these Scriptures to make them exciting again?

Ok… I’ll expose the cherished diversions. Sex and the City is more interesting to you than the Bible, and Facebook has more life-giving power than the Scriptures. Downtown Abbey is far more intriguing than Abraham, and what some guy just said on Twitter is more invigorating than the words God spoke. We take more joy in spending money on things we convince ourselves we need, than in investing our time in the book God gave to humans. Lord help us. We are truly broken, fragile, people with woundings beyond number. We medicate ourselves with false hopes and fantasy stories rather than with truth. Vanity of vanities says the preacher. Dry cisterns. Yes the journey is hard friends, but let us reacquaint ourselves with the glorious hope of our Gospel.

I do not say this to your shame. Guilt is never the best motivator. But guilt and conviction over these things leads us to repentance. Yes, the kindness of God also leads to repentance, but let’s not forget that the kindness of God nailed His Son to the crossbeam where He bled and died so that men could repent of their sins. So, how do we come to love these passages again? The Proverbs say:

7Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the LORD and turn away from evil.

8It will be healing to your body
And refreshment to your bones…

11My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD
Or loathe His reproof,

12For whom the LORD loves He reproves,
Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.

13How blessed is the man who finds wisdom
And the man who gains understanding.

14For her profit is better than the profit of silver
And her gain better than fine gold.

15She is more precious than jewels;
And nothing you desire compares with her.

16Long life is in her right hand;
In her left hand are riches and honor.

17Her ways are pleasant ways
And all her paths are peace.

18She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her,
And happy are all who hold her fast.

These are some pretty amazing promises for the ones who find wisdom. Although the fullness of these promises is inherited in the age to come, I find that wisdom has become to me the tree of life mentioned in verse 18. When I behold the promises to Abraham, I am awestruck, and it becomes healing to my body and refreshment to my bones (v8) so that I turn away from evil (v7). I feel blessed that I have found wisdom (v13) and look for the blessing of eternal life that is obtained through encountering Wisdom and responding to it. Wisdom is not a man who quotes “witty” things. Wisdom is Jesus. Paul calls the Cross the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1) and we behold in Christ crucified true wisdom from heaven, that forces the “wisdom of men” to pale awfully in comparison.

So, as we approach these passages my prayer is that we behold the wisdom of God and find out what it means for us today. I pray that we could respond… yes, and have discernment regarding the importance of these passages and how marvelous they are to behold as the future expectation of our hope. You see, here is the problem: if Abraham lies still, upon that old flannel-graph you once saw in Sunday school then the story is only historical, having had implications then, yet devoid of importance and application today. However, if you can overturn that old perspective and have your eyes re-opened to the truth that the promises God made to Abraham are the whole and consuming future hope of Jew and Gentile alike, then Genesis 12-22 directly affects you and your future. Maybe when Jesus says,“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” (Matt. 5:18), it would suddenly become compulsory for you as a “Christian” to dig into the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and behold within those five books what must be accomplished. It can become the invigorating, consuming fullness of your hope! We are digging here for wisdom friends, and as Proverbs 2 exhorts us:

1My son, if you will receive my words
And treasure my commandments within you,

2Make your ear attentive to wisdom,
Incline your heart to understanding;

3For if you cry for discernment,
Lift your voice for understanding;

4If you seek her as silver
And search for her as for hidden treasures;

5Then you will discern the fear of the LORD
And discover the knowledge of God.

6For the LORD gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding,

Let us heed these words together in order that we may discover the knowledge of God, which is simply discerning rightly what He has revealed about Himself and receiving those things as true.

The Gospel is Covenantal: The Abrahamic Covenant

Although the covenant that God makes with Abraham is directly mentioned as covenant in Genesis 15:17-18, God’s first words to Abraham are in Genesis 12. We will refer to Abraham as Abraham throughout this post for the sake of consistency, even though his very important name-change happens later.

Here is a list of all of God’s direct words to Abraham: Gen.12:1-3, 8; 13:14-17; 15:1-18; 17:1-22; 18:1-19; 21:12-13; 22:15-18. Although we will not cover in detail all of these words, I strongly recommend being as familiar with these passages as possible since they strengthen our understanding regarding the nature and foundation of the Abrahamic covenant. Refer to the last post where we deal specifically with our approach to the words spoken below:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. So Abram went forth as the LORD had spoken to him,” (Gen. 12:1-3).

In this passage God tells Abraham to leave everything and go to the land He will show him. Abraham is obedient to the Lord and we are told that he went forth. God’s promises to Abraham are that in the land he is sent to: he will be made a great nation; God will bless him; Abraham’s name will become great; he will be made to be a blessing; God will bless those who bless Abraham; God will curse those who curse Abraham; and that all the families of the earth will be blessed in Abraham. These are seven declarations God makes specifically to Abraham in His first words to the Patriarch.

Based upon our study thus far we have shown that everything God says is covenantal in nature and therefore these promises will be accomplished in completeness having not one jot or tittle fall to the ground. Again, I re-emphasize:

“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” (Matt. 5:18).

And the Lord confirms this same thing earlier, in Isaiah:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it,” (Is. 55:10-11).

To interpret the words God speaks to Abraham literally is simply receiving what He said. We don’t have to negate them with new theological thoughts, or force a juxtaposition with Paul’s words in the New Testament. In a most simple way, Paul, as a devout Jew who discovered Jesus the Messiah, would have had the firmest of hope in the words God spoke to his forefather Abraham. Read Paul’s words with that in mind and the theological cloud settles, and clarity causes our larger theological picture to come into focus. Literalism allows God to be Himself from Genesis to Revelation, and allows His words to actually go forth and fulfill what they were spoken for. I plead with you to receive those first words spoken to Abraham literally. 

Now let’s concentrate on the passages in which God speaks directly of covenant with Abraham. We turn first to Genesis 15:

“1After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great. 2Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?… 4Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7And He said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” 8He said, “O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?” 9So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. 11The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. 12″Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13God said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions.15As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. 16Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.’ 17It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. 18On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: 19the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite 20and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim 21and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”

(Isn’t it odd that when we approach a large passage of Scripture like this we are enticed to skip past it? How many of you scrolled down past the verses above? Please go back and read it. Every word there is more powerful than what I shall say next.)

I don’t know whether you are familiar with Walter C. Kaiser (the liberals gasp and the conservatives rejoice at the mention of his name) but there is an interview in which he delivers what I consider to be a very unique and profound explanation of this passage:

“In Genesis 15, it was God himself who walked in between the pieces. They cut a covenant. The word to make a covenant is to ‘cut’ a covenant. And they cut the pieces, one half of the animal on one side, forming an aisle down the middle. So there were three cut animals and then two birds. And God walked between the pieces and said in effect, may I God, die like these animals if I do not keep what I have promised here. So when the Church then brought in replacement theology and [embraced] a supercessionist [mentality] in which they sat now in the chair that belonged to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his descendants, they took away what God had promised on the pledge of his life,” (Joel Richardson When a Jew Rules the World PDF pg. 16).

Perhaps in another study we could give this the time it deserves. Here, it suffices to say that the covenant God was making with Abraham amidst the sacred, blood-stained ground of that place truly represented something special to God Himself. It was a sanctified compact made by God while Abraham slept, signifying that God Himself would keep His end of the bargain, on His own life. Friends, the significance of God coming down from heaven and performing this event is awe-inspiring.

Interestingly, God did not only come down from heaven and pass between the covenantal animals, He also passed over Abraham.

Here, a sinful man finds favor with God because he believed God and followed God out of his own nation. Then, when God walked beside him that night, although he should have been killed in the presence of pure righteousness, since he was indeed a sinful man, he was preserved because of his belief in this God and this God’s promises. Let this belief mark us.

Next we must look at Genesis 17 to better appreciate the scope of these promises. Genesis 17 should be our “go to” passage, for in it God volunteers His own definition of this covenant with Abraham.

Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly.” Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. 7“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. 8“I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.

In this passage God says many stunning things. Let’s recap them:

  1. I will establish My covenant between Me and you
    2. I will multiply you exceedingly
    3. As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you
    4. You will be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations
    5. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you.
    6. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you
    7. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

Here we see former promises from Genesis 12 and 15 reinforced and expounded upon, while a few statements are so striking they should be especially revered. Take note that the majority of the covenantal actions are to be performed by God Himself. God keeps saying “I will”. Oftentimes, the simplicity of God speaking in the first person isn’t appreciated for its magnitude. To put it as simply as possible, when God says “I will” these words carry the full force of the volition of the Godhead. It is impossible for God’s “I will” to become “I really meant a different plan”. This is  plainly because of the nature of who God is, He does not equivocate. As the apostle James reminds us, in God “there is no shadow of turning”.

Number six is something that we might accidentally read past too quickly. Here God relays that the covenant He is making with Abraham is established between God and Abraham and all of Abraham’s descendants after him “throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.”

I have rarely heard the magnitude of these statements commented upon. God makes sure that it is understood how long this covenant lasts–– it is everlasting. God ensures Abraham understands with whom this covenant has been made––with Abraham’s descendants after him throughout all generations. God also promises what they will be given––the land as an everlasting possession. 

The Hebrew word for everlasting is transliterated olam. This word is used around 438 times in our Bible to communicate a principle very clearly: forever; never-ending; everlasting. The word is used in our Bible in Genesis 9:6 regarding the covenant of the rainbow. I have not heard anyone make a case that somehow, mysteriously God did not intend for the rainbow to remain forever as the witness of His covenant that He would never flood the earth again. However, many today take this word and make it meaningless. The enduring witness of the rainbow alone should cause us to be warned of the folly of emptying such words of their meaning.

God continues in this passage with something that takes the covenant even deeper. Let’s look to verse 9:

“God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10“This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11“And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12“And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. 13“A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14“But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

As we have already established in previous posts, the main component of our story revolves around the promised Seed who would come forth from Eve. Incorporated within the sign of the covenant established between God and Abraham is a brilliant, vivid restatement of this former promise concerning the Seed. In light of this earlier promise, God gives a grand, perpetual reminder to Abraham and his descendants within their flesh: Circumcision. Oftentimes we cringe at the thought of what this entails, but we rarely appreciate the ingenuity of what God was doing.

The promise of the Messiah was to come forth from the seed of Eve. It is common knowledge that a woman cannot conceive human seed before the proto-seed of a man’s sperm is first implanted in her womb. Thus, the act of circumcision created within the very organ from which the catalyzing male seed is issued, another sign––a physical witness that would continue from Abraham to all generations reminding them that the promised Seed would one day come forth!  In the cutting pain Abraham must’ve endured that day was a promise reinforced… and although circumcision has today somehow become a common cultural practice––it was not in that day! In fact, how odd for God to mark his election in this way.

But this is God, and He is genius. What else does man have besides His flesh? What better way than this to give his elected people a permanent, perpetual reminder that traveled with them everywhere? It changed Abram to Abraham that day, and separated him from the nations that worshiped other gods. This insignia in his flesh would serve as the sign of the covenant, just as the rainbow in the sky, and the sun that rises. This is why God Himself actually connects the signs of His covenants:

Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name: If this fixed order departs From before Me,” declares the LORD, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease From being a nation before Me forever. Thus says the LORD, “If the heavens above can be measured And the foundations of the earth searched out below, Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done,” declares the LORD, (Jer. 31:35-37).

This passage should cause us to marvel at God’s astounding faithfulness. We can see in these passages that God is intentionally connecting the words He said to Abraham to the words He spoke to Adam and Eve through His use of referential symbolism and signs regarding the surety of His words. He sees all His words as one all-encompassing continual promise, set on one distinct course to accomplish what He intended in the beginning. He links the promises, building on the words spoken prior, simply continuing what He intends to complete through physical time and space.

The remainder of the passages regarding Abraham in Genesis should be studied and meditated upon for many hours in order to realize their full implications. Take note that God reiterates things continually, using different metaphorical pictures to communicate the surety of His promise to Abraham and his descendants. It is a good study to count how many times God says “I will,” enforcing Who will accomplish these things, and also the sum of how many times God uses words such as everlasting, making sure His intentions are not misunderstood.

Conclusion

It is an odd thing to me that in our modern era we often think of God as a man who speaks tongue-in-cheek, just in case things may not turn out the way He hoped. Yet, even today we appreciate the language that communicates certain principles. Certain objects we buy come with a lifetime warranty, which, if the product malfunctions, allow it to be replaced. They bear an everlasting guarantee. We understand this and do not think it somehow means something different. Yet, many contend that when God says everlasting to Abraham’s descendants, He changes those words, or reinterprets those words in the New Testament to mean something different. This is unwise friends. This is rejecting God’s words rather than receiving them.

Likewise, when I say to someone “I will,” it is understood that I am the person who will fulfill the duty stated. With God this language has far greater implications! I am a mere man and my declarations are subject to my weakness and myriad factors beyond my control. But God’s “I will” represents the unassailable determination of the Godhead.

You could say that the words God spoke to Abraham in these passages bear the seal of His kingly signet ring. God is making a point when He personally comes down from heaven and walks between dead animals binding Himself to His covenant with Abraham lest He Himself should die! God is driving something home when He gives the sign of circumcision as the verification of what He had promised to Adam and Eve, He is furthering His former promise, acting upon it and confirming its validity. When God goes to such great effort to make His intentions known to men, surely it grieves Him when we men just simply won’t take Him at His word. Abraham believed God’s words, and it was accredited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:16; Rom. 4:3). Let us do the same in the hope that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Although we may seem to be taking our time in articulating these truths, it is necessary to see these things in detail so that our method of interpreting the Scriptures holds fast to its original context. God is laying foundations, and working out a story in real time and real space. We are seeking to observe the way He has ordained the story to progress, and then interpret everything through the information He gives us. I emphasize that this is the information He has given. Remembering this is what creates good hermeneutics and good students of the Bible He wrote.

The words I say in this post are not enough to make Abraham come off of the old flannelgraph––that must be obtained through prayer and meditation on these Scriptures. Stand in the Lord’s counsel and listen to Him speaking His words. Stand there, on the priestly ground of Genesis 15 and behold the smoking furnace and burning lamp! Look upon the dead animals and see the Lord pass through them speaking “I will.” See Abraham asleep, in terror at the presence of the Lord, and then fear yourself and agree with what God said that glorious day to our Father Abraham.

“…11and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised,” (Rom 4:11-12).

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