************ Sermon on Genesis 17:1-9 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on July 29, 2012
"Covenant Living and Covenant Promises"
God's relationship with His people is based upon a covenant. This means we surrender control of the relationship to God. This further means that we cannot set the terms of our relationship with God.
I raised three points as we looked at the covenant last week: the covenant doubted, the covenant confirmed, and the covenanting God. This week we continue our study of the covenant by looking at covenant living and covenant promises. Next time we will look at covenant names and covenant signs.
I Covenant Living
A Did you notice the two commands in our Bible reading? In verse 1, "walk before me and be blameless." In verse 9, "you must keep my covenant."
These two commands remind us that covenants always includes two sides. In the covenant, God makes promises and calls down judgments upon Himself. And, the true people of God are obligated to live in obedience to God.
Previous speeches of God to Abraham only made promises or commanded Abraham to go from one place to another; they said nothing about how he was to live. Here, for the first time, God calls Abraham to live a certain way. In Genesis 12:1 God called Abraham and commanded him to "go to the land I will show you." The actual Hebrew word is "take a walk," as in go from one place to another. The exact same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 17:1 (walk before me) but now it means following a certain path of living, walking a distinct way of life.
B Notice how God identifies Himself to Abraham within the covenant: as "God Almighty." As "El-Shaddai." As we learned last week, this means He is the mighty God, the powerful God, the God Who can do all things.
This mighty, big, and powerful God tells Abraham to live or walk a certain. Unstated but understood is this thought: foolish indeed is the man who does not listen to this God!
Do you think Abraham was trembling at this point? Of course he was! El-Shaddai, the mighty God of the universe was addressing him. No wonder Abraham "fell facedown" before God (Gen 17:3) – in fear and trembling and worship.
C This great, big, mighty covenanting God calls upon Abraham to walk "before me." Literally, within the covenant, Abraham is told to walk before God's "face." In other words, in My Presence. In My sight. Fully under My observation. Under My shadow. Under My Protection. Know where I am. Know that I am there. Align your life and your ways to My presence. In sum: live and walk before My observing, protecting, guiding, and judging presence.
D How is Abraham to walk before the face of God within the covenant? Notice the word "blameless." The Hebrew word means undivided, complete, perfect, wholehearted, blameless. Abraham is being told to live a life devoted to the Lord. He is being told to live in obedience to God. He is being told to cling to this one God – Whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is being told to trust this God and to love Him with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. He is being told to abandon the sinful way of life, to put to death the old nature of sin, and to show by his walk that he belongs to God. He is being told that his soul's delight must be in God and its focus must be God day and night. He is being told to be holy in all his ways.
"I am El-Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless" (Gen 17:2). Do you think Abraham was trembling even more when he heard the word blameless? Of course he was. You can bet that he not only "fell facedown" but kept his face buried in the dirt. He didn't dare to look this God in the eye. He didn't dare to even lift an eyebrow to this God. Because not only was the Almighty talking to him but He was demanding a blameless walk.
Abraham knew for a long time already that he fell short of being blameless. Remember how God had to call Abraham twice to go to the Promised Land – once from Ur of the Chaldees, the second time from Haran? Remember Abraham's shameful behavior in Egypt? Remember Abraham's doubt in God's promises of a child? Remember Abraham's sad attempts to have the promised seed through Hagar? Remember Abraham's failure to protect Hagar when she was mistreated by Sarah?
"I am El-Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless" (Gen 17:2). When Abraham heard this he "fell facedown" (Gen 17:3). Because Abraham knew he was anything but blameless. He knew he fell short of the glory of God. He knew he was not holy as the Lord God Almighty is holy (cf Lev 19:2).
And God knew this too. God knew everything about Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar too. He knew all their imperfections. He knew all their sins. He knew all their shortcomings. He knew because – as we learned from Hagar – He is the God Who hears (cf Gen 16:11). He knew because – as we again learned from Hagar – He is the God Who sees (Gen 16:13).
"I am El-Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless" (Gen 17:2). Since the beginning of time, this has been the command of God for all of His people. Remember the simple command God gave to Adam and Eve: not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the center of the Garden; in other words, to be holy and blameless? But they took from the tree and ate. When they fell into sin, they lost their goodness and holiness and by their disobedience sin has spread through the whole human race.
God makes the same demand of us that He makes of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Israel too: "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Lev 19:2). Yet, like Adam and Eve and Abraham and Israel, we fail in a thousand ways.
This doesn't mean that God gives up on His covenant demands. This doesn't mean that God changes or relaxes His covenant standards. This doesn't mean that God shrugs His shoulders and settles for second best. He is El-Shaddai! He demands sinless perfection from His covenant partners.
And, God gets this sinless perfection He demands – in Christ. It is Christ Who is perfect in our place. And, it is Christ Who is sacrificed in our place to make atonement for our sins. The result? By the power of El-Shaddai, we can now make a beginning in living the life of repentance and obedience that God wants from His covenant partners. The Spirit of Almighty God works in us the power of Christ's resurrection so that we begin to love God and neighbor. El-Shaddai, in Christ, gives us the power to walk before Him in holiness and obedience.
E I want you to notice that Ishmael is part of the covenant. Later on in Genesis 17 we notice he receives the covenant sign of circumcision. And, he is also given the call to walk before God and be blameless.
This always amazes me. Because remember what God said to Hagar about an unborn Ishmael?
(Gen 16:12) He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.None of this is hardly a compliment. A wild donkey cannot be ridden. A wild donkey cannot be hitched to a cart. A wild donkey cannot be put to work. A wild donkey is out of control. To call Ishmael a wild donkey of a man means he has an independent and stubborn nature. Furthermore, he would be a hated man, living in hostility with all.
We learn from later in Scripture that Ishmael became the father of a great tribe of wild, hostile people (Gen 25:18), living in the Arabian desert (Gen 25:12-18). But they would not be the promised seed (Gen 25:18-21); they would only complicate matters for Abraham's descendants. In fact Joseph, Abraham's great-grandson, was later taken captive to Egypt by the Ishmaelites (Gen 37:28). Abraham's and Sarah's sin caused the origin of the Ishmaelites, a harvest that is still being reaped to this very day in the hostility between Arab and Jew.
Yet, Ishmael received the covenant sign and the covenant command. Ishmael, we would have to say, is a covenant breaker even as many in Israel listening to Genesis were also covenant breakers. Persistent, flagrant violation of the covenant provoked the Lord more than once. Remember the time, after the building of the golden calf, that God told Moses to stand aside so He could destroy the children of Israel and start anew with Moses (Ex 32)? Eventually, the covenant breaking provoked the Lord to send Israel into exile (cf Deut 28; 2 Kings 17:7-23; 2 Chron 36:1-21).
Ishmael is a warning for all people. Those who, like Ishmael, have received the sign of the covenant but don't love the Messiah, have no claim on any of God's promises. Those who, like Ishmael, have had the benefit of a Christian upbringing but don't serve the Lord, will eventually be cut off from the covenant. Those who, like Ishmael, claim Abraham as their father but don't obey Abraham's God, have no place in the Promised Land.
Ishmael is a warning that not everyone in the covenant of grace is saved. Ishmael is a warning that not everyone in the covenant of grace is elect. Ishmael is a warning that not everyone in the covenant of grace is necessarily one of God's people. I am sure you recognize that this not only included many in Israel but perhaps some in our own families as well.
II Covenant Promises
A Covenant obedience is followed in our Scripture reading by covenant promises. These, too, come from El-Shaddai, God Almighty. Which means, as we learned last week, He has the power to keep His covenant promises.
Let me highlight the covenant promises that we see in Genesis 17:
-verses 2 & 6, I will greatly increase your numbers and make you very fruitful
-verses 5 & 6, I have made you a father of many nations
-verse 6, kings will come from you
-verse 7, I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you
-verse 8, I will give you the whole land of Canaan
Which of these promises is the most important? Which of these promises is most central? Which of these promises undergirds all other blessings? Jews and dispensational Christians take the view that the promise of the land is most important. This mistaken view has caused endless bloodshed and heartache in the Middle East. If the land is the most important promise, then you defend the land no matter what.
B At heart, the greatest covenant promise is El-Shaddai's vow, "I will ... be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gen 12:7). Or, let's put it this way: "I will be your God, and you will be my people."
To see the importance, the centrality, of this promise we need to go back to Genesis 15. In that chapter, if you remember, Abraham fell into a deep sleep while God did the covenant walk by Himself. Now, do you remember the covenant promise that started off Genesis 15? "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward" (Gen 15:1). Do you hear the promise? God promises Himself! God promises His own being. God promises His own person. God's promise to Abraham is a relationship with the living God. "I am ... your very great reward."
Now, in chapter 17, we hear that promise again: "I will ... be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gen 12:7). "I will be your God, and you will be my people." "I am your shield, your very great reward" (Gen 15:1).
The central promise of God's covenant is a relationship with God. In Christ, God gives sinful man a relationship with Himself.
C Notice, the promise is not the health and wealth of the Prosperity Gospel we hear so often today. The promise is not gold and silver. The promise is not power and authority. The promise is not a happy marriage or well-behaved kids. The promise is not flowery beds of ease. The promise is God. The promise is a relationship with God, in Christ.
D "I will ... be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gen 12:7). "I will be your God, and you will be my people." "I am your shield, your very great reward" (Gen 15:1).
The Revelation of John ends with a glorious picture of this covenant promise fully realized. I ask you to turn to Revelation 21. This is at the end of time. After all the sin of the world has been dealt with.
(Rev 21:1-4) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. (2) I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (3) And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. [Just as in the Garden of Eden. Now notice what is said next:] They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (4) He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."Do you see the fulfilment of the covenant promise? Do you hear it? "They will be his people, and God himself will ... be their God." The same promise as made to Abraham.
In the Revelation we see a return to the Garden of Eden where God dwelled with man. So, it comes full circle. But in between is sin. And in between is Christ and God's covenant of grace. Amen.
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