A Biblical Watershed Gen 17:1-14


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Genesis 17:1-14

What we have in the verses we are about to read is the third iteration of the covenant God made with Abram. The gist is the same as in Genesis chapters 12 and 15, but detail is added that will prove to be of great importance to the rest of the biblical history of salvation.

Text Comment

v.2       The last time we learned how old Abram was, in 16:16, he was eighty-six. Thirteen years have passed and Abram and Sarai still have not had the child the Lord promised them. If eighty-six was, humanly speaking, far past child-bearing age, ninety-nine is only ridiculously more so. But once again the Lord repeated his earlier promise: Abram shall become the father of a great multitude. “God Almighty,” in Hebrew El Shaddai, is the Lord’s principal name in the pre-Mosaic period. It is the right name for God to use of himself since God will fulfill his promises in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

To “walk before God” is another of those ways of speaking derived from ancient near eastern covenant literature. When a king brought a lesser king into a covenant with himself, the vassal was to “walk before him,” which meant to be loyal to the king. But here the phrase familiar from the covenant literature of the ancient world is given a deeper and higher meaning. To walk before God according to the rest of the Bible means to orient one’s entire life to God’s presence, his promises, and his commandments, so that “every single step is made with reference to God…” [Sarna, 123; Westermann in Waltke, 259] “Blameless” in the Bible does not mean sinless. It refers to faithfulness and integrity in one’s relationship with God.

v.5       In the Bible the giving of a new name is invested with great significance because the name characteristically represents a person’s new character or his new destiny. [Sarna, 124]

Abraham, as a Hebrew name, sounds like “Father of a multitude.” As we will learn throughout the rest of the Bible, this became true biologically — as Abraham fathered not only the nation of Israel, but the Ishmaelites, the Edomites, and the Midianites, of whom we will read later in Genesis — and theologically — as Abraham will come to be regarded as the father of all who have faith in Jesus Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike. Interestingly, Muslims also look to Abraham as their father! Extraordinary! Half the human race claims a relationship with this single man!

v.6       The Kings of Israel descended from Abraham, but also, supremely, did Jesus Christ, the King of Kings.

v.7       The covenant God was making was not simply with Abraham about his offspring, but with his offspring. His promise was that he would be a God to them as he was to him. This language, “to you and to your offspring after you,” which occurs six times in chapter 17, is also legal terminology found in ancient near eastern legal texts. Its repetition throughout the chapter serves to lay great stress on the inter-generational nature of God’s covenant.

            This promise “to be your God” is the heart of God’s covenant. For God to be our God is the Bible’s shortest way to describe everything that is meant by salvation and eternal life. In Rev. 21 we read simply that heaven is the place where finally and completely “God is our God and we are his people.”

v.8       This repeats the promise of the land of Canaan made in chapter 15.

v.9       God’s covenant requires a response. It must be kept by those with whom God makes it. God takes the initiative; the covenant is his; in one respect man cannot prevent God’s promises from coming to pass. But Abraham and his descendants must prove faithful to it if any one of them or any generation of them is to enjoy its blessings.

v.10     “Every man” explicitly excludes the practice of female circumcision, a disgusting and harmful practice still observed in many parts of the world. [Sarna, 125]

v.13     Circumcision thus became the ritual by which a person was set apart to God, marked as a member of his people. The ineradicable nature of circumcision symbolized the enduring, irrevocable nature of the covenant. [Sarna, 125]

Circumcision in that time and place was either a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood or as preparation for marriage. But here circumcision is no longer related to sexual maturity. Rather the sign of belonging to God is given to the children of his people at the headwaters of their lives. The reality thus signified is everlasting because it signifies the promise of eternal fellowship with God.

That it was performed on the eighth day indicated that the newborn “has completed a seven-day unit of time corresponding to the process of creation.” He was well and truly here in the world. We find the same principle in Leviticus: no animal is fit for sacrifice until it is at least eight days old. [Sarna, 125]

v.14     The seriousness of the obligation is underlined by the threatened punishment that will ensue if anyone does not keep the covenant, but breaks it by disobedience.

The chapter continues with the Lord’s promise regarding Sarai and his changing Sarai’s name as he had changed Abram’s, but we’ll leave that for next time.

I have entitled this sermon ‘A Biblical Watershed.” You know what a watershed is. Literally, it is an area on either side of a mountain divide that drains into a river or rivers. The rivers that drain entire continents begin in watersheds. That is why nowadays watersheds are carefully protected from too much human activity. The condition of the rivers below depends upon the pristine condition of the watersheds in which they originate. Pastor Nicoletti and I and eight of our young men spent last week high in the mountains of Colorado in such a watershed, walking among banks of snow that, as they melted, fed streams that flowed downhill into the Arkansas River. We never got near, much less saw the Arkansas River, still less the Mississippi River into which the Arkansas eventually flows, but we saw some of the melting snow and the streams that feed those rivers. The term “watershed” is used metaphorically to describe events from which later developments take their origin. A watershed in this sense is a source of later developments; or it is a turning point; one can look backward, upstream as it were, and see from what and just why history developed as it did.

These fourteen verses describe one of the crucial turning points, one of the watersheds of redemptive history, the source of so much of the history of salvation and the history of the revelation of salvation that follow in the Bible. The change of Abram’s name to Abraham is one indication that we have reached such a turning point, an historical moment that determines a great deal that will follow in the years and centuries, even the millennia to come. The last time I preached through Genesis, some twenty years ago, I preached four sermons on consecutive Sundays on these fourteen verses, so fundamental are they to an understanding of the rest of the Bible.

For example, this is the first comprehensive statement in the Bible of the mysterious but fabulously important interplay between divine sovereignty and, in particular, the Lord’s sovereign saving grace, on the one hand, and, on the other, human faith and obedience, responsibility and accountability, each as real causes of salvation. There is a consistent emphasis throughout this passage on the Lord’s initiative, the Lord’s election of Abram, the Lord’s promises to him: the promise of blessings that, in the nature of the case, were beyond Abram’s power to achieve. God says, “I will confirm my covenant with you…” “I will make you exceedingly fruitful…” “I will establish my covenant with you and with your offspring after you…” Everything depends on the gift and the work of God. Abram was ninety-nine and Sarai was almost as old and, in fact, was on the other side of menopause. They were long past being able to conceive a child. Indeed, as we have already said, that God should take Abram into fellowship with himself was itself an act of pure grace. Abram had done nothing to deserve it. God was blessing not only Abram, but through him the entire world. The whole Bible will teach us that God’s gifts and callings are irrevocable and that God will keep his promises to his people no matter what!

But, at the same time, Abram was commanded to walk before the Lord and be blameless. And he was told that any member of the covenant community who breaks the covenant – in this case by refusing to be circumcised or to have his sons circumcised — will be cut off. But, as we will soon see, here circumcision is simply one part of that care parents must take for the faith of their children. In other words, the people of God must trust and obey or else! Well, which is it? Is salvation wholly the work and the gift of the Lord or does it depend upon the faith and obedience of men. The answer given here is the answer that will be given repeatedly throughout the Bible: it is both; it is always both. Divine grace comes first and is fundamental, as it is here; but man’s faith is essential as well. How these two are both true at one and the same time the Bible never explains; that they are both true at one and the same time the Bible teaches repeatedly. Interestingly, in the New Testament, and especially in the writings of Paul, this history of God’s covenant with Abram is used to prove both truths: that salvation is by grace alone and not in any way our achievement and that our justification, our pardon from God, depends upon our faith in the promises of God. In this sense, these verses in Genesis 17 are a template for a vast amount of biblical teaching still to come, a watershed in which the Bible’s great doctrines of sovereign grace and human accountability find their first explicit statement. Throughout the rest of Holy Scripture we are going to be taught emphatically that our salvation depends, from first to last, and in all the links of the chain, on the grace and the power of God at work on our behalf. And the Bible is also going to tell us a thousand times to work out our salvation with fear and trembling lest we fail to obtain what has been promised to us. Not one or the other, but both at the same time. No one understands the Bible who does not appreciate how emphatically both these truths are taught in its pages, very often on the same page.

Or think of these verses as the watershed of biblical sacramental faith and worship. Here originates the practice of a ritual that serves to communicate God’s grace to his people and to separate them from the world. From this point on the Bible will use first circumcision and then baptism to represent the point of entry into salvation as, for example, when it refers to the circumcision of the heart or when Paul describes salvation as a washing with water and the Word. Here begins that impressive emphasis on such rituals that we find throughout the Bible.

But this morning I want to concentrate on another river of biblical revelation that finds its source in this biblical watershed. There have been indications of it already, but here it is taught explicitly for the first time, and made a matter of tremendous emphasis. It is teaching and historical reality that we will encounter times without number throughout the rest of the Bible and then everywhere we look in history since. What we have here is nothing less than an organizing principle of biblical revelation! I am speaking of God’s promise that his grace should run in family lines, that salvation should be promised both to believers and their children, both to the fathers and their sons, to the mothers and their daughters, and, then to grandsons and granddaughters, and beyond down the generations.

Here, for the first time, is it explained as God’s gracious purpose and intention that he should be the God not only of those who trust in him, but of their children, and their children’s children. Here, for the first time, we hear the words that we will hear countless times more in the pages of Holy Scripture, whether from Moses, from the prophets, or from the Apostles.

“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your offspring after you.”

Not all are saved in a believing family, to be sure. Vast multitudes have come to faith who had no Christian faith in their upbringing; perhaps had never before had a Christian ancestor. Abram’s father Terah was not a believer, so far as we can tell. And we will be treated again and again to the story of faith taking root in the heart of a man or woman who did not have believing parents, in some cases had never so much as heard of the living God or his son, Jesus Christ. Such conversions, unbelievers becoming believers, is a thing more wonderful than words can express. We prayed for more of them just a few moments ago. But it cannot be more wonderful than beloved children following their parents in the faith of God. True enough, at certain times and places; conversion from unbelief was or is the only way for a person to become a Christian. But even then, such new believers, the first believers in their family line, soon became the progenitors of successive believing generations. They may have been the first; they were no means the last! This then is the promise of God made here explicitly for the first time: “I will be your God and the God of your offspring,” which, in the language of Holy Scripture means: I will save both you and your children.

However, true to the entire presentation of the way of salvation in the Bible, there is also human responsibility here; here too the promise must be claimed and the covenant must be kept. We have that here in vv. 9-14. We will have it more explicitly in the next chapter, in 18:19. The promise, even this great promise, can be forfeit through a failure of faith and obedience on the part of the parents and the children; and nowadays and all through the ages of the Christian faith it has been forfeited, very often, I think, less because of the failure of parents to nurture the faith of their children as because of the dereliction of the Christian ministry, which failed to prepare parents to be the nurturers of their children’s faith. As I said, this promise that embraces parents and their children and the summons to parents to be accountable for their children’s spiritual life is an organizing principle of biblical revelation. And almost immediately in Genesis we will see both the promise and the accountability working themselves out in the succeeding generations of Abraham’s family.

The rest of the book of Genesis, in fact, will be the unfolding of this promise; a narrative of God’s gracious salvation flowing downward from father to son to grandson to great-grandson, and great-great-grandson, on the one hand, and the promise being risked or actually forfeited in some cases by parental unfaithfulness and by the unfaithfulness of their children. And so much of the Bible will, in one way or another, be taken up with the narrative of parents and children, with the promise of God to save his people from one generation to the next, and with the responsibility of one generation to preserve true faith in the generation that follows it.

This promise of inter-generational faith, first comprehensively asserted here in Genesis 17, and the corresponding requirement of the nurture of children of the covenant by their parents, can hardly be stressed too much. It explains a great deal of what will follow in the Word of God. Faith will multiply from one generation to another, on the one hand, but, at other times, faith will die and an unbelieving generation will follow a believing generation because the connection to God’s covenant, the connection to God himself by living faith, was broken between the parents and their children. And so it has continued throughout church history. Again and again the church has grown strong in large part because Christians multiplied as one generation of believers followed another and another; and then it grew weak because the faith of believing parents was not communicated to the rising generation – in the language of Genesis 17 the covenant was not kept – and, of course, that next generation, unbelieving as it was, had no inclination to communicate the fear and the love of God to their children. And a succession of faithful families, in this way, became a succession of unbelieving ones. This has happened times without number!

How do churches that were once full become empty? There are untold numbers of such churches in the western world today: large, medium, or small sanctuaries that once were full of worshippers, usually twice on the Lord’s Day, in which a pathetically small number of worshippers, usually older people, now gather on Sundays. How does this happen? It is not the only reason, to be sure, but the first reason is this: they did not transmit the faith to the next generation; they forfeited the Lord’s promise to be the God of their children. It was not the believing generation that gave up the faith; that generation died still believing in the Lord. It was their children who lost interest or never had it to lose, primarily because parents did not take care to keep God’s covenant on behalf of their sons and daughters. I know there are many, many qualifying statements that need to be made at this point. You will have heard me more often than not on these things, but let’s leave it there for now. Genesis 17 is about the main point, not the qualifications that will eventually be made.

The men and women who filled up those churches before their long decline to irrelevance would never have said that they no longer believed in the incarnation of God the Son, or his death on the cross for our sins, or his bodily resurrection from the dead, or his coming again. They would have continued to the end singing the familiar evangelical hymns and believing what they sang of Christ and salvation. They hadn’t given it up. Quite the reverse. They would have died, certainly most of them, evangelical Christians, holding sincerely, if less intelligently and less clearly than their parents and grandparents had done, to the gospel as it had been taught for generations in those churches by faithful and able ministers. But what they failed to do was to pass on their faith to their children; what they failed to do was to keep the covenant on behalf of their children the way their parents had kept it on their behalf.

Study after study has confirmed this as the principal cause of the numerical decline of the once-great Protestant churches of America. Forty years ago it was already too late to rescue the Presbyterian Church USA, The United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church. They were losing most of their children for good and many of the rest remained only nominally committed to the churches of their parents. A few generations ago, a century ago now, the last generation of those churches that was fully committed to the biblical faith, for a variety of reasons, failed to hand that faith on to their children. And from that point it has been a steady, if not precipitous decline until now there are hardly any children left in those churches, even if there were still a desire to hand on the faith of Abram to the next generation. Twenty years ago one historian of modern American Christianity noted that the indifference of young people to the Christianity of their parents or grandparents showed up in many things, including things as mundane as their inability even to spell “Presbyterian” or “Episcopalian.”  He commented, “Denominational history and theology interest my students about as much as baroque opera or the insects of Paraguay.” [The Empty Church, p. 11.] If a living faith is not transmitted to the children of the church, few of them will follow Christ! It is a law of the kingdom of God that is first laid down here in Genesis 17.

But, happily, to the contrary, the reverse is also true. The church grows by leaps and bounds when parents faithfully raise their children to love and serve the Lord. It will be the story of the second half of Genesis, the story of every period of Israel’s spiritual health, and it has been the story of the kingdom of God in the world ever since. Even in eras of church history in which immense numbers of unbelievers were being converted and large numbers of people were crowding into the church who were the very first Christians in their family lines, it was not long before those converts were producing children and grandchildren who loved and served the Lord. The church grows quickly when large families of committed Christians are added to its number generation after generation. Two Christians become four or six, and six become eight or twelve, and twelve become twenty-four and so on.

In Africa today the number of new Christians, believers who do not descend from Christian parents is immense. Virtually every student at African Bible University in Kampala is a convert from an unbelieving background. A few years ago Palmer Robertson mentioned in this pulpit that some 14,000 people were being added to the church in Africa every day. The students at African Bible University in Kampala, Uganda were almost all the first Christians in their family. But it will not be long before those Christians marry other Christians and are having children and, if they are faithful to keep God’s covenant, if by faith and obedience they raise their children to be the Lord’s, many more than 14,000 per day will be added to the number of God’s people in Africa. It is the mathematics of the covenant and the grace of God!

Let no one take our crown in evangelizing the lost, in seeking to win the unbelieving world to faith in Jesus Christ. But, at the same time, let us never forget that the largest number of believers has always been those faithful Christians who were raised in the faith by parents who loved the Lord and taught their children to do the same. Throughout the ancient epoch this was not only the primary way in which sinners found salvation; it was, by and large, the only way they did.

Since Pentecost, of course, people have been brought to faith in Jesus Christ from every conceivable religious and irreligious background. But typically those converts married Christian spouses, had children, and raised them to follow Christ. Some of you in this sanctuary this morning were the first Christians in your families, but already you have doubled or trebled or quadrupled your number by keeping the covenant and raising your children in the faith of Abraham. Others of us here are the proof that the Lord keeps his promise to be our God and the God of our children. There are some among us who are at least the fourth or fifth generation of a believing family.

I am a Christian today, ultimately, because the love of God in Jesus Christ was pitched upon me before the foundation of the world, because Christ died for my sins, and because the Holy Spirit opened my heart to believe the gospel. But, I am also a Christian today because God caused me to be born in the covenant, to be raised in that covenant by earnest Christian parents who loved God and his Word and cared deeply that I should come to love as they loved. And God, who made a promise to them concerning me, honored the nurture I was given by writing it upon my heart — the instruction, the example, the prayers, the preaching, the church life, the family devotions, the Christian community, and all the rest that served to form Christ in me. As God helps us, may there be here in years to come Christians of the seventh, eighth, ninth, even tenth generation of believing life in their family line, even as they are joined by those who are the very first.

Do you have any idea how many times in the Bible we read something like this: “from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children”? Or, “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord, “My Spirit who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever.” Or, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Or, “The promise is to you and to your children.” Or, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Imagine the contrary. Imagine for a terrible moment that there were no such promise in God’s covenant that he would be our God and the God of our children; no such sure hope of their salvation. Imagine that there were no reason to believe that the grace that had been pitched on us, in defiance of our sin and guilt and ill-desert, would be pitched on those we love more than life itself; that there were no reason to believe that our children would be any more the objects of divine mercy than the vast multitudes of other people in the world who live and die under God’s wrath. Imagine that it were the ordinary experience and the ordinary expectation that faithful, pious, devout Christian parents would go to heaven but very often their children would not!

No, we cannot imagine that!  We cannot because we know God and we know his Word. We do not appreciate, you and I, the wonder of this promise nearly as much as we should.  How can I make us see its glory for what it is?  How can I make us thrill to this singular mercy that God has lavished upon his people, in this promise he made to be their children’s God? Who is a God like our God who should take such tender care of the relationships he himself has established! Who is a God like our God who should create for miserable sinners like you and me the prospect of such perfect happiness forever!  Let us try hard to realize again the great goodness of the Lord in making this promise to us and then respond with consecrated obedience in the nurture of our children.

When soon or late we reach that shore,

O’er life’s rough ocean driven,

We shall rejoice, no wanderer lost,

A family in heaven.