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The God Who Commits

Original Date: 
Sunday, June 8, 2014

Genesis 15 The God Who Commits

How Do You Know?
You’re sitting in the hospital room, waiting for the angiogram report. Yesterday, you felt fine. A little stiff in your shoulder, maybe, like you tweaked a muscle, no big deal. But, here you are wearing a flimsy hospital robe with a sand bag on your leg, waiting for the doctor to tell you just how many arteries are clogged and just what exactly he plans to do about it.

Or, again, you’re sitting in the parlor of the funeral home. You’re surrounded by family and friends, but nobody understands just how lonely you feel. There are flowers all around, and even laughter, but you feel no cheer. Slowly, the line of acquaintances and strangers files past, each one telling you how sorry they feel. And, all the while, you’re wondering: what comes next?

Or, again, you’re sitting at your picture window, staring out at the fields. It’s dry—way too dry. It hasn’t rained for a month and a half and the corn has turned brown way too early. The year started well, but it has finished badly. Nobody is sure what the harvest yield will be. Now it’s about time to take the combine and find out and you wonder if it’s going to be worth the cost of the fuel.

Now, in every case, you know the promises of God. You know that you are not your own, but belong (body and soul, in life and in death) to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ (HC #1). You know that to go on living in the body is good, but to depart and be with Christ is better by far (Phi. 1:23). You know that while separation from a loved one is painful, in Christ it is only temporary. You know the day is coming when you will be reunited and together forever (1 Thess. 4:17). You know that God is not poor. You know that He will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phi. 4:19).

You know all that. But how do you really know it?

How do you know that God will do all He has said? Where’s the guarantee?

Imagine for a minute that you are Abraham. You’ve just won a tremendous victory against some formidable foes, you’ve rescued your nephew Lot, and you’ve turned down the opportunity to profit from the spoils.

But now, you’re sitting alone in your tent and you’re wondering if you’ve done the right thing. Sure, you’re pretty wealthy already, but what else have you got? There are no children. The land your tent sits on isn’t your own. Maybe the money is all there is, and you should have grabbed as much as you could.

Yes, God has made you promises—grand promises—but how do you know? How do you know He’ll do all He has said? Where’s the guarantee?

In his first letter to Timothy the Apostle Paul calls life with God the “good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). Believing in the promises of God can be a fight, a struggle. It’s not just a decision you make one day when you walk out of Ur that covers you for the rest of your life. It’s an ongoing battle to believe. And, in our weakness and in our doubts, we need help from our Lord. We need weapons to help us fight this good fight.

That’s what our scripture story is about today: It is God’s guarantee to Abraham. Here we are introduced to the God who commits.

Our text this morning is Genesis 15. This passage can be broken down into two sections. In each section God makes a promise, Abraham asks a question, and God gives an answer. Here’s what we are going to learn from these two sections: Our God is a God who gives His Word and commits Himself to keep that Word. Our God gives us the weapons we need to fight the good fight of faith.

Counting with the Stars
First, God gives His Word.

The chapter begins with God making a promise. Verse 1:

1After this [that is, after the war with the kings and after turning down the king of Sodom’s offer of riches], the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

If Abraham is sitting in his tent wondering if he has done the right thing (as I imagine he is), then God comes to reassure him. Abraham does not need to be afraid of reprisals from the East, God is his shield. Abraham does not need to regret passing on the treasure, God is his reward.

This is a statement by God of who He is and what He is worth. With God, you have all the protection and reward you will ever need.

That’s a good promise. But at the moment, it is hard for Abraham to see how it is going to make much difference for him. The cradle he built years ago still stands empty. Here’s the fight for faith. He wants to believe, but the children haven’t arrived yet. So he asks God a question:

2But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD [this is a rare way of addressing God. It is a name of deep respect. It shows that Abraham is pleading with God here, not trying to argue with Him], what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Anything God can give to Abraham is going to be pretty meaningless if there is no one to carry on the mission God has assigned him. He’s adopted this servant Eliezer to be his heir, but that isn’t very satisfying and it sure doesn’t seem to match up with the earlier promises.

Circumstances so often get in the way of our ability to trust God. Yes, God offers a lot. Yes, Abraham wants to believe Him and receive what He promises. But….but he’s old, and Sarai is old, and it’s not happening, and it seems like hope is drifting away…

But God speaks again, and He offers His Word. He answers Abram with yet another promise. Verse 4:

4Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”

It’s the same promise as before (12:2; 13:6), but it’s made even more specific. This isn’t going to be nation building through adoption. Abraham is going to have natural offspring. He is going to have biological children.

And then, to give a sense of just how grand this promise is, God gives Abraham an illustration:

5He took him outside and said, 'Look up at the heavens and count the stars--
if indeed you can count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your offspring
be.'"

Can you picture this? Abraham walks out of his tent under the Middle Eastern sky and—with absolutely no light pollution—he looks up into the never-ending expanse of the Milky Way. Thousands and thousands of stars! As far as the eye could see. And God says, "So shall your offspring be, Abram." "So shall your offspring be."

Earlier it was the dust of the earth, now it’s the stars of the sky. God wants to be very clear: Abraham is going to have many, many, many descendants.

Now, what’s going on here?

Actually, there is very little new here. God is giving His promises to Abraham. He’s giving His word. Just like He did in chapter 12. Just like He reiterated them in chapter 13. Even though circumstances argue to the contrary, God’s plans for Abraham have not changed. So the first weapon God offers to Abraham in the good fight of the faith is His Word. His promise. God says it, Abraham can believe it.

And, according to verse 6, Abraham does:

6Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

This is the response God is looking for: He gives His word, He wants us to believe. He wants us to trust. He wants us to have faith.

So, God gives us His Word. That’s the first weapon He provides in the fight for faith.

And, to be honest, that should be enough. He is God after all. What does the bumper sticker say? “God says it. I believe it. That settles it.” That ought to be enough. If God makes promises to you, you should believe them, no questions asked. As we’ve seen in the last couple of chapters, God is going to keep His promises.

But, we all know it doesn’t work that way. As much as we’d like it to be, we know faith isn’t easy. It can be hard to trust in the hospital room. Difficult to believe when the grain bins are more empty than full. It’s not easy to have faith in God’s Word when all the evidence says it’s not going to happen.

And so, God—in his grace—offers us another weapon for the fight of faith. Not only does he give His Word, He commits Himself to keep that Word. He offers a guarantee and He seals it with blood.

The Walk of Death
That’s what this second section of chapter 15—verses 7-21 are about. God commits Himself to keep His Word.

This section follows the same pattern as the first section. It begins with God making a promise. Verse 7:

7He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

The same promise as chapter 12 (v. 7) and chapter 13 (v. 15): Abraham (and his descendants) are gong to receive this land. Canaan will belong to the children of Abraham.

But, just like in verse 2, Abraham has a question:

8But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD [same name], how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

Do you see the fight for faith here?

You might wonder: “How can Abraham ask this question after verse 6 tells us that he has already believed the Lord? Isn’t that a contradiction? Doesn’t it seem strange that Abraham would ask a question so full of doubt right after receiving credit for being so full of faith?”

It does.

But that’s one of the great things about Genesis, and indeed, the whole Bible: it understands that faith can be a struggle. Sometimes you can be so certain of your faith one minute, but looking for reassurance the next. I know that I can be so confident in God while I’m in my study, typing a sermon; but then I walk out into the rest of my life and I feel the struggle to believe. We can sit here in the sanctuary during a funeral and celebrate our faith in God; but by the time we get to the graveside, that faith doesn’t feel as strong anymore.

It’s not that we stop believing, we still do—but we’re looking for more. We need help. We need reassurance.

There’s a great story in the gospel of Mark that tells about what happened after Jesus returned from the Mount of Transfiguration. The other disciples were standing around trying to figure out why they were unable to heal a boy possessed by an evil spirit. It was quite a circus, with teachers of the law and onlookers and the boy and his father all crowding around.

When the father saw Jesus, he explained what was going on. Then he said to Jesus: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

Jesus answered: “’If you can?’ Everything is possible for him who believes.”

And the boy’s father, in a moment of great honesty replied: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

That’s what I think is happening with Abraham when he asks this question in verse 8. He’s saying: “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!” Just like we—who must fight to continue believing day in and day out—Abraham is looking for some reassurance. He’s looking for a guarantee.

That’s what God provides him with in the verses that follow. God’s answer begins in verse 9:

9So the LORD said to him, 'Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.' [These are all the animals that would be clean for sacrifice in the Law, verse 10:] 10Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. [Possibly, because they were too small.] 11Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

We’ll talk more about the significance of these things in a minute, but for now let’s read the Lord’s answer to Abram. Verses 12-16:

12As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. [God is present in His holiness.] 13Then the LORD said to him, 'Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.'"

There’s a lot here. God is setting the future. The sons of Jacob going to Egypt and the Exodus under Moses and Joshua’s conquest of the land are all foretold here. Circumstances aren’t always going to indicate it, but God’s promises are going to be fulfilled.

For our purposes today, though, we are much more interested in what God does to guarantee these promises. Verse 17:

17When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…

Now, this is about as strange and foreign as the Bible gets. Abraham takes a bunch of animals, saws them in half, lays the bloody and gory body parts out on the ground, and then dozes off until a smoking firepot and a blazing torch pass through the pieces. What’s going on?

Well, verse 18 gives us a clue when it tells us that the LORD made a covenant with Abram. What we have described here is an ancient covenant-making (contract signing) ritual.

Archaeologists have found records of ceremonies like this in other Middle Eastern locations, and what they describe goes something like this:

Suppose Jay and I are rival sheepherders who decide to make a treaty together. I would promise to leave his shepherds alone and he would promise to respect my grazing rights. Then, in order to confirm the deal, he and I would kill some animals, cut them in half, and—together--walk between them. And then I would take an oath something like this:

This head is not the head of a lamb, it is the head of Russell. If Russell sins against this treaty; then, just as the head of this lamb is torn off, so may the head of Russell be torn off. (Waltke, 245)

And Jay would make a similar oath.

That’s the point of the animals being cut up here. As one scholar writes: “Once the animal was killed, the one making the covenant could expect the same fate as the animal if he broke the covenant. The sacrifice is thus an enactment of the oath.” (Waltke, p. 245) Contract making in the ancient world was a serious thing. This is not: “If I break contract than you can take me to court.” This is: “If I break contract, then I should die.”

So, you see, this is not a small thing for God to enter into a covenant with Abraham. “God humbles himself to obligate his life to his people. In passing through the carcasses, he commits to death if his word is untrue.” (Waltke, p. 247)

But, notice something unique here—this is a very one sided covenant. Abraham and the LORD do not walk through the animals together; instead, Abraham is just waking up from his nap as the smoking firepot and torch (representing God’s presence, think of the fiery cloud of the Exodus) take the covenant-making walk alone.

God, symbolically in the vision, passes through the bloody, sliced carcasses and says: “If I don’t keep this covenant, then let me be killed.” Let God be killed if He is not faithful to His promises.

Here’s the guarantee God offers to Abram: He commits Himself to keep His Word by offering—symbolically, of course—His own life.

This is the God who commits. How serious is He about keeping His Word? So serious He puts His own life on the line.

In fact, fast forward a couple of thousand years and you’ll find a new covenant that is guaranteed—not symbolically this time, but literally—with God’s own blood. Jesus went to the cross so that He could demonstrate just how committed God is to keeping His word. God never did break His promises, but He still made the walk to Calvary and gave His life.

And so, if you ever wonder what sort of assurance you have that God will keep His promises, remember that our God is a God who is committed. A God who has entered into a very one-sided covenant with His people. Here’s the weapon we need to fight the good fight of faith—our God is a covenant making, covenant keeping God. Ours is a God who commits.

Conclusion: The Response of Faith
So, how should we respond to this? What is it that God desires from us in this passage? The answer is simple: trust in Him. God wants us to fight the good fight of faith.

Go back to verse 6. I sort of passed over this verse earlier, but it deserves our deeper attention. It’s probably one of the most important verses in the entire Bible. At least, the New Testament authors treat it that way.

6Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

This isn’t just a verse for the story in verses 1-5. Really, it’s a verse for the whole chapter, and the whole of Abraham’s life.

Abraham trusted. He believed. He chose faith. And that’s what God wants Him to do. That’s what God wants us to do. That’s why God gives His Word. That’s why God commits to keep His word. So that we will have faith.

But what’s interesting about this verse is not that Abraham believed, but the way God responds to that belief. Because, you see, faith is not just something God thinks it would be nice for us to have—like we’d be able to get along so much better with God if we would trust Him—faith is the one thing God requires of us. Faith isn’t optional, it’s what we need—the only thing we need—in order to be right with God.

”Abram believed the LORD, and he [that is, the LORD] credited it to him as righteousness.” The LORD credited Abram's faith to him AS righteousness. That's the
amazing part of this verse. And it's what the New Testament writers are so amazed by as well.

Our God doesn't just require righteousness; this God counts faith as righteousness.

What is righteousness? It is living up to a standard. It is a right relationship with God because of living up to that standard. It is holiness. It is godliness. It is living correctly,
rightly, righteously.

God has a standard. And it is a high, righteous standard.

And here's what is so amazing. Abraham did not live up to God's standard. He, himself, was not righteous. But, he believed. He took God at His word. He trusted God’s promises. He trusted God. (V.6) "Abram believed the LORD."

And that was good enough for the LORD!

The LORD credited it AS righteousness. As if Abraham was righteous. As if Abraham had met the standard. It was counted as righteousness.

That’s why God was the only one to pass between the bloody animal parts. He’s committed to doing all the work in this covenant. He’s taken it all on His back. And all that is required of Abraham is to believe.

And it still works the same way today. In Romans 4 Paul writes:

20[Abraham] did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but
was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21being fully persuaded
that God had power to do what he had promised. [Abraham believed the LORD]
22This is why 'it was credited to him as righteousness.' [Now, catch this!
Paul says:] 23The words 'it was credited to him' were written not for [Abraham]
alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-- for us who
believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25He was delivered
over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification."

God is still doing it today! He is giving us RIGHTEOUSNESS (on our account) if we only will give Him our faith. It isn't by works. It is by faith we are saved. Galatians says the same thing. Hebrews says the same thing.

The God of Genesis chapter 15 is the God of the Bible is the God of the universe is the God of today, and He offers a wonderful deal: give Him your faith, get His righteousness counted to your account.

So, He gives us the weapons we need: 1) He gives us His Word and 2)--in Jesus Christ—He commits Himself to keep His Word. And all He asks of us in return is that we believe in Him. That we fight the good fight of faith. And if we do, it will be credited to us as righteousness.