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Home School of Biblical Theology Doing Biblical Theology - No 9 - Abram’s story [2]

Doing Biblical Theology - No 9 - Abram’s story [2]

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Doing Biblical Theology - No 9 -

Abram’s story [2]: ‘God contracts himself to Abram.’   Gen 15-25:11       


 David Calderwood 

How long would you wait for a promise to be delivered – a week, a month, a year, 10 years?


Someone in the church promises to ‘get back to you’ about some issue; An alcoholic husband promises his wife that he will change; a stranger rings up and promises they will be there within the hour to buy the lounge suit advertised.



How long before you lose confidence in a promise? Obviously the answer is in who makes the promise. But the reality is that we find it hard to wait very long at all.



So we have to feel for Abram who waited 24 years for God’s promise to materialise, and with that in mind, let’s revise the story of Abram which we began last week in Genesis 12-14 , in which God promises to undo, through Abram, the mess caused by sin.



Abram comes into the spotlight through God’s outrageous promise to him in Gen 12:1-3 ,

>   God promises to provide a new place or land for his people.

>   And God promises Abram many descendents so make them a great nation in the land.

>   And God promises they will enjoy the good life or blessing of the Lord and in turn will be the channel of the blessing of the Lord to all nations on the earth.    



But these promises are only properly understood against the backdrop of world history spelled out in Genesis 1-11 .



The beautiful reality of God’s purpose in creation is experienced in the Garden of Eden, what we can call God’s kingdom because there God’s people, enjoyed God’s special place, and the good life of blessing that comes with living under his rule or authority or word.



But rebellion wrecked everything. God’s people rejected God’s authority in determination to create their own version of the good life. And in reality the rebellious life was an increasingly ugly life, forcing God to act in the increasingly severe judgments noted in Genesis 3-11 .



However alongside rebellion and judgment, God also showed his determination to undo the effects of sin and restore his people and his world to what it once was and what he intends it to be again. The crusher or bruiser, Gen 3:15 , would come to put things right.



So God’s promise to Abram is his initiative to reverse the effects of sin and re-establish his kingdom so that, once again, God’s people will be in God’s special place or land, in new relationship and therefore new enjoyment of the good life of blessing under his rule. And this is the theme or story line for the rest of the Bible.

But Abram’s story, as I suggested last week, is the story of his journey from the point where God says, “leave and go”, to his ‘arrival’ or the anticipated realisation of God’s promise.



And the story quickly became tense as it unfolds. Abram is now a foreigner, ‘parked’ in the land of Canaan, which the Lord repeatedly affirms will be his, even though it is already occupied by powerful nations.



A further tension is that Abram doesn’t even have one child, let alone the makings of a great nation. So we sense the trouble Abram would have had in continuing to believe God’s promise. It would be a miracle if Abram survived, let alone owned the land and fathered a great nation.



And this tension dominates the rest of Abram’s story beginning Genesis 15:1 . Can God be trusted to deliver on his promise? – Well, it’s all in the name!



The tensions regarding God’s promise are worked out through a pattern of expressed fear and reaffirmed promise.



15:1-21 reveals Abram’s fear as the excitement and success of the events of chapter 14 quickly gives way to an understandable crisis of confidence.



Would the Mesopotamian kings humiliated by Abram’s rag tag militia return to settle accounts with him? Would the local coalition of Kings be out to get him after he publicly refused to associate with them or even acknowledge them in any way?



God gently speaks to Abram’s fear using his own name and character in military pictures. I am your shield and the payment you are entitled to as a soldier in my service. In other words, “Abram you may feel alone and vulnerable, but I have you covered at every point. I am your guarantee of security and your faithfulness will not go unrewarded.



But verse 2, Abram wants more than just physical security. He wants the security that can only come through having an heir.



Again God graciously settles his fears by first of all speaking to him and then giving him a reminder of the promise Abram can look at every single night – the stars - and Abram took God at his word and believed, which God acknowledged as the right response.



The focus now moves, verse 7, and Abram’s anxiety about possessing of the land. Again God speaks to his fear simply by declaring his name – I am the Lord who brought you to the land with the intention of giving it to you.

But the Sovereign Lord goes way beyond this in verses 9-21. He puts himself into a binding legal contract to Abram through the ritual or process described.



Three different animals were literally split in two and placed on the ground with a passageway between. A whole bird was placed on each side as well. To pass between the split animals and birds was to enter into a legal contract to fulfil the promised agreement.



The split animals represented the consequences or covenant liability or curse if the parties to the covenant failed to keep their part.



But verse 17, something amazing happens here. Only the Lord passes through, signifying that only he is taking on legal responsibility to deliver on his promise. Even more amazing he is taking full liability upon himself for either party failing to keep the agreement – either the Lord if he fails to deliver the Land or Abram’s descendents if they fail to obey the Lord.



And can I just note in passing this reaches all the way forward to the death of Christ. As he is split in a sense on the cross, he bears the covenant liability for the failure of God’s people to be obedient to the Lord.  What an amazing picture of commitment and trutworthiness.



Gen 16:1-18:15 reveals Sarai’s fear. According to verse 3 and 16, eleven years have passed since God’s promise came to Abram and Sarai, and the pressure finally gets to her.



Verse 2 Sarai decides to take matters into her own hands and make the promise of family true through her own creativity of using Hagar as a surrogate mother, an acceptable alternative of the day. But the outcome is disastrous. Abram has a son, but the family fractures and the future of that son is anything but certain.



In Genesis 17:1 , the story jumps forward another 13 years. Abram is now 99 and has been waiting for 24 years for God’s promise to be realised.



Again God speaks into their fears with reference to his name, the Lord of Hosts – Again hope for future is simply in trusting that the Lord can do whatever he chooses.



Again the Lord gives an even more intimate affirmation of his promise to encourage Abram’s trust. First, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham. Now as well as looking at the stars each night, every time Abraham uses his name he will be reminded of God’s promise.



Second, God initiates another ritual – this time a physical sign of the only thing God requires of his people, obedience and trust. Why circumcision which literally means cutting around the head of the penis? Because Abram thought his power and the reality of having descendents was in his penis and his sperm. But circumcision was a constant reminder that there future was due to the Lord’s grace in granting them offspring.



Finally God directs Abraham to change Sarai’s name to Sarah, meaning princess as a fitting reminder that God promised she would be the mother of kings.



But in spite of three amazing affirmations from the Lord, Abram still laughs out loud, verses 17-22, when he hears more details of how God will make his promise real through Sarah and her soon-to-be child Isaac.



Sarah also, chapter 18:1-15 required a miraculous intervention to bring her to face to face with her lack of confidence in God. Verse 13-15 ends this section where we began.



In 16:2 had no trouble believing the Lord had kept her from having any children, but needed to be pinged directly by God for her failure to see the other side of that coin. The same Lord is just as powerful to give her a child against all human reason and expectation.



Gen 18:16-21:21 Abram’s fear is seen in yet another way in the events regarding Sodom. It is really important here to remember the storyline is about learning to trust God to deliver on his promise for heirs and for land, and this is yet another learning opportunity.



The text makes clear that the Lord initiates this discussion about Sodom with Abraham, and verse 22, seems to invite a discussion. And its in verses 23-25 that we see the Abram’s fear - that God’s would sweep away the righteous with the wicked.



Would he forget his covenant to bless those who blessed Abram in the face of ongoing sin and rebellion? This is crucial to Abraham’s confidence in God’s promise because his family were in part caught up with the wickedness of Sodom, yet still identified with Abram.



Abram is reassured by the Lord that, as per his promise, grace to those associated with Abram will be maintained, even in the midst of severe judgment on his world.  



19:29 is clear that Lot was saved only by association with Abraham. It was Abraham’s righteous intercession on behalf of his sinful family that saved Lot – And friends once again a picture of Jesus and the gospel is foreshadowed in Abraham.



We are saved, not because of our own merit, but because Jesus identifies with us and so we are saved by his righteousness applied to us. The life, glory and honour that jesus secures is ours by association.


What a high point for Abraham’s confidence in God’s promise and God’s character. Yet from this he crashes and burns yet again, 20:1-17 with a total re-run of his disgraceful inability to trust God for his own safety, even though he has just seen God deliver his sinful family from Sodom.



For all Abraham’s insights and achievements, we must never forget that it is only God’s consistency and grace that will see his promise fulfilled.



And with that we move into chapter 21. Finally the heir is born and God’s promise has become a reality. And while, verse 6 Sarah’s laugh of unbelief is now a delighted laugh, she also displays a horrible arrogance towards Hagar and Ishmael, verse 10, apparently based in thinking that somehow she had actually built her house as she originally intended 16:2.



This showed in a complete lack of grace towards Hagar and Ishmael as she had experienced God’s grace. But in contrast to Sarah’s attitude, we see Abimelech recognising humbly that the good life of blessing was to be enjoyed through association with Abraham and the Lord.



And at this point, things turn around massively as confidence in God’s promise dispels all fears. Look at 21:21. Once again we see that hope and confidence are all in the name. Here we have Abraham, now with his heir in fulfilment of God’s promise, planting a tree in the land of Canaan in complete confidence that the Eternal God will complete his promise.



This time, there are no further doubts on Abraham’s part. When asked in the severe test of Gen 22 to kill the son he had waited 24 years to hold, his response was verse 8, an unswerving confidence that the Lord would act to ensure his promise is fulfilled. Verse 14, Jehovah Jireh would see that his promise was fulfilled. Abraham only needed to trust God.



The heir is now a reality, but what about the land. After 24 years Abraham still does not own a square inch of the land. So what confidence is there into the next generation with Isaac? Well, the answer comes with the death of Sarah chapter 23.



Verses 17-20 the story takes us back to where we started in chapter 13:18. We are back at Mamre near Hebron where Abraham all those years earlier pitched his tent and walked the land symbolically claiming it under the promise, and where he built an altar recognising that the Lord owned the land.



Now we are taken back there after a long journey of many many years and lots of learning. But this timer Abraham is now the legal owner of land. Sarah is buried in God’s land as a visible testimony to God’s promise being realised.



And in 25:1-11 Abraham also joins Sarah. Verse 9, Mamre and Hebron and ownership are all emphasised in conjunction with Isaac. The Lord’s has begun to fulfil his promise, there is ore to come yet, but for that story we now shift our focus to Isaac.



Friends, what a wonderful picture of God we see composed brush stroke by brush stroke in this story – shield, reward, provider, saviour, gracious, just, purposeful, committed to his people and his promise without regard for time, and in spite of the sinful failings of his special servants..



It’s all in the name. And exactly the same is true for us today as Christians. It’s all in the name. Romans 8: 28ff If God be for us . . . . If God did not hold back his own son, will he hold back anything we need to serve him faithfully?



Like Abram in his day, you might feel alone, vulnerable, threatened, exposed, and fearful of the future and getting to heaven at all.



In John 14 Jesus promises to go and prepare a place for us in heaven through his atoning death, and he promises to come back and take us to be with him.



So, let me finish where I started – How long will you trust the Lord to fulfil his promise to you in Christ?


 David Calderwood 



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