Gen 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless.
Gen 17:2 And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.”
Gen 17:3 Then Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying:
Gen 17:4 “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations.
Gen 17:5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations.
Gen 17:6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
Gen 17:7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.
Gen 17:8 Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
Gen 17:9 And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.
Gen 17:10 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised;
Covenant – a word from the scriptures that we don’t really understand very well. God and man have made covenants throughout history, we will look today at that covenant making and what it means for us.
The Post-Flood Noahic Covenant
This covenant is seen in Genesis 9:9-17. It is a covenant with Noah. It is also with all mankind – being universal. It is totally of grace. There is no idea of a bilateral agreement. God is the Covenant-Maker and He does it in grace. ‘Behold I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you.’ The covenant is understood in the light of the judgment of the Flood which has just taken place. Man will fear rain unless such a covenant is made. It is not that man will not be worthy of similar judgment, but that God promises not to execute such judgment. The rhythm of the seasons will not be impaired. Man now will live by grace even though he may well deserve judgments of a similar kind.
The Abrahamic Covenant
This covenant may only fully be understood by seeing that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are really ‘pre-Abrahamic history’, that is the story of creation, the fall of man, the Flood, and the post-Flood events are all intended to lead up to the importance of God’s covenant with Abraham. It is also noteworthy that Abraham comes out of a civilization which history tells us was corrupt. God’s promises to Abraham as recorded first in Genesis 12 concern not only Abraham but all the nations of the earth. ‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
Abraham is promised a numerous progeny but being aged and having no children he actually asks God for something to believe (15:2f). God then seals this promise – which Abraham has believed – by ‘cutting the covenant’ (15:9-21). The covenant is of grace. Again it is not bilateral. It is not dependent upon obedience although God certainly requires the response of obedience (cf. Gen. 26:4-5). Obedience should always spring from grace, but of course never
When the promises of the covenant are examined we see they are many, that they stretch through time, and include a number of blessings, some of which are to be universal. The whole of the land of Canaan is promised to Abraham, although his descendants are not to possess it until the Amorites’ evil ripens to the precise point of judgement. Abraham’s children are to be numberless as against his and Sarah’s seeming impotence. Genesis 17:7 shows that the covenant is to be in perpetuity. Everything is initiated by God and so is correct and authentic. Moreover it is all based on the promise of God.
Covenant and promise are bound together. Without covenant there is no sealed promise. Without promise the covenant is pointless and baseless. A study of Paul’s notions on promise in Galatians chapter three is very enlightening. Hebrews 6:13-20 shows that God is as good as His Word, that is His promise is of the very essence of Himself and therefore unchangeable, and can be fully trusted.
The Abrahamic covenant is associated with blessing. The blessing is of grace. It is universal, in that all the nations will be blessed, but certain blessings are particularised to the blood children of Abraham, i.e. the possession of Canaan, and the number of progeny who hold Abraham as their natural (fore-) father. The blessings, nevertheless, are more than these, especially according to the New Testament. The blessing which Abraham received was that he had children, he was to inherit the earth, and he was justified. As we shall see the blessing which the true children of Abraham will receive through his (single) Seed, i.e. Christ, will be justification by grace, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Cal. 3: 13-14). This Abrahamic covenant was sealed, eventually, by circumcision, and this included Ishmael.
The faith of Abraham was sealed by circumcision but the necessary sign of being in the covenant was circumcision, and especially at infancy. At this point we will not discuss the essential elements of grace, promise, obedience and fulfilment but simply note the fact and nature of this covenant.
There are of course a number of other covenants between man and God, such as the Mosiac, and later Davidic. These covenants are subordinated to the Abrahamic though. Moses receives the Abrahamic covenant anew and leads the people to that land which was promised. The Davidic was a subset, in that the line of David was the one that would hold the throne in perpetuity, and all of this came to fruition in the person of Christ.
All God’s covenants are made in grace. This was so with the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and New Covenants. It does not always appear so at first sight. The Noahic covenant is made unconditionally. God promises, even in spite of man’s sin, not to destroy the earth by another flood. There is no demand made for obedience.
Yet disobedience is not set at a premium. The inference may well be that sin will again appear. Yet the thrust of God’s goodness in providence is self-evidently a motivating power for obedience. In the Abrahamic covenant explicit demands for obedience are not made, yet God rewards Abraham with justification for his faith (Gen. 15:6, cf. Rom. 4:3). He rewards Abraham for his obedience in offering Isaac (Gen. 22:16-18) ‘because you obeyed my voice’. At the same time the promises to multiply his descendants had already been made. God says to Isaac (in later years), ‘I will fulfill the oath which I swore to your forefather Abraham. I will multiply your descendants as the stars in the heaven … and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws’ (Gen. 26:4-5). It is interesting to note that no laws as such were explicitly given to Abraham apart from the command to go into a land which he did not know. Yet law and the laws of God were known to Abraham. Faith without obedience would be a misnomer.
God is a God of covenant, a God who acts out of His own love for His creation, and out of justice tempered with mercy/grace in all of His activities with His people. Perhaps we need to realize the power of covenant ourselves and begin to live as members of the Covenant that has been made with all those who have been justified by faith. As we pray the Covenant prayer today, and as we partake of the bread and wine, let us become closer in covenant with our God. Amen.