Genesis Bible Study (God's Grace To Overcome)

Genesis 17, The Sign of the Covenant


Thirteen more years have passed by. Fourteen years prior Sarai had created a plan to fulfill God’s promise by Abram conceiving a child by Sarai’s slave, Hagar. However, this was not the plan of God and was an act of faithlessness. So Ishmael is 13 years old and Sarai has not born a child to Abram. One of the things we noticed earlier in our study is that God gives pictures to his people to solidify their faith in God’s promise. God showed Abram the stars of the sky and told him that his offspring would be as numerous. God passed as flaming torch between animals in a vision to Abram to show him that they are in covenant together. If these were not enough, God has even more to give. In Genesis 17 we see the Lord appear to Abram and Abram is not going to say one word until verse 17. What more does God have to say to Abram?

Walk Worthy of the Calling (17:1-2)

The Lord begins by describing himself. “I am God Almighty.” The Hebrew is the name you may recognize “El Shaddai.” He is all-powerful God because he sovereign over all things and rules over all things is perhaps the best general meaning of “El Shaddai.” He is the God who makes things happen by his majestic power and might.

Abram’s part of the covenant is this: walk before the Lord faithfully and be blameless. This is the implication of the covenant God has made with Abram. The picture is simple. Because of the covenant God has made, we are bound to walk by the terms of the covenant. We must understand the reason: He is God Almighty. He is El Shaddai. We are to obey because he is the Lord. There are certainly many other reasons to obey and love the Lord. But let us never forget that God has the right, authority, and power to simply say: I am God and you must live faithfully to me. As parents we must teach our children this. Children must obey every word you say because you are the parent. You have the right, authority, and power to simply say: I am your parent and you must do as I say. Our children need this so that they will not balk at this concept when they learn of God and his authority and power over our lives.

What we are seeing here in Genesis 17 is the idea that Paul presented in Ephesians 4:1. We are to walk worthy of the calling. The covenant is been made and God has been gracious to Abram. Now walk before the Lord and be blameless. When we are in covenant with the Lord then we are obliged to walk before God. We must submit to the Lord.

The Covenant Repeated (17:3-8)

With this God now repeats the covenant he has made with Abram. Abram is going to be the father of a multitude of nations. With this God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, which means the father of many nations. In ancient Near Eastern culture the inauguration of a new era would be marked by a new name that expresses the changes made. God will make him into nations and kings will come from his descendants. This covenant is an everlasting covenant between Abraham and his offspring. Further, God will give his offspring the land for an everlasting possession.

The Sign of the Covenant (17:9-21)

God also gives a sign of the covenant, another picture of this covenant God has made with Abraham. The sign is that every male is to be circumcised. Throughout the generations every male at eight days old is to be circumcised. Any male who is not circumcised is cut off from the people and the covenant (17:14). Therefore, not all of Abraham’s children will belong to this covenant. Only those who submit to its conditions. You could be a descendant of Abraham, but you had to submit to the covenant’s condition of circumcision otherwise you were cut off from the covenant. Cut off the flesh or be cut off from God. Thus, the covenant is remembered by a formal, outward act of dedication and submission.

Further, Sarai’s name is now changed to Sarah, also picturing the new era of this covenant. The key is in verse 16. “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” In essence, this plan you hatched with Hagar is not the plan. Sarah is going to have a child by you. Sarah will be blessed. From this child of Sarah’s nations and kings will come from her.

Notice the response of Abraham in verses 17-18. Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be bore to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is 99 years old, bear a child?” So Abraham says, “Let it be Ishmael!” We already have a son, Ishmael! Let’s just use him! God’s next word is, “No!” Abraham says that he has a good plan. But it is not God’s plan! No, Sarah will bear you a son and you shall call his name, “He laughs” (Isaac). The covenant will be established through Isaac, not Ishmael.

Immediate Obedience (17:22-27)

Notice that verse 23 says that on the very day that God said this to him, he took all who were in his household and circumcised them along with himself and Ishmael. At the moment of the covenantal command, Abraham immediately responds. God’s sure word prompts compliance and obedience. Abraham is not pictured as waiting, hesitating, delaying, or questioning. His faith is seen in his immediate response to the word of the Lord. Even though the promise seems to be impossible and he laughs at the possibility of having a child at this age, Abraham still obeys. This is what faith does. Faith responds and does not require full comprehension for obedience.

The Sign of the Covenant Today

Much of what God did in the Old Testament were intended to be pictures and prophetic shadows of realities that would exist when Christ came. The sign of the covenant of circumcision is one of the prophetic pictures.

In the days of Moses, he told them what this circumcision was supposed to look like in their lives.

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” (Deuteronomy 10:12–16 ESV)

The sign of circumcision was to show that these were a people who desired God alone. They desired to walk in all God’s ways, to love him, to serve him with all their heart and soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord, which were given for their own good. The new covenant teaches the same message regarding circumcision.

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28–29 ESV)

God wants hearts cut for God. The sign of circumcision given to Abraham was to display a people set apart in the heart for the Lord to love and serve. This is what God wants from us. God does not want that physical outward act as he did for Abraham and the people of Israel, as the apostle Paul notes in Romans 2:28. God wants a circumcision that is a matter of the heart whose praise is about God, not about other people. Oh, how God wants your heart to be for him and for him alone. As God told Abraham, so it is also to us, to walk before the Lord faithfully in this covenant and be blameless.

But there is another aspect concerning the sign of circumcision that must also be observed and considered. God instructed for Abraham and his descendants to be circumcised. However, God made an interesting promise to Israel. The context of Deuteronomy 30 is that Israel is going to fail at keeping God’s commandments and the curses are going to fall on them such that they will be removed from the land and lose the blessings of God. Then this promise is given:

“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:1–6 ESV)

After Israel fails, there is going to be a restoration and notice verse 6 in particular. “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” The picture is that God will perform a cutting on our hearts. This will cause us to love the Lord and will bring us life. Turn to Colossians 2:11-15.

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:11–15 ESV)

Notice that Paul says that we are dead in our sins and uncircumcision of our flesh (2:13). This is a spiritual uncircumcision that we have. We are full of sins. We are sinful and doomed because we have violated God’s law. But in Christ there is a circumcision of this body of sinful flesh (2:11). The circumcision is not physical but spiritual. Notice that Christ is pictured as the surgeon who is cutting off this sinfulness (2:11) so that we have been made alive with Christ and forgiven all of our trespasses (2:13). This cutting off of the sins of the flesh is accomplished in Christ when we are buried with him in baptism (2:12). This is the expression of our faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, also raises us from the dead because we were dead in our sins. Deuteronomy 30 promised that God would circumcised the heart. This happened in Christ so that when we submit to baptism through faith in Christ, our sins are cut away. This is why we love the Lord our God with all our heart! He has taken away our sins. He has made us alive in him and we now desire to give our everything to Christ for he is everything.

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