“When God makes a covenant he reveals his own job description and signs it.” (John Piper).
However, in Abram’s case, there was a gaping chasm between God’s job description in Genesis 12 and Abram’s reality a decade later. What guarantee did he have that he had not been sent on a wild goose chase? God’s promises must have seemed like a distant dream, not a cause for confidence.
Delay is one of the hardest tests of faith. Like Abram, it sometimes feels like we are on endless probation. But remember that Abram camped in faith’s waiting room for thirty years! It must have been hard not to doubt God’s goodness and faithfulness. But in Genesis 15, when Abram was around 80 years old, God ‘cut’ a covenant with him and gave him a terrifying, unforgettable vision. It is one of the Bible’s few theophanies, in which God graciously showed himself to his human friend as a smoking firepot with a blazing torch. During this encounter, God quietened Abram’s quaking heart; answered his honest questions, and offered two tangible signs that He could be trusted. Hebrews explains that God “swore by himself” and showed Abram “the unchangeable character of his purpose” (Heb 6:13-15). It was the ultimate show-and-tell. Today’s text gives us a glimpse into God’s eternal covenant with Abram and his spiritual descendants (Gal 3:29). It is an encouragement to every person who has fled to Christ for refuge and a sober reminder that God himself was torn to pieces to honour his covenant promises. Gospel hope is the only firm and secure anchor for the soul, because it depends on His performance alone (Heb 6:19). That’s why we need to padlock ourselves to God’s promises and cling to His covenant of grace.
15 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He 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.”
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So 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.”
10 Abram 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. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites,Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
Abram believed the Lord (Gen 15:6)
By this time Abram had been in Canaan around ten years with nothing to show for it. No hint of a son and not a patch of land to call his own, much less a nation, a great name and a conduit of blessing to other nations. Abram had successfully launched a rescue mission to get Lot out of Sodom, but apart from this messy victory, he did not have a shred of hard evidence that God’s promises would come true. It is easy for us to skim through Genesis 12 to 21, but Abram was seventy when God first called him out of his comfortable home in Ur, and a hundred when Isaac was born! It was not a quick and easy faith journey.
Despite his limited understanding of the future and unpromising reality, “Abram believed the Lord and God credited it to him as righteousness”(Gen 15:6). Abram was right with God, not because he was a worthyman, but because he took God at his word.
The New Testament tells us that Genesis 15:6 was written not just for Abraham, but also for all “to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rom 4:23-24). Verse 6 applies to Abram and to us, if we have bowed the knee to Jesus.
Do you know for sure you have been made right with God through faith in Jesus?
God stilled Abram’s heart (Gen 15:1)
Verse 1 is one of my favourite verses. God looked into Abram’s quaking heart and knew that his greatest fear was the gap between God’s promises and his disappointing reality.
Is this not also our fear? Do you wonder if God is really a good and faithful Redeemer when you see brokenness in your marriage, your finances, your health and your family? God knows your deepest fears and will not leave you up the creek without a paddle. This is God’s word of comfort to you: “Do not be afraid, I am your shield and your very great reward!”
It is the Lord himself who is our shield and reward, not His blessings and benefits, as much as we love and appreciate them.
Delay does not mean that God has forgotten our plight. If God did not make us wait in prayer; if our lives were always ordered and our path clear, why would we need faith at all? Faith is trusting Jesus for redemption while still in chains. Faith is grabbing his light while in the darkness. Faith is taking refuge in Jesus, while reeling from punches in life’s boxing ring. He is our High Priest who deals gently with our human frailty (Heb 4:14;15;16).
Whom or what are you using as your shield and reward today? What is the anchor of your soul?
God answered Abram’s questions (Gen 15:2; 8)
”BUT Abram said….BUT how can I know?” Our BUTS expose the uncertainties which underlie our deepest doubts and fears.
Abram’s awesome but approachable God welcomed his honest, humble questions about the promised son and land. The Lord took his questions seriously and responded with tangible signs. Faith is not immune to doubts, longings and fears, but faith grows when we hand them over to the God who cares. God’s response to Abram shows that He does not dismiss the honest concerns of believers.
As a parent, I know that I cannot fix all my children’s fears or answer all their questions. But I can take their concerns seriously and encourage them to pray their doubts and heartaches to Jesus. I trust that even if He does not provide all the answers, He will reveal his goodness and faithfulness to them. That’s how He answers our questions too.
God gave Abram tangible signs (Gen 15:5; 17)
Not only did God respond with words, but also with tangible signs.
First, Abram wondered how God could give an old, barren couple a child? In response, God took him outside to see the night sky and asked him to imagine his infinite descendants glittering over the vast expanse of the universe (Gen 15:5). I love this visual aid! The sovereign Creator stooped down to his creature-friend to give him a visible pledge. Abram would see this sign each evening when he stepped out of his tent. It was as tangible as Noah’s rainbow.
Second, Abram wondered how God would give a wandering nomad the land of Canaan? It was a legitimate question, as Abram was landless. In response, God rolled back the curtains of the future and showed how He would act on behalf of his people (Gen 15:10; 13-16; 18-21).
The gory ritual God acted out while Abram slept under a blanket of “thick and dreadful darkness”, may seem like something out of The Vampire Diaries, but, against the backdrop of Abram’s Mesopotamian culture, it is a covenant with stunning visual effects (Gen 15:9-10):
Whereas we ratify contracts with a signed document of mutually agreed terms and conditions, the Mesopotamians sliced animals into pieces and placed their bloodied flesh on the floor. The two parties bound themselves by walking between the pieces and acting out the breach clause which was clear and brutal: “If I am unfaithful to my contractual obligations, you can do to me what has been done to these bloody, broken animals. You can cut me into little pieces and leave my corpse for the vultures! ” (Jer 34:18).
But instead of God and Abram walking together between the pieces of flesh, the smoking blazing firepot passed through the pieces ALONE (Gen 15:17). The firepot symbolised God himself in his holy, unapproachable perfection (Ex 3:2; 13:21-22; 14:24; 19:18; Deut 4:11).
Could it be that God was pledging to fulfill the terms and bear the curse of unfaithfulness on behalf of both of them?
It was not a mutual contract at all, but a one-sided, unconditional covenant that God guaranteed with his own life. Its fulfillment and default penalties rested entirely on the Lord, not Abram.
Could Abram have imagined the great and terrible darkness that would descend on the whole land of Israel at noon, while the Lord’s body was broken to pieces? (Matt 27:45). Could he have conceived the scandalous way in which God would pour out his own blood to fulfill his covenant promises (Matt 26:28; Luke 22:19-20)?
Yet, that is exactly what happened when God took on human flesh and was cut off from the land of the living, pierced and crushed for our sins (Isa 53:5; 8). By bearing the curse of our unfaithfulness in 33 AD, God literally “swore by himself,” as he did to Abram in that thick and dreadful darkness. The Lord Jesus, who had no sin, became sin for covenant-breakers like Abram, you and me.
Our soul anchor today
Let’s massage Abram’s story in Genesis 15 deep into our own experience!
When we cling to the covenant, we plead Christ’s promises and trust his grace. We padlock ourselves to God’s trustworthiness and throw away the key!
- Human beings make and break promises every day in marriage, families, politics and business, because we are all untrustworthy sinners. But God died to guarantee His gospel promises and blessings that belong to all who are “in Christ” (Eph 1:3-14). It is the same gospel that was announced in advance to Abraham (Gal 3:8).
- God’s oath to Abraham and to all his spiritual offspring is the gospel hope that “anchors our soul, firm and secure”. It is like a giant padlock linking us to Christ forever. Our hope is pledged by the tangible sign of the Holy Spirit– the giver of assurance, wisdom and revelation to know Christ better (Eph 1:17-18; John 14:16-17).
- Like Abram found it hard to follow God wherever He led, we are challenged to follow Christ even though our lives are messy and God’s promises seem a distant dream. Jesus commands us to padlock ourselves to Him and throw away the key (John 15:4). Gospel hope takes us spiritually into the “inner sanctuary” of God, and will finally transport us into His physical presence, where we will worship alongside all His people from every nation (Heb 6:19; Rev 7:9-11). What a solid anchor for the soul!
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ” (2 Cor 1:20)
If you are doubting the faithfulness and goodness of God…if you wonder whether you can trust His gospel promises of restoration, redemption and reconciliation…if your faith is weary and weak from waiting…Plead His promises!
Think of Abram and the smoking firepot walking between the pieces. Think of the bloodied, broken body of Jesus on the cross, and ask yourself: “What more could God have done to prove to me that He is trustworthy? Could there be a more tangible sign that He loves me and died to be my Redeemer to the very end?”
Warm your hands at the fireside of Ephesians 1:3-14 and anchor yourself today to your spiritual blessings in Christ. God knows our tendency to doubt and forget. That’s why he has given us the Holy Spirit to whisper hope in our hearts and padlock us to the Promise Keeper. Could there be a more tangible sign that God will keep his covenant with you right to the end?
“This hope is our anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb 6:19)
Father, you know me inside out. You know my questions, doubts and fears even before I have words to express them. You know how badly I have broken your covenant again and again and how messy my life is right now. Some parts of my life look beyond redemption to me, and yet I believe that you died to give me an eternal inheritance and to make all things new. Thank you for never giving up on me and being my soul anchor to keep me stable and safe from the raging sea. I look to you to restore those things that seem too hopeless and broken to fix. I pray for patient faith like Abraham’s to cling to your eternal covenant with me. I plead your gospel promises today for me and my family, even though our faith is weak. I hide in the Lord Jesus today, my refuge and very great reward. Holy Spirit, help me to experience the reality of your presence and padlock me to Jesus until I finally meet my heavenly Father face to face, in the company of my father Abraham and all his spiritual offspring.
In Jesus’s name, amen.
Worship Jesus as you listen to There is a Name, by Covenant Worship.