Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sunday School Lesson: Trusting Promises

Purpose: To use Abraham’s experience to explore the covenantal relationship between God’s promises and our faithfulness.

Scripture: Genesis 17:1-22

When you think of covenant, what comes to mind?

Do you think of covenant as a type of contract or agreement where two parties agree to certain stipulations?

What happens if one party of the covenant agreement does not fulfill his part of the agreement?

Covenant in the Bible comes from the Hebrew word b’rith, which when translated into Latin was testamentum and became the English word testament. The two major divisions of our Bible, the
Old Testament and the New Testament could also be called the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. What are the major differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant?

The Old Testament is commonly portrayed as a legalistic approach to religion and faith. The New Testament is thought to teach that through Jesus the world is offered a new theology portrayed by grace and mercy. But are the two covenants really that different?

Did Jesus eliminate the moral laws of the Old Covenant?

Did Jesus’ offer of grace eliminate obedience and discipleship?

Was God’s covenant with Abraham offered without conditions?

Is Jesus’ offer of grace offered without conditions?

What are the conditions of the two Covenants?

The condition is faith.

Let’s read:

Gen 17:1-8 ESV
(1) When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless,
(2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly."
(3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him,
(4) "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.
(5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
(6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.
(7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
(8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God."

What did God promise Abraham?

God promised that the descendants of Abraham would not become a nation, but would become a "multitude of nations". Abraham would not be the ancestor of a king, but the ancestor of kings.

What were the conditions of God’s promise to Abraham?

Many Christians are of the opinion that God’s covenant with Abraham is unconditional. Some also understand God’s covenant of grace through Jesus Christ in this way. Yet, read carefully and see that God’s covenants come with some requirements.

The first condition is in verse 1: to walk before God and be blameless (perfect).

The second condition is that all the males of Abraham’s family were to be circumcised.

Gen 17:9-10 ESV
(9) And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.
(10) This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.

There were requirements of the covenant from Abraham’s side and certain responses that God expected Abraham to make. God’s offer to Abraham was a great act of grace on God’s part. God approached Abraham with the offer of covenant. The covenant and it’s promises were God’s idea, not Abraham’s.

Do you think Abraham’s faith was a response to God’s covenant of grace, or was God’s covenant a response to Abraham’s faithfulness?

Or, did God "know" before offering to covenant with Abraham that Abraham would respond in faith?

Abraham had demonstrated great faith long before God’s offer of covenant. God told Abraham to go and Abraham went. Throughout the story of Abraham, over and over, the faithfulness of Abraham is emphasized. Abraham many times responded to God’s initiative with obedience.

Is grace only offered to those persons whom God "knows" will accept it?

If that were true, then can’t we conclude that we are able to somehow earn or merit grace by what we do?

Eph 2:8 ESV
(8) For by grace you have been saved through faith...

Which comes first: God’s grace or our faith?
The rest of the verse:

Eph 2:8 ESV
(8) ..... And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

Salvation is always a matter of God’s initiative and our response. For those of us who base our beliefs on Wesleyan teachings, God’s grace is always "prevenient"(prior) to our faith. God’s grace makes possible our faith. Our faith takes the form of recognition of our sinful state, confession of our sin, and repentance. Faith does not end at that point. Faith goes on to result in our growth in grace: sanctification. In other words, like Abraham, we walk before God and progress to the point of being blameless (perfect).

What is the relationship between God’s grace and our faith in Ephesians 2:8?

God’s grace, always prevenient, and always a gift offers us our only possibility of reconciliation. Faith is our acceptance of God’s offer. If God’s grace saved us - whether or not we wanted to be saved, whether or not we were faithful - it would be a great expression of God’s power, but not of God’s love. If grace were only offered in response to faith, then our salvation is contingent on our merit, not God’s mercy. Grace is always prevenient to faith.

God’s grace is offered to us freely. Does God have expectations of us, like He did with Abraham?

What are those expectations?

Like Abraham, we must respond with faith. Our justification requires repentance, commonly called the "new birth." Our sanctification requires "being blameless" and moving on toward perfection in love.

What is the relationship between baptism for Christians and circumcision for the children of Abraham?

Circumcision for the Hebrews stood as an act of initiation into a community of people who were in special relationship with God. Circumcision symbolized the removal of impurity. It signified entrance into the covenant relationship and served as an identifying mark of that identity.

In the New Testament circumcision is spoken of as a spiritual change of heart more than a physical procedure.

Rom 2:28-29 ESV
(28) For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.
(29) 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.

John Wesley’s Commentary:
But he is a Jew - That is, one of God's people. Who is one inwardly - In the secret recesses of his soul. And the acceptable circumcision is that of the heart - ......; the putting away all inward impurity. This is seated in the spirit, the inmost soul, renewed by the Spirit of God. And not in the letter - Not in the external ceremony. Whose praise is not from men, but from God - The only searcher of the heart.

This "circumcision of the heart" is also spoken of in the Old Testament.

Deu 30:6 ESV
(6) 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.

The early Christians quickly divided on the issue of circumcision, but there is a very clear relationship between the Hebrew practice of circumcision as a symbol of relationship with God and Christian baptism.

Col 2:11-12 ESV
(11) 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,
(12) 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.

We can view baptism as "the circumcision of Christ". The function of baptism is the same as the function of circumcision for the Jews. It is a ritual that signifies the entrance into a covenant community and is a symbol or sign that we have aligned ourselves in the New Covenant of Christ.

The community of the old covenant was the Hebrew people and the people were initiated into that covenant by circumcision. The community of the new covenant is the Christian Church and we are initiated into this covenant by baptism.

Baptism is not something that a person does himself. Baptism is something a person receives.

Baptism bestows upon us an identity, a hope, and a mission. Baptism marks us as belonging to Christ and to Christ’s Church.

Just as infants eight days old are initiated into the covenant community of the Jews, so we, even as infants, are welcome to receive the sign of our covenant and become a part of the Christian community.

One quick word about names before we move on:

In verse one God says, "I am God Almighty" (El Shaddai or God of the Mountain). This is the name of God as known by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job. God was not known as Yahweh until Moses’ time.

Also notice that in this passage Abraham’s name was changed. The name Abram means "exalted father", ironic for a man who was not a father at all until very late in life. His new name, Abraham, means "father of a multitude". This name change signified that Abraham was entering into a new phase of life, that he was in a new relationship, not only with God, but with history.

In our next passage Sarah’s name is also changed. This change is more subtle, but says much about the new status of Abraham and Sarah. Sarai means "princess". Sarah means "Princess".

Moving on.......

Gen 17:15-22 ESV
(15) And God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.
(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."
(17) Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?"
(18) And Abraham said to God, "Oh that Ishmael might live before you!"
(19) God said, "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.
(20) As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.
(21) But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year."
(22) When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

Here we have further clarification of God’s covenant with Abraham. God had told Abraham many years before that he would have a male heir. With what amounts almost to a lack of faith, Sarah and Abraham attempted to help God’s promise of a son by arranging for Abraham to father a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar.

Now Abraham learns that Ishmael is not the promised son. The son that God had promised will be mothered by Sarah. Sarah was well past childbearing years thirteen years earlier when Ishmael was born, yet God again declares that Sarah will give birth to the child of promise.

Let’s read verse 17 again:

Gen 17:17 ESV
(17) Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?"

Why did Abraham laugh?

How would you describe Abraham’s level of faith at this point?

How often do we see that both faith and lack of faith can reside in a human being at the same time?

Abraham displayed true piety by falling on his face, adopting the posture of prayer and worship. At the same time he laughed at the thought of a 99 year old man and an 89 year old woman conceiving and giving birth to a son. Abraham had a good enough understanding of biology to realize the practical impossibility of such a thing.

Wouldn’t it have been much easier for God to have given Abraham and Sarah a son much earlier, while still in the prime years for childbearing?

Why did God wait so long in fulfilling His promise?

It is sometimes very difficult for us to have patience even with God. We live in an instant, drive-through, microwaveable, just-add-water world. We want what we want and we want it now. We may even pray for patience. Our prayers may go like this: "God, please give me patience and give it to me right now!" When our expectations experience a delay, our faith may suffer.

Abraham at once displays faith and lack of faith. There is a story in the ninth chapter of Mark where a similar faith/lack of faith is displayed. In that passage a man brought his convulsing child to the disciples so that they could cast out whatever spirit was causing the seizures. Jesus shows up and asks what is going on and is told by the man that the boy has suffered in this way all his life. Then an interesting exchange takes place:

Mar 9:22-24 ESV
(22) ......But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."
(23) And Jesus said to him, "If you can! All things are possible for one who believes."
(24) Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!"

Doesn’t this man sound somewhat like Abraham?

Don’t we often find ourselves with these same types of feelings?

The Bible is loaded with stories of people who find themselves believing and unbelieving at the same time. Over and over God did great things for the Israelites. Over and over their faith was shown. Over and over, sometimes very quickly, they forgot the great things that God had done.

The same is true for us. God does wonderful things in our lives. We respond in faith. Our faith may even grow and grow. Then something happens. Temptation may enter our life, or tragedy, or pain or sickness or boredom and our faith suffers.

Many times in Abraham’s life, he demonstrated great faith. Yet we also read that he laughed at God’s promise of a son for he and Sarah.

Most of us can relate to both Abraham and the father of the convulsing son in Mark. We believe. We really want to believe. Yet our faith falls short. Many times it is easier to speak of faith than to act in faith. Faith in God’s promises calls for faithfulness. Faith in the New Covenant requires us to respond in faith. We are told that faith that does not lead to acts of righteousness is not real faith.

How does our faithfulness relate to God’s promises?

Did God choose Abraham because he demonstrated his faith by his acts of obedience?

Or was Abraham faithful because he had already been chosen?

The covenants that God made with Abraham were meant to be transformational.

The covenant that God has made with us is meant to be transformational.


How much must we be transformed before we can enter into the covenant?

What was required of Abraham before God chose him?

What is required of us before we take our place in God’s kingdom?

By the way, the man’s faith in the story from Mark was enough. Jesus healed his son.

What do these stories tell us about God’s grace and the relationship between God’s promises and our faithfulness?

God accepts our limited faith and nurtures it and makes it grow. God’s faithfulness to His covenant never fails. When we act on our limited faith, we find that God never fails us. Our covenant with God depends on the unwavering faithfulness of Gd. We can stray from our covenant with God, live in defiance of it, even reject the identity that the covenant offers us, yet the covenant still stands. God is ever faithful. We are all sinners, yet we can never be so sinful that God expels us from the covenant. God waits patiently for our conviction and repentance, to return and reaffirm our place in the covenant.

Living in covenant relationship with God demands our faithfulness. We may, like Abraham, think that our idea of how to live our life is better than God’s idea. We find it hard to imagine the marvelous things that God has in store if only we remain faithful. Faithfulness means believing in things that are as yet unseen, trusting God and responding to God’s call when all the evidence in our practical minds tells us that the promised results are not possible.

Let’s summarize this lesson:

1. When God enters into covenant with us, He forever changes who we are and who we will be.

God entered into covenant with Abram. Abram, exalted father, became Abraham, father of multitudes. Sarai, a princess, became Sarah, a Princess. Two elderly people challenged scientific beliefs and became parents.

The same things are offered to us in the New Covenant. In Christ, we are offered new identity. Through "new birth" (1 Peter 1:3) we become a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17) with a "new self" (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10).

2. When God enters into covenant with us, He gives much more than He receives.

Abraham was offered kings for descendants until the end of time. All He asked in return was faithfulness symbolized by a minor surgical procedure. Jews do not consider circumcision to be minor. They see their symbol as a mighty work. How could such a minor thing ever earn the blessings that God has given?

3. When God enters into covenant with us His focus is on His grace, not on our worthiness.

The basis of Abraham’s relationship with God was grace through faith, not his own doing, but God’s.

The basis of our relationship with God is grace through faith, not our own doing, but God’s.