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THE COVENANT AND ITS SIGN - CIRCUMCISION
Another thirteen years passes before the Lord's appearing to Abram now at the age of 99 years. In Chapter 15:1 He had told Abram, "I am your shield, your exceeding great reward." Now He tells him, "I am Almighty God" (v.1). He does not emphasize the fact of His faithful protecting care for Abram, as He did before, but the fact of His own great power. Based on this, He tells Abram to walk before Him and be blameless. Also, because He knew that Abram's faith needed strengthening, He confirms what He had told Abram before, "I will make my covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly" (v.2). Though God has spoken so clearly as to many things, we too little appreciate the absolute truth of His word, so that we also often need to have our minds stirred up by way of remembrance, to value rightly the truths we have before acknowledged, and so easily forget.
This time Abram is more ready to listen than to question (as he did in Ch.15:2). He fell on his face, giving due homage to his great Creator, and in this attitude is prepared for a further communication from God. God tells him His covenant is with him. In this way God chose one man to be a type of Himself, for Abram would be the father of a multitude of nations. This goes further than the promise of the multiplying of Abram's descendants, and of course there are today many nations that trace their ancestry to Abraham.
His name is therefore changed from Abram to Abraham. The first means "great father," the second "father of a multitude." God adds, "I will make you exceedingly fruitful." Naturally this seemed particularly unlikely at the time, for Abraham was 99 years of age, with only Ishmael, son of a bondslave as a possible means of further fruit. But God had other things in mind. He tells Abraham that kings would come from him, and further confirms His covenant to be effective throughout the generations of Abraham's descendants, in fact, as "an everlasting covenant"(v.7).
Also, He absolutely affirms that He will give to Abraham and his descendants the land in which he sojourned, all the land of Canaan, "for an everlasting possession." Israel has never possessed all the land that God had promised them, and will not until the thousand years of peace. Their establishing themselves in the land as a nation in 1948 after centuries of being expelled from it has been greatly resented by other surrounding nations. Palestinians who had occupied the land, though without any solid form of government, were bitterly opposed when Israel established a government. Though Israel promised them equal status as citizens if they would submit to this government, most of the Palestinians refused this and left the land. Since then they have strongly agitated for the expulsion of Israel in order that they may form their own government, though some remain in the land.
Who decides what land belongs to whom? Only God! and He has decreed that the land of Canaan is Israel's. Though other nations fight against this, God will eventually make it clear to all the world that Israel is to possess all the land from the Euphrates River to the Nile River. Nations continue to bitterly oppose this now, but they will fail. Meanwhile, because Israel's ways do not please the Lord, they must suffer the strong opposition of these nations until such time as they receive their true Messiah, the Lord Jesus.
God's side of the covenant cannot be broken. But Abraham is told that he and his descendants are to keep His covenant (v.9). This covenant is totally different than that of law, which required obedience to all the commandments. For this covenant to Abraham, long before law was given, clearly assumes that man is totally incapable of keeping the laws of Moses. Why so? Because it required that every male of Abraham's seed must be circumcised. The significance of this is seen inPhilippians 3:3; Philippians 3:3, "For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." This is just the opposite of confidence in the works of law, which was actually confidence in the flesh. Man in the flesh can deserve nothing but judgment: only when the flesh is cut off can the promise of God become effective for anyone. So there is no question of man's doing, but rather of man's dying, being reduced to total helplessness as regards doing anything. Then everything is plainly God's sovereign working in grace.
Circumcision was to take place as early as eight days old, certainly a time when the child could not understand anything about it. Its meaning remains the same whether people understand it or not, just as is true of baptism, which also teaches death to the flesh. The connection between the two is seen inColossians 2:11-14; Colossians 2:11-14. In the present dispensation baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign by which one is put in the place of death, the outward acknowledgment that the flesh is reduced to nothing.
Circumcision was also to apply to a male servant who was born in the house of an Israelite or one who was bought (v.13). A hired servant was not even allowed in the congregation of Israel: he could not eat the Passover (Exodus 12:45). Nor could any uncircumcised man of Israel keep the Passover (Exodus 12:48). If an Israelite was not circumcised he was to be cut off from his own nation. Why? Because he had broken God's covenant: he had no part in the blessing God had promised, because God's promise is not given to man as alive in the flesh, but to those in whom the flesh is judged as under sentence of death. The sign of circumcision was therefore necessary for Israel, while today we should learn the spiritual reality of it, as seen in Philippians 3:3. Yet even in Christianity the outward sign of baptism has its serious place.
It is significant interest that, though the sign of circumcision was connected with the covenant given to Abraham, yet when Israel was to come out from the bondage of Egypt, before the law was given, God made it clear that every male Israelite must be circumcised (Exodus 12:47-48). This has continued just as strictly in all Israel's history under law. Thus Israel has this constant testimony to the fact that the works of law must utterly fail. The flesh with all its pride has to be consigned to the sentence of death: it must be cut off.
God does not only change Abraham's name, however, but tells him that Sarai's name is to be changed to Sarah. Sarai means "my princess," as being Abraham's property, but Sarah means "the princess," giving her the wider honor of being "a mother of nations." She stands for the grace of God. Is there not a lesson in this that we must learn the grace of God personally first, before we shall be glad to share that grace with all who may be brought to desire it? Sarah was to be greatly blessed: even after 90 years of age she would have a son: she would be blessed and others would be blessed through her: she would be a mother of nations, with even kings being among her descendants.
Abraham's faith was too weak to accept what God had positively spoken. He laughed inwardly, just as Sarah did later (ch.18:12). Could he, at 100 years, become a father? and Sarah, at 90 years, give birth to a son? Of course, naturally speaking, this is impossible, but God is not confined by impossibilities.
Abraham's thoughts revert to his son born after the flesh and pleads with God, "Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee" (v.18). This is the same lingering hope that engages the thoughts of many people, that the flesh might be brought to please God. But scripture declares the opposite, "those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:8).
God answers Abraham's suggestion by a decisive "No," and affirms "Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac" (v.9). With this one son God would establish His covenant, and with his descendants. This refers particularly to the nation Israel, the sons of Jacob, though Esau was also a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, and other nations may claim descent from Abraham also (Genesis 25:1-6), for we are told that Abraham would be a father of many nations (v.5).
As for Ishmael, God heard Abraham's plea, and would bless him and make him fruitful, multiplying him greatly. He would beget twelve princes and become in measure prominent, a great nation. It is no doubt today not easy to distinguish true Ishmaelites from other Arab peoples, but their character is evidently established as being nomadic. They spread over some area to the south of Israel, specifically "the wilderness of Paran" (Genesis 21:21). Being the son of a bondwoman, Ishmael typifies those under the bondage of law (Galatians 4:22-25), wild and rebellious. Living in the desert, he reminds us that the law is not a fruitful principle of living, but barren, producing no fruit for God. Yet he has many descendants, and this is true spiritually today also. Many prefer the bondage of law to the liberty of the pure grace of God.
But God's covenant He would establish with Isaac (v.21), a clear type of the Lord Jesus. Sarah, a picture of God's grace, would bring him (Isaac) to Abraham, just as the grace of God brings Christ to the believing sinner today. Isaac's birth would take place one year from the time God spoke to Abraham. Abraham was to wait that much longer, with time to reflect upon the promise of God that was perfectly sure, though not to be rushed before God's time.
This wonderful interview being ended, Abraham then took Ishmael and all his male servants who were born in his house, or bought by him, and circumcised them. Ishmael was 15 years of age and Abraham himself was circumcised at the same time, being 99 years old. Isaac therefore was to be born of a circumcised father. The promise was to be fulfilled only when the strength of the flesh is seen to be cut off, for the works of the flesh are totally refused: the promise can be realized only by faith in the living God.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Genesis 17". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34