When we faithfully struggle to believe in God and his word, God responds by explaining how he will accomplish his promises, which he guaranteed by making a covenant with us that he will keep upon pain of his own death. God has proven absolutely trustworthy, so you can and must trust him absolutely.
Introduction – There are no shortage of quotes and quips on the subject of trust. Everyone seems to know what it is. Far fewer actually live and experience it. Friends and lovers know (at least in theory) that “relationships are built on trust.” Investor Warren Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha, claims, “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” President Ronald Reagan famously said of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, “trust, but verify.” Even hymn writer Isaac Watts once lamented that “learning to trust is one of life’s most difficult tasks.” Although trust is elusive, it might be the most important virtue of all. George MacDonald, mentor to C.S. Lewis, believed “to be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.” Why? Because love, the highest of virtues, is founded on trust. Once trust is lost, loving someone feels impossible.
Amidst all the setbacks, disappointments, uncertainties, and failures of life, how can you know God will take care of you and your family? Considering life’s troubles, how can you trust God? Is God really trustworthy when crises threaten to defeat you? How can you be certain? How can you know?
Theologian Walter Bruggemann writes, “The text of Genesis 15, taken as a unit, asks whether Abraham can, in fact, trust. And it asks if Yahweh can, in fact, be trusted. It is faith which permits Abraham to trust and God to be trusted. It is unsure faith that wonders about the delay. The issues are set here. The remainder of the Abrahamic narrative explores the answers.”
Background – This passage is a high point in the Bible. The LORD has called Abraham out of his homeland away from his family, his culture, and his gods. At that time God gave him an astonishing promise of a seed, a land, and a blessing (Gen 12:1-3). This is known as the Abrahamic promise. It governs the ways God works in redemptive history throughout the rest of the Bible and even today. In Genesis 15 the LORD solemnly confirms and strengthens the Genesis 12 promise in a dramatic divine encounter with Abraham.
I. Ask God for Assurance
A. Abraham’s first question: Who will be my heir? (vv. 2-3)
Abraham has a big problem because he has no son. His birth name “Abram” (meaning Exalted Father) was surely a source of frustration. Illustration: I had a friend in college who bought a minivan half-way through our freshman year because he was sooo ready have a family. Why not set things in order right now? We teased him a lot, but it was all in good fun because there was no real pain or disappointment in his life yet. But Abraham, the man with a name that sounded like “Superdad” in his day, was in quite a different situation. God had promised to make his name great by making of him a great nation (Gen 12:2). Even so, life is not going as planned. Without a natural heir, Abraham is getting anxious. His current heir is a household servant named Eliezer from Damascus. Abraham even jokes with God that Eliezer’s full name ironically sounds like “son of my acquisition.” To convert the joke to English, Abraham might have complained that his first-in-line servant is named Harry Parent (get it—“heir apparent”?)! One commentator quipped, “The omen is in the nomen.” Abraham cannot understand how he will become an exalted father without a natural born son. He needs some assurance of God’s promise. Abraham fears God’s promise will be buried with him.
Can you relate? Have you ever wondered whether the glorious gospel promises will ever match what your life usually feels like? There is a real tension here that Christians often don’t acknowledge. Maybe you resolve the tension by softening or spiritualizing God’s promises so your current level of experiencing God’s favor is made equal to what you can reasonably expect. Or perhaps you resolve the tension this way: by taking upon yourself the power to share in God’s promised blessings in a formulaic way. So if you are blessed less, then you must have put in less. If you want more blessing, then you just have to put in more time and energy with God. Both these ways of resolving the disconnect between our life experience and God’s promises are grasping for autonomy, for control. We think it is possible to control our experience of God. But it’s an illusion! God cannot be managed. When a person has an encounter with the God of the Bible, the Sovereign Lord, there is no question who is in control. So how should you handle the tension? The Bible’s answer is to live with the tension and trust God. Ask him for assurance so you might trust well.
B. Abraham’s second question: How will my family possess this land? (v. 8)
Abraham has another big problem because he’s an immigrant with no land. Surrounding him are people groups that are settled and thriving in cities ruled by kings, but Abraham lives in tents with his wife and servants out in the country. He’s not poor, powerless, or invisible, but he is an outsider who is vastly outnumbered by the land’s indigenous citizens. Even if God does give him a son, how in the world will his descendants come to possess the land? The prospect seems outlandish (pardon the pun!). Considering the way things are going, Abraham would like to know how he will possess it. Some more information would go a long way toward answering his nagging questions. Abraham fears his descendants will never be powerful or numerous enough to possess the land.
This problem might be hard for Christians in America to grasp, especially those of an older generation who came of age during an era when Christianity was widely respected if not embraced by the majority of its citizens. But when God’s people are the outsiders—powerless, despised, rejected, marginalized, persecuted—Abraham’s second question becomes quite personal. Many of our Hispanic brothers and sisters in this country struggle with this problem. As Christians fall out of cultural power and influence, I believe we will begin to understand what most of the church has always known as its normal experience in this world. Later today we are going to hear a presentation by Liberty in North Korea about people in that country, some of them Christians, who are crying out with the same kind of question Abraham asked God. They want to possess their land again—for freedom, for prosperity, and for the ability to worship God without fear. But they don’t know how it can happen. Their situation appears hopeless, especially from the inside. Such people need answers and good reasons to hope in the promise of salvation. Thank God he has a plan, which assures us he is trustworthy.
II. Consider God’s Revealed Plan
A. God’s first answer: Your own flesh and blood son (v. 4)
The Sovereign Lord is a gracious and accommodating God. He doesn’t owe Abraham any answers, but he delights to reveal his plan to those he loves. God explicitly denies Eliezer will be the heir. No other adopted son will be heir. Instead a flesh and blood son will be born to Abraham. Notice the way Abraham hears God: “the word of the LORD came to him.” This phrase is a common biblical formula that precedes a prophetic message. God has elevated his promise to a prophecy, and Abraham is his prophetic messenger. This word from God must be publicly shared. Abraham now has specific (but not comprehensive) information that gives him a great deal of assurance in God’s promise. Knowing some details of God’s plan increases his ability to trust God.
Think about it. This is usually the way we approach the future. We want a roadmap of life with specific directions to help us know what to expect. Why? Because a plan naturally builds trust. Maybe you’ve seen this factoid that has been making rounds: it costs about $250,000 to raise one child from conception to adult launch. They’ve got it broken down into line items (clothing, education, medical care, food, entertainment, activities, holidays, you name it). I’ve read plenty of young people who respond, “Having kids is too expensive nowadays! It’s not worth the sacrifice, so I just won’t have kids.” Now, all the parents in the room are chuckling because we know it’s possible to spend $10,000 a year per child if you pay retail for everything and spare no expense. But what parents does that!? Parents learn money-saving tricks from the grandparents and other friends with families. We share notes, pass on advice, and sometimes even dumpster-dive to save a penny. In other words, the future doesn’t scare you because you have a plan with some details filled in. Detailed plans give you some level of assurance you won’t go bankrupt when the baby arrives.
When it comes to spiritual things, we need some details about God’s plan for the future. Like Christians, Abraham desired confirmation and assurance that he was in God’s will, that his trust was founded on solid promises. Notice Abraham’s trust was founded in the same place we may find assurance—God’s word. Abraham encountered the direct word of the LORD as an OT prophet. We have the Bible through which we encounter the living God through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the mediation of Jesus Christ. God’s plan for you is revealed in the Bible. God reveals sufficient details of his plan to assure you he is trustworthy. But before you sigh in relief and stop listening, consider his revealed plan.
B. God’s second answer: Through centuries of affliction and oppression (vv. 7, 9-15)
Again God answers Abraham’s question by revealing his plan. Abraham cannot fathom how his descendants will come to possess the land, so God explains how it will come to pass so Abraham will know for certain. But it is a frightful plan. God indeed brought Abraham out of his homeland (Ur of the Chaldeans) to give him the promised land—just not yet. Abraham will die at a good old age without taking possession. Instead his descendants will be sojourners and servants in a foreign land for 400 years where they will be afflicted and oppressed. Their plight will cause them to feel terror and great darkness, something like Abraham’s nightmare. At the end of it all God will judge the oppressing nation and bring out Abraham’s children. Their reward for suffering slavery will be to come out with great possessions. God will not give Abraham’s people the land until the Amorites (all the indigenous peoples in the land) have reached their full measure of sin. In 400 years God will justly dispossess the Amorites of the land and graciously deliver the land to Abraham’s people to possess.
God’s people must learn patience and to live with delay (2 Pet 3:8-13). We must learn to wait for God to deliver us when our circumstances seem intolerable and his promises seem to fade away. So often God uses your suffering as the means to draw you to himself, to deliver you from your particular sins and idols, and save you to be a purified, holy, and renewed person. And when we suffer together we gain the promised blessing as a people. In God’s economy, suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces a hope in God that does not disappoint (Rom 5:3-5). Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus and his plans to bless us (Rom 8:18-39; 2 Pet 1:3-4).
III. Believe God’s Covenant Promise
A. Because God counts faith as righteousness (vv. 5-6)
It’s the “right” thing to do. How does one gain God’s approval? By being counted as righteous (Ps 1). What is the righteous work God requires? Belief in God (cf. Jn 6:28-29). How will the righteous live? Not by works of the law but by faith (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11). God wants you to believe his covenant promise. Faith—to believe him and believe in him—is your only way to God counting you as righteous. Commentator Allen Ross put it this way, “It would take faith to wait for the promises; but faith was what God was looking for, and faith made Abraham acceptable to God.”
Life crises often reveal a person’s faith (or lack thereof). For Abraham, the crises of being old, possessing this tremendously significant yet inactivated promise from God, and not having a son, all worked together to put Abraham in a position that would reveal the source of his trust. Would he trust his instincts or his common sense? Or would be trust God even though it seemed crazy on the face of it? When you face crises, to whom do you turn? To God, or to yourself or to something or someone else? A lover, family, friends, food, fantasy, the government, crowd-sourcing, an addiction, fill-in-the-blank? Whatever or whoever you turn to for answers, for deliverance, for hope, for comfort—that is what you are ultimately trusting in. If it’s not God, then it’s an idol, and it will betray your trust. When you reflect on the nature of life in this fallen world, and then reflect on the character and history of God, doesn’t it make more sense to put your faith in God’s promises? No one is more trustworthy than the Sovereign LORD. One of you might say, “I’m still not convinced. Show me!” Our trustworthy God meets you where you are. Abraham asked how can I know for certain. God said, “I’ll show you.”
B. Because God will be faithful unto death (vv. 1, 17-21)
Just as Abraham’s dramatic encounter with God occurs near the end of this passage, here we deal with it near the end of this sermon. In verse 17 the final stage of the ritual begins. The LORD appears to Abraham in a deep sleep. Abraham’s terror and great darkness is realized when God manifests himself as a smoking fire pot and flaming torch that pass between the animal pieces. God’s presence often takes the symbol of fire and smoke. These symbols communicate God’s blazing holiness, zealous righteousness, and terrifying justice. This scene, on a smaller scale like those strategic maps in the war room, would have reminded Israel of the LORD’s act of deliverance from Egypt when he appeared as pillars of fire and smoke leading them through the waters (cf. Ex 13:21-22; 19:18; 20:18).
But God doesn’t just show Abraham a prophetic pre-enactment of the exodus. God is also in effect signing a contract in his own blood. Usually when covenant parties ratify an agreement, they both pass together through the animal pieces, thereby each taking a “self-maledictory” oath. In essence, the covenant parties declare “may this same thing happen to me—be torn apart—if I do not fulfill my covenant promise.” But this time, the LORD alone passes between the animal pieces. The LORD alone takes the oath (Jer 34:18-21; cf. Heb 6:13-20)! God swears the promise is conditioned upon his own faithfulness. It’s a unilateral promise. God guarantees his covenant promise to his people upon pain of his own death. And of course God will have to die to keep his promise. Because we have been lawbreakers, idolaters, and faithless sinners, God must find a way to both deal righteously with our sin and keep his promise. This is why God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world, to be killed like those animals cut in half, so we would certainly inherit the promise. Even though we deserved the covenant curse, God took it upon himself. God will be Abraham’s shield and the one to reward him greatly. The only sensible response to God’s gracious promise is thankful trust.
Conclusion – In this covenant God made when he appeared to Abraham, he promised offspring and land. In the new covenant Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of these promises. Jesus Christ, as a descendant of Abraham, is the greater son who inherits all the blessings promised to Abraham (Rom 4:11-25; Gal 3:8-9, 16). Jesus Christ, as the heir of Abraham, takes possession of not merely the land between the Euphrates and the river of Egypt. Jesus inherits the whole earth as the Lord of Creation. And through Christ, Christians are heirs to everything that rightly belongs to Jesus. As Abraham’s children by faith, we encounter God through Christ who guarantees the covenant promise to us upon pain of his own death. He loved us to death so we might inherit the promise. He died so we might fully trust him. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). How trustworthy is our God!