We all have people that make promises but never come through. Maybe you’ve got that group of friends and that one guys says he’ll show up but never does, and pretty soon you just stop waiting on him. Now, what if that person is God?
It has been several years since Abram received the promises of God in Genesis 12. He has set out from Ur and Abram had travelled hundreds of miles, lost his father, survived famines, seen his relationship with his wife preserved when he should have lost her, separated from his his nephew who had been like a son to him, and watched that nephew drift further and further away until it was necessary to go after him with a small band of men and rescue him from the clutches of an army. At the same time he’s seen his household grow in wealth and in servants, set up alters to God in the land of promise, and made some key allies. God’s not been silent, but neither has life turned out the way Abram possibly expected it to. God’s been speaking to him for several years at this point, but really, what has God done? These years of God’s promises have produced no heir. Sarai is still barren. She was 65 when God called to Abram in Ur and she is not getting any younger. Abram has watched other children born to the servants in his household, yet he - the one to whom God has made the promise - remained childless. And it doesn’t really matter that God has blessed him with possessions and material goods, and allies and friends, for God has kept from him the one thing that he has promised, the one thing that Abram has desired, and it seems that Abram has nearly given up waiting on God.
And one night, while Abram settles into his tent outside of Hebron, Abram is visited by the Lord in a vision. While such visions are not unheard of to we who believe in God who reveals himself in such manner, what makes this vision unique is that Abram speaks back. And Abram does not just speak back to God, he pushes back, he presses God, calls Him out, saying in effect, God, I’m getting a little tired of you saying these things to me, but not really coming through on those promises. What are you actually doing here?
Gen. 15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
Can you appreciate Abram’s response? God, I’ve heard your promises, but what are you actually doing here? Abraham seems to be making other plans , settling for what seems reasonable, rather than waiting on a word the he once heard. It’s like the woman who I heard in a movie say, “I’m tired of waiting on Mr. Right, I’mma start looking for Mr. Right Now.” We can appreciate Abram’ boldness in criticizing God on this point, because we’ve all been there or have had friends who have been there. We know God’s word, we have God’s word for us regarding who to date, or how to live, or how to continue in prayer and we are doing everything we can to live in obedience, yet we do not see God honouring our obedience with action, and so we beginning to question, what’s the point? We question with Abram, “What will you give me, Lord?” or conclude with the Psalmist, “Surely in vain i have kept my hands pure!”
4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Here God emphatically clarifies for him, “No, it will not be that Eliazer will be you heir. Your heir will come out of your own loins (that’s literally the Hebrew). And then he brings him outside, and says look up Abram, see those that’s how it’s going to be.” God doesn’t give Abram any new reason, he just says “look at that.” And you realize that this chapter is not about Abram getting any clearer reason to believe in that which God has promised, this chapter is about a relationship between Abram and God in which Abram’s not afraid to voice his frustrations and concerns and questions to God, and God is big enough to handle Abram’s concerns without getting defensive, or angry.
Here the author of scripture jumps in to assure us that “and he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” This phrase teaches us about the nature of faith, the object of faith, and the outcome of faith.
The Nature of Faith: To understand about the nature of faith we must ask the question as to whether this verse is speaking about this instance of faith in which God shows Abram the stars and Abram then believes God, or if this statement is descriptive over Abram’s entire life. Although our English translations make it seem as though the author is only speaking of Abram’s faith in this episode, it is better to understand that Moses is speaking about Abram’s life of faith that began in chapter 12. This is not only because the Hebrew construction speaks to an ongoing activity of faith rather than a particular act, but mainly because elsewhere in scripture Abram’s response to God is counted as faith before and after Genesis 15.
For example, Galatians 3:7-9 says that God preached the gospel that justifies by faith to Abram in Genesis 12, and subsequently calls Abraham the man of faith.
Gal. 3:7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Likewise Hebrews 11:8-10, speaks of Abram living by faith from the moment he set out from Ur.
Heb. 11:8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
Abram is the man of faith from the time he leaves Ur. He has been the man of exuberant faith in Canaan, setting up altars to the God who has made him such promises. He was the man of wayward faith in Egypt, not understanding that his wife was a partner in his calling. He was a man of generous faith when he let Lot take first choice of the land, knowing that God would bring about his purposes through Lot’s decision. He was a man of courageous faith chasing down Lot’s captors and rescuing the wandering. He was a man of frustrated faith asking God where’s this heir you promised me? The nature of faith is that through all of these ups and down, Abram remains a man of faith. Faith is the orientation of our heart toward God, notwithstanding of our doubts, frustrations and fears.
Let’s not paint this picture of faith that it is without doubt or questioning or voicing frustrations to the Lord. The scripture never sets faith against certainty, but belief against unbelief. You can can still believe even while harbouring questions and doubts and frustrations with God. the test of faith is, do you approach God with those doubts and questions and frustrations, or do you walk away. Abram never walks away from God, but he definitely brings his frustration to God. That’s faith.
The Object of Faith Abram believed God. He trusted in God and God’s character and God’s word, that God would come through. It’s not the strength of Abram’s faith that will bring about these promises, it’s the strength and wisdom and love of Abram’s God. It’s not enough to just have faith. It matters what you place your faith in. We see a bit about this in the next interaction between Abram and God.
Gen. 15:7 And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
Here again Abram presses God about his promise, this time God’s promise to him regarding the land. And God tells him to do something very interesting:
9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. Gen. 15:12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.
13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
Gen. 15:17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
The point of this strange ceremony seems to be highlighted in verses 17-18. God is ratifying a covenant with Abram, a vow solemnized by blood. God immobilizes Abram by putting him into a deep sleep in which he sees a vision of the smoking pot and flaming torch representing the Lord, pass between the bloodies carcasses of the animals. Abram can’t move, but he sees God move along the path. The point is that God himself and God alone takes upon himself all of the burden of the contract between the two parties. When we bought this building we negotiated the contract with the church that sold us the building so that there were things that we had to do and things that they had to do, conditions that we had to meet and conditions that they had to meet. Here God is saying, the keeping of this covenant I make with you Abram, falls entirely upon me, or as he says in verses 13, “Know for certain” or as we might say, “rest assured”. I will do it, says the Lord. Again, it’s not the strength of Abram’s faith, or his obedience, or anything in him that will bring about these promises, it’s the strength and wisdom and love of Abram’s God. Abram learns much about this God in this interaction:
- God is immense: 15:5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” I made all these stars out of nothing - you think I can’t make children for you out of the womb of your barren wife?
- God is sovereign: 15:13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted” God’s promise goes beyond our good. He is sovereign over the good, and over those who are not so good. God’s plan encompasses slavery. If you are going to understand me as sovereign Lord, you have to see me as sovereign over the good circumstances that you find yourself in and the hard circumstances.
- God is patient: “for four hundred years.” You think in days, I think in decades. You think in months, I think in millennia. The Lord’s ways are higher than our ways. You’ve followed me for seven years, but Abram, the plan I’m setting in motion will span the next four centuries. It’s not your only personal promise, but through generations.
- God is faithful: 15:14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. Though it will look as though God has forgotten his people, he will deal faithfully with them, and will even bless them through this difficulty.
- God is just: 15:16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
This is the God in whom Abram believed and in whom we place our faith. And our standing before hims is based not upon how strong our faith is, but upon how strong he is.
The Outcome of Faith: “and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Here is the gospel in Genesis - that God can account to a sinful, imperfect human being that status of righteousness, not by virtue of that human beings perfection, but on account of his faith, and that faith weak and inconsistent at that. The bad news of our humanity is that we all like Adam and Eve have rebelled and rejected God and turned away from him in our sins. We all begin life with our hearts oriented away from loving God and others and focused inward toward our own good, and our own gain, and our own glory. And the wrath and justice of God are rightly set upon us, for as he warned us, “on the day we eat of that which was forbidden, we shall surely die”. And so, because none of us are righteous, we have no hope of attaining life, by virtue of what we do - even if we vow to turn over a new leaf and do better, we’ve still violated God’s law and just character and therefore remain condemned. That’s not just true for Adam and Eve, it is true for every son and daughter of Adam and Eve. We are not righteous, and cannot be righteous, and so our only hope is that the God who spoke the words into existence will speak the word righteousness over us, and declare us, count us as righteous. And that is what He does for those who are of faith. The outcome of faith is that we are counted as righteous.
so one question that has bothered people is why does Moses speak about Abram being counted as righteous here, rather than elsewhere. Luther probably has as good an understanding as any - that only when the promos is connected to the offspring, can we speak about imputed righteousness, because you cannot separate the justifying grace of God from the atoning work of the offspring of Abraham. The offspring of Abraham spoken of in this text, this heir that God says will come from his own loins, is specifically a promise of the deliverer Messiah, Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect life that we could not, in perfect embodiment of the Law of God, yet he was counted as unrighteous on our behalf, so that those united to him by faith, might be counted as righteous in Him. 2Cor. 5:21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. That’s the outcome of faith. Aren’t you glad that we are saved not by the strength of our faith but by the faithfulness of our God?