Our failures and setbacks in the Christian life may be reduced to this one sentence: We forget who God is and what He is able to do when it comes to keeping His promises. Genesis 17 is yet another reaffirmation of the formal covenant cut in Genesis 15 and first introduced in Genesis 12. The theme of the chapter seems to point up the fact that those who cultivate faith must do so by daily committing themselves to Almighty God, His governing title in this passage. There are at least four godly motives for daily commitment in the chapter.
God is Powerful (Genesis 17.1-3).
Ten years went by from the time the Covenant was given to Abraham at the beginning of Genesis 12 to the birth of Ishmael in Genesis 16. Thirteen more years go by from Ishmael’s birth to God’s reaffirmation of the covenant in Genesis 17. The formal statement and ratification of the covenant is in Genesis 15. Is it any wonder that Abraham becomes a man who cultivated great faith in Almighty God? God is not concerned with how we think it should be done or when we think it should be done. He is Almighty God! His manner and timing are perfect.
He is Almighty God in the sense that He is strong and powerful. God brings blessing our way on the basis of His omnipotence. This same title for God appears in Psalm 68.14. This verse states that “the Almighty scattered kings” in the many peaks of Bashan. God reminds Abraham that He is strong and powerful enough to deliver on His promises. “The Almighty … is excellent in power” (Job 37.23)!
Therefore, God reaffirms the covenant with Abraham by pointing to His own character, specifically His power. Then, God tells Abraham to walk before Him and be blameless in the light of what the Almighty can and will do. God clearly tells Abraham that He will multiply him exceedingly (Genesis 17.2), and all Abraham can do is fall on his face before God continues speaking. This leads to verse four and our second motive for daily commitment…
God is Faithful (Genesis 17.4-5).
Sometimes people refer to the covenant under consideration as Abraham’s Covenant. But God states that it is His agreement with Abraham. It is His covenant with Abraham. God also reminds him that he will be a father of many nations. Nothing depends upon Abraham. If it did, it would have failed. Great is God’s faithfulness not our own faithfulness!
So God changes Abram’s name (exalted father) to Abraham, which means “father of the multitude.” Abraham had to be on his face thinking, “What multitude?” He didn’t have an heir. Maybe he thought God meant Ishmael. It is rather difficult and humiliating to have a name that you cannot live up to!
We have to constantly recommit our lives to God. God commits Himself to us once, and then keeps His commitment. God doesn’t have faith in us; we have faith in God. Cultivating a life of faith means daily commitment and recommitment. And God is faithful still through it all.
Sometimes I’m an embarrassment to God. Yet He loves me, and I love Him back. I’m an embarrassment to God when I blame Him instead of praising Him for my trials. I’m an embarrassment to Him when I refuse to joyfully suffer shame for His name. But I’m still a child of the King!
Cultivating a life of faith takes daily commitment in our pursuit to glorify such a faithful God. Greater glory comes His way when I praise Him in my struggles. I cannot grow weary in well-doing. I might not see my reward in this life, but I will in the life to come. I have faith that that is so, because my faith is rightly placed in such a faithful God! God is powerful and faithful. Those are two great motivations for daily commitment to Him, but there is a third in Genesis 17…
God is Purposeful (Genesis 17.6-14)
We have a restatement of the covenant in these verses. We are told that it is God’s covenant (Genesis 17.7), it is everlasting, and it is with Abraham and all his descendants. Genesis 17.8 says that the land of Canaan would be an everlasting possession as well. We know that God is talking about the land that stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates by comparing this passage with Genesis 15.
Even though the covenant God made with Abraham is unconditional, there is a sign of the covenant, namely circumcision. This is Abraham and Israel’s part in the matter. God is purposeful in that He gives Abraham a task to perform. All male infants were to be circumcised at eight days after birth. Everyone born in his house, servant or son, must be circumcised. Refusal meant that they had shattered the sign of God’s covenant.
Circumcision should be viewed as a sign of acceptance when it came to God’s unconditional covenant with Abraham. It is a spiritual sign and a national sign. Fathers in Abraham’s family demonstrated faith in the covenant by circumcising their sons, but the covenant would continue in spite of individual disobedience. Women were covered under the patriarchal system of that time and were not circumcised. But the Jewish people through time would prove that they lost sight of the significance of circumcision:
For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God (Romans 2.25-29).
The heart always mattered to God. It still matters today. Some Christians today believe that baptism replaced circumcision. Thus, they believe that they should baptize their infants. But baptism is a person’s identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, an outward sign of inward faith in the Gospel. Obviously, infants cannot make such a decision, nor can fathers make it for them. One should have no problem with child dedication in the church, but one should not use the form of baptism. Belief in Christ precedes baptism. If the baptism doesn’t happen, the person is still saved (e.g., thief on the cross).
God has done it all. I see God asking Abraham to respond to God’s covenant with the sign of circumcision. I see God giving Abraham this task for a two-fold purpose. First, circumcision signified God separating a people apart from the world to Himself. Second, by occupying Himself with God’s command, Abraham distances himself from the world by drawing closer to God.
There are times that I get up in the morning and I just want to stay in bed. Life is too hard. Even encouragement from others doesn’t help. All I know at these times is to put one foot in front of the other and do what God tells me to do. I have a purpose … a job to do. God tells me so in His Word. I might not be able to make sense of everything, but I can put one foot in front of the other and do what God called me to do! God is powerful, faithful, and purposeful. There is a fourth and final motive for daily commitment to God in Genesis 17…
God is Merciful (Genesis 17.15-27)
God changes Sarai’s name (“my princess”) to Sarah (“a princess”). I don’t know why it was changed like this. The Bible doesn’t say. But the Lord said that He would bless her and give Abraham a son by her. She would be the mother of nations and kings.
This promise had to be wonderful for Sarah to think about in future days. God knew why Sarah did what she did with Hagar. But God forgave her and reaffirmed His promise. Sarah couldn’t do anything to thwart God’s faithfulness. That is mercy; that is motivating mercy. There is no need for you to pay for your sins; Christ has already paid for them. Why are you still on the bench? Why are you still watching and not working?
God is tender and compassionate. He is forgiving; therefore, nations and kings will issue forth from Sarah. He has great and mighty things in store for us as well. His mercy is manifested in Ishmael too.
The Bible says that Abraham fell on his face and laughed. He said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Why did Abraham laugh? If we say that he laughed for joy at what God was going to do (John Calvin’s view), then what do we do with v. 18: “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” And then we ask, “Why did God correct Abraham in verse 19?” No, it seems that Abraham just cannot believe what he was hearing. He struggled with his faith in God.
Remember, Abraham thought Eliezer would be the heir. Now he offers Ishmael as a suggestion to God, as if God needed Abraham’s help! No, God would keep His Word and fulfill the covenant His way. It is going to be Isaac born to Sarah in one year’s time. If Abraham thought it strange for someone as old as himself to be a father, imagine how he felt at having sons at over 135 with Keturah, his second wife!
God then told Abraham what He had already revealed to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid. Ishmael would be blessed and multiply exceedingly. Interestingly, he would have 12 sons that became princes. His descendants would also become a great nation. The Arabic people are the people of this promise of God. It is easy for us to forget that in our modern climate. They are numerous and great as a people.
The Arabic people have brought much good and much blessing into the world. But the covenant is established with Isaac and his descendants not with Ishmael and his. There is not racial inferiority in this passage. That would come later as a result of sin. God simply chose Isaac and not Ishmael. Thus, the faith of Abraham is tested once again.
When the LORD had finished talking with Abraham, He departs. Abraham is silent. But his faith took the form of action. Abraham took Ishmael, all born in his house, and all male servants and circumcised them that very same day. He did what God told him to do. He was 99 when he himself was circumcised. Ishmael was 13.
Abraham struggled to cultivate a life of faith in God. But his struggles were short-lived. He came around quick. His victories in his walk with God earned him a part in Hebrews 11 as a man who still epitomizes faith. Romans 4.21 says that he was fully convinced that what God had promised God was also able to perform (Romans 4.21). We, too, must be fully convinced and daily committed to the promises of God!
Blessings come with great regularity in our lives when we believe God and then obey God. Do not neglect the strength and grace God gives to you in order to overcome what seems impossible in your life. Abraham’s example should teach all of us that nothing stands in the way of God’s purpose and plan for us – not even ourselves. God asks us to simply believe. When we do, He will greatly bless our lives! He motivates our daily commitment through His almighty power, great faithfulness, purposeful calling, and wonderful mercy!