Genesis 17: A Covenant Keeping God
Abraham is reassured of God's intention, and is given the sign of circumcision as a token of God's peculiar relationship with his household and posterity.
Have you ever had an experience with God that changed the course of your life?
In Genesis 17, God renews His covenant with Abram, changes his and Sarai’s name, reveals Isaac’s name, and institutes circumcision.
The newly named Abraham then circumcises all the males of his household.
As the chapter begins, don’t be distracted by the chapter division. We are meant to calculate that 13 years had passed. I wonder how peaceful those years were trying to navigate Sarai, Hagar and Ishmael.
v. 1 - For the fifth time, God reveals Himself directly to Abram and begins with a general message to reveal the eminence of God (El Shaddai meaning majesty), an exhortation from God (walk before me), and the examination by God (and be thou perfect/sincere). The entire interaction goes on until v. 22.
vv.2–8 - God renews the covenant. New promises are given. It is a deeper revelation, not a revision. God is clarifying, not changing what He had said in ch. 15. God also changes Abram’s name to Abraham. From “great Father” to “the Father of a multitude.” Then God reassures Abraham that this covenant is an everlasting covenant with him and all his seed. “It is from everlasting in the counsels of it, and to everlasting in the consequences of it; and the external administration of it is transmitted with the seal of it to the seed of believers, and the internal administration of it by the Spirit of Christ's seed in every age.” Matthew Henry.
vv. 9–14 - circumcision was given as the mark of a society that had a special relationship with God. Like baptism, it speaks of a new birth, a changed heart, and a separated life. Two types of people were to be circumcised: those born or bought (vv. 12–13). What a wonderful description of the Christian. We are those born of the Spirit (Jn. 3:6) and bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20).
vv. 15–19 - God changes Sarai’s name to Sarah. Like Abraham, her name change is designed to indicate breadth. She is no longer just “my princess” but “princess” because she will be the mother of nations. The news of this causes Abraham to fall down for the second time, rejoice in holy expectation, and pray for Ishmael.
vv. 20–22 - God answers Abraham’s desire for Ishmael, but the answer comes in the form of temporal blessings that were distinct from the covenant blessings. But, though Ishmael may have all the material bless He reveals that in the next year God would give Isaac.
vv. 23–27 - Abraham obeys by circumcising every male in his household that very day, indicating that true evangelical faith results in an obedient heart.
Twice in this passage Abraham falls on his face before God (v. 3 and v. 17). Great blessings should produce great humility, not pride. Take time to reflect on how much God has blessed you, and may it produce the same response in you as it did in Abraham.
We cannot underestimate the importance a vision of God is to affectionate obedience. You can demand obedience and achieve it through terror. But, affectionate obedience in the Christian life means you’ve seen Christ. Parents, pray your children would see Christ. It is then gospel obedience will make sense to them.
We learn that spiritual blessings far exceeding material blessings. Ishmael is going to prosper materially, but the blessings of the covenant were to Isaac only. The difference between v. 20 and v. 21 is like Jesus asking, what should it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul. What is promised in Isaac is nothing less than the unsearchable riches of Christ. Do not trade what was promised in Ishmael with what was promised in Isaac.
Be careful with the temptation to strategize rather than immediately obey. We know that Abram had hundreds of men under him, and that the safety of the household depended on them. But rather than circumcise all the men over a period of time, Abram circumcised all the men on the same day. This left them vulnerable to attack, but for Abraham immediate obedience was safer than a compromised obedience which would require a delay.
Can you say with Paul, “For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” (Phil. 3:3). If so, you may laugh with the joy of Abraham. He laughed with the expectation of the promised seed. You can laugh because of the finished work of the promised seed.
“Doubts are like wild boars of the wood, which tear up the flowers of sanctification in the garden of the heart; but when you have in your soul a God-given assurance of your interest in the precious blood of Jesus Christ, then shall the foxes which spoil the vines be hunted to death, and your tender grapes shall give a good smell.” — Charles Spurgeon