Genesis 17:9-27 ‘Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner–those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him. On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen; Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that same day. And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.’
A biblical covenant is like a treaty between a super-power such as the USA and a little nation like Ireland. Such a covenant, signed by both parties, would say, “If anyone threatens to attack Ireland then the U.S. of A. will defend it. Attacking Ireland is considered to be an attack on the USA.” A little nation has come under the protection of the super-power. Our covenant with Almighty God is like that. Omnipotence has sworn he will be there for us in our time of need. So I am saying that a covenant is like a treaty between a super-power and tiny vulnerable country. A covenant is also like a marriage in which a husband promises he will take to himself all the liabilities and debts of his wife. He will discharge them all. “Hold me to account for everything in her life,” he announces. “I am desperately in love with her. I will lay down my life for my wife.”
In our text God reaffirms his covenant with Abraham. He introduces himself and his plans, “As for me, behold my covenant is with you” (v.4). El Shaddai, the God who is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth, reassures Abraham that the ancient patriarch remains in covenant with God in spite of his falls. The Lord God Almighty didn’t have to do this. He didn’t have to bless Abraham. There were no external pressures on the Ancient of Days to redeem sinners like Abraham. He wasn’t forced to show his unmerited favour to rebels, but he chose to do so at great sacrifice. In spite of our sins; despite what we deserve of his justice and wrath God has graciously determined to enter into a cove
nant relationship with us and make us his own for ever because he desires to bless us. He will protect us from all the powers of hell. He will become our shepherd and husband and Saviour. “As for me, behold, my covenant is with you,” he says.
Then God exhorts Abraham and tells Abraham of his expectations, “As for you, you must keep my covenant” (v.9). God’s grace has once and for all established this covenant. “As for me,” God says, “I will go ahead and draw up the whole plan. I will devise the nature of this new relationship. I will meet the cost of saving and keeping these people.” It is a covenant earthed in mercy all, immense and free, and that grace is the foundation of the covenant binding God to Abraham and his descendants for ever.
However, there is no such thing as a one-sided relationship. All relationships have two sides. They say knowingly, ‘It takes two to tango.’ There are the blessings which flow from the sovereign goodness of God homing in on his covenant people, and then there are the responsibilities that sovereign goodness requires of sinners. We cannot avoid such responsibilities. I can illustrate it like this; suddenly you find yourself the beneficiary of a million pounds. By that very fact, in possessing such a vast sum of money, you have a host of new obligations. How are you going to use that money? What will you do with it? Is it going to be used in an utterly selfish way? How could you behave like that in the light of someone’s else’s selfless love that provided that bequest for you? With the blessing has come responsibility. So it was with Abraham. God’s covenant grace to him demanded a response, and that involved understanding, thoughtfulness, thanksgiving and obedience. We today are the beneficiaries of the new covenant sealed in Jesus’ blood, and his love, so amazing and so divine, demands our souls, our lives and everything we have and are. I found the following thoughts of Dr. Ligon Duncan in his sermon on this passage to be helpful and I have adapted them:
The demands that God makes of Abraham here are ultimately not simply self-serving, self-directed demands. They are commands that are designed to enhance Abraham’s faith. In fact the specific command that God gives to Abraham in this passage is to make sure that he keeps the covenant sign, because it is designed to strengthen his walk before God. So God demands that Abraham should do something that’s good for him. God says, ‘I won’t allow you not to respond in obedience because I’ve designed all this for your own good.’ So the very demands – the requirements of the covenant – are in fact gracious. They are not at all censorious and threatening. Being aware of that colours the whole way we respond to God. Once we understand that all his commandments, not just this one, but every one of his requirements is gracious, that certainly changes the way we approach the law of God, and the great ethical sections of the New Testament – the Sermon on the Mount, the closing chapters of the letters and the letter to James which all spell out covenant obligations. Suddenly we see that those laws are not a collection of wearisome orders shouted at us by a sergeant-major, taking all the fun out of life. They are patterns of behaviour which El Shaddai asks us to do because he loves us so much that he won’t allow us to miss an ounce of the blessing that comes from obeying them.
So I am saying that these covenant promises come to favoured men by sheer, vertical, sovereign, gracious initiative, and yet that there is immediately obligation. To be in covenant with God entails personal obedience to these duties. God is calling on Abraham and his seed to keep the covenant – “walk before me and be blameless.” That is, Abraham must recognize his accountability to God, an accountability committed to him perpetually. We enter into the covenant of grace with the Lord Jesus Christ through the initiative of his mercy, and God calls on us to recognize that all our hope of redemption is in his finished work alone, but then we are to keep trusting in him always, continue to obey him for ever, go on following in this way of submission to his will from here to eternity. That new life is the indispensable evidence that the covenant grace of Christ is indeed ours.
So God’s primary concern in this passage is that Abraham should show his trust in God through true obedience. What God requires of us is strong and faithful commitment. Notice the language; ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant.’ Derek Kidner points out one obvious fact, that ‘the striking feature of the stipulations in this passage is their lack of detail.’ To be committed – that was everything! Circumcision was God’s brand; the mark of God’s ownership. All the moral implications could be left unwritten until Sinai, for Abraham was pledged supremely to a Master, and only secondarily to a way of life.’ The personal relationship with God was everything in the covenant. God is calling on Abraham simply to be absolutely committed to him: ‘Abraham, stick with me, stay with me; trust me, Abraham; be loyal to me. I am demanding your soul, your life, your all.’ That’s the nature of the covenant relationship, isn’t it? Consecration, faith and commitment – despite all evidence to the contrary suggesting that these divine promises of parenthood can’t possibly be fulfilled with Sarah in her 90th year. It was then that God renewed the covenant and its promises and called Abraham to keep its terms. So let us consider the sign of circumcision. Why circumcision? What does it stand for?
1. CIRCUMCISION WAS A SIGN OF THE MESSIAH.
God had covenanted with Abraham to give him a son, and assured him that through the line of Isaac many descendants would come. One of them would be the Seed of the woman, and through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. “Now keep my covenant,” God says to Abraham. In other words, “Keep trusting in what I say. Keep faith with me and these promises of mine. The outward mark declaring that I intend to do all this is circumcision.” There had been a time in Abraham’s life when he had failed to keep covenant with God. He had been persuaded by his wife to go to bed with Hagar and she had conceived and given birth to a son called Ishmael. But that did not terminate his covenantal relationship with God in disgrace because God is gracious and longsuffering; here he renews the covenant with Abraham, and God does so by requiring a suitable physical sign which would preach good news of mercy to Abraham’s own experience. The special sign would focus Abraham’s confidence on the gospel of God’s covenant promises – a child would be born to them in their dotage. Welcome such a glorious promise, Abraham! Receive it as an expression of God’s grace!
Then Abraham was told what the sign of his promised fatherhood was to be; Abrham must be circumcised. It was a familiar enough practice throughout the world, the cutting off of the foreskin. God takes familiar things, bread, wine, the water of a bath and gives them a holy significance. Submission to that physical act of circumcision would declare that Abraham really did believe God’s covenant. The sign of circumcision was clearly indispensable or God wo
uld not have insisted on it. Shaving the head, or not cutting the hair or the beard, or not drinking wine were all religious symbols but none of these was appropriate here. Circumcision was specified as necessary by El Shaddai as a sign of this specific covenant. If Abraham and his descendants were claiming with their lips that they wholly trusted in the covenant promises of God, that the Seed of the woman was going to come through a child born to them, and thus all the nations of the earth be blessed by his life and death then circumcision had to be the sign of that inward grace. Abraham was trusting this word that promised him fatherhood at 99. The sign promised new life for the old man.
I am saying that Abraham and all his seed confessed their faith in the Messiah who was to come, and the outward mark by which they showed that they believed this was by submitting to circumcision. I am saying that it was a fitting sign for this particular covenant, the removal of the foreskin on the organ of reproduction. It was such an appropriate sign. The covenant made with Abraham was the gospel covenant of the Seed. The covenant sign of circumcision focused on Abraham’s reproductive capacity – his seed – to be the means of blessings falling on all nations. Abraham, at almost 100 years of age (with his wife at almost 90), submitted to circumcision as a physical statement that he truly believed in the extraordinary and miraculous birth of a son to them, and, that through this boy Isaac, the Seed would one day be born – again in an extraordinary and miraculous birth. “Abraham you are going to have a son, not after the flesh like the begetting of Ishmael, but by what I have promised you.” “I believe,” said Abraham and received circumcision.
We know that Abraham had failed to apply the gospel to his life when the temptation to take Hagar had risen, but now, by submitting to circumcision, he declared that he had received renewed covenantal grace. The Lord is now reclaiming Abraham’s fertility to serve the Lord’s own righteousness not serve the wits of Sara and Abram,. Then throughout the generations of Abraham, as his descendants trusted in God, whenever a baby boy was born, they would say to one another, “Is this child the Seed through whom all the nations of the earth are going to be blessed? He is coming, you know. Our father Abraham was promised he would come of our line? And if it were not this particular boy child on that occasion yet one day a circumcised descendant of Abraham was going to give birth to the promised son.
The sons alone were cut in circumcision, but none of the women. What was that saying? The Seed would be born of a woman – born in fact of a virgin because the sin and guilt of Adam was not to be transmitted to the Messiah. Luther said that it was because of that woman from whom Christ was born that God spared the entire female sex the abysmal rite of concision. Males only were to be circumcised. Sarai was as sinful as Abraham, maybe more sinful, and yet God was merciful to her. There would come a greatly blessed woman of the line of Abraham. Her name was Mary, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her and she would be with child. So I am saying that the women who were the daughters of Abraham were all mercifully excluded from this sign, and even this fact pointed to the uniqueness of the Messiah born.
So the Messiah, the seed of the woman, Jesus the son of Abraham finally comes. Finally . . . two thousand years after the promise was made to Abram,.the promised Seed arrived. It was a long wait; Christianity is often about much long waiting. But then, will you believe it, after waiting for 2000 years he comes and preaches and heals and shows his beauty and grace and power for three years, and they kill him. The line of Abraham kills the son of Abraham. He was eventually cut off (circumcised) from the body of his people, his family and friends and disciples. He was cut off from all the people who despised him. He was crucified on Golgotha, but why should Jesus be cut off as a defiled thing? He was the undefiled one and they were the defiled body. His life was not dominated by the flesh. He was holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners, so why should he undergo the wrath of God? Why was he circumcised from amongst all the sons of Abraham? It was for us. To put an end to sin’s dominion over us, that we might be baptized into his dying so that sin and death might have no more hold on us. He was judged in our place, taking our guilt, bearing our shame. Christ is our circumcision, the circumcision of all who believe. So I say circumcision was a messianic sign, centring on the coming of Christ, the son of Abraham.
2. CIRCUMCISION WAS A SIGN OF THE SALVATION OF THE NATIONS.
I have mentioned that circumcision was a common practice in the near East. The Israelites were not the only nation who practiced circumcision. Many of the nations, maybe the majority, circumcised, including Egypt. The only nation in the near vicinity of Israel that didn’t circumcise was the Philistines, and so you remember how young David mocked Goliath calling him an ‘uncircumcised Philistine.’ All the nations were accustomed to apply the sign of circumcision, but they did so at puberty, as African tribes do today, a sign of entrance into manhood, or if a man should become a priest he would be circumcised. This was not the Jewish view; they didn’t hold to some romantic concept that a baby eight days old was ‘really a man.’ No. He was a helpless babe.
God took this familiar mark and he used it in a new way in a new nation. He said to Abraham, “I don’t intend you alone to be circumcised, and not your own children alone, but everyone under your influence and your authority; ‘Every male among you shall be circumcised” (v.10). Every single person in the household who works for you and those ‘born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner, they must be circumcised’” (v.13). Every man may enter this new nation, but each would need this operation on his body. It was the visa of entrance. What a potent symbol of the universal sinfulness of mankind circumcision symbolized. All the world has become filthy through our father Adam. The sin of Adam has passed on to his children. “I was born in sin and shapen in iniquity,” said David. The life that all men receive at birth is unholy. From the womb we go astray telling lies, and the foreskin, the flap of skin to be cut off, is considered defiled, a symbol of our fallenness. In other words, the sign is teaching not only that we are fallen men and women but that that unregenerate life must die; the old man needs to be replaced by a new man; a different life is required, a holy life that God creates within us. Now that is also what the sign of circumcision teaches. Through circumcision God is preaching his intention of destroying that old, sinful life in us. Circumcision was a visible word. God declares his intention of taking away sin completely, and he will replace it with a different life, a new and holy life, the life of righteousness.
In demanding circumcision Christ is not simply saying, “Give me the foreskin,” he is saying, “Present to me your body as a living sacrifice. I don’t want a part of your time and a part of your money and a part of your work: I want all of you, but I don’t want your sin. I have not come to tor
ment your flesh, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it but to have it out. Hand over the flesh, all the lusts of the mind and the flesh – the whole outfit.” In other words, Christ demands nothing less than total surrender. And let’s just be honest – total surrender is not all that pleasant. Killing the flesh, tearing down the tree, pulling the tooth, plucking out the right eye, cutting off the right arm – none of this is painless.
Abraham was to be circumcised, but every single man under the authority of Abraham was to be circumcised, it didn’t matter what was his age or race, his intelligence or gifts, whether he was free or a slave, let him be circumcised, for the Messiah was available for anyone in the world who’d obey him. The covenant community was not like the Royal family in which membership is very exclusive – it is by birth or by marriage. No one at all needed to be a physical relative of Abraham to be considered one of his children. The true children of Abraham were all those from every language, tongue and tribe who believed in the promised Seed and followed him.
Such people, bearing the sign of the Messiah, are henceforth identified as the people of the true God living in our world. Come apart from the world and its idols and serve the Lord! Let Ruth leave the land of the Midianites and henceforth follow the Lord. Let the harlot Rahab leave the gods of Jericho and serve Jehovah. Let the Queen of Sheba come to the king of the Jews to seek for wisdom. To all who embraced the promise of the Messiah and believed in him the types and promises of the coming Christ would henceforth be theirs.
In all future generations any male born among Abraham’s descendants must be circumcised on the eighth day. How little and helpless those babies were, utterly vulnerable, and yet those tiny infants too must henceforth bear the outward mark of the promise of the gospel and join the covenant community, because salvation is by grace alone irrespective of a person’s strength, or understanding, or merits. If you believe in the Messiah then it is all because of grace. It is God who has performed this inward operation circumcising your unbelieving heart. Can a baby 8 days old circumcise himself? Of course not, and so too no one can save himself. God must save through Christ. There are those who seek salvation in education, or in power, or in morality. It is not possible, salvation is for those who will do what God says. “Look to the Seed of the woman, my Son, and be saved.” We Gentiles are to believe in the promised one, the seed of Abraham, the Son of God.
3. CIRCUMCISION WAS A SIGN OF A NEW HEART’S FAITH IN THE LORD.
The sign of circumcision was to be enthusiastically received by all the men in the community of faith. “I am hoping in the coming Messiah,” you would be saying as you submitted to circumcision. “My heart has been circumcised.” Not one was permitted to remain in the community if he ignored or rejected circumcision. It would be as unacceptable as any member of the church today refusing to break bread and drink the cup at the Lord’s Table. So the Lord says, “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (v.14). To any Old Testament believer, for example, an author of one of the psalms, the privilege of having the gospel marked into his very flesh would be received with deep honour and joy. Like the old soldiers in England on the anniversary of the victory at Agincourt, St. Crispin’s Day, would bear their arms and show their wounds to their grandchildren and tell them, “These I got on St. Crispin’s Day fighting for good king Harry.” So being circumcised was not a possible option, as though it were only the ‘very keen and earnest’ followers of the Lord who undertook circumcision. No, every believer in the Lord without exception was to be circumcised.
But the outward sign was worthless if it did not reflect the inward spiritual reality. What was the point of bearing upon their bodies the mark of the promised Messiah if their hearts did not long for him? It was never enough just to be circumcised – like the Egyptians. The ceremony and rite of circumcision has in itself never saved anyone. Ishmael the thirteen year old son of Abraham was circumcised on the same day as Abraham (v.26), and yet he showed no evidence of a heart renewed by grace. Ishmael bore the sign of the covenant, yes, yet he bore no love for his brothers who were God’s covenant people. As Ishmael grew he lived “in hostility toward all his brothers” (Gen. 16:12). Ishmael merely bore that sign of the covenant, and though it said to him day by day, “Obey your God; he alone can save you and give you abundant life. Trust in him like your father Abraham and you will find a refuge, but if you don’t then your very circumcision will testify against you. It will be you who will be cut off” Ishmael hardened his heart against covenantal obligations.
So it was incumbent on all the descendants of Abraham to accompany their circumcision with a whole life of faith in the Lord. This was the message that had to be preached to the children of Abraham continually by Moses and the prophets. Listen to Moses exhorting the people; “To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes” (Deut. 10:14-17). Circumcision of the flesh alone meant nothing unless the heart was trusting in the Lord.
Listen to Jeremiah preaching to the people: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh – Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (Jer. 9:25&26). Those nations also carried the mark of circumcision, but none of those peoples, and few in Israel itself, showed the reality of what that sign declared. They lacked faith in Christ. They weren’t circumcised in their hearts.
Yet the hope of the Old Testament was that one future day new covenant times would dawn at the appearing of the Messiah, and then God promised he would circumcise the hearts of every member of the New Covenant. Until that time came God would continue his heart work from generation to generation in believers who heard the gospel, but when the New Covenant was established through Jesus Christ then every heart in the everlasting covenant would be changed. None of them would break the covenant: “I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will n
ever stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me” (Jer. 32:39&40).
In New Testament days the apostles preached the unbelieving Jews. They reminded these descendants of Abraham that the physical mark of circumcision would not save them from their sins. Circumcision alone could not make anyone a true child of Abraham. “Do not trust in being circumcised. You are circumcised, but not a child of Abraham. Horror!” Listen to Paul addressing the Romans, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (Roms 2:28&29).
Then again in Romans chapter four Paul opens up this theme and makes it spectacularly clear: “‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.’ Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’ He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Roms. 4:7-17).
Paul is at pains to tell us all that Abraham was declared righteous and received the promise of a vast progeny and that his seed would bless the whole world a full twenty-five years before he was circumcised. Abraham was justified simply as he trusted the Lord. So it could not be that the act of circumcision brought these promises to him. No, it was the word of God coming to him, and Abraham believing that word, that obtained the righteousness. In other words it was through faith that Abraham was justified; circumcision was a sign that divine righteousness had been credited to him by faith. Justification by God did not come by submitting to the law that cried, “GET CIRCUMCISED!” It was not the sign that brought Abraham the land, this son and the many descendants, it was the promise of God that made all the difference. It all came from El Shaddai who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were! God gave them life!
Understand that the sign of the covenant in and of itself obtained little for Abraham. The sign was given in conjunction with the promise. You can read God’s promise of verse two; “I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers,” and then the sign comes later, way down in verse ten. Abraham had already believed the word. In verse three we read that he fell facedown before the promise-speaking Lord. He was overwhelmed with the word.
Then why was circumcision added? For assurance sake. In order to confirm the word. Circumcision was designed to strengthen a faith that was already there. The promise had been given to Abraham by God in his word. Abraham’s faith was focused on that word and fed by it, and then the sign comes along after the word. The sign is like the Lord’s Supper, strengthening our faith in the word of the cross. This chapter is not about circumcision. This chapter is about the God who speaks. The Reformers wisely judged that the sacrament must never be administered apart from the word because the sacrament is simply a visible word. It is a tangible representation of the promise of God. So there is preaching which explains the exceeding great and precious promises of God, and then there is the sacrament which is an enactment of the word. God carves his promise into the flesh of Abraham and the Old Testament people of God. What God had said was inviolable. What was done to Abraham’s body was irreversible. God had taken Abraham for his own. He had determined that through Abraham and Isaac alone the line of promise would come. Abraham didn’t spend another day of his life uncertain that he was going to have a child; he and Sarai were going to become parents; they were going to have a son by the mighty work of God.
Now when Christ comes and the New Covenant dispensation begins circumcision ends, never to be reinstated again. Its purpose was all fulfilled in the coming of the Saviour. So Paul told the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gals. 5:6). Again he underlines that circumcision’s usefulness is now over; “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Gals. 6:15). We Christians are now the circumcision, through the circumcision made without hands, in the circumcision of Christ. We, the new creation, are the circumcision “who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (Phils. 3:3). In other words we have been raised with Christ to newness of life, full of good works. Don’t you at times marvel at what God has enabled you to do? Don’t you laugh to see the promises of God fulfilled in the life of a sinner saved by grace?
4. ABRAHAM’S RESPONSE TO THE COVENANT PROMISE AND SIGN.
God gave Sarai a new name, ‘Sarah.’ It had the same meaning as the old name; they both mean ‘princess,’ but this new name ascribes ownership to the Lord. Her father had named her ‘princess’ but he had no power to make her one. God had that power. Abraham would become the father of many nations, and Sarah would be their mother (v.16). God fulfils what he promises.
Abraham’s first response to what God said was to fall on his face, but this time not to worship. His laughter was one of unbelief, the very opposite of faith. He is more than politely skeptical. Abraham laughs at God’s idea that a centenarian should have a child by an old woman. This was far too difficult for God to perform. Though Abraham was in the presence of El Shaddai, God Almighty, his faith was faltering. This was more than he could believe. So Abraham tried to help God out . . . &ldquo
;O that Ishmael might live before you. Look, Lord, on my 13 year old son, the child of my flesh. Don’t make rash promises, Lord. Don’t try to do the impossible. I have produced my own heir in a legal way.” But for that reason Ishmael was an unsuitable heir. He represented the achievement of the flesh, but this inheritance was not being given to Abraham by the efforts of the flesh. The child must come in such a way that all the glory is God’s.
So God has to speak again to Abraham and he assures him that the line of promise is not via Hagar at all, that Sarah shall bear a son, in fact the name of this boy is now given by God. It is to be ‘Isaac’ which means, “he laughs” and even the date of his birth is announced, “by this time next year” (v.21), twenty-six years after God first told Abram that he would have a son. Ishmael too will become a great nation but he is not the one through whom God will establish his covenant. Isaac alone will be that one. Then God has said everything; he falls silent and he goes up from Abraham.
Then, finally, notice the magnificent immediate response of Abraham; he circumcised all his household, and then his teenage son Ishmael, and finally, his bloody work on others accomplished, Abraham circumcised himself. There was not one exception. Abraham did exactly as God has said. That is the obedience of faith. There is an inspired commentary on the response of Abraham in Romans chapter four: “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Roms. 4:19-21). He did exactly what God told him to do because he believed what God had said. There is a children’s chorus that goes like this:
After all He’s done for me,
After all He’s done for me,
How can I do less
That give Him my best
And live for Him completely?
After all that He’s done for me.
Abraham’s salvation cost him nothing, but his faith cost him every obedience of heart, soul, mind and strength. Saved by grace Abraham henceforth lives by faith, trusting in the Lord, that is all, but that is everything. What an example Abraham is. His obedience was prompt – he consulted not with flesh and blood. His obedience was precise – he did exactly what the Lord God told him to do. His obedience was painful – real costly obedience to God is always painful to the flesh, but Abraham gave it to God.
21st June 2009 GEOFF THOMAS