Tag Archives: Covenant

Genesis 17: The Logic of God’s Heart

The only explanation for Genesis 17 is that there is more mercy in the heart of God than sin in the heart of Abram; that what sustains the covenant is not the faith of men, but the faithfulness of God.

Any way you slice it, Genesis 16 is an epic failure.  On the heels of the Lord’s breathtaking gifts of assurance in Genesis 15, Abram is more persuaded by the logic of unbelief than the promises of God, and the Hagar Plan B is launched.  Abram was 86 when Ishmael was born.  Genesis 17:1 opens with the announcement that the Lord appeared again to Abram when he was 99.

Think of it:  13 years have passed.  13 years to regret the wrong decision.  13 years of living with the consequences of your compromise.  13 years of walking yourself back through the events and wishing you could rewrite history.  13 years to beat yourself up.  13 years of wondering whether you had permanently disqualified yourself, whether this latest mistake was the final straw that broke the covenant’s back.

And, suddenly, with no warning, at the end of the 13 years, the Lord appears to Abram (once again) and re-affirms (once again) His covenant with Abram.  Not a word about Hagar or Ishmael.  Not even the slightest hint of condemnation or recrimination.  No incremental easing back into covenant graces, no probationary period.  Instead, the Lord opens the floodgates of His heart full-tilt and the vastness of His grace is unleashed unrestrained upon Abram.  If Genesis 16 proved the weakness of Abram’s faith, Genesis 17 proves the beautiful omnipotence of the Lord’s faithfulness.  No wonder Abram falls on his face before the Lord (v.3).

This is what captures my heart about Genesis 17:  it shows us (just like the rest of Scripture) that the logic of God’s heart is an alien logic.  After Abram’s failure in Genesis 16, we might expect that the Lord would contract the scope of His promise to Abram, as a kind of interim probationary measure to test whether Abram would remain steadfast.  As Genesis 17 proves, we would be totally wrong about that!

Rather than contract–or even merely restate–His covenant promises to fit the scope of Abram’s faith, the Lord actually moves in the opposite direction:  He elaborates and expands upon them, unfolding their fullness more and more for Abram (vv.4-8).  He introduces a new element that we haven’t heard explicitly before:  “and kings shall come from you…kings of peoples shall come from her….” (vv.6, 16).  Amazing!

As Abram’s faith weakens and appears to falter, as his grip on the Lord’s promises loosens (e.g. Ch.16), the Lord’s grip on Abram actually tightens!  This is why Ch.17 includes the covenant sign of circumcision:  among other things, it is an accommodation of the Lord’s grace to the weakness of Abram’s faith.  By definition (since it is impossible for God to lie), the sign can’t add to the truthfulness or trustworthiness of God’s  promise.  But it can serve as a bulwark against unbelief in Abram’s heart.

In the most important of senses, there is nothing new in this chapter.  It’s merely the latest episode in the story of God’s triumphant faithfulness.  There is only one Hero of the covenant–the Lord.  What sustains and propels the covenant forward–and guarantees its fulfillment–is never the faith of men, but the faithfulness of the Lord.  Abram has learned this lesson once again, and I pray that I will as well.

As I look through Genesis 17 to the rest of redemptive history this morning, Romans 5:20-21 comes to mind:  “…but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The logic of God’s heart on display in Genesis 17 (i.e. kindness and faithfulness that flow against the grain of man’s unbelief and unfaithfulness) is the DNA of Calvary’s logic.  Oh, how I love the logic of our Lord’s amazing heart.

SDG

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Genesis 15: The Brilliance of the Gospel’s Design

Genesis 15 gives us an(other!) occasion to celebrate the brilliant design of the Gospel.

The chapter’s drama centers on the question of assurance, in two related episodes.

The chapter opens with the LORD appearing to Abram in a vision and promising Himself as Abram’s shield and great reward (15:1) (cf. Hebrews 11:6).  Abram, who is still without an heir of his own, is then moved by this lavish promise to express his desire for assurance that the Lord will in fact fulfill His earlier promises to him:  “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless….” (15:2).  This is what I call boldness of the first order, and the Lord’s response demonstrates that He believes it is a boldness that honors Him because it is a boldness that takes His promises seriously.  He assures Abram that he will have an heir:  “…your very own son shall be your heir” (15:4), and then takes him outside under the stars to remind him of the full scope of His original promise–the Big Picture of what He intends to accomplish for and through Abram:  “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…so shall your offspring be” (15:5).

The second episode of assurance centers on the “land” aspect of God’s covenant with Abram (15:7).  The Lord responds to Abram’s request by instructing him to take several animals, cut them in half, laying each half over against the other, creating a lane of sorts boundaried by the carcasses.  Although alien to us, this procedure would have been readily understood by the original audience of Genesis as the ceremony by which a covenant was formally memorialized in the ancient near east.  After they had entered into their covenant,  the parties would each walk down the “lane” between the carcasses.  The symbolism was stark:  by walking the lane, the covenant parties were acknowledging that they would deserve the fate of those animals if they violated the covenant they were entering.

The stunning thing here is that only one party passes down the lane, and it’s not Abram.  In fact, Abram is sound asleep at the decisive moment in the chapter’s action (15:12).  Asleep, Abram sees a remarkable–and unprecedented–vision:  the Lord Himself moving down the lane between the carcasses in the “form” of a “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” (15:17).  The symbolism is breathtaking.  Not only is the Lord condescending to give Abram the assurance he desires by participating in a cultural ritual Abram would have understood (strictly unnecessary because it is impossible for God to lie-Titus 1:2) , but, as the only One who passes down the lane, the Lord is also dramatically illustrating His commitment to assume full responsibility for both sides of His covenant with Abram.  The Lord is guaranteeing not only His side, but man’s side as well, willingly placing Himself under a curse for man’s failure to uphold his side of the covenant.  Shocking!

This is where the brilliance of the Gospel’s design comes so marvelously into view in this chapter.  God’s side of the covenant is not in doubt.  It’s man’s side that, from the beginning, has been the weak link.  Genesis 15’s drama lays the groundwork for a resolution in which the Lord Himself  will act to fulfill and uphold not only His own side of the covenant, but man’s side as well.  What will that look like?

It will look like the Word becoming flesh (John 1:14).  It will look like the Son of God being born of a woman in the fullness of time, being born under the law that He might redeem those who were under the law (Galatians 4:4-5).  It will look like the Son of God fulfilling all righteousness in a life dedicated to the single purpose of doing the will of God (Matthew 3:11; Hebrews 10:4-10).  It will look like the Son of God triumphing over every temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:15), so that He might present Himself as the spotless and unblemished Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29; Hebrews 9:14).  It will look like Jesus–the beloved Son in whom the Father was well-pleased–being made a curse on the Cross in order to redeem His people from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), being forsaken by His Father (Psalm 22:1) in order that we might be embraced by His Father as our Father (Galatians 4:6; 1 Peter 3:18)

Thank you, Abram, for being bold enough to ask your questions.  The answers you received have strengthened my heart and deepened my joy this morning by helping me to see your greatest Heir more clearly.

SDG

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Genesis 12: God’s Plan to Flood the Earth with His Blessing

Genesis 12:1-3

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

There’s a great irony as we move into Genesis 12:  the very thing the Tower builders sought for themselves apart from God (“a name” for themselves-11:4), the Lord promises to Abram:  “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (12:2).  Indeed, the Lord’s promise far exceeds the builders’ ambition.  He will make Abram’s the greatest of all names on the earth because it will be the name through which all the families of the earth will be blessed!

Something much greater than God’s covenant with Noah is here.  The Lord announces something far greater than the global stability & preservation guaranteed by His covenant with Noah. Rather than protecting the world from another flood of judgment, through Abraham & his seed, the Lord announces His intention to flood the world once again, not in judgment but with blessing!

The Lord’s covenant with Noah is a Self-imposed gracious restraint upon His prerogatives as the Righteous Judge of the world.  This promised stability preserves conditions so that the Triumphant Seed of Genesis 3:15 can emerge, but does not change those conditions, and leaves open questions concerning how God will advance His purposes.

In the Lord’s covenant with Abraham, the invasion of God’s redemptive grace into the world begins in earnest, with 12:3’s explicit promise that He intends to do far more than preserve the status quo, but to affirmatively bless all the families of the earth, a purpose which harkens back to the Lord’s design in 1:26—28!   If the Lord had destroyed all the earth and all men (including Noah & his family), then His original design would have been abandoned.  Instead, He demonstrates His supremacy by overcoming, triumphing over sin & all its consequences.

God’s purpose has not changed!  Just as in Genesis 1:26–28, He still intends to bless the entire earth.  As in Genesis 3:15, He will raise a seed of the woman, who we now know will be a son of Abraham, to bring His blessing to the 4 corners of the globe!  The relationship between God and all the families of the earth will now depend on Abraham & his seed mediating the blessings of the covenant to all.  Likewise, the relationship between the families of the earth and the Lord will depend upon their relationship to Abraham & his Seed (12:3).

I’m grateful for the following insight from Bruce Waltke in his wonderful commentary on Genesis:

“The expansion of the promise of 12:1—3 from individual to national to universal salvation is the essential movement of Scripture.  The Bible is a missionary guide:  concerned with bringing salvation to all the families of the earth.  Abraham as a blessing bearer of salvation is an anticipation of the blessing-bearing Christ.  When Christ ascends into heaven, He extends His pierced hands, hands that blessed infants and gave sight to the blind, to bless His church (Luke 24:50—53).”  Waltke 209

SDG

 

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Genesis 10-11: The True Direction of the Universe

I want to take Genesis 10 & 11 together this morning.

Genesis 10 is the “book” describing Noah’s descendants: the lines of his 3 sons, Japheth, Ham, and Shem.  Japheth’s line receives the least attention (10:2-5), Ham’s the most space (10:6-20), and Shem’s the prominence of place as the chapter’s climax and bridge to the line of Abram (10:21-31).

Ham’s line is the line under the Lord’s curse (9:24-27), and Moses is careful to explain that Ham’s line ultimately produces 3 of Israel’s historical antagonists:  Egypt (10:6), Canaan (10:6), and the Philistines (10:14).  This kind of historical detail would have helped the Exodus generation (the original audience for the book of Genesis) better understand the deeper roots of the conflicts in which they found themselves engaged, assuring them of their relevance to God’s larger purposes in history.

Genesis 11 is the (in)famous chapter describing the Tower of Babel.  You could say that, while Genesis 10 describes the formation of the nations after the Flood, Genesis 11 describes their malfunction.  Nothing has been learned from the Flood.  Men aren’t getting smarter, and they certainly (as Chapter 11 records) aren’t improving morally or spiritually.  The ambition driving the construction of the Tower is man-centered, not God-centered.  Its starting point is the assumption that man is the master of his own future, and can build that future from the ground up–even that man is capable of reaching heaven through his efforts:  “They they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.'” (11:4).

This “mission statement” is a tragically ironic echo of God’s original mission statement for His image-bearers in Genesis 1:26-28.  There, man was blessed with the design to fill the entire earth, bearing God’s image, extending His name and His glory to the farthest reaches of His creation.  Here, on this side of the Fall and Flood, man’s ambition is the polar opposite:  man’s mission has become the exaltation of man.  His purpose is to make a name for himself, rather than to serve the Lord.  Man’s vision of his future has been reduced to the construction of an elaborate mirror within which he’ll be able to admire himself, instead of a window through which he’ll be able to see the greatness of God more clearly.

I would love to be able to dismiss the folly of this anti-God ambition in Genesis 11 and regard myself at a commendably pious remove from it, but the fact is that Genesis 11 is a mirror that shows me things about my own heart that I’d rather not see.  I am constantly forgetting that, unlike every other religion, Christianity is about glory coming down, as a gift, to people and a world that hasn’t and can’t ever earn it.  Not as a reward, but to rescue us.  The direction of Babel is wrong:  it’s bottom up.  The direction of the Gospel is Top-down.

Every other religion, every philosophy, every approach to life (besides the Gospel) shows us a “ladder” at the heart of reality and then proposes to give us climbing lessons of one sort or another.  Not Christianity.  Christianity does show us there’s a “ladder” connecting heaven (God’s dwelling) and earth (man’s dwelling), but it’s a ladder only God could make (contra: the Babelian Builders), bridging an infinite distance only God Himself could cross—a ladder that only God Himself could climb.  If we’re to know God and be reconciled to Him, it is He who must move toward us, He who must come to us:  this is the true direction of the universe.  Theologians have a name for this “direction,” this true grain of the universe:  grace.

Genesis 11 has taught me once again this morning to rejoice that the Good News of the Gospel is that “the Word became flesh,” (John 1:14), and not the other way around.

SDG

p.s.  For those who make it this far (!), here’s a quote from Herman Bavinck (my favorite theologian), on the Bible’s vision of the universe’s true direction.  It’s a bit long, but well worth the effort.  Enjoy!

“…[C]ovenant is the essence of true religion.  Why should this be?  First of all, because God is the Creator, man a creature; and with that statement an infinite distance between the two is a given.  No fellowship, no religion between the two seems possible; there is only difference, distance, endless distinctness.  If God remains elevated above humanity in His sovereign exaltedness and majesty, then no religion is possible, at least no religion in the sense of fellowship.  Then the relation between the two is exhaustively described in the terms ‘master’ and ‘servant.’  Then the image of the potter and the clay is still much too weak to describe that relation because clay has existence—and hence rights—independently of, and over against, the potter, but human beings have nothing and are nothing apart from God.  Accordingly, if there is truly to be religion, if there is to be fellowship between God and man, if the relation between the two is to be also (but not exclusively) that of a master to his servant, of a potter to clay, as well as that of a king to his people, of a father to his son, of a mother to her child, of an eagle to her young, of a hen to her chicks, and so forth; that is, if not just one relation but all relations and all sorts of relations of dependence, submission, obedience, friendship, love, and so forth among humans find their model and achieve their fulfillment in religion, then religion must be the character of a covenant.  For then God has to come down from His lofty position, condescend to His creatures, impart, reveal, and give Himself away to human beings; then He who inhabits eternity and dwells in a high and holy place must also dwell with those who are of a humble spirit (Isaiah 57:15).  But this set of conditions is nothing other than the description of a covenant.  If religion is called a covenant, it is thereby described as the true and genuine religion.  This is what no religion has ever understood; all peoples either pantheistically pull God down into what is creaturely, or deistically elevate Him endlessly above it.  In neither case does one arrive at true fellowship, at covenant, at genuine religionBut Scripture insists on both:  God is infinitely great and condescendingly good; He is Sovereign but also Father; He is Creator but also Prototype.  In a word, He is the God of the covenant.”  (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:569—570).

 


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Genesis 8-9: The Persevering & Preserving Grace of God

Genesis 8-9 are stunning demonstrations of the grace of God in the face of man’s sin.

Preservation.  The Lord promises stability (e.g. 8:22; 9:8-17) for a world that hasn’t earned it, thus providing an opportunity for His redemptive purposes to reach full flower, to ripen.  Man’s sin will not defeat the promise of a Redeemer in Genesis 3:15.

Incompleteness.  God’s promise of stability for the world is in the face of, but not a remedy for, man’s sinfulness.  The Lord’s covenant through Noah does not solve the problem of man’s sin.   In fact, the Lord’s perspective on human sin is the same before & after the Flood.  The central problem of history remains the same:  the heart of man.

Before the Flood (Genesis 6:5).   “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the                 thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

After the Flood (Genesis 8:21).  “The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.”

What makes 8:21 even more compelling is that, although 6:5 is a statement about the entire earth, 8:21—coming as it does right after the flood—is not predictive, but, by definition, descriptive only of Noah & his family!  Noah and his family still carry the legacy of Adam.  That cursed chain hasn’t yet been broken.

Weakness & failure of the Mediator—Noah.  Noah’s weakness is depicted even more graphically in 9:20—22, immediately after the covenant.  Noah does not, cannot, live up to the promise of his name (5:29—rest from the curse).  Noah’s sin demonstrates that he is not the promised Seed of Genesis 3:15.  In Noah, the seed of the woman is preserved through God’s judgment, but, despite all his promise & his vital role, he proves that he himself is not that Redeemer.  One greater than Noah must come!

Questions Raised by Noah’s Story

What must God be like to make such a covenant—benefiting all of creation—unilaterally, in full view of man’s sin-ravaged nature (so ravaged & corrupt that even living through the Flood—watching God’s judgment through the window—isn’t enough to reform man’s heart—Noah and Ham)?!

How patient must He be?  How slow to angerHow merciful must He be?  How faithful to His promises must He be?  How broad & wide must the intention of His saving grace be that He would preserve the entire earth?  How eager must He be to show His love to sinners that He would preserve a remnant out of His just judgment? The answers to each of these questions is found in Jesus Christ.

Answers Given Through Jesus Christ, the Promised Seed of Genesis 3:15.

In Jesus Christ, God gives the world a Mediator greater than Noah.  In Jesus, God gives the world a judgment-bearing Mediator who is righteous.  The rest does not come in Noah, but through  him (cf. Luke 3:36).  We need a mediator who would survive God’s judgment against sin, not by escaping it while others perish under it, but by bearing, absorbing, and exhausting it—by becoming that sin—so that others would be spared.

How gracious is this God?  How patient?  How loving toward sinners, those who’ve set themselves against Him?  Look to the Cross!  He gave His Son, to stand in our place, for our sakes, to be the lightning rod for His judgment, to open the floodgates, and to empty the heavens of every last trace—down to the final drop—of His wrath against the sins of His people.  He gave His Son!

We live in the age of opportunity–Matthew 13:24—30. The Lord’s parable of the tares among the wheat resembles His covenant with Noah.  In the parable, the Landowner is fully aware of the tares (vv. 28—30), and that they represent/embody enmity to his purposes, that they constitute violent personal opposition to him.  Yet, what does he do with this accurate knowledge (cf. Genesis 6:5, 8:21)?  He suspends execution of his final judgment for a season so that the wheat may grow and reach maturity (v.29).  In other words, his highest governing value is to create a context of stability for growth in which as much wheat as possible can come to full maturity.

His gracious patience—even though it creates an ambiguous overlap—nonetheless preserves the opportunity for the “sons of the kingdom” to multiply.

 

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