The God-Centered Gospel
Scripture: Genesis 15:1–21
The God-Centered GospelGenesis 15:1-21
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Pastor Randy Smith
Two summers ago I did the hike of a lifetime with my daughter. Seven miles down the South Kaibab Trail, an evening at the Bright Angel Campground on the bottom of the Grand Canyon and then nine and a half miles up the Bright Angel Trail to the south rim the next morning. Carrying a few liters of water and all of our gear, it is hard to think of times I have ever pushed my body harder.
The National Park Service repeatedly reminds hikers of what this trip entails. They offer no assistance and take no responsibility for your safety. You need to obtain one of the limited permits. You need to be aware of the dangers. You need to supply your own equipment. You need to pack along your own food and know where the sparse sources of water are located. You need to care of your own garbage. And you need to remember that unlike a mountain, the return hike is the more difficult part with no one there to provide a helping hand. It is all about you with some uninvolved and minimal help available at a distance.
This is how many people view their relationship with the Lord. God is there, but He is a distant deity. He might intervene in the big matters, but definitely has greater things to attend to on His plate than our puny agendas. We bore Him with our prayers. We irritate Him with our worship. And most significantly, if we are going to climb up out of our valley of sin to heaven, we better do all we can on our own strength and then hope we have achieved His acceptance.
My friends, this is the god of other religions, but it is not the true God of the Bible. What we see in the Bible and what we will definitely see this morning is not us, but God making the first move. Of course there is always a response on our part, but the response is secondary to the initiative of a loving, all-powerful and sovereign God who always acts on behalf of His children. If you are a Christian, today I want you to be encouraged by our God who initiates to provide with Him all that we need.
1. He Comforts Us (verse 1)
For starters, our first point, let's see how God takes the initiative to comfort His people. Look with me at verse 1 of chapter 15. "After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision." Stop right there.
After what things? After what we learned last week about Abraham defeating the king of Elam (cf. 14:1, 17) who had plundered Sodom and taken Lot, Abraham's nephew, captive. Chedorlaomer (the king's name) was defeated by this stealth attack, but he was too powerful to sit back and humbly accept his defeat by this ragamuffin band of freedom fighters. He wouldn't rest until the memory of this defeat was wiped out with blood. We can say Abraham had great reasons for concern. God knew that, and God took the initiative to minister to the heart of His servant. He provides for Abraham two statements of encouragement.
First our Lord says, "Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you." So much of what we do wrong in the Christian life is wrong only because it is a misdirection of a godly purpose. Boasting in ourselves is a sin only because we are commanded to boast in the Lord. Intimacy outside of marriage is a sin only because we are commanded to be intimate with our spouse. Anger is wrong when we are offended only because we are commanded to be angry over that which offends God. And here, fear of the unknown is wrong only because we are told fear the Lord with reverence and awe.
There are many things we can fear. We could say Abraham had good reasons to be afraid. But he is commanded not to fear. "Do not fear, Abram" (Gen. 15:1). Why? Because as God said in verse 1, He is a shield to him. God is not that distant deity. He is the ever-present shield to those whom He loves. His eye is upon them. He is holding them close to His body. They are immortal until the day He chooses to call them home. God knows that fear can paralyze our walk with Him and squeeze every ounce of peace and joy out of our lives. So he reminds Abraham as He reminds us that He is our shield. "I am a shield to you." He promises to protect us and He will succeed in protecting us because the One who said, "I am a shield to you" is the great "I AM" (Ex. 3:14). Therefore we can be free from all anxiety and fear.
Then second, God says, "Your reward shall be very great." Once again, Abraham had cause for concern. He left most everything in Ur of the Chaldeans and traveled to Canaan based on God's promise. Abraham arrives as commanded, and what is his present situation? Lot apparently goes back in Sodom. He still has no offspring. And he is far from having any ownership in the Promised Land. Furthermore, he was just offered much treasure from the King of Sodom and he turned it down for the sake of God's honor (Gen. 14:21f). Abraham had to wonder, am I making the right decisions here? Abraham needs another word of encouragement. God knows that, and God takes the initiative to deliver. Abraham, "Your reward shall be very great."
God will come through on all His promises, but I believe what God was doing here is what He often does with us. There is a delay on the physical blessings so we do not make the physical blessing our god and begin living for the gifts more than we do the Giver. Abraham would receive His reward and it would be very great, but much of that great reward would not be realized until Abraham went to heaven ("the city which has foundations" - Heb. 11:10), and Abraham would have to learn that the greatest part of the great reward would be the gift of God Himself to His people.
God delights to give His children "every good…and every perfect gift" (Jas. 1:17), but if the physical blessings we desire were always and immediately given at our request, God would become nothing more than a big slot machine in the sky, and our prayers would become meaningless tokens mechanically fed into an apparatus with which we have no relationship as a means to achieve our whims. God would receive no glory, and we would pray our souls into a black hole. Whether God answers our prayers with a "no" or "not yet" or "yes," His goal is to draw us closer to Himself in a relationship so that we might view Him as our ultimate reward. Listen, when we put God first, He always compensates with that which will bring us the greatest joy, the greatest reward. Again, as we have been learning, here is where faith comes in.
What I see in these two statements of encouragement from God in verse 1 is Him taking the initiative, moreover the strategic initiative to tell His children specifically what each child needs to hear for his or her specific situation. Verse 1, the "word of the Lord came to Abram." God knew the situation. God gave custom encouragement for the situation. The encouragement came from Him, and in both of these statements I believe the encouragement was Him! I am your shield! I am your great reward!
You say, "Well, that's great that God spoke to Abraham in a vision. Wonderful for Abraham, but he doesn't ever speak to me in visions." That's right. Visions are done, but visions are only done because Jesus Christ has come and God now talks to His people through the final and sufficient Word of God. Look at your Bibles! They are big! You have more of God's Word than Abraham did! And you hopefully know the joy of hearing God's voice - how when you read your Bible, it speaks to your life and provides the customized encouragement or challenge or conviction that you need for your specific personal situation. The Word only has one interpretation, but how God might apply the same verse to many people may be very different. So when you read your Bibles, don't just do it as a responsibility to fulfill a necessary duty. Rather read your Bibles with an open heart and allow the God who takes initiative to speak to your particular situation.
2. He Saves Us (verses 2-6)
Second, God takes the initiative to save us.
The Lord again comes to Abraham. Beginning in verse 2 of chapter 15: "Abram said [in response to God's words from verse 1], 'O Lord GOD [Adonay Yehovah, sovereign Lord - Faith is not expecting my will, my way, my time. Faith is rather trusting in the sovereign Lord], what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?' And Abram said, 'Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir' [Abraham is not acting in unbelief. He is simply confused and expressing His faith by going to God. Abraham was promised a heir and he knew that depended on sonship. The only one close, since Lot had apparently departed back to Sodom, was Abraham's servant, Eliezer]. Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 'This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir' [It would not be a servant or distant relative, it would be one from Abraham's own body - a biological son]. And He took him outside and said [God gives Abraham an illustration], 'Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' And He said to him, 'So shall your descendants be (In other words, God's plans are bigger than Abraham ever imagined'" (Gen. 15:2-5).
Now, verse 6, "Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." Let's camp out here for a moment because this is a crucial verse and one quoted frequently in the New Testament (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; Jas. 2:23). "Then [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and [the LORD] reckoned it to him as righteousness."
Question one - What is this verse teaching? For starters, it is teaching that we need righteousness! Since God is holy and we are sinners, we need to be made or declared right to have a relationship with Him.
So there are two options…
One, I can try to do it on my own. I can attempt to do righteous deeds, good deeds to gain God's favor. Unfortunately, that's a losing proposition. I can't do enough and I can't get rid of my sin. It is like me trying to jump across that Grand Canyon. Furthermore, it is offensive to our holy God, if I think I can somehow reform myself and gain His approval. That is why he calls these "good deeds" "filthy garments" (Isa. 64:6).
The other option is that I can admit my guilt and plead for His mercy by accepting His free gift of righteousness that I receive on the basis of faith. You say, "Does God work that way?" That is what verse 6 is teaching. "Then [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and [the LORD] reckoned it to him as righteousness." Abraham had faith in God's promises and God accepted that faith and reckoned or imputed or declared Abraham to be righteous. Therefore because Abraham was seen as righteous, he was now in perfect fellowship with God. This is what is called justification by faith. The point, God has and always will show that He has taken the initiative to save His people on the basis of His work and their acceptance of His work by faith. We'll come back to that.
Question two - Was this the moment that Abraham was first saved? This is a common question from this verse. "If The Lord reckoned Abraham righteous here, was he still unsaved when he by faith left everything and traveled to the Promised Land some ten years earlier (Heb. 11:8)?" I do not think so. So why is Abraham's righteousness first mentioned here? Because I believe God was pleased to openly attest to Abraham's faith because it is connection with the promised son (Abraham's seed) that he believed God would deliver. We'll come back to that one as well.
3. He Keeps Us (verses 7-21)
So God takes the initiative to minister to us with His Word. He takes the initiative to save us by His actions. And finally, our third point, God takes the imitative to keep us saved by entering a covenant with us. This a great section of Scripture.
Verse 7, "And [God] said to him, 'I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.'" Again, God reminding Abraham of His initiative and His never-failing power to perfectly accomplish His sovereign will.
Abraham replies in verse 8, "O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?" So God provides Abraham assurance of His continual presence in the man's life. God says to him in verse 9, "Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon." Abraham complied in verse 10. "Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds." Verse 11, "The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away." Some see this symbolic of Satan forever trying to thwart plans of God.
Verse 12, "Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him." Verses 13-16, "God said to Abram, 'Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.'"
Do you see what God has just said here? He is telling Abraham the future. That his descendants "will be a strangers in a land that is not theirs." What land is theirs? The Promised Land. In what land will they be strangers? Egypt. They will be oppressed by the Egyptians for 400 years (verse 13). When the time is completed, God will judge the Egyptians. And then they will leave Egypt (verse 14) four generations from the time they arrived (verse 16). They entered in the generation of Levi (Ex. 6:16) - Kohath (Ex. 6:16), Amran (Ex. 6:18) - and they will depart with the fourth generation of Moses (Ex. 6:20). Why the 400 year delay? Because the wicked Amorites (verse 16) were in the Promised Land and God was being patient on them for their repentance (like God was with Noah and the people of his time - cf. 2 Pet. 3:9) before they would be judged when the Israelites would drive them out.
I love this, verse 17: "It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces."
Back in antiquity it was common to make covenants. Often, like here, animals would be sacrificed, split in half and the dead carcasses would be placed opposite each other. Both parties entering the covenant would walk between the split animals signifying that if either were to break the covenant, they were to be torn in half like the animals.
But in this case, it is God alone who passes between the dead animals. It was not, "You go first, Abraham." It was God initiating, and God taking full responsibility for the covenant to the point that He was signifying His own demise if He were ever to break His word. Amazing!
Verse 18, "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land."
After what we just considered, why do so many people make the spiritual journey with God primarily about themselves? God takes the initiative, and God does the work on our behalf. He is the One who encourages with His Word, and He is the One who justifies the ungodly by faith alone. He is the One who enters an eternal relationship with His people by making a covenant with them that He will never break.
And what does all of this point to? We can't miss this either. As Jesus declared it Himself, everything here is an attempt to show us Him, the Messiah.
As Abraham chose to wait on God by refusing to take earthly rewards from the pagan king, Jesus Christ chose the path of suffering to the cross, rather than accept the earthly kingdoms from Satan. As Abraham gave evidence of his justification by believing in God's promise of his own son, we too give evidence of our justification when we believe God's promise that He has already given us His own Son. As Abraham waited for the first coming of the Messiah (Gen. 3:15), we wait for the second coming of the Messiah.
As Abraham was told that his descendants would be as the stars in the heavens, we know these descendants ultimately represented God's spiritual people, the very ones Jesus would go to the cross to die for. As God entered the covenant with Abraham and forgave his sins by means of a blood sacrifice, we too enter a covenant with God and receive His forgiveness through the blood sacrifice of Jesus. As Abraham went through suffering and patiently waited for his home, we too go through suffering in this world for the guaranteed promise of a better home to come in heaven, the ultimate Promised Land where we dwell with our Great Reward, Jesus Christ. And as God was patient with the Amorites, waiting for their repentance before judgment, God is still patient with those who have not called out to Jesus for salvation before they too will receive their judgment.
This is Father's Day. In a few weeks we will see that Abraham gets to celebrate Father's Day. As promised, God came through and gave him a son. God has also given us a son, His only Son, Jesus Christ. He let His Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, suffer and die, taking sin upon Himself, so that those who believe in Him will have everlasting life. God again has initiated at a great cost to Himself. Because of Jesus' substitutionary and sin-bearing death, the Father can accept sinners on the basis of faith alone and declare them righteous. How must God feel if you reject this free gift of salvation by thinking you are good enough to earn His favor? This is a canyon none of us in our own strength can climb out of, but God and only God, through Jesus Christ, can get you out with His righteousness if you believe.