Confirming the covenant

Scripture: Genesis 17


Title: Confirming the Covenant



  • Introduction
  • Confirming the covenant (1-16)

o   Naming

o   Committing

o   Circumcising

  • Abraham’s response (17-27)
  • Conclusion



This morning we continue our series on Abram by looking at Genesis 17

–         Last week, in chapter 16, we heard how Abram had a son (Ishmael) through Sarai’s maid servant Hagar

–         By the beginning of Genesis 17 it has been 13 years since Ishmael was born even longer since God first cut a covenant with Abram in chapter 15

–         Now, in chapter 17, God confirms his covenant

–         With the covenant encounter in Genesis 15 Abram wasn’t required to do anything, but in Genesis 17 God does require a response from Abraham


Genesis 17 is relatively long so I’m going to handle it in two parts

–         First we’ll read verses 1-16 which deal with confirming the covenant

–         And then we’ll read the rest of the chapter later which describes Abraham’s response. From verses 1-16 of Genesis 17 we read…


When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.

11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 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.

13 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. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 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.”


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us


Confirming the covenant:

In this reading God confirms his covenant with Abram and this confirmation involves three things: naming, committing and circumcising

–         First let us consider naming…



In the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India, there is an indigenous mission organisation called India Rural Evangelical Fellowship

–         It was begun in 1947 when Prasada Rao began training evangelists to go out into rural villages to preach the gospel

–         Prasada also took orphans into his home to show them the love of Christ

–         By the late 1990’s there were over 120 itinerant evangelists reaching 360 villages bringing many to Christ and planting churches

–         When these Indian believers were baptised they were often also given a new name – a Christian name

–         Many of the given names in India have a history that link the individual to the gods of their culture

–         So adopting a new name is a way of severing ties to the old life [1]

–         It’s a way of saying you are a new creation, on a new path with a new future


In verse 5 God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and in verse 15 the Lord changes Sarai’s name to Sarah

–         ‘Abram’ means ‘exalted father’ and ‘Abraham’ means ‘father of many nations’

–         ‘Sarai’ and ‘Sarah’ mean the same thing: ‘princess’

–         Perhaps the name Sarai looks back at her royal ancestry, while Sarah looks forward to her royal descendants – kings will come from her [2]

–         But the meaning of Sarah’s name isn’t as important as the fact that she is now included in the covenant – previously her role was unknown


God is renaming Sarah & Abraham because he is bringing about a new creation through them and (you will remember from Genesis 1 that) naming is one of the things God does in the act of creating

–         Their new names then are a reminder that God has severed the ties of past barrenness and given them a new future that is fruitful and blessed



Naming is one aspect of confirming the covenant

–         Articulating the commitment is another aspect


In medieval times soldiers were sworn to allegiance by being dubbed a knight [3]

–         So becoming a knight wasn’t just a reward for service rendered it was a way of confirming loyal commitment to the king

–         The knight would get down on bended knee as a sign of his submission to the monarch

–         There were certain perks or privileges to being a knight I suppose – like enjoying a higher social status

–         But there were also responsibilities – like being obedient to your king


When God appears to Abram, in chapter 17, he begins by saying…

–         “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless…”

–         ‘God Almighty’ means ‘God above all else’ or ‘God of nations’ (as our national anthem affirms)

–         Von Rad says the Hebrew word translated as ‘blameless’ here signifies wholeness of relationship and integrity rather than no sin [4]

–         I guess it’s another way of saying, “Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”

–         ‘To walk before God…’ means to orient one’s entire life toward God

–         Like when we sing ‘Jesus, be the centre…’ we are really saying we want our lives to revolve around Christ

–         God is commanding Abraham to live his life in such a way that every single step is made with reference to God

–         It’s sort of like God (the King of kings) is dubbing Abraham a loyal knight of his realm

–         And Abraham’s response is to fall facedown as a sign of his submission


For his part God commits to giving Abraham the land of Canaan and many descendants but that is more of a reiteration of things God has said on other occasions

–         At the heart of the covenant is the Lord’s commitment: I will be your God


If we think of God’s covenant like a set of Russian dolls, then the inner most doll is the Lord’s commitment to be Abraham’s God

–         I will be your God speaks of loyal relationship

–         Some of the other inner dolls include God’s promise of blessing, land and descendants but at its core God’s covenant is a relationship

–         By saying, I will be your God the Lord is offering Himself to Abraham

–         Sort of like when a couple adopt a child – they aren’t just offering to feed and house the child, they are offering themselves to that child

–         ‘I will be your father’ – ‘I will be your mother’

–         Or when a man & woman get married – they aren’t just offering a ring or a house or an income, they are offering themselves to each other

–         ‘I will be your husband’, or ‘I will be your wife’

–         I feel sad when I hear people in de-facto relationships say, ‘Oh we’re waiting until we can afford to buy a house before we get married’

–         As if financial security is an adequate foundation for marriage

–         Somewhere along the line our society has lost the idea that marriage is about giving yourself, not getting stuff


At its heart then God’s covenant is a relationship in which God offers Himself

–         God offers Himself to us most clearly in giving His Son Jesus

–         For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life 

–         You see, we don’t put our faith in Jesus just so we can avoid hell and get into heaven – Heaven is a perk, it’s a privilege, but it’s not the main point

–         We put our trust in Jesus so we can receive God Himself as our Father

–         Without the inner most doll of being in a loyal loving relationship with God, heaven becomes a kind of hell anyway

–         (Like being married to someone you don’t love for financial reasons)


 So confirming God’s covenant involves naming, committing & circumcising  

–         Naming – that’s about a new identity

–         Committing – that’s about loyal relationship

–         And circumcising – that’s about initiation and therefore belonging


Now we’re only talking about male circumcision here

–         Israel didn’t practice female circumcision (thankfully)

–         Male circumcision is when the foreskin of the penis is cut off

–         I don’t believe it is as harmful as female circumcision


Returning to our Russian dolls…

–         If being in relationship with God is the core of the covenant (the inner most doll), then circumcision is the sign of the covenant (the outer doll)

–         As a sign of the covenant it points to what’s inside


We might also compare circumcision to a passport

–         A passport identifies you personally and is a sign of your citizenship, it verifies where you come (or where you belong) and it gets you places

–         Without a passport you can’t get into another country

–         Without circumcision Abraham and his descendants couldn’t participate in God’s covenant


Circumcision wasn’t invented by God – it was already common practice in the ancient near east when God asked Abraham to do it

–         There were two main occasions why men might be circumcised

–         Perhaps when they got married, as a sign of entry into a new family

–         Or at puberty, as a rite of passage in becoming man

–         Both those occasions represented initiation or belonging to a new group

–         God borrowed the practice of circumcision and transformed it – giving it theological significance for Abraham and Israel so that circumcision became the sign of initiation (or entry) into God’s covenant [5]

–         Circumcision is how Israelites ‘opt-in’ to God’s covenant, in other words


God stipulated that males in Abraham’s household should be circumcised at 8 days old

–         Again we see a connection with the account of creation in Genesis 1

–         If the first seven days represent the creation of the cosmos then day eight represents the first day of a new week of creation – the creation of Israel

–         So circumcision was a ‘let there be light’ moment


The other thing we notice here is that circumcision involves cutting

–         You may remember from a couple of weeks ago, when we looked at Genesis 15, that a covenant is cut – it involves the shedding of blood

–         And in this case it is the most vulnerable part of a man that is cut

–         Having children, reproducing the next generation, has been such a big deal to Abraham and now God wants a piece of his reproductive organ

–         Wow – the symbolism is rich


As Christians we don’t need to participate in God’s covenant with Abraham

–         So guys, if you’re still in one piece down there, don’t panic – you don’t need to go cutting anything off


Jesus came to establish a new covenant for all people

–         And the sign of initiation into the new covenant is baptism (being immersed in water)

–         So our equivalent of circumcision is baptism [6]

–         Baptism is like a passport into God’s kingdom

–         In being baptised we transfer our citizenship as it were – we become aliens in this world and citizens of heaven

–         We break from the past and take on a new identity


When you are baptised as a conscious believer (or, if you come from an infant baptism tradition, when you confirm your baptism) you are essentially saying…

–         ‘Jesus I submit to you as King. No longer am I going to live my life to suit myself. I’m going to live my life to suit you.’

–         Being baptised or confirmed as a Christian is like being made a loyal knight (or dame) of Christ


Now here’s the thing…

–         These external signs of the covenant (whether it’s circumcision or baptism or confirmation) they don’t mean a thing if there’s no inner doll (no loyal relationship with God)

–         Baptism is an external ritual that is supposed to reflect an internal reality

–         If we’re only getting baptised out of conformity (because that’s what people do) then the sign is meaningless

–         Or if we get baptised just for what we can get out of it, with no intention of changing our life to suit Christ, then the passport is counterfeit

–         Whether we’ve been baptised as a baby or later in life as a believer the thing that makes our baptism effective and meaningful is having a committed loyal relationship with God (with Jesus), on the inside


To recap what we’ve covered so far, confirming God’s covenant involves naming, committing & circumcising  

–         Naming is about a new identity

–         Committing is about loyal relationship (the inner doll)

–         And circumcising – is a sign of initiation & belonging (like a passport)


Abraham’s response:

How then did Abraham respond to what God said?

–         Well, we pick up the story from verse 17 of Genesis 17…


17 Abraham fell facedown; 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?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

19 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. 20 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. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him. 23 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. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen;


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us


One of the wonderful things about the Bible is its honesty

–         The Bible doesn’t paint an unrealistic picture of humanity

–         It tells it how it is, revealing human beings in all our complexity and imperfection


When we ask the question: how did Abraham respond to God? Genesis 17 gives us a wonderfully honest answer

–         Abraham’s response was a bit of a mixed bag

–         First he threw himself face-down in submission to God, a good start

–         But then he laughed in disbelief and suggested Ishmael as an alternative to what God had planned (not such a good follow up)


We have to remember that for the past 13 years Abraham probably thought that his son Ishmael (born to Hagar) would inherit God’s promise

–         If that’s the case it must have been a bit of shock for Abraham to hear that his hope had been misplaced all this time


Our human imperfection draws out the beauty of God’s grace

–         God doesn’t rebuke Abraham – he doesn’t withdraw his covenant because Abraham laughed in a moment of doubt


Instead God says a son will be born to Sarah and you will name him Isaac

–         The name ‘Isaac’ means ‘laughter’ – Isaac will be a source of joy to Abraham & Sarah

–         But God won’t forget Ishmael – Ishmael will be blessed too and will be fruitful, only he won’t inherit God’s covenant promises as Isaac will

–         God did in fact greatly increase Ishmael’s numbers – millions of Arabs today are descended from Ishmael


Despite an initial flicker of doubt Abraham finishes strongly, not wasting any time in obeying God

–         Abraham performs the rite of circumcision that very day on every male in his household, just as the Lord had told him

–         God is big enough to handle our doubts – what counts in the end is obedience



We’ve heard today how God confirmed his covenant with Abraham and how Abraham responded to what God said

–         Confirming the covenant involves naming, committing and circumcising

–         Naming is about identity

–         Committing is about loyal relationship

–         And circumcising is about initiation, or opting into the covenant


Through Jesus, God has established a new covenant, not limited to ethnic Israel but available to anyone who is willing to receive Christ by faith

–         We opt in to this new covenant, not through circumcision, but through baptism


To those who have been baptised the question remains:

–         Is a loyal relationship with Jesus still at the centre of your life?


And to those who are yet to be baptised…

–         Are you willing to submit and commit to Jesus?


Questions for reflection or discussion:

1.)    What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?

2.)    What is the significance of God renaming Abraham & Sarah?

–         What does your name mean?

3.)    What did God mean when he said to Abram, “I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless.”?

4.)    At the core of the covenant is God’s commitment, “I will be your God.” What does this mean? What is God offering in saying this?

–         How does God offer Himself to us today?

5.)    In what sense is circumcision (for Israel) and baptism (for us), like a passport?

6.)    What might be the symbolic significance for Israel in circumcising boys at 8 days old?

7.)    What gives circumcision (for Israel) and baptism (for us) it’s meaning?

–         What sorts of things empty circumcision and baptism of meaning?

8.)    How did Abraham respond to what God said? (vv. 17-27)

–         How does God handle Abraham’s moment of doubt?

9.)    Have you been baptised?

–         If you have, is a loyal relationship with Jesus at the centre of your life?

–         If you haven’t, are you willing to submit and commit to Christ?

[1] This illustration was found in John Walton’s NIVAC Genesis, page 468

[2] Bruce Waltke, Genesis, page 262

[3] This illustration was also found in John Walton’s NIVAC Genesis, page 468

[4] Bruce Waltke, Genesis, page 259.

[5] Incidentally, keeping the Sabbath was a sign to show continued allegiance to the covenant. So you can see why the Pharisees got a bit touchy when Jesus challenged their rules around the Sabbath. From their perspective it may have seemed like Jesus was being disloyal to the covenant, when in fact Jesus had come to establish a new covenant


[6] And our equivalent of keeping the Sabbath (refer above footnote) is sharing communion