The Sign of the Covenant
If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Genesis 17, as we continue our study in the life of Abraham. When last we left Abraham, this 100-year-old man who had a son by his maidservant, or the maidservant of his wife, had just been told that his name had been changed to be Father of Multitudes. And this was significant, because we know that this man had waited many years in expectation for the promise of God. His own heart has now more and more decided, ‘Well, I guess the Lord is never going to give me and my wife a child. So I guess that Ishmael, this boy who's almost 13 years old now, is going to be the one through whom God fulfills these promises.’ Abram continues to believe that God will fulfill his promise, but more and more Abram's faith fades as to ever having a son through Sarah. And so the Lord comes to him and changes his name and says, ‘Abraham, let me tell you, you are going to be a father of a multitude of nations, and I am indeed going to bless you and it's not going to be through the son, Ishmael, that you think it's going to be through. No, I've got another plan.’
And so in that context the Lord opens Genesis 17, coming to Abraham who's faith is flagging, and bolstering it by reminding Abraham of his character. You remember he comes to Abraham and He says, ‘I am God Almighty. I am the God of the impossible. I can do things that you have no ability to even conceive or imagine. I am the one who is the God Almighty, the Lord of hosts.’
And then He reminds him of his promise. And reminds him of all those covenant promises, and not only does He remind him of those promises, He expands those promises. And then He changes his name in order to put a permanent marker, so that just as Abram has had to answer so many years, childless, with the name Exalted Father, now he must answer with the name Abraham, Father of a Multitude of nations. So God puts a mark of what He's going to do even in his name. But God is not finished yet. And that brings us right to Genesis 17:9-14. So let's look at God's holy word beginning in verse 9.
Father, we do thank You for Your word, and we bow before You tonight asking that You would help us to understand not only the truth contained therein, but to understand more clearly what we do when we ourselves partake of the signs, the seals, the sacraments that You have given to the church. We pray, O Lord, that You would strengthen our faith by the word, and that You would draw us again to Yourself and all Your love and all Your mercy, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Having reminded Abraham of his character and having reminded and reiterated and reviewed and rehearsed his promises to Abraham, even having expanded those promises to Abraham, and having renamed him to emphasize the certainty of those promises, God now institutes yet one more action of assurance for Abraham. God knows that Abraham's faith is wavering. It's floundering and He wants to focus that faith squarely on Himself so He opens by revealing His character: ‘Abraham, I am the One that you are trusting in, God Almighty.’ Then He reviews His promises because He knows that Abram's faith will be strengthened by the word, His promises.
But now to the word, God adds something designed to confirm Abraham's faith in the word. And the something that He adds is a sign of the covenant. Here God institutes what we normally call sacraments or ordinances. A covenant sign. Now we've seen covenant signs before in the book of Genesis, just like we've seen covenants before in the book of Genesis. All the way back in Genesis, chapter 6, we saw a covenant spoken of explicitly, and we saw a covenant sign spoken of explicitly in Genesis, chapter 9. And before that, back in Genesis 1 and 2 we saw a covenant described and in Genesis 2, in the tree of life, we saw a covenant sign exhibited.
But in this passage, just as in Genesis 12 and 15, we have a clearer example and expounding of the covenant than anywhere else that we've found before in the scriptures, now here in Genesis 17 we have a clear example of and explanation of a covenant sign. A clearer, a more comprehensive presentation of what a covenant sign is and what it's for than we have seen so far in the word of God. But before God gives this sign, this sign that is designed to remind Abraham, to teach Abraham, to mark or seal Abraham in his faith to assure Abraham, before that sign is announced, God stresses to Abraham his obligations in the covenant of grace. And I'd like you to see two or three things as we unpack this very rich passage tonight.
I. The joyful willing response of the believer to God's grace is to keep the covenant.
First, if you’d look at verse 9. In verse 9 God emphasizes Abraham's obligations in the covenant. Abraham's covenant obligations are held before his eyes in verse 9. God says further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep my covenant; you and your descendants throughout their generations.” And as we see God do this with Abraham, we ourselves are taught an important truth. That the joyful, willing response of the believer to God's grace is to keep the covenant. The joyful, willing response to God's grace is to keep the covenant. We have talked all along about the fact that the covenant itself is gracious. God does not have to bless us. He does not have to redeem us. He does not have to show us His unmerited favor, but He does, despite our sins, despite our own deserving, in fact, despite of our deserving of wrath, He graciously enters into a covenant relationship with us because He wants to bless us. But as He does, a response is demanded. Have you noticed the juxtaposition of the words in verse 4 and verse 9. Look at verse 4. God said, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you.” When God begins that section in which He reiterates His promises to Abraham, beginning in verse 4 and running all the way down to verse 8, God begins with the words, “As for Me.” In other words, He is saying, ‘This is what I'm going to do for you Abraham.’
Now look how he opens verse 9. God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant.” So God's covenant promises begin with the words, “As for Me” and then Abraham's covenant obligations are stressed with the words, “As for you.” Now in that structure, in that phraseology, we see that in the context of this gracious covenant, a covenant which God graciously enters into, a covenant in which God graciously provides the basis for the ground of the relationship. It's not Abraham's work that gets him into this covenant with God. It's God's grace that draws Abraham into this covenant. But in the context of this gracious covenant, you see, we have a stress on the mutuality of the relationship. A covenant is a binding relationship, and there is no such thing ultimately as a one-sided relationship. All relationships have two sides. Now that doesn't mean that every relationship is a bargain. It doesn't mean that in every relationship when you enter into it at first you both pick off your list of the twelve things that each of you promise to do. But the mutuality of the relationship simply means this. As there are blessings in covenant with God, so there are responsibilities. As there are promises and favors, so there are obligations. And God is stressing that here. Alders says this in his commentary: “The promise to Abraham and his descendants came in the form of a covenant which also placed definite responsibilities upon them. In verse 4 we read, ‘As for me, this is My covenant with you.’ Now we have the other side of the covenant announced in these words, ‘As for you, you must keep My covenant.’ This reveals the very nature of the covenant. Although it was one-sided in the sense that God set up all the terms, there were two parties in this covenant, as there are in every covenant.” And so here we learn than God's grace demands a response and that response always entails faith and commitment and obedience. That is the appropriate response to God's grace in the covenant.
But I want you to see as well that even God's commands in the covenant are gracious. That's one of the things that comes out in this passage. That 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 that is designed to strengthen his faith. So God demands that Abraham do something that's good for him. He says I will not allow you not to do this thing which I have designed for your own good. And so the very demands, the commands of the covenant are gracious. That colors the whole way we respond to God. Once we understand that His commands, not just this command, but all His commands are gracious, doesn't it change the way we approach the law of God, the word of God, the command of God? Suddenly those laws are not burdensome things placed upon our backs to ruin our lives. They are things which He demands that we do because He loves us so much that He will not let us miss an ounce of the blessing of the doing of them.
And so these covenant promises come to us at God's gracious initiative and yet to be in covenant with God entails our obedience to these duties. God calls on Abraham here, and his seed, to keep the covenant. That is, to recognize their obligations to Him, to be committed to Him perpetually. And so God calls us to be committed to Him perpetually. When we enter into the covenant of grace with the Lord Jesus Christ, He calls on us to be committed to Him perpetually, to continue trusting in Him perpetually, to continue believing on Him perpetually for our salvation, to continue following after His way of obedience perpetually.
And notice that the prime thing in this passage that God calls Abraham to is loyal faith which evidences itself in obedience. The prime thing that God is after here is commitment. Notice the language. As for you, keep My covenant.
Listen to what Derek Kidner says: “The striking feature of the stipulations in this passage is their lack of detail. To be committed was everything. Circumcision was God's brand; the moral implications could be left unwritten until Sinai, for Abraham was pledged to a Master, and only secondarily to a way of life.” God is calling on Abraham simply to be absolutely committed to Him in this relationship: ‘Abraham, stick with Me, stay with Me, trust Me, Abraham, be committed, be loyal to Me.’ That's the nature of the covenant relationship, isn't it? Loyalty, faith and commitment despite all evidence to the contrary that the promises will be fulfilled. And so God calls Abram to keep the covenant and the joyful response of the believer to that call of God's grace is of course to continue in commitment and in loyalty, in trust and in faith.
II. God appoints covenant signs to confirm the faith of His people.
And so God then begins in verse 10 to give Abraham a sign of all the promises that he has made to Him. Here in verse 10 God designates the sign that He has chosen to be the sign of the covenant. And that sign is, of course, circumcision. And God appoints that covenant sign in order to confirm Abraham's faith, in order to strengthen Abraham's faith, in order to establish Abraham's faith. Just as He gave him this name to reiterate to him the promises that He had made to him, now He is going to give him a sign. In fact, He is going to carve this sign into his body so that everywhere he goes he can't get away from the sign that God has given him that He will be faithful to His promises.
Now let me remind you again of the context of the institution of this sign of circumcision. God had covenanted with Abraham in Genesis 12 and called him out of the land of the Ur of the Chaldeans and on to the land which God would show him. And in Genesis 15, He had established and confirmed that covenant. In Genesis 16 Abraham had attempted to bring about realization of God's promises by resorting to Hagar and had Ishmael. And now, in Genesis 17, near the age of 100, his faith is faltering. So God reviews and rehearses and reiterates and expands on those promises which He had made to Abraham in Genesis 17:1-8. And then in Genesis 17:9 He reiterates or He presses forth this unequivocal injunction, “You must keep My covenant.”
And then in verse 10, He institutes this mark. This mark of circumcision to remind Abraham of His covenant promise. And in the context, the closest possible identification is made between the sign and the covenant. The sign and the covenant are identified and they are spoken of almost as if they are the same thing.
Listen to the language: “This is My covenant.” God's just said, ‘Abraham, keep My covenant.’ Now we know what the covenant is because we know what God had said about that covenant in Genesis 12, and we know what God had said about that covenant in Genesis 15. And we see the effects of that covenant in the life of Abraham. This covenant is a relationship. It's a binding relationship with promises and obligations. And yet God says here in verse 10, “This is My covenant that you shall keep, that every male among you shall be circumcised.” Did you hear what God just said? This is the covenant that you be circumcised. And so he calls the covenant the sign of the covenant. In this passage the closest possible identification is made between the sign of the covenant and the covenant itself. They are so closely related that the sign is said to be the covenant, and the covenant is said to be the sign. And that language is reiterated throughout the passage.
Look with me in the passage first at verse 10, “This is My covenant. Every male among you shall be circumcised.” But look how the language continues. In verse 11 we read this: “It shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” What's that? Circumcision. “It shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” And then in verse 13, “Thus, shall my covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” So we see how the covenant and the sign are spoken of almost interchangeably in this passage. Now that actually explains for us a strange story that we're going to go look at in just a few moments before we finish tonight in Exodus 4.
But let me also tell you that that language is the language which we might call covenant realism. And it is used to explain the relationship between God's covenant and the signs of the covenant that He gives us. And let me just give you a few examples of how this language repeats itself even in the New Testament. Turn with me for instance to Romans 6. In Romans 6 we read this beginning in verse 3: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”
Now that's a mouthful of a passage and there's a lot of theology packed into those few words. But I want you to zero in on one thought. Paul is saying that in baptism we have been united to Christ and raised again to newness of life. Now does Paul believe that you are saved by baptism? Does Paul believe that you are saved by water baptism? Now your instinctive response as Presbyterians, I know, is to say “No, Paul doesn't believe that.” Well, of course, you’re right, Paul doesn't believe that. But where do you prove that in Scripture? Well, let me just give you one example. Turn with me very briefly to 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul says this: “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” Now folks, if baptism saves you, that would be a very foolish thing to say. Christ did not send me to baptize, even though it's necessary for your salvation, He sent me to preach the gospel. Now you see Paul, even in that little phrase, gives you the truth that covenant signs in and of themselves, don't save you. But in Romans 6, what you see, the thing that the covenant sign symbolizes, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is related to our regeneration, our newness of life. So the outward sign of baptism is related to what the spirit does when we're changed and born again. The covenant sign is related to the covenant itself.
Now let me give you another example of this, because Paul's not the only one who does it in the New Testament. Turn with me to Peter. Turn with me to 1 Peter 3, another really perplexing passage. 1 Peter 3:18. “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you.”
Stop right there for one second. “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you.” Oh, my. Peter sounds a little Roman Catholic there, doesn't he? “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you.” What's he doing? He is applying the language of the covenant to the covenant sign. Now you say, “Oh, you’re reading into that.” Well, thank heavens, Peter bailed me out. Let's see what he says in the rest of the verse. “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you, not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
So Peter stops you right there and he says, ‘Don't think I'm talking about water baptism. I'm talking about Holy Spirit baptism which cleanses your conscience and makes you a new creature. That kind of baptism saves you.’ But what do you see? You see the covenant and the realities of which it speaks spoken of in terms of the covenant sign. The covenant sign used interchangeably with the reality of the covenant. It happens all through the Scripture. And in fact, our confession talks about that. If you have your hymnals handy, please take them out and turn with me to page 864 to the very back of your hymnals because our Confession of Faith explains this same principle, that sometimes the Bible talks as if the covenant sign is the covenant. And other times the Bible talks as if the covenant is the covenant sign. And you have to be careful how you interpret the passages where it does that, or else you’ll end up teaching that sacraments save you. Now here's what we see on page 864. If you look at chapter 27 on the sacrament, look at the second section: “There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation or sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. Whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.” That is exactly what happens in 1 Peter 3. That is exactly what happens in Romans 6 and that is exactly what is going on in Genesis 17. The sign is being called the covenant and the covenant is being called the sign. And the sign is being said to bring to pass what the covenant brings to pass. And the covenant is being expressed in terms of the covenant sign.
Now that you are totally and thoroughly confused with that, let's ask the next question. What does the sign of the covenant do? What does this sign of circumcision do here in Genesis 17?
Turn back with me there to that passage. In Genesis 17, this sign of the covenant in and of itself does nothing. In and of itself the sign does nothing. The sign is given in conjunction with the promise. God had already made promises to Abraham. And the sign is given in the context of faith. Abraham did believe, his faith is wavering, but he did believe, and in the context of God's promise and Abraham's faith, the sign is given to do what? To assure Abraham's wavering faith. God gives the sign to confirm His word, His promise, and to assure us in our faith. The sign provides an outward mark of the covenant community. All those males, and their families who have received the sign of the covenant are counted to be part of the church. All those males that have received the covenant sign and their families are counted to be part of the church. Notice that it is made very clear that this sign of the covenant is a boundary. In verse 14, everyone who is uncircumcised, but who dwells in the midst of Israel is cursed. So this sign is a sign of membership in the visible church.
Secondly, this sign signifies the need for cleansing from sin. It is a bloody sacrament, and that blood itself speaks of the pollution of sin and the need for the covering of that sin. This sign also has the significance of marking a person as belonging to God and to His covenant. That is, it is a sign and a seal. A seal is a mark of ownership or a deposit guaranteeing the promises of God to come to fulfillment. And the sign of the covenant is both a sign, that is, an outward sign of spiritual reality and it's a mark of God's ownership. And that seal as part of the covenant community leads us not to presumption, but to responsibility, even as we see in this passage. And so the sign is designed to strengthen the faith of Abraham.
What is the sign not? This sign of circumcision, by the way circumcision was commonly done in the near East. The Israelites were not the only ones who circumcise. Many of the nations, including Egypt, circumcised. Did you know that? The only nation in the near vicinity of Israel that didn't circumcise was Philistia, and hence when David is mocking Goliath, he calls him an uncircumcised Philistine: “You uncircumcised Philistine.” So all of the nations were accustomed to applying the sign of circumcision, but most of them used it as either a mark of priesthood or of a sign of entrance into manhood. Here God takes a common sign and He devotes it to a special use and that special use is to mark and to assure Abraham of His promises. So the covenant sign is not a sign of entrance into manhood. In fact, it is explicitly said to be given, it must be given to male children eight days old. So it's not a mark of entrance into manhood. The Jewish thought did not have some distinctive view of when you entered into manhood, for example, eight days old. No, it's not a sign of entrance into manhood.
It is not a sign of Jewish ethnicity. Here in Genesis 17:9-14, it is made clear that even if you were a foreigner bought with money by the master of your house, you are to be circumcised. And that idea of those ethic fluidity of Israel obtained throughout the history of Israel in the Old Testament. If you’ll turn with me to Esther 8, I’ll prove that. In Esther 8, if you remember the context, the Jews have been singled out for destruction. Haman has tried to get a decree passed that will allow people to basically have free reign on the Jews and to wipe them out. Mordecai has spoiled that plot, and because the king can't revoke his previous ordinance to allow people to attack the Jews, what he has to do is to enact a new ordinance that allows the Jews to defend themselves and to plunder anyone's inheritance that they defeat. So here's the rule: ‘Okay, you can have a free day on the Jews. You can attack them. But if you attack them and they defend themselves and they defeat you, they get to have your entire family's inheritance and they get to plunder you to their heart's content.’ And so we read this in Esther 8. “And in each and every province,” verse 17, “and in each and every city wherever the king's commandment and his decree arrived there was gladness and joy for the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many among the peoples of the land became Jews, for the dread of the Jews had fallen on them.” Oh, indeed, indeed. Many of the peoples of the land became Jews? Yes, they converted, receiving the sign of circumcision and being drawn in. Because the sign of circumcision is not a sign of Jewish ethnicity, it's a sign of membership in the covenant.
This sign, of course, does not bring about salvation. Paul makes that amply clear in Romans 4. Abraham was pronounced to be a child of God, a friend of God, in Genesis 15, when it was said that God accepted his faith and contributed or counted it to him as righteousness. And Paul makes a big point in Romans 4 that that happened before the sign of circumcision was given to Abraham. So the sign itself does not bring about the faith. The sign is designed to do what? It is designed to strengthen a faith that is already there. The promise is given in the word of God. Faith is placed in that word, and then the sacrament comes along behind it in order to do what? To strengthen our belief in the word. That's why the Reformers said the sacrament must never be administered apart from the word because the sacrament is simply a visible word. It's a visible, tangible representation of the promise of God. And in this case, it's a tangible representation which God carves into the flesh of Israel so that Abraham can't walk any where without realizing that God had taken him for His own, and that God has promised him to bring from him a seed. So this sign is not simply a sign of national identity or of Jewish ethnicity of interest into manhood. It is a confirmation of the promise of God to Abraham.
III. God created sacraments to strengthen faith.
And in verses 11-14, a description is given of that sign, and a discussion is given of the consequences of that sign or of not keeping that sign and again we're reminded here that God created sacraments in order to strengthen our faith. A sacrament is an action designed by God to sign and seal to us a covenant reality.
That covenant reality is always communicated to us in the promises of the word of God. And so the weakness of our faith welcomes that sacrament, that sign, as an act of reassurance. Every time we see baptism administered, every time we partake in the communion of the Lord's Supper, we are participating in a covenant sign. And that sign is designed to remind us personally that we are heirs to the promises that God made to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. That is extraordinary. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the signs that You give us, especially those glorious signs of the new covenant, baptism and the Lord's Supper designed to strengthen our faith. We pray, O Lord, that we would trust in You indeed, for You are our God and we are Your people, by grace through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we pray this prayer as all our prayers in Jesus' name. Amen.