When your Life is Stuck on Pause: Surrender and Walk with the Covenant-Keeping God (Gen. 17)
Tired of waiting for God’s timing and provision, Abraham and Sarah, full of unbelief, tried to “un-pause” and “unstuck” their season of waiting in Gen. 16. The result was chaos. It was like someone trying to help a butterfly come out of the cocoon too fast and too early, killing it in the process. The long, tiring struggle of the butterfly is actually part of the process, which helps it develop the strength to fly. There is so many things that our hearts are stuck on, so many things we love more than God that God is trying to show us. It takes time and the struggle is part of the process of helping us be truly who God wants us to be…free in Him! In our sin, we may get what we want, but then we will not want what we got. Yet our God is a God of grace, who befriended Hagar and used her to speak grace into the lives of Abraham and Sarah. Though they did not see God in their unbelief, God saw them and was still committed to them!
Today we see how God will respond to Abraham, some 13 years later. We know the whole story, but it is important that we put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes (or sandals). At this point in his story, he probably assumed that having a child through Hagar was what God actually wanted. One commentator says, “Abraham has lived in the belief that Ishmael, the son of his old age, is the promised son and that God’s covenant will be carried out through him. All of his love, all of his hopes, and all of his dreams have been poured into this boy…Abraham has not been anxiously awaiting the arrival of another son.”
Abraham has settled for what he assumed was God’s best. We don’t know what is best for us do we? We probably would have done the same thing. God is going to rock Abraham now with some big news. Actually God is going to crush Abraham’s own dreams in order to give him God’s dreams. God is going to burst out of the box that Abraham has put Him in. God is stronger than our strongest and clever scheming. Why be so good to Abraham?
God has made a covenant with Abraham. God is a God of covenant. We saw it with Noah. To quickly review, a covenant is basically “a promise made by God to man.” A covenant is the way God relates to mankind. Why a covenant? It shows God’s commitment to man. It highlights His character and shows us His faithfulness in that God will always keep His promises. It is really for our blessing. Covenant is the word that God uses for how he devotes himself to us and how he loves us with an unending, unbreakable love and unshakeable affection. As John Macarthur says, it is “for the goodness of life from the goodness of God.”
We saw this covenant introduced in Gen. 12. God promised Abraham land, seed and blessing. In Gen. 15, we saw that God covenanted Himself with Abraham at a great cost for God. So far, Abraham learned that the seed would come through him, but the land would come generations later. Today we are going to learn more about the details of this covenant in Gen. 17, but actually we learn more about our Covenant-making and Covenant-keeping God. What does it mean to be in a covenant relationship with the God of the Universe? First of all:
I. It is a relationship that requires the surrender of control (vv.1-3, 6-8, 17-21)
This is essentially what a covenant with God is like. We do not call the shots or set the terms. God does. In those days, if a great King of a nation comes to you, a weaker nation and offers you protection in return for your loyalty and service, you had two options: surrender, enter the covenant and receive the benefits of it or try to remain independent and face the consequences.
God comes back to reconfirm His covenant to Abraham. Abraham had surrendered a lot in Gen. 12 and now God calls him to surrender again. Surrender is a lifestyle, just like repentance. What we see in this chapter is a God-initiated, God-saturated covenant. Notice the word “establish.” This means that “this covenant with Abraham is something God initiates, something he maintains, and something he brings to fulfillment.” God comes to Abraham with another “I AM.” In Gen. 16, Abraham was not faithful. God’s “I AM” yet again comes as adequate to our “I AM NOT.” In fact, 12x we have the phrase “I will.” Nine times God says, “my covenant.” Why? God is setting the terms as the Great King and Master. What do we surrender our control to in order to receive the benefits of the covenant? First of all:
a) Of our sense of timing
We are given a time marker to help us put the story together in Gen. 17:1. Abraham is now 99 years old. When he was 75 and Sarah 65, they set out from Ur to Canaan (Gen. 12:4). When he was 85 and Sarah was 75, Sarah took matters into her own hands, as we learned last week. Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 (Gen. 16:16). 13 years have passed. Why did God wait so long? Moses does not give us an answer. I like both Paul and the writer of Hebrews say that God fulfilled the promises made to Abraham when he was “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19; Heb. 11:12). Sometimes God puts things to death before He can resurrect it so He can get all the glory. Sometimes it is only when we have come to the end of our resources that God’s power can begin.
For 40 years Moses thought he was somebody. God sent him to the desert for 40 more years and Moses saw he was a nobody. Then just when Moses is ready to retire at age 80, God raises Him up to be somebody for God. A somebody is really a nobody for God. God’s timing is different for each of us. Jon Acuff says, “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” I would add that we don’t compare our beginning, middle or end with anyone else’s beginning, middle or end. God has each person on His timetable. Time is a gift from the Lord. Why does Paul want God to unleash His power according to glorious might to the Colossians in Col. 1:11? To bring millions to Christ? For a super powerful ministry? For all endurance and patience. We are people who hate to wait. We scream at our microwaves. We complain at the drive-thru. We throw a hissy-fit at our internet speed, when it was just a few years ago where we gladly waited five minutes for dialup, to even get on the internet! To wait is harder than to work. God’s greater work is that we learn to work at waiting. But God is worth waiting for! Give up the temptation to give up. Secondly, surrender our control:
b) Of our desire to be God
In Gen. 16, Abraham and Sarah tried playing God like Eve (Gen. 3:5). It failed. Now God is realigning Abraham to his proper place. Notice, God wants to be “God to you” (Gen. 17:7). And again, “I will be their God” (Gen. 17:8). We make really bad gods. Remember Jesus rebuked Peter when Peter told him that Jesus should not go to Jerusalem and die? Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:21-23). That’s us. We like to tell God what to do and what He should do for our lives. But the disciple’s place is behind the Master, not ahead. The best leaders for Christ are those who follow Him the best.
This is why God hates pride and opposes it (1 Pet. 5:5). It is lying. It is saying something you are not. God loves humility because He loves truth. Notice God introduces Himself here to Abraham: “I am GOD ALMIGHTY.” This is literally, “I am El Shaddai.” Melchizedek knew God as El-Elyon (“God most high,” 14:19–20), and Hagar called God El-Roi (“God who sees me,” 16:13). Here we see another name of God, which signifies His omnipotence. You could translate it as “he who is sufficient,” or the One who “is able to make the barren fertile and to fulfill his promises.” Right when Abraham was at His weakest, God shows up as the Almighty One.
Warren Wiersbe notes, “After Abraham’s battle with the four kings, God came to him as a warrior and told him He was his “shield.” When Abraham wondered about his refusal of Sodom’s wealth, God told him He was his “exceedingly great reward” (Gen. 15:1). Now when Abraham and Sarah were “as good as dead,” God assured them that He was more than sufficient to bring about the miracle birth. God comes to us in the ways we need Him most.”
Abraham, surrender to my Lordship. You cannot be the Lord of your life, Abraham. I want to show myself as the Almighty One to you. Pastor Kent Hughes writes,
“God was saying, by this initial invoking of his name El-Shaddai, ‘I am able to fulfill the awesome hopes that I have set before you of a people and a land. There is no need to let go of the promise because of your old age. There is no need to succumb to passive desperation. There is no need to scale down the promise to match your puny thoughts—no need to resort to fleshly expedience—no need of trying to fulfill the promise in any second-rate way. Everything—all your life, all your future—lies in this: I am God Almighty!’”
The question is not how big your problems are or how long you’ve been stuck, but how big is your God?
Notice Abraham’s response: he fell on his face. In Gen. 15, when God showed up telling him who God was, Abraham complained (Gen. 15:2). He’s maturing now. This act, a “gesture more powerful than words, shows his humility before God and his willingness to listen.” He is acknowledging “the master-servant footing of the covenant.” Notice in Gen. 17:17 he falls again and this time he is LOLing. This is not one of unbelief because God does not question him for it as he does when Sarah does the same thing in Gen. 18:12-13. Abraham is in shock. Later, God says call him “Isaac,” which means “laughter,” because God is going to have the final laugh. But Abraham’s posture here is of worship. Is this the posture of our heart? Are we going ahead of Jesus or letting Him lead us as our Lord and Savior? If we do not surrender to Him, we do not enjoy the benefits of the covenant. Thirdly, we also need to surrender control to our:
c) Our sense of provision
Abraham is not thinking this was an epic fail. He will by the end of the chapter. Isn’t that amazing that the God of grace comes to him even when he doesn’t see his sin? Even when Abraham is pouring his love and affection on the thing that is not even God’s best for him? Even when God says no to Abraham that it will be Sarah who will bear a son, Abraham wants God to change the promise to Ishmael (Gen. 17:17). This is like God saying, “I’m going to give you Lou Malnati’s for lunch today. The bread of Heaven.” And we say, “I already made this frozen pizza. Can I eat that instead?”
The reason for Abraham’s idea here is that Abraham has invested a lot in Ishmael. As a father, he passionately cries out, “I already have a son who I love deeply. Let him be the one through whom the covenant and blessings come. I know I got ahead of You when Ishmael was conceived. I know that was not Your plan. I know I made a mess, but, Lord, bless my mess.”
We do that don’t we? We take matters into our own hands, disobey the Lord, have consequences and then we ask God to bless it. God does take care of Ishmael, but God is so committed to bless Abraham with His best. Wow! God doesn’t let his children’s stupidity destroy His promise. Abraham, you think you know what it means to be a good father, but I am a good Father to you. My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts.
The older I get, the more I am seeing that praying is more like showing up for duty than giving orders to God. I pray about different things, but more and more I have learned to surrender and say, “Lord have your way! I am here to serve you.” Nothing in my life has gone like I had planned. But it has gone better than I could have even dreamed! And I know I have a lot to learn still, but I am learning not only to trust God to provide, but also to trust how He will provide.
Look at Abraham here holding on to Ishmael. Some of us have made choices in our past going ahead of God and we have Ishmaels. We have regrets. But it cannot define us. There is a reason why the windshield in front of us is much bigger than the rear view mirrors. What if it was the other way around? What if our windshields were the size of our rear view mirrors and our rear view mirrors the size of our windshield? We would crash!
Some of us are living with an identity of our past. I am not negating those experiences, but it is a lot like driving by looking at your rear view mirror. You will not be able to go far. God would call us to surrender our sandcastles for something more real and concrete. Perhaps in this regard, we will all need to say, “Oh, that Ishmael might die within me!”
Abraham needed to surrender. God has everlasting blessings in mind for the future (Gen. 17:7,8, 13 and 19). God has kings and nations in mind (Gen. 17:6; 16). King David would come through him as well as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords (Matt. 1:1; Rev. 19:16). This is way beyond Abraham could have ever even dreamed of while he was in Ur of the Chaldeans. And since it is beyond him and not beyond God, he must surrender his control to enter this covenant.
Do I trust that not just that God will provide for me, but do I let Him determine the when and the how He will provide it? He who has provided us His Son, will He not graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:32). Which of these areas do we need to surrender to the Lord? We cannot enjoy the benefits of the covenant if we do not surrender to the terms and give up our control. This is one way we can be in a covenant relationship with God. Secondly, being in a covenant relationship with God means:
II. It is a relationship that deeply changes us publically and privately (vv.4-5, 9-16)
If we are going to surrender control, we are admitting that God must change us. We are not simply relinquishing our control, but at the same time allowing God to change us. What God offers us in the covenant is Himself. And you cannot have a relationship with Him without Him changing your life. If our faith has not and is not changing us, we have to wonder if it has really saved us. That’s what relationships do. They change us.
It is like a marriage. After all, you wouldn’t expect to get married without it modifying your life at all. Imagine someone saying, “Oh yes, I’m married, but I don’t let it affect my life. I do what I want with my money and my time. No, I don’t spend time with my wife. Yes, I talk with her occasionally, but only when I really need something from her.” You would think that was a pretty strange way to behave; yet people think that they can behave that way with God.
As our spouse, God has given us His heart. He has chosen to knit His heart together, “covenant” Himself with us. So breaking the covenant is like breaking His heart, not just breaking some rules. So our good and bad choices, attitudes, affections and thoughts all deeply affect Him.
Now when a covenant was made in the ancient world, it was common for the great king to give a new name to the lesser king (cf. 2 Kings 24:17). Talk about having control! God changes the most personal thing about Abram and Sarai, their names. Imagine leaving work on a Friday and your name is Jim and you come back on Monday to tell everyone, “Call me Billy Bob.” “Abram” meant “Exalted Father,” and now “Abraham” meant, “Father of a multitude.” One meant “Daddy” and the other one “Big Daddy.” We are not exactly sure what “Sarai” means, but both “Sarai” and “Sarah” probably means meaning “princess.” But note that every time Abraham and Sarah’s names were spoken, they would be reminded that they were not their own, but that they belonged to God. The change affected them publically. They could never hide that fact.
This change would be another test to their faith. Abraham was probably already mocked for being called “Daddy” and not have any kids. Finally he had Ishmael. He now says, “Call me Big Daddy, Father of a multitude.” Once again, he has to trust God who has changed him completely. Do people around see that following Jesus has changed us so personally and deeply?
Notice also that their relationship with God affected them privately, as they submitted to the sign of their relationship in circumcision. Usually a covenant in the Bible has a sign or evidence that God has made a promise. It is an outward symbol to remind people that a covenant was entered into. For the Noahic Covenant, it was the rainbow. The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant was circumcision and the Mosaic Covenant was the Sabbath. Under the New Covenant, we have Communion. It is like a wedding ring that married couple wear to remind them and to witness to others that they are in a special relationship.
Why circumcision? Well, it was nothing new in Abraham’s day. There are records of other nations doing it. God takes something known and attaches a new meaning to it, like he did with the rainbow. One significance is that every time a covenant male looked at his body he is reminded that he is part of Yahweh’s covenant.Notice also that God is thinking of Gentiles coming to faith too (Gen. 17:12-13). Secondly, It would have been a frequent reminder to every circumcised male of God’s promises involving seed. God will be faithful in bringing many descendants through Abraham’s line. Thirdly, the rite of circumcision itself is a reminder that covenants are solemnized through blood. Circumcision inflicts blood and pain.  Fourthly, circumcision is permanent and irreversible, like the covenant. God never meant circumcision to be a condition of salvation, but evidence of it. Remember that in Gen. 15:6 that God already saved Abraham. The command here is to respond to His salvation, not to meet the requirement for it. Unfortunately, the Jews missed that point and Paul called people back to the heart of the matter, which was a matter of the heart (Rom. 2:28-29).
But the point is that a relationship with God changes us in every area of our lives. Has it done that for us? Does it change the way we think? Does it change what we fill our minds with? Has our relationship with God govern our attitudes? Our ambitions and desires of our heart? Has our relationship with Christ changed the way we see money? Education? Relationships? Lastly, to be in a covenant relationship with God means:
II. It is a relationship that will only be enjoyed by obedient faith (vv. 1, 22-27).
How can Abraham enjoy all these benefits of the covenant? Gen. 17:1 gives us the answer: Walk before me and be blameless. God is always ready to pour out His blessings upon you, but you have to bring a bucket. To a ninety-nine-year-old Abram, God doesn’t say, “It’s time to retire.” He says, “I want you to go higher…How is Abram to do this? By walking in the strength and drawing upon the nourishment of El Shaddai.” This command is not to earn God’s favor, but to enjoy God’s favor.
To “walk” here means “to orient one’s entire life to [God’s] presence, promises, and demands.” Literally it means, “Live out your life.” The Hebrew verb translated “walk” means “to walk back and forth; to walk about; to live out one’s life.” God is going back to the Garden of Eden. God walked with the first couple then (Gen. 3:8). Enoch walked with God (Gen. 5:24) and so did Noah (Gen. 6:9). Notice, “before me,” which means “in my presence.” His desire has always been the same. Live life with me! Step by step! As Tim Keller says, “Walking with God is simply a moment by moment awareness of God’s awareness of us.”
Notice here “and be blameless.” This does not mean sinlessness, but “wholeness of relationship.” It means “single-hearted, without blame, sincere, wholly devoted to the Lord.” If this is going to work Abraham, I need all of you. I am giving all of me and now I want all of you. The other day in Bible Study someone said, “We should ask God for all of the Holy Spirit.” Actually, the question is not if we have all of the Holy Spirit, but does the Holy Spirit have all of us? God wants us to be whole. How will we be whole? Walk with God. That is what holiness is: wholeness. It is the inner attractiveness that is apparent when someone begins to function inwardly as he or she was intended. And that means not just surrendering our control, but putting ourselves completely at His feet. We will not be whole if we are not walking with the Lord. This means not only will we not understand God, but we will not understand ourselves. There is no me without Him. I will be fragmented, disintegrated and incomplete.
When it came to circumcision, notice in Gen. 17:22-27, how Abraham obeys. The obedience is prompt (that very day) and complete (“all,” “every”). How prompt is your obedience? How complete is your obedience? Partial and slow obedience is still disobedience.
Pastor Ray Ortlund says, “You and I are not integrated, unified, whole persons. Our hearts are multi-divided. There is a board room in every heart. Big table. Leather chairs. Coffee. Bottled water. Whiteboard. A committee sits around the table. There is the social self, the private self, the work self, the sexual self, the recreational self, the religious self, and others. The committee is arguing and debating and voting. Constantly agitated and upset. Rarely can they come to a unanimous, wholehearted decision. We tell ourselves we’re this way because we’re so busy with so many responsibilities. The truth is, we’re just divided, unfocused, hesitant, unfree.
That kind of person can “accept Jesus” in either of two ways. One way is to invite him onto the committee. Give him a vote too. But then he becomes just one more complication. The other way to “accept Jesus” is to say to him, “My life isn’t working. Please come in and fire my committee, every last one of them. I hand myself over to you. Please run my whole life for me.” That is not complication; that is salvation. “Accepting Jesus” is not just adding Jesus. It is also subtracting the idols.” We need Jesus to be God over us!
The ultimate purpose of the covenant (of the Bible) is “to be your God and the God of your descendants.” God simply says, “I will be their God” (Gen. 17:8). This is actually part of the New Covenant as well (Heb. 8:10). Why does God want to be our God? God wants to be our God not for any personal ego reasons, but because God knows that God being our God is the only way that we can ever be truly happy. When we live as though we are god who knows what is best for ourselves, we lose our peace and joy sooner or later.
No one is able to walk before God blamelessly, except one person. Only Jesus ever did all that the Father wanted (John 8:29). Jesus is the only One who deserves all the covenant blessings. Notice the warning in Gen. 17:14. There is a warning of being “cut off.” This could mean to be executed. But instead, Jesus was “cut off” and cursed for living blamelessly (Is. 53:8; Gal. 3:13). Jesus’ body was cut away for our sin. He was cut off from God for our sin and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; cf. Psalm 22:1).He became disintegrated and made “un-whole.” There was pain and blood that Good Friday as Jesus was nailed to the cross, and the new covenant was launched. Jesus underwent the ultimate circumcision, that we might receive the ultimate circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:29). Why? So that we who fail to walk before God blamelessly and should be cut off, can be blessed and become whole as we walk with God again in relationship. We can enjoy this new covenant with our God. How do we enjoy it? We surrender our control and we walk with the God who has covenanted His heart with ours.
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Macarthur, J. “God’s Rainbow Covenant,” http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/90-263/gods-rainbow-covenant#.TrQVh1b4_Z0 accessed 4 November 2011.
Driscoll, M. “The Covenant of Circumcision,” http://marshill.com/media/genesis/the-covenant-of-circumcision accessed 25 February 2012.
Macarthur, J. Ibid.
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