GENESIS – SERIES NR 16: The Plus-Factor
Scripture : Genesis 17
The way in which an unworthy sinner answers the voice/call of the almighty holy God is
to believe/trust Him. The way in which man lives/walks with the Lord is to believe Him.
That is the basis of a relationship between God and man: His merciful promise and our
believe/trust – based upon the promise.
Before there can be any sign of belief, there has to be a God who crosses man’s path,
and by grace gives Himself to that person. Faith-trust is man’s answer to that. It is like a proposal-response-agreement. And that is called a covenant. A grace-covenant (grace-agree
ment/contract) because it comes 100% from God’s side. The sinner is not an equal partnerwith God.
In the ancient world where Abram lived, such alliances/contracts were common among
people. Two parties come to an agreement over a matter in which both parties are
concerned. They undertake to honour certain conditions in order to enjoy certain benefits, and there are also punitive measures in case of breach of contract.
God’s covenant with Abram worked the same way, but it was also very different. Because God and Abram were not on equal footing. It was between the Holy One and the sinner – who daily committed breach of promise and therefore had to be condemned right from the start.
How would such a covenant work? The Almighty and Holy One would have to have an
encounter with the impotent and unholy sinner, and He would have to single-handedly
maintain the agreement. Look how He approached Abram: “I AM GOD ALMIGHTY, I WILL
CONFIRM MY COVENANT BETWEEN YOU AND ME”.
What a comforting fact that I – who deserve to be lost – have the Great Hand who
picked me up and upholds me, to hold onto. I am pardoned – that’s all. 1 John 4:10 >
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that HE loved us and sent His Son”. The offer
of God in His covenant has absolutely nothing to do with our merit. It is born out of His
surprising love for people who are His enemies.
But does this now mean that man is merely an irresolute puppet with no responsibility
and accountability before the Lord? Was that the case with Abram? Oh no, Abram was
fully involved with the covenant. He had to take hold of God’s promise/offer! That is why the Lord said to him: WALK BEFORE ME! Abram’s respons had to be: WALK! Not merely apious nod. Not only a YES. The Lord does not set much store in an answer of many
WORDS. He is more concerned about a LIFE with Him. To BELIEVE/trust God is not just a “yes” response. It is a life surrendered to Him to be His and to live (walk) with Him. It isa matter of love – a fellowship, a communion. Not the cold, clinical closing of a business
transaction. Yes, covenant is God’s business, His initiative, His work and action. But in
communion with the Almighty, the impotent can say: “I am able… I can and will and shalldeny myself and follow You…” (Matt 16:24).
Did you notice that Abram received a new name from the Lord? Part of God’s covenant-
promise to Abram was his new name. Yes, the Lord undertook to do the humanly
impossible: That Abram would have descendants. HE would provide in a Divine manner. It
is a commitment! God’s covenant always includes matters humans cannot work. In our
case He makes a commitment of what His omnipotence worked on the cross: Victory and salvation over our greatest enemies: our own self, our own hearts, our own inherent
wickedness, satan, death and hell! This victory is OURS! The Bible calls it LIFE!
Abram’s new name ABRAHAM had significant meaning – particularly if we keep in mind
what great value the ancient middle-eastern people attached to a name. To them a name described a person’s character. To know and use someone’s name presumed a close
personal relationship. They would also change a name if something extraordinary happenedto someone. Then the name would be a reminder of what took place.
Scholars differ in opinion about what the difference in meaning may be between Abram
and Abraham. Abraham probably means “father of many”. But it is not important. What is
important is that Abraham was a man with whom the Lord engaged, and when that
happens, no one can remain the same person. One becomes a new person. A person
who is in an agreement with the living God and who is interwoven with His presence. As it is written in Isaiah: “I have called you by name, you are mine”.
It is truly formidable to think that these same principles got into a settled state in the
New Covenant. Because that is where WE fit in. And the blood of Jesus undersigned the
agreement. It is by the cross where we receive a new name. Because with repentence to Christ and faith-trust in His death on the cross, our new-life is confirmed. That’s where we receive a new name! As 2 Cor 5:17 puts it: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” That is the miracle of the new life which God
alone can create. Should WE open a rosebud, we would only sit with a handful of bruised petals. Why? Because we work from the outside. But God works from the inside and
allows the rose to open. That is how it becomes such a beautiful flower.
It is possible that the people could have mocked Abraham about his new name. It was
after all, linked to a promise – and it seemed most improbable that the promise of a
large number of descendants would ever be fulfilled. That is why his new name was something which he had to bear in faith. It was a confession of his trust that the Lord would remain faithful to His promises.
Today the name “Christian” is for many people a ridiculous title. Because it tells of a
crucified Christ, who rose from the grave, and who will again return to earth. The word
“Christian” is a confession of faith – of which other people comprehend very little.
But then, in verses 7-9 there is an interesting development! Suddenly, a THIRD PARTY was included in God’s grace-agreement. We could call it a “plus-factor”. And that is Abraham’s descendants. Who could have imagined it. The agreements of those ancient times usually
involved only two parties. But the Lord made the following commitment to Abraham: “I
will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your
descendants after you…”.
For whom was this covenant then actually meant? Who would be included? Who would
share in the benefits and responsibilities? Who did God have in mind when He made the grace-promise to Abraham? Answer: Everyone who were still in the believing man’s loins.
His descendants, who did not yet exist and who could therefore not yet answer. There
was a special portion of grace reserved for them. God is giving Himself – by a binding
contract – to people who were not yet in existence!
Undoubtedly we are dealing here with the mystical wonder of the covenant. It stretches
far beyond the faculty of human comprehension. In spite of the absence of faith and
repentance, God wrapped the children of Abraham up in His grace.
It is clear that the Lord did not perform this incomprehensible deed of grace for
everyone’s children, but specifically for Abraham’s. The Lord is in a different kind of
relationship with children of the covenant than with any other child. He binds Himself to
them – even before they exist! Grace definitely comes BEFORE faith! Faith is not a
requirement for grace. Faith is the ANSWER to grace. That is why the Lord could bind
Himself to someone who did not yet believe. Because faith is not an achievement to win God’s favour. It is the answer-response to the call which is already there!
Yes, the answer-response is important, because children of the covenant are not saved
automatically in a mechanical way. The covenant is always a matter with two sides!
Abraham’s descendants had to answer to the fact that God took them for His account.
They had to repent and put their trust over onto the promise of God. And we know that
the majority did not! This is the deep mystery of sin – of which we will never have an
answer. How can it be that the Lord can commit Himself to hell-deserving sinners with so much love AND take their children for His account, and then many of them still go astray and remain unsaved. This reflects the depth of the wickedness of humankind.
It is precious though to see how the Lord bent over backward to meet Abraham in his
spiritual dullness. The Lord possibly knew that His promise to Abraham and his children
must have sounded very unreal to Abraham – hard to believe. Too good to be true.
Everything was so abstract and invisible. Only words of promise in the mouth of God. It
was not concrete and tangible and visible and real.
That is why God decided to give Abraham a visible sign to make the invisible grace
tangible. God literally put His signature at the bottom of the contract (His promises). It
was meant to make it easier for Abraham to believe. It is like someone calling you
with the promise that he will pay a large amount into your account. But it is the proof
that it has been paid in, that excites you. That was the meaning with circumcision.
Circumcision was a well known custom in the ancient Middle-East. Abraham was familiar
with it. It was particularly a sign of initiation/acceptance into a specific group, and also
had health benefits.
Thus Abraham could form a good idea about what the Lord was busy doing. He and his
children would be included into a very exclusive group: The covenant-community of the OTchurch of the living God. He would – as adult male – receive circumcision because, as an adult, he was the first to come to faith out of paganism. But immediately after, his male children would be circumcised on the 8th day after birth. The girls obviously not, but they shared in the same blessing because males represented females in the culture of the
Even though at 8 days old, children could not yet understand what was going on or cometo faith and repentance, they had to receive the sign because the veracity of the sign
depended on God’s promise, and not on the circumcised person’s righteousness. They did not believe but they were drawn into the matter from God’s side. In Rom 4:11 Paul says that circumcision was the guarantee of the righteousness which they would receive later
when they would come to faith. Therefore the Lord CAN give a token of faith to people who cannot yet believe. Circumcision was definite proof of that. Circumcision was done to someone who had already come to faith (Abraham) but also to people who could not
have come to faith yet (Abraham’s children). Circumcision could be done to adults as well as babies. In all cases it was a sign of inclusion into God’s covenant. In all cases it was
an assurance of the veracity of God’s promises. In all cases it was an assurance of the
salvation someone received through faith. In all cases it was a sign of bloodshed – the
sacrificial blood had to bring reconciliation between God and the sinner. Therefore, a
pre-figuration of Christ’s sacrifice.
This is an important point: Bloodshed means loss of life. That is God’s punishment for sin.Death. Bloodshed = death. That is the price that has to be paid for reconciliation betweenthe sinner and the holy God. Blood is at the same time a sign of death and life. Because
if a substitute is sacrificed in the place of the sinner, the sinner may live!
Circumcision was therefore a sign of death and life. The heart of the circumcised had to
be circumcised! Purification of the heart was the actual intention (Deut 30:6; Jer 4:4).
Certainly, Abraham did not understand it in such fullness, but for thousands of years afterward, circumcision was a sign of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the new birth –
circumcision of the heart. Where circumcision of the heart did not happen, the
physical circumcision would serve as judgment against the person (Jer 9:25-26). You see, it is the Lord who creates and gives faith, but where one does not have it, that PERSON willbe held accountable for his unbelief, and not God! Where the person repents, the Lord
receives the honour. Where the person does not repent, the person receives the blame!
Those are two matters in Scripture of which we will never be able to make sense! We
hold onto both and confess both without trying to rationalize it.
Lastly: How can we draw this important matter of covenant and circumcision through into 2018? Or to put it differently: How must we understand it in the time of the New
Covenant (in which we are living)? Children of God in Christ from all nations are indeed
Still descendants of Abraham. Not physically, but spiritually. Why do we not circumcise any
longer? Are the promises of the Covenant still applicable to us? What has changed? What remains the same?
The only way we could ever make sense of this is to look at it through the lens of the
cross of Jesus. Then we see that there are only TWO dispensations. If we stand at the
cross and look back in Abraham’s direction, we are dealing with the time BEFORE CHRIST (OT), the time of EXPECTATION. And when we look forward from the cross – toward 2018 – we are dealing with the time AFTER CHRIST (NT), the time of FULFILMENT. In the period BEFORE Christ, the people lived in expectation of the cross, in faith-trust upon a promise which still had to be fulfilled. That is how those people became saved children of God – by trusting in a promise which was yet to come to fulfillment. They did not know exactly how that promise would be fulfilled, but believed that God would provide, in one way or another, a perfect atonement-sacrifice. God gave them numerous aids to draw pictures of
the coming Saviour to help them to believe. Circumcision was one of them.
At the cross of Calvary that expectation was fulfilled. The promise became a reality. Now, we look back onto the perfect sacrifice.
When we stand at Calvary and look both backward and forward, we can understand a few things better. Certain things have changed, others remained the same.
That which remain the same in both dispensations: God remains the same and humanity-in-need-of-salvation remains the same. Salvation and redemption remain the same, namely
reconciliation with God by the substituting sacrifice of Jesus. The way of living from
salvation remains the same, namely through repentance and faith-trust alone. God’s
promises remain the same, because His Word remains the same. His promise still is: “I will be your God, and you will be a nation for me” AND “Whoever has the Son, has life”.
God’s covenant-love for His people and their children also did not pass away. It could not, because it is part of who the Lord is. That is why the principle of “you and your
children” has not been abolished in the NT.
Then what has changed? The things from the before-Christ dispensation which fell within
the sign of EXPECTATION naturally had to fall away at the fulfillment. There are many OT
laws and rituals and practices that served only one purpose, and that was to direct the
attention towards the coming Messiah. When that purpose was realized, those things were abolished. Of course there were things in the old dispensation that did NOT pass away,
but to those the Lord Jesus gave new and deeper meaning.
One thing which was abolished, but also received a new meaning, was circumcision. A sign of bloodshed could not continue, because Christ’s blood was shed once and for all. The
bloody circumcision was always experienced as a sign of expectation. It now HAD to take a new form. And the new form was WATER. Blood was replaced with water. That is why
the Apostle Paul could tell the uncircumcised Colossians – at a time when false teachers
pestered the people by telling them that they had to get circumcised in order to become full-fledged Christians – “You do not have to be circumcised, because you have already
received the full meaning of the circumcision through your baptism” (Col 2:11-12).
Perhaps today you can also look back on the day when the Lord began to concern
Himself with YOU at the baptismal font. And should you follow the tracks attentively from that baptismal pool to where you are today, you may confess again: “Truly! Everything is
by grace alone. Undeserved and unmerited favour.”
Or perhaps you have to draw a line from that day until today and realize that you have
never really responded to God’s grace. He has been faithful all along, but not you! Well,
then today is the day that you can do it!
Translated by Marthie Wilson