A Growing FaithErwin W. Lutzer | October 16, 2005
Selected highlights from this sermon
By the time we get to Genesis 17, Abram has been in the land for 24 years. He’s 99 years old and hasn’t heard from God in many years. He begins to doubt God’s promises.
But then God appears and changes both Abram and Sarai’s names. Abraham and Sarah are then told that they will have a son named Isaac within a year, and that it would be this son, not Ishmael, that would be the child of promise.
We’ve been following the life of Abraham the pilgrim. God comes to him and says, “Abraham, I am going to give you the land and I am going to give you posterity. To your descendants, I am going to give it to you forever.” Abraham is obsessed, as we have learned, about how those promises are going to be fulfilled.
On one occasion he says, “God you have to understand that I am old and Sarah is old. We can’t bear children anymore. What about Eliezer of Damascus? He is my trusted servant. Could he be my heir?” Culturally speaking it was possible. God says, “Abraham, the answer is ‘No.’ But the one who comes from you, your very own son is going to be the heir of the promise.”
So then he and Sarah are having a discussion and he says, “God has clarified it that I am going to be the father. But Sarah, you are too old to bear a child.” And so as you know Sarah makes a suggestion and says, “Take my handmaid Hagar. Have a relationship with her and bear a child and that child will be considered to be mine,” which also was part of the culture of the day. “And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah.” Hagar became pregnant and she gave birth to Ishmael.
So that is where we are in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis when it opens, and I want you to turn to that passage, Genesis chapter 17. That is where we are where God comes again and speaks to Abraham. Now when the seventeenth chapter opens, Abraham has been in the land for 24 years. After the birth of Ishmael, Abraham doesn’t hear from God for years and years and years. So that gives him lots of time to begin to doubt the promise. “Is God worthy of my trust even after these years of silence?” That is the issue.
God comes in chapter 17 and ratifies the covenant, adds some new details, and what a chapter it is! What I would like us to do is to look very briefly at the nature of the covenant. Then we are going to look at the participants. And then what we are going to do is to learn lessons that are going to change us forever. We will never quite be the same because we have heard from God.
Chapter 17 opens the nature of the covenant or the agreement. We will call him Abram at this point. We have been calling him Abraham even though he has been Abram until this point. It says, “Abraham was ninety-nine years old when the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless.’”
Now notice that God comes with a new name. “I am God Almighty.” There are three different names for God in the book of Genesis. The first is Elohim, God-creator. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The second is Jehovah, the covenant-keeping God. And now we have El Shaddai, God Almighty, God of infinite strength. Abraham has to be convinced that He has all the resources of omnipotent Deity to see that these promises are fulfilled.
And so God said, “I am the Lord God Almighty; walk before Me, and be perfect, be blameless,” as my translation says. That does not mean that Abraham has to live a perfect life, because none of us lives a perfect life. In fact, we saw that he lied when he went into Egypt, he did distrust God over the Ishmael matter and he is about to lie again, believe it or not.
But, the word does signify wholehearted; walk before Me wholeheartedly. And Abraham had an obligation to do that just like we also have an obligation to walk before God with wholeheartedness. That is what God is asking Abraham to do. And then God says this. He says, “Behold My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Abram means exalted father and Abraham means the father of a multitude.
Now you know that Abraham had hundreds of people as herdsmen. In fact, he took 318 of his own men to rescue Lot. So when he changed his name he had to explain it to everyone, and I can imagine it as he goes to a watering hole where the Perizzites and the Canizzites and the other “zites” and the “megabytes” who were in the land. And I can imagine him going to a watering hole and someone saying to him, “What is your name?” And he says, “Abraham, father of a multitude.” “That’s great. How many children do you have?” “None. Yes, I have one, but I am waiting for another.” “Well, how old is Sarah?” “She’s about ninety.” “And you are the father of a multitude? Good luck!”
God not only says, “I am changing your name but I am changing Sarah’s name, too.” For this we have to go further in the chapter. In verse 15 God says to Abraham, “‘As for Sarai your wife,’” that is who she’s been up until now, “‘you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.’” Sarah means princess, and well might she be called a princess because, “‘I will bless her and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’”
Well, no wonder Abraham falls on his face a second time and this time he laughs because he has heard something that is impossible. Except for one fact: the person who is speaking is El Shaddai; God the Almighty. Now notice what the covenant says. We are back in the first part of chapter 17 where God says in verse seven, “‘And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your offspring throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you, the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’”
“Abraham, you’re going to get the land. Your descendants will have it as an everlasting possession,” that is in perpetuity, continuously. “It is going to be yours. Oh, there are going to be interruptions. But in the end it is going to be yours and to your descendants.”
In this chapter God also introduces circumcision. It says in verse nine and following, “And circumcision is going to be a sign of this covenant.” God has been talking to Abraham about the seed and circumcision is connected to the whole idea of seed and posterity, and also the cutting away of that which in unclean. That is why it is used in the New Testament metaphorically as people circumcising their hearts. In other words, they are separated unto God. And so God says, “Abraham this is the covenant I am entering into with you today,” that’s the nature of it.
All right, what about the participants of the covenant? Who is it now that gets the blessing? Well today since we are covering a great deal of Scripture I am only using certain portions. It is best if you read it all in context. But, we are back in verse 15 and following. You’ll notice that God says, “I am going to give you a son.” Sarai is renamed and she is now Sarah.
Verse 17, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed to himself and said, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael may live before You!’” He says, “God you have just promised something that is beyond your limit to promise. I am ninety-nine and Sarah is ninety. We are well beyond the ability to bear children. Our bodies are dead in terms of their ability to reproduce. God, don’t you know that I have already worked something out on your behalf? I didn’t want you to be embarrassed to make a promise that you couldn’t keep. And that’s why Ishmael is here. As a matter of fact, I love him now. Oh God, oh that Ishmael may live before You. God, fulfill it in Ishmael!”
Now the question for the next few moments in this message is, did God fulfill it in Ishmael or did He fulfill it in Isaac? And here we come to some conflict of discussion because followers of the Muslim religion have a different interpretation. So let me give you a little bit of background and a little bit of understanding of history, and then we will see what the differences are.
In order to get some perspective, you have to realize that the book of Genesis was probably written in 1400 B.C. I am speaking roughly today in terms of centuries, in terms of hundreds of years. Some may say it is 1500 B.C., but give or take a hundred years. Genesis was written by Moses and inspired by God to tell history we couldn’t know in any other way.
Then centuries pass. You have the coming of Jesus and then Mohammad who was born in 570. Let’s say that the Koran was written about 600 years after the coming of Jesus. We have minimally speaking about 2000 years or 20 centuries between the writing of Scripture and the account in the Bible and 20 centuries later you have the Koran being written by Mohammad. What the Koran does is it mentions Ishmael 12 times and it speaks of Ishmael being an apostle or prophet. It relocates him to Mecca and says that Abraham takes him there to Arabia. It says that Abraham visits him and disapproves of the wife he selected and then Ishmael is remarried. He is married a second time and Abraham likes the second wife.
Regarding the sacrifice of Isaac as recorded in the 22nd chapter of Genesis, the Koran speaks of this as being a dream, and it does not name the son as to who was sacrificed. Although when the account is over it does say that God gave him a son by the name of Isaac. And there are passages in the Koran that speak about Isaac as being the one to be the child of promise. That explains why Muslim interpreters in the early centuries believed that Isaac was indeed the child of promise.
But by the tenth century, the opinion was equally divided because the pendulum began to swing in the other direction and the view was that Ishmael was the child of promise. And today the precise Encyclopaedia of Islam says, “It is accepted today in Islam that Ishmael was the favored son,” and the argument would be that Ishmael was the firstborn.
Now I want us to see how the Bible contrasts with that and how it faces this issue very directly and very pointedly. For example, we find that God names Sarah. I’ve read the text already but I need to read it again: “‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall now call her Sarah. I will bless her and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her and she shall become nations; kings and peoples shall come from her.’”
Abraham falls on his face and says, “‘Oh that Ishmael may live before you.” And God says in verse 19, “‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring and those who follow him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly.’” So there is a blessing here for Ishmael, but the child of promise is going to be Isaac who is born of Sarah.
Now take your Bibles very quickly and turn to Genesis chapter 21, where we have a very interesting story where God explicitly excludes Ishmael as being the child of promise. In chapter 21 at last Isaac is born. “The Lord visited Sarah as He had said and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. She conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac.”
And then it says that “Abraham,” verse five, “was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.’” The name Isaac by the way means “laughter.” And she said, “‘Who could have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’”
And now Isaac, who is about to be weaned, is about one or two years old. We know that Ishmael is about 15 or 16 because he was 14 when the covenant was ratified. And it says, “And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.” Another translation says “mocking.” “So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.’” This was distressing to Abraham because he loved Ishmael. “But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac your offspring shall be named.’” Wow!
Parenthesis: did you notice, men, that God says to Abraham, “Obey your wife!” Now, I might say that the first time he shouldn’t have obeyed her when it came to the matter of Hagar. But this time he should have. I don’t know about you, but my wife has had a lot of good suggestions. And the Bible says that we have to honor our wives. And often times, gentlemen, I wouldn’t say this out loud, but this is just between you and me, but often times they are wiser than we are. That has been my experience.
You say, “Well when do we agree with them and when do we disagree?” Well maybe you have this kind of marriage like one person said to me, “You know, we have been married for 25 years and we’ve never had a disagreement.” I said to him, “My marriage has never been that boring.” Where two people agree, one is unnecessary. But God did say, “Abraham, in this instance obey Sarah.”
Now that aside, what we have here is very interesting. Ishmael is cast out of the house, Hagar goes with him and God begins to provide for him. She finds herself beside a well, reminiscent of the previous time when she was pregnant with him and found a well. He goes into Egypt, or at least the Bible says he takes an Egyptian woman as his wife and he becomes an archer. Ishmael goes off and pretty soon he has his own posterity, and that is where a lot of the conflict that is mentioned in the Bible that still has some remnants today in the Middle East. All has its genesis; all has its beginning.
But what is going on here in the text? Why is it that Ishmael can’t be in the same house as Isaac? First of all, he can’t be a threat to the promised seed. There can’t be any rivalry. God says, “I don’t want any discussion on this point.” There is no ability of that happening.
But there’s another reason. In chapter 22—the very next chapter which comes in my Bible right after chapter 21— Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son, the only one God recognizes, on Mount Moriah. And what God is saying is, “Abraham I have to wean you of all possibility of thinking, ‘Yes, I can go ahead and I can kill my Isaac and then God will use Ishmael to fulfill the promises.’” God says, “I don’t even want that as a fallback position. You must be willing to sacrifice your son Isaac and believe even then that God will raise him from the dead because Ishmael will not inherit the promises.”
What’s interesting is in the New Testament this whole story is used as an allegory. That is what it says in Galatians chapter four. It is an allegory because Ishmael is seen as a son of the flesh whereas Isaac is seen as a child of promise. And the difference is between law and grace, and there it is for us to look at.
Now very quickly I have to give you three transforming lessons that we can learn from this whole story as we try to pull the threads together and ask God to change us forever. I hope that whenever you come to church you say, “God, change me today forever.”
The first lesson is this: God’s promises are based on God’s power. This past week, three of us had the opportunity of going to an observatory and speaking to an astronomer who teaches astronomy at the University of Chicago. He was showing us various telescopes and what have you, and he showed us pictures of the galaxies, blotches of ink on this table. And yet when you shine light on it suddenly you realize that every blotch is hundreds of thousands of stars.
And he told us that at the Hubble telescope they decided to aim it in space where there was nothing. They chose the point in space where there was the least ability to find anything. They found tons of galaxies and trillions of stars. I said to him, “Do you think it is right to say that there are as many sands on the seashore as there are stars in the sky?” And he said, “Yeah…that could be right.” Think of that! And he referred to this Scripture where God says, “If you can number the stars, which you can’t, you’ll be able to number your posterity, which you can’t. If you can number the dust of the earth,” God said to Abraham, “then you can number your own descendants.” Well, you can’t do that. Nor can you do the other one.
Those are the two analogies that are used in Scripture. Yet God is El Shaddai. He just decided to throw a party and say, “I am going to create a bunch of stars just to show what I can do.” And He did it all in a couple of seconds one afternoon. I don’t know whether it was afternoon or morning, but wow, El Shaddai.
Now, the text is open. You have your Bibles, don’t you? Notice what it says all throughout here. God says, “I will.” I love that! Notice it says in the beginning of verse six, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, I will make you into nations.” In verse seven, “I will establish My covenant,” and in verse eight, “I will give you the land, I will be their God.” Again it says in the last part of verse nine, “I will, I will, I will.”
God says, “This is an unconditional covenant,” as we learned in Genesis chapter 15. This is something that God says He is going to do whether people are faithful or not. He will create within them a desire to be faithful and His covenant will be fulfilled. God says, “I am going to do this.”
If Abraham were able to look into the future, I can imagine him having an argument with God at this point. He could say, “God, what if I tell another lie like I did in Egypt? What does that do to the covenant?” And God says, “I will be your God and I will establish My covenant with you forever and give your descendants the land.” He says, “God, what if I have a great-grandson whose name is Jacob who turns out to be a crook. What will that do?” God says, “I will establish My covenant with you and to your descendants I will give the land.”
“But God, what if one of my descendants is going to be named David and he is going to commit adultery and then murder somebody to cover it up. God, what does that do to Your covenant then?” “I will establish My covenant with you and I will give it to your posterity as an everlasting possession.” “But God, what if some of my descendants turn out to be idolaters?” “I will establish My covenant before you and I will give that covenant and the land to your seed and to your offspring forever.” “But God, what if some of my descendants end up crucifying God? What then?” “I have spoken. I will establish My covenant before you and I will give you the land and to your posterity as an everlasting possession.”
Why can God talk like that? It is because God is not a man. He is God, El Shaddai. And when you and I enter into a covenant with God, when we claim the promise “He who believes in Me has everlasting life,” and we have believed in Jesus we enter into a new covenant. And it too is an unconditional covenant.
You say, “Well, God, what if I sin?” “He who believes in Me will have everlasting life, they shall never perish, and neither shall anyone pluck them out of My hand.” “But God, what if the time comes for me to die and I am full of doubts, and I begin to think about going into the vast unknown and in my heart I am now feeling and wondering if Jesus is able to meet me on the other side? What then, God?” “They shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand,” because God is God.
The apostle Paul says in the book of Timothy, “Even if we believe not and become faithless,” he says, “God will not change and God remains faithful because He cannot deny Himself.” And it is upon that which we stand today. The promises of God are backed by the power of God. God, El Shaddai, don’t you love it? God, El Shaddai, God Almighty.
The second lesson is that God’s promises are a test of our own submission. How do you think Ishmael liked being told that he was not the child of promise? I would assume he didn’t like it very well. He was mocking Isaac. Later on his own history shows he was always angry with his cousins, the descendants of Isaac. And, you have the whole history of the Middle East all filled with conflict and envy.
We can understand that, I guess, because to us we would say, “You know, it’s unfair!” Isn’t that what we would say? It’s unfair. Ishmael gets a blessing, but he does not get the same blessing as Isaac, and it’s unfair. He was resentful, angry, and complaining to God. Ishmael would have been better off if he would have said to God, “You know, I am going to let God be God. And if God wants to give the promise to Isaac, I am willing to accept whatever blessing God gives me,” and God does give him blessing. And if he had capitalized on the blessing that God was about to give him, he may have indeed received more blessing from God.
But when you and I are resentful because God doesn’t treat us all alike, as we have learned, when you and I become angry with God because someone has been blessed more than we have, we are then in a position where the blessings that He does give us cannot be enjoyed and cannot be multiplied, because we have not allowed God to be God. He doesn’t treat Hammurabi as he treats Abraham and He doesn’t treat Ishmael as He treats Isaac.
Jesus tells that awesome parable in the twentieth chapter of Matthew where he says that those who came early in the morning agreed to work for a denarius a day in the vineyard. And then later on there were those who showed up as late as five o’clock in the evening and worked one hour. And when the time came to get paid, wouldn’t you know it, they got paid a denarius, too. And the ones who came early were angry. “Yeah, we agreed for a denarius, but it’s not fair that you should take somebody who works one hour and give him the same as us and we have borne the heat of the day. It’s not fair.” Do you remember what Jesus said? “Can not I do what I will with those who are my own? Are you envious because I am generous? If I want to give to Isaac something I haven’t given to Ishmael, don’t I have that right?” Can’t God do as He wishes with you and me?
Are you resentful today because you’ve not received the same blessing that somebody sitting next to you has? It will not help you in your walk with God; it will diminish you. And the blessing of God will be diminished and not increased until you and I say, “I’m going to let God be God.”
Dr. Ryrie who wrote the notes for the Ryrie Study Bible tells an interesting story of when he was on American Airlines and some people were asked to go first class because they ran out of room in the coach department. But he was not among them. So he sees these other people who are sitting next to him and they get to go first class, but he does not. So he began to say to himself, “You know, this isn’t fair!”
And his mind went to that parable in Matthew chapter 20 and then he read it this way: “Did you not agree with American Airlines for a coach seat?” “Yeah” “Aren’t you getting a coach seat? Are you envious because American Airlines is generous? If they want to take somebody who is in coach and give them first class treatment, can not American Airlines do as it wills with those who are its own?” Are you resentful because God is generous?
It’s amazing how we change things when the shoe is on the other foot. One day my daughter and I were flying somewhere and we were taken from coach, and we were put into first class on United Airlines. I didn’t write a letter to United and say, “What kind of a schlocky outfit do you guys run, anyway? I pay for a coach seat and get first class treatment.” No, no, no. I thought to myself, “It’s about time,” that’s what I thought! When we are the recipients of blessing we think it’s about time. But when somebody else gets to go first class and we are in coach we say, “It isn’t fair!”
Listen, the second lesson is this: God’s promises are a test of our own submission. Are you willing to rejoice in the blessings of someone else and the success of someone else? Or are you going to become resentful and angry and leave the people of God and the church because it isn’t fair?
There’s a third lesson and that is this: the true nature of Ishmael is revealed when Isaac is born. Here’s Ishmael growing up and he’s a wonderful boy, I’m sure. He’s 14 years old and he has a little brother. It’s not just your average little brother. It’s the little brother that God chose to be the inheritor of the promise. And so what happens when the boy is being weaned is that Ishmael mocks, because after all it isn’t fair. But the true nature of Ishmael is revealed in the presence of Isaac.
You and I find that our lives are going along quite well—I’ve heard testimonies to that fact—and then suddenly you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior. Now suddenly you have an allegiance to Jesus. And the devil and the flesh begin to mock and they become angry, and they say that your allegiance was to me and now that you have received Christ, your allegiance is over there and you begin a whole sense of conflict. Accepting Christ as Savior doesn’t always bring immediate peace. The peace is there but sometimes it is preceded by huge conflict because now you realize what the flesh is really like. The flesh is only happy when it is served, when it is encouraged, when it’s honored. That’s what the flesh is. But, it will not accept the authority of Jesus easily.
That’s the point of the Apostle Paul in the fourth chapter in Genesis. What he is saying is that Isaac is the child of promise and Ishmael is the child of the flesh. The child of the flesh represents the law, and as soon as we accept the promise and accept what God has done we find within us the resentment and all of those things that the flesh brings about. And what Paul says is allegorically speaking, “Cast out the slave woman and her son because you can’t have two different ways to live. You can’t live under law and grace simultaneously. You can’t live as a child of promise and a child of the flesh at the same time. Get rid of that which stands between you and entering into God’s awesome promises.
I love to tell that story that you have probably heard me tell before that happened in the lobby of the church many years ago. A woman in the church came to me and said, “You know, I was living with this man, we were unmarried, and now I have accepted Christ as Savior so I have asked him to leave and he won’t.” And I said, “Well, you know it is very clear. You have to move out because committed Christians who are interested in walking with Jesus don’t live together without being married.” And she said, “Well it’s more difficult than that. I own the apartment.” Oh, a little bit of truth there changes it. She said, “I’ve told him to leave and he won’t.”
Now here’s the question: how does a 120-pound woman get a 220-pound man out of her apartment? That’s a good question. I told her, “If nothing else, you have to go to the police and get an order of protection and have them remove him.” Well, she did that and eventually she got rid of him.
I’ll tell you, to get rid of the flesh and the things that are wrong is really, really difficult and you have to do it with authority. She didn’t have the strength to do it herself. She needed the authority of the law and we need the authority of Jesus to say to the flesh, “Leave, because I am living by promise. I’m living by the Spirit. I’m living in the freedom of Christ, and I will not be bogged down by the things of the flesh that keep dragging my soul away from God. So that is our agenda. The true nature of the flesh is not revealed until the Spirit comes. That’s why the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, because they are vying for control, they are vying for interest. And you and I need to cast out the flesh and walk in the Spirit.
If you’ve come that far in your Christian life and if you love God today, would you bow your head with me in prayer? “Our Father we thank You today for Your love and grace that brings us to this hour, to this moment. We thank You that our faith is in God, El Shaddai. We thank You that Your promises are absolutely secure despite our tendency to disbelieve them. And we pray in Jesus name that You will help all of us to respond to whatever truth God has shown us today. For those who feel a sense of insecurity may they be granted the ability to cleave to Your promise. For those who are angry because they’ve been bypassed when the blessings were handed out, give them a spirit of submission to capitalize on the blessings that You’ve given them so that You can give them more. And we ask for those of us who struggle with the flesh and the Spirit, whatever God’s talked to you about, would you talk to Him right now, silently where you are?”
If you’ve never accepted Christ as your Savior you can do that right now where you are seated. You can say, “Jesus I thank You that You died for me. I receive You as mine. I believe You; I embrace You in my heart and say, ‘Jesus I accept You as the one who died for me as my substitute.’” If you have a burden that you have not transferred to the shoulders of Jesus, do it. “Come to us, Father, because we are very, very needy, very prone to deception, very prone to self-protection. Come by Your Spirit and make us real people living a life of eternity. In Jesus’ name, amen.”